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Reclaiming Twin Aire:

A Profile of Senior Fellow Jeff Sparks

Jeff Sparks is an selfless innovator and consistent exemplar of what Hoosier Hospitality is all about. Yet, none of these descriptors do his nearly 40 years of philanthropic service justice. Indeed, when attempting to describe his own personality, Sparks settles on the simple title of ‘encourager.’ In his own words, ‘I like to connect people, I like to empower people.’ Yet, even a cursory glance at his life’s work, reveals how much that description undersells his attributes and accolades.

Jeff Sparks, Senior Fellow at Sagamore Institute since 2014, has embodied the Institute’s commitment to producing “real results” in the vast array of different work he has performed throughout his life. For ten years from 1980 to 1990, Sparks ran the Indiana Christian Children’s Home, a treatment center for emotionally disturbed children. He followed this daunting assignment with an equally varied pursuit – unsatisfied with the state of cultural production in the Midwest, Sparks joined with a small group of like minded individuals to found a non-profit called the New Harmony Project. Based in New Harmony, Indiana, there they established a writer’s lab which supplies local talent with the creative ecosystem necessary to share and refine their voices. In the same vein, he also worked to establish the long-running and nationally renowned Heartland Film Festival in 1992 so as to honor and develop local filmmakers. 

After over 20 years in this line of work, Sparks emerged from a 2013 sabbatical with a desire to do something more. A lifelong love of community, coupled with his experience in non-profits up to this point, pushed him to pursue a path in local community development. Over drinks and cigars with his friend Bill Taft, he was guided to the Southeast Neighborhood Development, Inc. (SEND) non-profit community development corporation, who were themselves wrapping up a successful period of work in the Fountain Square neighborhood. Now, with Fountain Square nearing the point of self-sufficiency, it was time for SEND to shift focus to a new locale in need of organization – Twin Aire.

Twin Aire was once an anchor of the post-war East Side community in Indianapolis. A vibrant, working-class neighborhood, the tight bonds that knit the neighborhood together led to much progress and innovation. In fact, the first shopping center in Indianapolis was established right in Twin Aire, reflecting its economic dynamism and cultural refinement.

However, by the 1970’s and 1980’s the community had begun to decline, with an IUPUI study highlighting warning signs of a decreasing population, low median income, and a diminished graduation rate. Compounding these factors was the 2007 closure of two community landmarks – the Citizens Energy coke manufacturing plant and the Florence Fay School. As the losses seemed to keep accumulating, the people of the community began to feel isolated and disillusioned. SEND, and in turn its new housing committee chair Jeff Sparks, aimed to reinvigorate this historical Indianapolis backbone while paving the way for an even brighter future.

In Jeff Sparks mind, you can’t help begin to help someone if they don’t want it. Thus, he and SEND spent nearly a year holding meetings, getting to know residents, and building the relationships key to establishing a strong partnership in order to overcome the distrust and wariness Twin Aireans held for outsiders after so many disappointments. After this initial exercise in trust-building came the need to develop a deeper understanding of the problems afflicting the community, for you can’t cure an ailment without first diagnosing it. With the help of a group of graduate students looking for a project, SEND was able to get a better handle on the issues that they faced.

What they learned was that these issues – ranging from crumbling infrastructure to a suffocating lack of economic opportunity – were too interwoven with numerous other factors to be tackled in just one community. They transcended neighborhood boundaries, so to actually overcome them a more wide-ranging response was necessary. In a move wholly unprecedented in traditional methods of community development, Jeff Sparks and SEND decided to work with the surrounding four neighborhoods around Twin Aire, in total shouldering the development of five distinct communities.

Traditionally, coordinating between merely two different neighborhoods – let alone five unique communities – is a massive headache for development organizers. Yet Sparks and his compatriots overcame this obstacle, successfully holding an initial meeting with all five neighborhoods where each elected delegates to a leadership committee that formed the Twin Aire Neighborhood Coalition (TANC). With the trust of the residents secured and a cohesive organizational structure in place, Sparks and the SEND team were enabled to truly involve the entire community in its own betterment.

Their first priority was securing a Great Places 2020 designation for Twin Aire. Great Places 2020 is a citywide community investment program aiming “to transform strategic places in Marion County into dynamic urban villages.” With a Great Places 2020 designation, Twin Aire would gain access to abundant resources to revitalize the neighborhood – SEND, TANC, and Sparks himself understood the importance of securing this support.

On a whim, the SEND board had attempted to apply for the first round of Great Places 2020 in the fall of 2014. While ultimately failing in their endeavor due to it being so early in the organizational drive, the effort provided invaluable experience that would serve the community well when it tried again in 2016.

Before embarking on that process, however, major developments were already taking place within the newly organized neighborhood. With the Near East Side recently designated a “Promise Zone” – areas of high poverty but high potential for development – Twin Aire and its surroundings were empowered to gain priority access to grants and other streams of support. One such initiative springing from this opportunity was the development of the iconic Florence Fay School into a much needed space for senior living. With the guidance of community input and a Fountain Square city planning group, Green3, the school was transformed into an affordable and much needed option for senior housing.

