Super citizen: Whittier’s veteran community organizer moving on

WHITTIER — We’ve all done this:

You’re walking down the street and you notice something — fresh graffiti on a vacant storefront, an alleyway littered with garbage or the suspicious guy who’s always hanging out on the same corner — and you think to yourself, I wish somebody would do something about that.

Josie Shardlow sometimes had that thought while walking around the Whittier neighborhood. But it never lasted long.

"Then I’d be like, ‘Wait, that’s my job!’" Shardlow said.

For over three years beginning in May 2005, Shardlow was the community organizer for the Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization. By the time she left in December, she was, for many Whittier residents, the face of the neighborhood.

Shardlow’s tenure overlapped with a time when the work of community organizing saw a remarkable increase in public attention — thanks, entirely, to a certain former community organizer who now holds the title president-elect.

Still, it may be hard for many people to define exactly what it is a community organizer does. Shardlow said the work is so wide-ranging it’s hard even for her to come up with a simple answer.

"It’s kind of like being the most-engaged citizen you can be," she said. "… Like [being] a super-citizen."

Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn, who worked alongside Shardlow in the Alliance’s small, three-person office off of Nicollet Avenue, said Shardlow was successful, in part, because she was able to connect with the diverse groups that make up Whittier, one of the city’s most-populous neighborhoods.

"She really created a lot of good will and awareness of where people live," Biehn said.

Building community

Dave Delvoye, Shardlow’s counterpart in the adjacent Stevens Square neighborhood, worked closely with Shardlow to address alcohol-related crime and livability issues along Franklin Avenue, the two neighborhoods’ shared border.

"In my opinion, she’s done the most and been the most successful around crime prevention," Delvoye said. "She’s been willing to go out into the community and talk to people about the problems."

One of Shardlow’s early efforts was to revive the Whittier Walkers, a citizen patrol group.She also worked with 5th Precinct police to get more of Whittier’s frequent troublemakers added to the CLEAN Sheet, a regularly distributed list of the precinct’s top offenders.

"She was really instrumental in getting some of our more chronic offenders who habituate the neighborhood into longer sentences, so they weren’t harassing neighbors," Biehn said.

Shardlow said the many community events and celebrations she organized — like the May Day Soiree, National Night Out parties and neighborhood annual meeting — were the most rewarding parts of her job. She recalled watching two neighbors meet for the first time, or seeing their children playing together, and said that was community building at its most basic.

Shardlow also led the effort to rehabilitate Clinton Field Park, a tiny plot of land that was run down and, for neighbors, not a particular point of neighborhood pride. Now, the park’s been spruced-up with a new fence, steps to 4th Street and a sign.

"There’s a way you can [build] pride or a sense of community just around having" a new park sign up, she added.

More than full-time

Just before she moved to Whittier and took the open community organizer position in 2005, Shardlow spent 13 months traveling South America. Much of that time she was on her own.

Shardlow said she didn’t realize then, but by the time she returned to Minnesota and found an apartment in Whittier, she wanted to feel a part of a community again.

"[This job] was exactly what I was looking for — I just didn’t know it could be a job," she said.

Recently married, Shardlow set off on another South American sojourn with her new husband (whom she also met in Whittier) just before the end of the year. For Whittier’s super-citizen, it will be a welcome break.

"When you’re a community organizer, when you live in the neighborhood, it’s like a vocation — it’s more than full-time," Shardlow said. "When you’re at The Wedge [grocery store and] your ice cream is melting but somebody is talking to you, you can’t just say, ‘No, I’ve got to go.’

"You’re always just a little bit involved," she continued. "So, I guess I’m looking forward to some anonymity for a while."