Brenda Cleveland lived on the streets of Macon for 30 years, suffering from mental illness and drug addiction. She graduated from Spelman University, got her master’s at Florida State University and was working at Robins Air Force Base when unfortunate circumstances happened.
Her daughter, Nancy Cleveland, said she saw her mother in that state of suffering and homelessness her entire life. Because her mother was unable to care for her, she was taken by the Division of Child Services at two months old and raised in foster care until she was three. Her aunt adopted her and raised her in the Bronx.
She moved back to Macon to help her mother, who was in and out of treatment centers. She had to obtain legal guardianship in order to stop her from checking herself out of the centers and to get her off the streets permanently.
“That entire experience led me to wonder how, if there were other resources available, I could’ve prevented, not me, but the city could’ve. . .prevented her from going the path she did,” she said.
She developed the project “Head Space: Destigmatizing Mental Health” in order to help provide some of those resources.
She and Steven DeGeorge were selected as Emerging City Champions, a fellowship program managed by 8 80 Cities and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. They each received a $5,000 grant to make their dream projects a reality.
“The program is an incubator for up-and-coming city leaders with bold ideas to build more accessible, inclusive and connected cities,” said Siva Vijenthira, 8 80 Cities Project Manager, in an email to The Telegraph.
As applicants, the two Maconites submitted project ideas that were scored against three criteria: the project’s potential impact, the innovation of the idea and the ability to implement the idea.
“I just wanted to create an opportunity for people to try out therapy, learn different techniques to manage stress and other mental illnesses at different workshops, maybe even some unconventional methods like herbal treatment or essential oil treatment,” she said.
She worked in the parks and recreation department of Macon-Bibb County’s local government for two years and helped establish a “parks prescription” initiative that prescribes nature as healthcare.
Cleveland said the project is needed in Macon because of the city’s poverty rate.
“When people are trying to deal with the mental burden of poverty, they’re already suffering from mental health issues that they may not be aware of,” she said. “And also when you’re in circumstances like that, all of the mental health resources that may be available in other places may not be available here.”
The other project coming to Macon is a “Field of Hope” created by Steven DeGeorge. He is passionate about community development and serves as the Program Director for Campus Clubs, a center that focuses on the youth of Pleasant Hill.
“This field project is sort of something that happened organically, not as a part of any organization. Just a couple of friends of mine and I found this abandoned piece of land, and so we thought, let’s cast a new vision for this thing and see if we can bless the community with a new park on this side of the neighborhood,” he said.
The field, located in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, has an interesting story.
It will willed to the city in 1940 to be used as a whites-only park, which was never built. A few years ago, the land was auctioned off, and DeGeorge purchased it.
“Even in those days, that land existed in a historic African-American community, so it kind of has a pretty dark history. When we heard that, it really kind of inspired us to reverse the curse,” he said.
Several other renovations are currently underway in the Pleasant Hill community: Strong Tower Fellowship Church is renovating houses and has built a community garden, Habitat for Humanity is doing some work and the Department of Transportation is renovating houses on 3rd St.
“It makes it really, really exciting that all of these restored houses and parts of this neighborhood will have this park that will just be a great place for the community to gather,” DeGeorge said.
Resources and training
As fellows, Cleveland and DeGeorge will travel to the Emerging City Champions Studio in Toronto, Canada to “develop leadership and project management skills such as stakeholder engagement, budgeting and storytelling,” Vijenthira said.
They will receive resources and training from July 27 to July 30, and all travel expenses will be covered by the program.
Cleveland is happy to be a part of the Emerging City Champions family, and she is looking forward to networking and meeting other fellows.
“I also want to learn a lot from the workshops and the training, specifically project management, budget management and fundraising so that I can make sure (the project) is sustainable,” she said.
DeGeorge is also excited for the training in Toronto.
“I hope that I’ll gain the tools to take this $5,000 and turn it into 10 times that. I hope that our neighborhood, our community, will gain a vibrant park that will just bless our neighborhood for years to come,” he said.
A growing list of leaders
Past Macon Emerging City Champions are Rachel Hollar with Bike Macon, David Moore with the Macon QR Project, Morgan Wright with Urban Garden, Eric Mayle with Asset Based Community Development (a bicycling program) and Tonja Khabir with Street Talk: The Bobby Jones Project.
“All five past Macon fellows succeeded in implementing projects in Macon. . .Some may have pivoted or adjusted their ideas in the process of engagement and implementation, but all the projects have come to fruition,” Vijenthira said.
Cleveland advises people that want to apply to Emerging City Champions next year to go for it.
“When you’re doing things for a higher purpose, sometimes circumstances just align and if you don’t take that chance, you’ll never get the opportunity,” she said.