Some people’s lives are their jobs. It’s the rare ones who meet this fact with a joyous energy, getting lost in their work.
Driving back to work, Georgie Rasco, executive director of The Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma, wanted to check out a Military Avenue cul-de-sac someone had mentioned earlier.
“Oh! If that’s the neighborhood I’m thinking of, it stood derelict for years,” Rasco said, before taking a detour. She drove in a slow circle around the squat, tan houses. “I could just do this all day, look at houses,” she said, pointing at some neighbor’s choice in window blinds.
Rasco and her small staff run The Neighborhood Alliance hub: part neighborhood leader workshop, part grant writing service. And with so many wanting to talk with Rasco, it sometimes feels like some guru’s quiet, trusted hamlet. And they do trust her. You’d think there were 10 Georgies for as many times as she was mentioned in the first public planOKC meeting.
“I wish we had more surrogates like her, who understand what the issues are,” said Russell Claus, director of the city’s planning department. “We are very resource-limited. We just don’t have the capacity to spend as much time as people would probably like us to spend (talking to the public).”
That’s where Rasco comes in.
Rasco has the quiet ability to listen to people. This came across clearly the first day of Neighborhood Leaders For Today, an eight-week workshop focused on teaching citizens to organize neighborhood associations.
There’s a variety of life in the people signed up for the class ” a band director, state budget office numbers cruncher, former stripper, museum employee, a woman who got so frustrated at a speeding neighbor she deflated their tires ” but most agreed why they were there: to learn, or relearn, foundations in civics.
Neighbors Rasco’s known for years and those she’d just met came in and talked to her before each meeting, hoping to get some Georgie time before class.
At each meeting, someone was seated next to someone new. Rasco seemed to have a grasp on the idea that in any neighborhood meeting, or even city planning, people need to actually meet each other.
In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” author Jane Jacobs defined a fundamental of successful city life: “People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”
The workshop students that most enlivened the audience were those who’ve looked after their neighbors. Meadowbrook Acres resident Rob Littlefield told the class about yelling at a driver for skidding all over his neighbor’s yard: “No, this isn’t my lawn, but it’s my neighbor’s!”
Since last spring’s classes, some of Rasco’s students have found themselves surprisingly active.
Cresha Redus returned to the JFK neighborhood, where she’d grown up, after 20 years away. She attended the Neighborhood Leaders for Today workshop to learn about neighborhood planning.
“Communication,” Redus said. “I think that’s one of the challenges. They (the JFK neighborhood association) don’t have a newsletter, only about seven people have information sent to their e-mail. I’d like to get a newsletter started. It’s going to take some work, but I’d like to do that.”
Another workshop graduate, Diane Kaczmarcik, used the tools she’d learned to walk door-to-door and get a petition signed for a new intersection streetlight.
“That class somehow gave me the impetus to do that kind of thing,” she said. “I just feel like I have more knowledge now and feel confident in, say, starting a Neighborhood Watch program because I learned how to do it “¦ in class.”
Rasco’s brand of connecting and listening seems to come effortlessly. But her challenging experiences have been many: They’ve ranged from the edge of human personality to the mundane rigors of learning codified city language.
In the mid ’80s through the late ’90s, Rasco worked at mental health facilities. She was director of the YWCA Rape Crisis Center in Oklahoma City through the ’90s and has worked as a lobbyist for domestic violence and sexual assault issues for the Texas State Council on Family Violence in Austin.
At The Neighborhood Alliance for seven years now, she’s continued to work to bring people out of their own particular cocoons. She said a neighborhood leader is often un-credited and un-compensated. They’ll need to talk. Much importance rests in communication with mediators and listeners like Rasco, and it’s hard to reach that position.
“Seven years ago, when I first started this job, I went home from my first day in tears,” Rasco said. “No one trained me. I was there by myself. Everyone spoke in a language I didn’t understand. It was all acronyms. I said, ‘If someone says CHDO (Community Housing Development Organization) or CDGB (Community Development Block Grant) one more time, I’m going to scream.’ I had to learn like the neighborhood leader does. I’m determined to not have them feel stupid because of the lingo city departments use, and language shouldn’t stand in the way.”
Now her presence and confidence can ease citizens into a comfort zone where they can be active and effective. This ability may be just the thing planOKC needs when Claus talks about searching for suggestions from real experience for the comprehensive plan.
Often, Rasco deals with immediate scenarios and communication issues, but the new city plan is long-term. She said there is difficulty in rallying the public around a plan with such a long view. But she’s still been encouraging those who receive her newsletters and online e-mails not to be shy of the issues the city should plan around.
“This is your chance to leave a legacy with the city,” Rasco said. “Your footprint, your desires can be left. We owe that to the people who will live here into the future.”
Comparatively speaking, invigorating a handful of people to positively help their neighborhood isn’t covering much of a 621.2-square-mile city. But as Redus said of Rasco, “she knows it’s going to take one person, one neighborhood at a time.”
And considering how she gets people to feed off each other, or how she’ll take the extra 20 minutes for a phone call, it’s hard to imagine the neighbors she knows not getting involved and influencing others.
“She’s got a big role,” Claus said “She’s certainly a powerhouse. If anyone can take that on, we expect that to be Georgie.” “Danny Marroquin
photo Georgie Rasco. Photo/Mark Hancock