Staff Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press BettyeLynn Smith, executive director of Community Impact, poses for a portrait in the Times Free Press studio Wednesday. Smith has spent the last decade helping to stabilize Chattanooga neighborhoods like Main Street, Southside and Highland Park.
While BettyeLynn Smith was working in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta from the late 1970s through the 1990s, her mother slipped on some shoes her daughter didn’t know she had — those of a community activist.
Soon after she returned to the Chattanooga area where she grew up, she learned a similar pair of shoes fit her as well.
Smith, for nearly 10 years, has been executive director of Community Impact, a nonprofit organization that helps residents revitalize their urban neighborhoods.
“Revitalizing neighborhoods, at the end of the day, is a quality-of-life issue,” she said.
Since its inception in 1999, Community Impact has helped the Southside, Highland Park, M.L. King, Bushtown, Churchville, Orchard Knob and Glenwood neighborhoods make improvements.
While Smith was away from Chattanooga, residents in her mother’s Lincoln Park neighborhood came to Bessie Thornhill Smith for assistance in blocking Erlanger hospital from purchasing their homes.
She, in turn, partnered with a community mobilization group from Nashville to develop strategies and began to attend the hospital’s board meetings to make the neighborhood’s voice known.
Eventually, the elder Smith wound up as a founding member of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, on the board of Chattanooga Venture and the Better Housing Commission and on an Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga committee.
Q What are the critical steps in helping revitalize a neighborhood?
AOne of the things that has to happen in order for a neighborhood to partner with Community Impact ... is there has to be an organized group of residents ... willing to take on this project. We always say the work is resident-led and Community Impact-sponsored. The reality of it is we don’t build houses, we don’t put people in jail, we don’t do any of the things you think about, but we do serve as a catalyst for getting those things done.
Q Of the neighborhoods Community Impact has helped revitalize, which has been the most satisfying?
Education: Bachelor’s degree (human services/social work), University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; master’s degree (human resources/organizational development), Biscayne College.
Family: Two grown children, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren.
Leisure activity: Travel (Paris is her favorite city).
Book: “A Woman of Substance” by Barbara Taylor Bradford.
Movie: “The Godfather.”
AWe go in hoping to position a neighborhood so it will begin to attract private investment, and if we can do that, then we’ve been successful. We want to change the imaging conditions of the neighborhoods such that I want to live there, you want to live there, people who have choices will look at that as one of their choices. And so the irony of this is that both the Southside [and Bushtown neighborhoods have been successes]. We were the first organization to go in and work there when the Southside was a place where nobody else wanted to go. And what we were able to do was position the Southside so that it could attract other investment. ... But then you go over to Bushtown, which is not quite as popular as the Southside, and there’s private investment over there when nobody ever thought [there would be]. And then Churchville, in terms of its community empowerment and its social revitalization, just far exceeded their work plan.
Q How did your mother influence your work?
AWhen Mother became a community activist, I learned what she was doing from my sisters. I never thought I could do what she did, and I know I couldn’t have done it and not gotten paid. ... But I had a lot of pride in her. ... Both my parents, my mother and my father, have been major influences in all of my life.
Q What’s next for Community Impact?
AWe’re in a mode we go into after we finish working with a group of neighborhoods. That is, [we do] a reflective assessment, which looks back on the work, tries to identify lessons learned, makes determinations about the model and then looks at the realities. ... And then it’s up to the staff to make a pitch to our board with the recommendation for what happens next.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...