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Living on Faith : Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, Head of an Independent Development Organization, Describes the Inspiration Behind Ward Villas, a 120-Unit Apartment Complex for Low-Income Senior Citizens.

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November 27, 1994|KAREN K. KLEIN | Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, 48, is president of the Ward Economic Development Corp., an independent community development organization affiliated with the Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church in South-Central Los Angeles. The nonprofit corporation designed and developed the Ward Villas, a 120-unit low-income senior citizens' apartment complex at Magnolia Avenue and Adams Boulevard, which opened in 1992. Dupont-Walker has worked in the fields of social work, mental health, community organizing and politics. She lives in Lafayette Square with her husband, Sonny. Between them they have eight grown children, the youngest of whom is a college junior. She was interviewed by Karen E. Klein.

Ward Economic Development Corp. is an example of what I like to call faith-based community development. I believe people must be given access to opportunity and resources to make a difference in their neighborhoods. And I believe very strongly that faith-based communities are the ones with the greatest integrity and the longest staying power, whether they are doing housing development, leadership development, economic entrepreneurship or neighborhood development.

There is a significant network of projects across the country that originated from what I call faith-based development. And there will be more and more as time goes on--there are no longer the resources in government to do them.

We are starting to see outsiders viewing these developments as good investments and grass-roots groups are taken seriously, they are not looked at just as do-gooders.

But that was not always true.

In 1986, our minister at the time challenged all the church members to find their own ministries. The AME church has a 207-year legacy of helping the disadvantaged. I am a social worker and community organizer by training, and I have always had that yearning and burning to do work like this.

I guess the vision came from my father, who was a minister in Tallahassee, Fla. He was a builder by trade. He built churches, but he always dreamed of senior housing being built so he and his friends could have a place to retire together.

So, after our minister gave that call to ministry, a number of us started looking at the community immediately surrounding the church and began to see that it was changing in character and in nature.

Call it gentrification, call it historical renovation, the bottom line was displacement of the people who were already there and who happened to be poor and who happened to be of color. And there was no one standing in the gap for these people who had no voice.

Some of us felt that if we were to be true to our legacy and true to our Christian walk, we could not sit by and watch what was happening in our community because we were neighbors in that community.

So we started studying other churches that were in urban neighborhoods in transition and saw how they ministered to the people who were there. We visited and corresponded with a number of churches across the country.

After about six months, we concluded that we needed to be an independent organization involved in community education, on the cutting edge of issues and that we had to actually produce something. We found that in our communities we didn't have much product. We had processes, plans, concepts and scenarios, but no product.

We wanted from the very beginning to do the right thing and to do things right.

I worked for Ward EDC for three years without a salary. My husband knew what this meant to me and he said, "I understand this is something you have to do." We've always had that kind of relationship.

We just determined the minimum amount of money I had to bring in per month so we could maintain our family, and I did that and devoted all the rest of my time to working for Ward EDC.

Our reputation and our commitment had a dollar value; we insisted on being the managing general partner of the Ward Villas. We had regular team meetings, so everybody watched what was going on every step of the way.

During the 1950s, HUD had a number of churches that were sponsors for low-income housing projects. They used the goodwill and the integrity of these churches, but the people were not actively involved in any of the details of the projects. Most of those facilities are now owned by other kinds of syndicate groups because the churches did not have a long-term interest in them.

The project is now 100% full, with a waiting list. I am working with lending organizations to help them develop policies on how to work with community-based developers.

We are very serious about putting together an economic development piece, possibly looking into commercial ventures that can provide entrepreneurship opportunities in our community.

The main thing we need to remember is that it is more important to be proactive than reactionary.

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