Réna Bradley's family thought she was crazy when she told them she was thinking about taking a job in Fort Wayne.
Fort Worth? they asked. No, Fort Wayne. Indiana.
Bradley, who is from Detroit, also had her doubts.
She wasn't sure she was qualified for the position. But she liked what she saw and decided to take a leap of faith.
Now, six years later, those doubts are long gone. The list of community projects Bradley has a hand in continues to grow; she is not just a face but a force behind the scenes to get those projects completed – the most recent being the Faces of the Fort mural project.
The series of murals coordinated by Fort Wayne's Faces of the Fort committee, of which Bradley is chair, feature hometown heroes and celebrate the city's diverse population by highlighting people who have made contributions to social justice efforts in the community.
And although Bradley has made quite an impact in her short time in the city, including in the area of social justice, she doesn't see herself as a hometown hero. Instead, she calls herself more of a “community doer,” adding that she usually finds herself filling a need or void.
It's something the self-professed “reluctant leader” has taken to heart in her job to help revitalize a portion of the southeast neighborhood where she lives and works.
“I came here because I wanted to do this type of work,” Bradley says. “It's a responsibility, but also an honor.”
The work the 37-year-old is talking about is using her architectural background at Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center to revitalize and boost equity in the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood in the city's southeast side.
Bradley is the community development director for the center, which is an offshoot of the Many Nations Church of the Nazarene that organizes, oversees and finances efforts to help change the culture and appearance of the neighborhood.
Through her work, Bradley has helped rehab and renovate 19 homes and activate three vacant lots into community spaces in the neighborhood bounded by East Pettit Avenue and East Paulding Road, South Anthony Boulevard and Hanna Street.
It is an effort that continues to see results, especially in an area that has historically been neglected and faces a lack of upgraded housing, economic development and socioeconomic opportunities.
Before renovation efforts began, many of the neighborhood homes – mostly rentals – weren't maintained by the people who lived there, or forgotten by landlords, which led to many of the homes being abandoned, vandalized or becoming drug houses and places for gangs to congregate.
It became a mission of Bridge of Grace to change the physical appearance of the neighborhood to help increase the rate of homeownership and promote neighborhood unity. It also helped to fix other problems, such as crime.
Since 2013 – the center was founded in 2011 – numbers based on FBI crime reports show that the crime rate has dropped by 63% in the neighborhood and there has been a 94% drop in burglaries, Bradley says.
And although the revitalization efforts have contributed to the success, it really has been a community thing, Bradley says – residents taking back the neighborhood and what they want to see in the future.
That includes Bradley. She lives in one of the renovated homes in Mount Vernon Park and is president of the neighborhood association.
Bradley went door to door, did surveys, conducted meetings and talked to people, including elementary children, about what they wanted and how they saw their community. Her goal was not to focus on the problems, she says, but instead “focus on the strengths and assets and dreams.”
Eventually the complaints started to decline and residents began to look at the possibilities. The most popular survey response from residents, Bradley said, was that they were surprised “that you care.”
The work was something she couldn't have imagined when she first applied at Bridge of Grace. The ministries center was looking for an education program coordinator, whose main role would be to oversee the center's after-school programs. However, it also described wanting someone to engage with the neighborhood. That part interested her.
Bradley called about the position, and Bridge of Grace leaders, including founder and chief executive officer Javier Mondragon, brought her in for an interview.
Bradley says those interviewing her were confused by her application, just as she was. However, when Mondragon described what he wanted to do in the neighborhood with community development, Bradley felt drawn to the job and she told them she would get back in touch.
“Then, we didn't hear back from her,” Mondragon said, laughing.
Bradley says she wasn't convinced the job was for her, but no matter what she did, she couldn't get it out of her head. She even dreamed about the project Mondragon had in mind. She drew up revitalization plans and gave them to Bridge of Grace in the hopes that it would put the idea to rest.
So a year after her initial interview, in the fall of 2015, Bradley followed up with Bridge of Grace and found the position was still open. The ministries center had tried to hire others, but it never worked out.
“I always remind her how long she took to come,” Mondragon says.
And although she initially oversaw the after-school programs, Mondragon says he quickly knew that that wasn't her strength.
“She has so many talents and she's very gifted in many ways,” Mondragon says. “I think she found her niche. She wanted to have the freedom to decide and create, and what she's doing here in the community,” it affects the emotional aspect of the people who live here.
Mondragon says Bradley is good at bringing unity and equity into the community. He says people in the neighborhood deserve to have sidewalks, good quality programs for children and youth and a safe neighborhood.
“That's what they deserve,” he says. “Having opportunities and making sure that people have a path to success.”
'Always a project'
Bradley calls the Bridge of Grace position her “dream job.”
She became involved in home revitalization in her hometown of Detroit.
It was part of a two-year program with the Detroit Land Bank Authority and it allowed Bradley to see how the project had an “amazing impact on the neighborhood and the people.”
It also allowed her to become involved in social justice, something she got an education on while studying architecture at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she says.
The Detroit Land Bank's mission is to improve neighborhoods by returning Detroit's blighted and vacant properties to productive use. The agency uses its program to make homeownership and land purchases more accessible to Detroit residents.
After graduating from Howard and eventually working with the Land Bank, it took Bradley some time to find what she wanted to do. She knew what she didn't want to do, which is being stuck designing one type of building, something that happened with her first job right out of college.
Bradley loves to create and that includes baking. She will use her love for baking to help with a weekly TV show by Sara Fiedelholtz, founder of the creative strategy firm thinkbox strategies, on Access Fort Wayne channel later this year. Bradley will host the show, “Food Thought,” which will feature interviews with local professional chefs and home cooks with diverse cultural backgrounds. The theme for the first season will be “Breaking Bread,” and will allow viewers to learn how to bake various bread from around the globe.
Bradley also will continue her work of revitalizing the southeast side.
Bradley sits on the Southeast Area Partnership, a group of community leaders dedicated to improving the southeast quadrant. The group has been working with the city on a plan for development in the area. In January, the city adopted the Southeast Strategy, the culmination of about two years of planning and input that calls for needed upgrades in housing, more emphasis on economic development and strengthening connections among residents.
City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, D-6th, whose district covers most of the southeast quadrant, also sits on the board and expects that residents should see progress from the groundwork that is being laid by the end of the year.
She says there is work on a pocket park and improvements on roundabouts, and it was announced last month plans for 200 homes and more than 20,000 square feet of commercial space coming to the southeast side.
Tucker says that Bradley has helped in decisions about how to use investment dollars in order to help the community and move the southeast quadrant forward.
“She has a strong desire to bring equity to the community,” Tucker says. “She really cares about her neighborhood – Mount Vernon Park – and she jumped right in” working in the community.
Bradley says her next project is working with the city to improve Brewer Park, which is located at Pettit and Weisser Park avenues.
And of course, there will be another round of murals for the Faces of the Fort project, which hasn't been determined yet.
The initial murals, which were dedicated this summer, are at 4335 S. Anthony Blvd.,1818 Bluffton Road and 1514 St. Joseph Blvd.
“I feel like there's always a project,” Bradley says.
She enjoys seeing a small project blossom into something bigger, describing it as “seeing the ripple effects that you couldn't in larger cities.”