The modest brick building on a bustling corner of the Phillips neighborhood belies the impressive contributions of its occupants — Hope Community Inc.

Born from the crack epidemic that crippled this Minneapolis community in the 1980s, the nonprofit began buying boarded-up housing, one at a time, and today counts 300 units. It has also developed playgrounds, community spaces, two businesses, three gardens, and learning and leadership opportunities for thousands of neighbors.

The $67 million transformation was accomplished through an unusual model of community development, based on asking neighbors what they want instead of giving them what nonprofits think they need. On Tuesday, Hope Community was awarded the "Community Innovation" prize from the Bush Foundation for that strategy — the latest accolade it has won over the years.

"We learned that buildings alone can't change a community," said Mary Keefe, Hope's longtime executive director. "This is about engaging people as leaders. We've learned to go where the energy comes from. Out of that comes what we're doing."

That "energy" has come from many quarters, in particular from neighborhood "listening sessions" that have attracted more than 3,000 residents over the past 15 years, said Keefe. Residents shared their concerns and ideas about education, safety, jobs, family life and more.

Translated into Hope programming, that's meant offering leadership camps for African-American girls, Saturday tutoring for youngsters, community-police partnerships, intensive leadership training for adults and kids and community organizing projects such as "Racial Equity in the Parks."

Not only are the ideas generated from the community, but the people implementing them often are neighbors as well. Residents can get stipends for participating as "community interns" in projects, said Keefe.

The model stood out at the Bush Foundation, which awarded two other innovation prizes — worth up to $500,000 — to Minnesota nonprofits Tuesday. Hope Community is the only one from the Twin Cities.

"We were really impressed with their body of work," said Mandy Ellerton, a manager of the Bush Community Innovation prize. "We're looking not only at the organization's contributions, but how they do it."

Grew from shelter

Hope Community evolved from a women's shelter in Phillips, called St. Joseph's House, started by Sister Char Madigan in 1977. A decade later, the nonprofit changed its name and mission to focus on providing housing in a neighborhood suffocating from more than 200 vacant, city-owned houses, said Keefe.

Bonita Watkins remembers those grim days of drugs and violence, and marvels at the transformation started by a "little group" of Hope leaders back then.

"It became an epidemic of positivity," she said.

Watkins, who now lives in a Hope apartment, is among hundreds of neighborhood residents who take advantage of it. This summer she worked as a paid intern in a "community kitchen" in her building. Every other week, folks would get together and make a meal from the community gardens. "It was very friendly and family like," she said.

Watkins also got a free bike for a couple summers through a "bike library" offered by Hope Community. Every other Saturday, she joined neighbors for a spin on the Greenway. "It was fun!" she said.

This nontraditional mode of "community development" put Hope Community on the map nationally. The Aspen Institute Roundtable recognized Hope as one of a small group of community development organizations successfully engaged in "place-based community change."

The plaques on the office wall at Hope's headquarters show it has won recognition locally for everything from its architecture to its community-police partnerships.

Challenges abound

Since its modest beginnings, Hope has helped build 300 units of housing, through a 15-year partnership with the Minneapolis nonprofit housing developer Aeon, and collaborations with more than 40 other organizations, said Keefe.

But this model of community development has its challenges, said Keefe. Managing hundreds of affordable housing units is no easy task. Providing enough opportunities for residents to grow and lead is another challenge. And explaining Hope's work to potential funders requires some effort.

"People understand charity, but that's not necessarily what we do," Keefe said.

Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton has been a supporter of Hope Community for more than 20 years. It stands out, she said, because it has consciously worked to develop community leaders, in particular people of color, and it has taken a comprehensive view of what the neighborhood needs.

Hope has laid the foundation for its work to continue well into the future.

"Hope has built what I call a sustainable community," said Sayles Belton. "The leadership skills and abilities have been provided to the next generation."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511