Already seeing the fruit of their community organizing, and with the experience of their first attempt under their belts, Jeff Sparks and the Twin Aire neighborhood were prepared by the time the second round of Great Places 2020 arrived. The first round of consideration was a written proposal, which the community advanced through with relative ease alongside four other neighborhoods.

The format for the final round was a fifteen minute presentation to be delivered to over thirty leaders in the Indianapolis community. When the final round arrived, Twin Aire showed out in force, with over 150 residents carrying banners and a local band supplying music in order to cheer on the Twin Aire presenters; Twin Aire wanted the Great Places 2020 Steering Committee to know just how much energy this community contained. To start off their presentation, the group of 14 presenters performed a cheer, and over the span of the next 15 minutes each delivered powerful remarks on not only the importance of Twin Aire in their own lives but also its immense potential as rationale behind why it should be granted a Great Places 2020 designation.

Ultimately, the Twin Aire presenters triumphed in obtaining a Great Places 2020 designation. With that victory came $75,000 to be utilized in the community development program, but that was only the beginning. Not long after hearing back from Great Places 2020, community leaders then learned about a Citizens Energy Group initiative which was awarded a massive grant by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to beautify and develop its abandoned coke manufacturing site. This immense sum of money was to be matched dollar for dollar by Citizens Energy Group, and when coupled with the Great Places 2020 designation offered upwards of $750,000 to be utilized around the community.

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Jeff Sparks describes the structure of the Twin Aire presentation to the Great Places 2020 Steering Committee, highlighting the diverse array of speakers and enthusiastic energy the community demonstrated that day.

The victories kept on coming. Not too long after this welcome surprise, another presented itself in the form of the innovative Community Justice Campus. This $575,000,000 institution would contain the city and county courts, sheriff’s office, 2700 bed detention center, and a state-of-the-art mental health and crisis intervention facility. The Community Justice Campus offered innumerable benefits both direct and indirect to the surrounding community it would be placed in, and Indianapolis chose Twin Aire as the planned site of part of its sprawling campus.

What followed from this short stretch of massive success was a grinding period of research and writing and fundraising by community leaders, including Sparks, in order to craft a plan for the next 15 to 20 years of Twin Aire. In a comprehensive, 281 page report with another 278 pages of addendums, a detailed body of survey findings and suggestions for the community’s demographic, housing, educational, and workforce needs were taken into consideration, outlining the path that must be taken in order for Twin Aire to continue its meteoric restoration.

Ultimately, after a period of 6 years, Jeff Sparks’ work in the Twin Aire community had concluded. In securing their Great Places 2020 designation and other grants and city initiatives, as well as a detailed plan for their future, Twin Aire was well-positioned to grow into a thriving community once again. Yet, more importantly, Sparks and his associates at SEND guided Twin Aireans to a deeper engagement with each other and their wider neighborhood. Through the establishment of TANC, the residents of Twin Aire realized their collective power and influence overshadowed their individual meagerness, and what resulted was a community confident in its abilities and certain that a better future lay around the corner.

Sparks himself gleaned much from this transformative experience. When working with others, he was affirmed in his belief that relationships are key. Everyone wants to feel valued, so giving them your time and respect will draw their innate energy and skills out to be used for the betterment of all. In addition, there is a need for an organization that possesses an awareness of some higher aim – like the common good – to be present in order to serve as an institutional anchor and compass.

For Sparks, Sagamore Institute helped to fulfill both lessons. The network of innovative and engaged citizens it provides proves invaluable to those aiming to change the world around them. Moreover, Sagamore also provided a safety net for him intellectually, always engaging with some new idea he had and pushing him to find substantive solutions to the complex issues he found in Twin Aire. “How can we help build on that?” was the typical answer Sparks received upon sharing some new problem he had, along with a constant, gentle encouragement to live up to the Sagamore mission and put ideas into action. As an institution, Sagamore provided the requisite organizational anchorage so that Sparks never lost sight of the ultimate goal – making Twin Aire a better place for its residents.

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Jeff Sparks believes that in order to change the world, one must at times take a leap and dive into a new project; however, taking a leap alone is a daunting task, so having the help of others – including organizations like Sagamore Institute – can make all the difference.

In sum, the life’s work of Jeff Sparks reflects the general civil ethos that Sagamore Institute aims to cultivate. The power of the individual to better the world around him or her is neither a fairy tale to warm your heart nor a rosy-tinged lens of nostalgia that is no longer sustainable in the modern era; it is a real and continuing occurrence that rests in the hands of individuals brave enough to take the risk. In order to innovate and progress, one must sometimes be like Jeff Sparks and take a leap of faith. With the help of an institution like Sagamore Institute, you don’t have to take that leap alone.