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Promise Zones: Supporting Community Change, An Interview with Margeaux Akazawa

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Promise Zones: Supporting Community Change, An Interview with Margeaux Akazawa

In this column, Margeaux Akazawa, STEM Presidential Management Fellow and Desk Officer for the Promise Zones Initiative, summarizes the Promise Zones initiative and discusses how the program assists communities with high capacity and high needs.

Skyline view of Philadelphia, PA.
The Promise Zones program aims to create jobs, increase economic opportunity, improve educational outcomes, reduce crime, and leverage private capital in communities with high capacity but also high needs.

What are Promise Zones?

Promise Zones is a place-based initiative that was announced by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address. It's based on the belief that a child's ZIP code should not determine her destiny. The Promise Zones initiative continues to build on the work of other federal place-based initiatives, including Empowerment Zones; Promise Neighborhoods; Choice Neighborhoods; Strong Cities, Strong Communities; and Sustainable Communities.

The Promise Zones initiative has five main goals: creating jobs, increasing economic opportunity, improving educational outcomes, reducing serious and violent crime, and leveraging private capital. Because Promise Zones is a place-based initiative, the sites themselves can tailor these goals to the unique challenges and priorities of their communities as well as add up to three other goals. We see the Promise Zones initiative as being driven by the communities themselves, and sites have added goals involving affordable housing, health and wellness, community infrastructure, and even such things as broadband and connectivity.

What benefits do Promise Zones receive?

Although communities that have been designated as Promise Zones do not automatically receive federal funding, they do have access to a number of other benefits. One benefit is preference points or priority consideration for federal various grants from our 13 agency partners.

Promise Zones receive another benefit that our sites have been really happy about: every site is assigned five AmeriCorps VISTA members each per year. These VISTA members go to the sites and help build local partners’ capacity.

We also have local federal staff, who offer additional support to communities and help Promise Zones navigate the federal system. For our urban sites, it’s our HUD field staff; for rural and tribal sites, it’s U.S. Department of Agriculture field staff.

We're also hoping that, with congressional approval, the Promise Zones will soon receive tax incentives as well.

How do communities become Promise Zones?

Communities apply through a competitive process to become Promise Zones. We will be entering our third and final round of applications in the fall of this year. Communities applying to become Promise Zones have to meet certain criteria, including population and poverty thresholds. Prospective Promise Zones must also identify a contiguous geography. Some Promise Zones are within cities, whereas others include both cities and counties.

In addition, the community’s mayor or other local leaders have to demonstrate local support. In this way, the Promise Zones initiative is different from some other place-based programs; the Promise Zones initiative deals with communities with high capacity but also high needs. These communities have strong leadership in place but still face major challenges in education, public safety and workforce development. The Promise Zones initiative is there to help accelerate these changes.

How big are Promise Zones? Are they neighborhood census tracts?

The size of the zone depends on the area’s population density. Promise Zone boundaries must encompass populations of at least 10,000 and no more than 200,000 residents. The one exception is tribal Promise Zones that do not have a minimum population requirement but cannot exceed 200,000 residents. For our urban sites, Promise Zones are mostly at the neighborhood level—West Philadelphia, for example, or the east side of San Antonio. Our rural and tribal sites, such as Kentucky’s Promise Zone, can encompass a number of counties.

What does the day-to-day work of a Promise Zone look like?

Each Promise Zone has a lead designee that serves as the backbone of the effort. That designee is often the city, but it can also be a nonprofit organization or a tribal government — for example, the Choctaw Nation. The lead designees facilitate working groups to coordinate local partners on issues ranging from education to workforce development, health, and public safety.

The federal field staff attend many of those meetings to identify ways in which the federal government can help local partners achieve their goals. For instance, federal staff can say, “This project would be a great fit for this technical assistance that HUD provides,” or, “This activity sounds like something that another federal department could advise on; let me go and talk to my contacts there and see how we can better coordinate with some of our federal partners.” At the headquarters level, we communicate regularly with our designees about their priorities and issues and work with 13 federal agency partners to develop technical assistance, resources, and solutions to support communities.

What are a few examples of some of the things that Promise Zone communities have worked on?

One big success of the initiative is the cross-zone partnership of the Los Angeles Promise Zone and the Philadelphia Promise Zone. Although they’re on opposite coasts, they came together to apply for a grant for 25 AmeriCorps members to form a “Promise Corps” that will provide college and career counselors in local high schools. Philadelphia and Los Angeles have already hired the AmeriCorps members that will form its Promise Corps and are preparing them to go out to schools. HUD has provided the designees with additional support, such as arranging for the Corporation for National and Community Service to answer questions about the application process.

A lot of projects focused on workforce development. For example, San Antonio developed a Promise Zone to Work program. The city is providing free technical training to high school students in the Promise Zone, targeting those who might not be ready to go to college. The initiative gives students the skills they need so they are prepared to take on a career after they graduate from high school.

Philadelphia has developed a mini-grant initiative called the Promise Zone Achieving Capacity Together (ACT) program that offers small grants ranging from $500- $2,500 to local organizations. These grants help to build capacity and improve neighborhood services, for example, increasing free community meals or expanding after school programs. These are smaller projects that will have a strong neighborhood impact but might not be eligible for larger grants.

How do you think about data and measurement on a Promise Zones team?

We are approaching data and measurement for Promise Zones as a type of technical assistance for communities that will increase their capacity to work with data and measure outcomes. We’re providing them with information to improve their projects in the short term and also help track progress in the long term.

We have developed a data and evaluation framework for Promise Zones that incorporates many different types of measurement, including tracking activities and progress in Promise Zones, providing data for future qualitative (process) and quantitative (impact) evaluation, improving federal support for Promise Zones, and communicating needs to stakeholders. For future impact evaluation, we developed a list of indicators to measure during the designation term. Those indicators are based on goals identified by the sites themselves: we looked at the applications and identified what outcomes the communities hope to see as a result of the Promise Zone designation, which translated to what indicators they are interested in measuring. We were very surprised to find that there was a high level of consistency across the sites, regardless of whether they were urban, rural, or tribal. We also have identified administrative data sources available from HUD; thanks both to our data shop in the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) and our interagency partners, which we can access and provide to the sites. We see that process as data sharing, since we’re also asking the sites to share local data sources with us.

And the data part was also related to the recent convening that PD&R hosted?

Absolutely! PD&R hosted a convening on developing evaluation strategies for federal place-based initiatives. Participating academics and other experts used the Promise Zones initiative as the example for that convening. The Promise Zones initiative presents a really interesting thought problem because of the number of goals that it's trying to achieve, the complex challenges that the sites have identified, the challenge of thinking about what comparison areas could be used as a “control group,” and the fact that, as a place-based initiative, the goals of individual communities can be very different. We were very excited to hear from experts who work on these evaluation challenges every day. We got some very helpful thoughts and suggestions to implement going forward.

So what's next for the Promise Zones initiative?

Our third and final round of competition will open in fall of this year, and we encourage communities to apply. Currently, we have 13 sites throughout the country that are doing great things, and we are looking forward to seeing their progress. We're hoping to publish stories and successes that have been coming out of the Promise Zones to date. Readers can stay updated on the latest from Promise Zones at