Como leaders to pass torch

In January, Ricardo McCurley will leave the Southeast Como Improvement Association.

Current Executive Director for SECIA Ricardo McCurley poses, sitting at his desk in the Southeast Como Improvement Association office on Sunday. McCurley is set to leave SECIA over the new year to take on the position of Executive Director for the Whittier Neighborhood Association.

Alex Tuthill-Preus

Current Executive Director for SECIA Ricardo McCurley poses, sitting at his desk in the Southeast Como Improvement Association office on Sunday. McCurley is set to leave SECIA over the new year to take on the position of Executive Director for the Whittier Neighborhood Association.

Hannah Weikel

Though hedged by industrial areas on three sides, Southeast Como has maintained a decadeslong identity as a green neighborhood.
 
For the last three years, Ricardo McCurley has directed the area’s environmental work.
 
He will leave his position as Southeast Como Improvement Association executive director at the end of the year, and University of Minnesota graduate Cody Olson will take charge in the interim. McCurley will fully transition into his new job as the Whittier Alliance’s executive director in January, he said.
 
Before SECIA hired him in June 2012, McCurley’s career of nonprofit work was already underway. 
 
With a special interest in youth development and sustainable agriculture, McCurley said the neighborhood was a good fit for him. 
 
“It’s a small organization that has a lot of helpful long-term staff,” he said. “And also just a lot of grassroots work generated by students and residents. People would come to us with an idea, and we would say, ‘OK, how do we get it done?’ ”
 
SECIA Community Organizer Stephanie Hankerson said she and McCurley worked together to expand two community gardens in the neighborhood, as well as create the TCEducate program. 
 
TCEducate was launched to inform Como residents of an industrial dump site that leaked chemicals into the earth years ago, which have since seeped under neighborhood homes. 
 
The program has also updated residents on what General Mills and other responsible parties are doing to address the issue, he said.
 
McCurley said TCEducate was his proudest accomplishment.
 
“We got a lot of great work done,” Hankerson said. “Ricardo’s strength lies in programming and community connecting, and that fit right into the work we were doing.” 
Hankerson will also leave the Southeast Como neighborhood in January to work for Frogtown Farm. 
 
Budget cuts and fewer grant dollars meant the Como neighborhood couldn’t afford to fill both positions, Hankerson said. McCurley said their positions will merge as a result. 
 
“Como, sadly, has been shrinking over the last five or seven years,” McCurley said. “They’ve been letting go of staff, and now they’re in a big transition phase where they need to really change the way they operate.” 
 
Olson will come on as executive director until the official hiring process takes ends in January, he said. 
 
“To make sure the transition was easy, we picked from a group of past interns who know the neighborhood,” McCurley said. “Our second goal was to find someone who would be good if they stayed on and would stand out even amongst a large pool of applicants.” 
 
Olson said he wants to be considered for a long-term executive director role.
 
“I have a strong connection with the Como Neighborhood,” he said. “It was where I got my first apartment. And having worked for [SECIA] for two years, I really want to see them grow and prosper.”
 
Hankerson and McCurley are both moving on to organizations with larger budgets and staff, but they said limiting spending and applying for grants could help Olson succeed in Como. 
 
McCurley will pick up the last leg of a five-year development plan in the Whittier neighborhood focused on the environment, he said. 
 
“We are going to reimagine the loan programs to focus on being open to sustainable improvements,” he said. “There’s also an idea to join with some of the big employers in Whittier and create a live-where-you-work program which could greatly reduce the carbon footprints of those households.” 
 
McCurley said he also wants to pitch a greenhouse grocery store to the neighborhood association, an idea he’s been chewing on for more than five years. 
 
“In Como, we were working on trying to install rooftop gardens on some of the flat roofs in the neighborhood,” he said. “But this would be a kind of next-level project.” 
 
Current Whittier Neighborhood Executive Director Marian Biehn said McCurley will take on what has been the focus of the neighborhood and continue working with the community to implement those goals.
 
“As for new ideas,” Biehn said, “It’s a matter of presenting them to the community and seeing if that’s something that should be moved forward.”