L-R: Amanda Shannahan, Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation and Pajlee Yang, Community Researcher; from United Way

Understanding Community Needs: A Promise Neighborhood Initiative

Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020

“How can we serve the community if we don’t know what community members need?” Pajlee Yang, United Way Community Researcher, asks as she braves the rain to knock on another door.

Rain or shine, Paj is one of seven Community Researchers out surveying residents in the Albina and Rockwood neighborhoods to learn about the experiences and priorities of families with children. Since the launch of the survey on November 30, 2019, United Way Community Researchers have knocked on more than 2,500 doors, making contact with over 850 families.

“This survey will give us a better understanding of what we need to do to support kids and families. Communities are complicated—and we need to know what community members are actually experiencing,” Paj continues.

United Way is one of nine partner organizations, including two school districts, dedicated to doing just that: understanding what kids and families need from cradle to career, at home, at school, and in the community.

“It’s important for people know they are not alone. We are sending the message that your voice matters and we are all part of this community.”
-Pajlee Yang

Led by Self Enhancement, Inc. (SEI), Albina Head Start, Immigrant Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), Latino Network, Metropolitan Family Services (MFS), Native American Youth Association (NAYA), United Way, Portland Public Schools, and Reynolds School District are implementing the Albina Rockwood Promise Neighborhood Initiative (ARPNI).

ARPNI is a U.S. Department of Education grant to support neighborhoods of opportunity by providing a continuum of school readiness, academic services, and family and community support to children from early childhood through college—and beyond.

A highly competitive grant, Portland is just one of 23 communities since 2010 to receive this honor.

“SEI and its partners have long, proven histories of helping vulnerable children and families throughout Portland by delivering quality services that make a hugely positive impact,” Senator Ron Wyden said. “This grant recognizes the success of their model and how its innovative approach has earned support for its expansion to help even more Portlanders.”

Community Researchers on the field with United Way's CEO Cindy Adams and Pajlee Yang

The ARPNI partners know that the Albina and Rockwood neighborhoods are rich in culture and resilience. This opportunity isn’t about coming into the neighborhood to fix problems. ARPNI is about partnering with community members to match programming and services to the needs of kids and families. It’s about listening to the stories and experiences of people who live in Albina and Rockwood, hearing their priorities and concerns—and responding to what they need.

United Way is spearheading the research component of ARPNI, co-designing the survey with Portland State University. While the 20-minute questionnaire is designed to capture feedback around neighborhood safety, housing affordability, school services, and more, it’s the stories residents share with Community Researchers that are often the most powerful sources of data.


Community researchers and volunteers from Latino Network in the Albina neighborhood.
“I decided to apply to become a Community Researcher because I love connecting with people. I like hearing people’s stories. I like meeting new people,” - Pajlee Yang

“One of the toughest surveys we completed was with a single dad. He loved his kid and wanted to do the best for his son but was struggling with addiction. The survey was more than just answering questions. He needed us to listen and to know there were resources out there.

“To me, it is humbling to hear what other people are going through. It’s hard to be a parent and it’s important to have people in your life you can rely on. Not everyone has that and we can help meet that need, if we understand it.” Paj continues.

Paj herself is no stranger to the challenges of raising kids. A mother of six and grandmother of 11, Paj has balanced her family and career in Minnesota and Oregon—and knows the importance of community and connection. 

“I have worked in nonprofits, as a translator, as a researcher. I always come back to the stories. Everyone has a story—and everyone’s story deserves to be heard.”

Not every door Paj knocks on is eligible to take the survey or has the time to complete the form right then. Many times Paj and the Community Researcher team leave a card behind, hoping families will reach out.

But even a ‘no thank you’ is a chance to let community members know ARPNI partners are here and ready to act.

“It’s important for people to know they are not alone. We are sending the message that your voice matters and we are all part of this community”.


Learn more about the Promise Neighborhood Initiative at https://www.arpromiseneighborhood.org

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