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  • Writer's pictureJohn Thomas

Meet Our Neighbors

Donna Long has served as a Swift Partner in many of our efforts. Meet her here.

Ms. Donna Long mans her Charlotte Street station with long-time friend "R.J."

Pass by “the plaza” at the corner of Barbour and Charlotte Streets in North Hartford and you may be alarmed by the sight of hustlers and bustlers generating their day’s take from the street economy. But, keep looking. For, not a hundred feet away, the sight of Ms. Donna Long sitting on her lawn chair enjoying sun, family and the visitation of friends tells an unexpected story. It's a story that contradicts what most people think about North Hartford and reflects the experiences and struggles of the majority of hard-working North Hartford residents.

“You never know what goes on behind closed doors in this community. We are three generations into this. They need more programs that lead to direct employment,” Long said, gazing at the guys congregating across from her yard in the plaza's parking lot. A lot of these youth don’t know anything else."

Long added that after getting married the first time at a young age, she got her GED and got her start through a job program herself. “They call it Cigna now, but I got my chance in a clerical training program at Connecticut General,” Ms. Long said. She leveraged that opportunity, became a notary, and climbed the corporate ladder in a 28 year career at Cigna. “I did all of that without a college degree. But, it started with a program, my personal drive and a job when I completed the program,” Long said.

Programs went a long way to guide people to prosperity. They led to an actual job, Long added. “As a matter of fact, I met my husband while he was doing his programs.” Her husband, Alfred Pete Long passed away in 2013 after the couple had been together for 30 years. He worked at the Hartford Housing Authority and the Community Renewal Team as an Alcohol and Drug Counselor for years.

“We come from the Brickyard,” Long said, referring to the nickname given by residents to the Stowe Village and Bellevue Square housing projects where her husband provided programs, first to adults and then to youth. “He saw a generational pull into substance abuse. He predicted then a lot of what’s happening in this community today. That’s why I don’t judge people seeking to offset their lack of resources in some ways. I don’t agree with the violence, but everybody has their own story, Long said, referring to the activity in the plaza. "People can be driven to do what they need to in order to survive. And, a lot of these guys rely on the companionship they share out here, ” Long said.

Long grew up in North Hartford in Bellevue Square and on Martin Street. Her story parallels that of many of North Hartford residents with her father leaving tragedy behind in Denmark, SC and her mother coming North from Americus, GA, moving to Hartford seeking opportunity. Her parents worked hard to provide them a better opportunity and worked with neighbors to support the community. “Those were different times back then. It was hard, but it was fair,” Long said, referring to how their family struggled to move forward.

Then, she raised her own family in North Hartford as well. The Longs raised two generations in their raised ranch house on Charlotte Street. “I’ve been here 36 years,” Long said, adding that her daughters, Dina Williams-Bey and Donisha (“I-Dolly”) Long received a good upbringing just as she did right here in North Hartford. Donisha actually has a fashion line and has been selected to Hartford’s “100 Women of Color”. Long has eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

When asked why she did not pick up and move from the community like many others, Long said what she sees is not alarming because it all makes sense as need deepened here. The key is to not judge and show a different example. And, what an example she gives. Long shines in local NRZ meetings whenever there are serious developments to consider and is knowledgeable on all things benefitting homeowners in the City of Hartford. She has partnered with Community Solutions as a member of our Homeowners Network, lobbying hard over the past two years to get a blighted bank-owned property right next door to her house rehabilitated and sold. Now she has new neighbors moving into a home where; there was drug activity, stolen cars were abandoned and where people set fires to the structure in the past.

Long continues to guide us in our work as a community partner. “I am so glad to see Swift completed and the businesses up and running there. Hopefully we can get some bigger businesses there that can provide jobs and places for youth to go,” she advised. She’s taking on a new fight as well to keep services in the neighborhood. “We need to keep our post office. It seems like that office in the plaza is limping along with little support. It’s like they are intentionally driving patrons away,” she said, referring to the Barbour Street USPS office.

Long knows another day at the Plaza brings unknowns, but just like in the chess game her husband once taught to neighborhood youth, the same rules apply. “You’ve got to make the best choices, sometimes a few moves ahead around here. Sometimes, even the best choices don’t bring the best outcomes. But, you got to keep on moving."

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