The newest member of our team, Ascala Sisk, leads our program development and implementation. Prior to joining CCI, Ascala worked at NeighborWorks America, where she provided strategic direction in community development, resident leadership, and healthy communities as the Vice President of Community Initiatives. When she’s not thinking about how to make communities better for everyone, Ascala is hanging out at DC playgrounds with her two kids.
How would you describe your role at the Center?
I’m the Director of Programs. I focus on the design and implementation of our work with local institutions and multi-sector partnerships to strengthen community investment and advance equity. I also think about how the Center further develops and scales some of our undertakings—that is, how we evolve as an entity.
What about the Center’s work most excites you?
It feels like we are trying to push the boundaries of the way that we—everybody in the field—tackle complex and structural issues related to poverty and inequality. It’s exciting that we help push notions about what’s possible, and help groups think about what will really make a difference in their communities and how to do that. I’m particularly excited to partner with familiar and new players in community development to help connect the dots with efforts already underway. One of the themes you can see emerge from my career trajectory is that I like startups. I like thinking about challenges differently and helping build organizational structures that accommodate a different approach.
How did your early career and interests lead you to this field?
I’ve always been interested in and motivated by efforts to advance equity. Very early in my life, I saw equity as deeply tied to place and race. My career has been centered on advancing equity through an asset-based community development approach. The question I have held has been: how can work happen in a community-driven way that shifts systems and makes a difference at scale? My time at KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit focused on ensuring all kids have a safe place to play, shaped some important aspects of my perspective. As I engaged with communities around the country to create new playgrounds, I picked up important insights about the similarities and differences of communities big and small, urban and rural.
One of my other areas of interest is arts and culture. When I graduated college, I served in the City of Providence and staffed the startup of the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism. This experience helped me to understand more about what local government can do to support artists and culture bearers and build community through the arts. Later, at NeighborWorks, I helped to think about how we embed arts, culture and creativity in our housing and community development endeavors.
As much as I see housing as a core need of people and communities, so too is art and culture. It also became clear to me that tapping into creative practices and integrating arts and culture is a way to more inclusive and equitable practice. Art and creative expression really humanize our interactions—you have to see the person. It creates a space for us to collectively respect and hold up different cultures.
Tell us more about what you were doing at NeighborWorks.
At NeighborWorks, I worked closely with nonprofit community development organizations and gained a deep appreciation of how this work happens locally and the importance of understanding local context. My early efforts focused on foreclosure response and community stabilization. I had a front row seat to the way this national crisis was playing out differently in various places and saw the interplay between the local and national: on the one hand, supporting regulatory tools and fixes that moved money and resources for local action, and on the other making sure that there was enough space for local communities to adapt these resources to their specific needs. This provided me with more clarity about the role of a national organization and helped shape my understanding of how community development happens in place. As my focus evolved from foreclosure response and community stabilization to comprehensive community development, I had a chance to contribute to the development and preservation of affordable housing as part of the homeownership and real estate teams before developing a community-focused unit that brought together a lot of our cross-cutting initiatives.
My time at NeighborWorks also shaped a lot of how I approach community development. I was particularly influenced by my experience supporting community building and resident leadership efforts in organizations around the country. I saw the importance of social cohesion and how critical resident leadership is to lasting change. Supporting practices that build social connections, leadership and collective capacity happens with intensive, deep work and intentional practices. Unfortunately, this area is terribly underfunded and not well-understood. I’ve become interested in the case-making and metrics that would help treat this domain with the level of importance that it has.
When you’re not at work, you are…
I am often at a playground! I never knew how important playgrounds would become to my personal life. I have two kids, so when I’m not with them I’m trying to get a moment to read or catch up on sleep.
People would be surprised to know…
This is a hard one, both because I’m pretty private and because I’m an open book! One thing I don’t often share at the office: I have a deep love of 1990s New York hip hop.
What is your media diet—a few things you always read, maybe, or something noteworthy you recently read?
I do a quick skim daily of the Washington Post and the New York Times. I like a lot of what The Atlantic publishes, and I always check out Shelterforce and Next City.