In a previous post, we discussed the emerging collaboration the Evolution Institute has with Mondragon University. We explained how this was made possible by humans having a predisposition to be prosocial, and attributed this to human neuroplasticity throughout the lifespan. When this is culturally reinforced, “good” results can occur that contribute to cooperative behavior within groups which can then be extended between groups to create an enriched environment.

Working for the past decade in the most underserved neighborhoods in Pasco County, the Evolution Institute has strived to build strong cooperative relationships with the most viable and respected community leaders and organizations, using evolutionary science as the theoretical foundation while integrating it with best practices in community facilitation and trust building. This resulted in an ongoing collaboration with Tommytown local activist Margarita Romo and her mutual aid organization Farmworkers Self-Help.

Local Tommytown activist Margarita Romo in conversation with Jerry Lieberman, co-founder of the Evolution Institute.

A ‘Place for the Misplaced’

Tommytown is an unincorporated area that sits just outside the limits of Dade City in Pasco County, Florida. It was named after Tommy Barfield who in the 1940s built housing for white working class families working at a nearby citrus processing plant. An often forgotten piece of the story is that Dade City also housed a German prisoner-of-war-camp that provided much of the labor for Tommytown’s construction. Today, the Pasco County extension office is actually located on the property that formed part of the POW camp.

In the 1960s and 70s Tommytown received an influx of migrant farmworkers following seasonal work, mostly from Mexico. During this time the area was severely neglected and underserved, with residents living without basic utilities such as water, sewer connections, and streetlights. Unpaved and unkempt streets caused children to inhale dust storms every time a car drove by.

With these historical ties, Tommytown has been aptly described as a ‘place for the misplaced,’ and although not always recognized, these pieces of history have deep global connections and are integral to the story of Dade City.

The quality of life in Tommytown has recently begun to improve thanks to the dedication of Margarita Romo and her organization who have created a community safety net for residents to support each other when no one else will.

Cooperative Behavior

In 1968 an article written by Garrett Hardin popularized the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in which humans are doomed to suboptimal outcomes due to rational, self-interested behavior. But decades of research has shown that local communities have the capacity to govern resources sustainably and equitably and have been doing so for thousands of years. In 2009 Elinor Ostrom received a Noble Prize in economics for describing the conditions in which communities self-govern and collectively achieve positive outcomes.

The Evolution Institute has built upon Ostrom’s 8 Rules for Managing the Commons and examined how collaboration can be undertaken from an evolutionary perspective- one based on plasticity, reciprocal altruism, and intentional change. In this article, David Sloan Wilson, a close colleague of Ostrom, lays out a basic science of intentional change centered on evolution and provides example from applied behavioral sciences.

Here are some reflections based on the work of the Evolution Institute in Pasco County and Ostrom’s 8 principles:

  1. Commons are more broadly defined to include those areas privately owned and/or managed by government.
  2. Boundaries do not need to be clearly defined. They can evolve in different ways to achieve clearer outcomes.
  3. Participation requires facilitation by someone highly competent as a community organizer.
  4. Metrics and concrete measurable outcomes serve as the basis for valid monitoring.
  5. High motivation and goal achievement reduces the use of sanctions. Self-improvement and community gains in quality of life are paramount.
  6. Human development through information-sharing provides important growth for the individual.
  7. Building trust is imperative and is more likely to materialize when individual and group needs are realized and ongoing.
  8. Successful organizational and community development is predicated on meeting, building, and sustaining highly functional collaboration between all levels of government (public realm) and non-profit entities (private realm) with decisions being made from the bottom up.

In addition,

  1. Highly accomplished expertise, not only in community organizing, but community building, resource development, and proper allocation, must be incorporated and managed.
  2. Deep empathy and respect for people is essential.
  3. Competition and free loading can be minimized when there is real and tangible growth in opportunity, fairness. and access to greater resources.
  4. Facilitation, technical assistance, and capacity building should not require compensation from the group(s) in the community being served. No funds should be diverted that would otherwise benefit the underserved population.
  5. Commons characterized as having systemic problems to overcome resulting from injustice, repression, and being under-sourced and underserved require long-term strategies and resources as well as maximum use and adoption of best practices.

Long-Term Community Building

Throughout the last decade, the Evolution Institute has supported Margarita Romo and her organization as well as other local leaders such as Bruce Edwards at Resurrection House to ensure that the residents of Tommytown can experience a higher quality of life.

The collaboration between the Evolution Institute and community partners led to an important moment in August 2020, when Tommytown opened the doors of its first early learning center, East Pasco Academy.

Enrollment was challenging at first due to cultural and bureaucratic barriers layered with being in the midst of global pandemic. Many families, whether undocumented or recently documented, have strong feelings of distrust towards state funded programs such as VPK (voluntary-pre-kindergarten) and preferred to keep their young children at home.

However, just one year later the school is at full capacity and has become one of the community’s greatest sources of pride: a successful early learning center with a trustworthy environment that Tommytown can call it’s own. East Pasco Academy exemplifies what can result when strong community engagement is combined with proper technical assistance and adequate funding.

Class picture day at Tommtown’s East Pasco Academy

In August 2021 the Evolution Institute provided technical support to Farmworker’s Self Help so that the organization could conduct their own Community Survey. They felt that census data was not reflective of their reality and were determined to collect more accurate demographic information and community concerns, as well as community assets, in order to build a better case for the improvement of Tommytown.

Then in late September, a meeting was hosted by Pasco County Community Development in which the results of this survey and other key information were presented to a room filled a range of stakeholders from Dade City and Pasco County. Participants represented a range of actors including Premier Health, Baycare, Pasco-Hernando Community College, University of South Florida, Dade City Police Department, and local politicians. In addition to Margarita Romo and Bruce Edwards, local leaders including Nelson Cruz from the Dade City Hispanic Lions Club and Guillermina Simmons, President of Farmworkers Self-Help, represented their community.

For the stakeholders present it was generally agreed that in order to improve the conditions for Tommytown residents, it is necessary to identify gaps that are preventing accessibility to services and for organizations to build trust with the community in order to get people to actually walk through their door.

For the Evolution Institute, this was an important moment to highlight a model of public-private partnership that can be successful in Tommytown and in other underserved communities, as well as to emphasize the advantage of moving beyond a charity mindset to a solidarity mentality in which everyone in the room can benefit from each other.

Margarita Romo speaks to participants of community development meeting on September 29th, 2021.

For more about the East Pasco Initiative and the work being done in Tommytown, you can keep an eye on our project page and social media.


Published On: October 1, 2021

Jerry Lieberman

Jerry Lieberman

Jerry is the co-founder and secretary/treasurer of the Evolution Institute. Prior to the establishment of EI as a non-profit in 2010, he served as president of the Humanists of Florida Association, which is affiliated with the American Humanist Association and was EI’s initial umbrella organization in 2008. Jerry presently serves on the boards of the Secular Student Alliance, Florida Consumer Action Network (FCAN) Foundation, and Project Now Inter-generational Outreach. The lattermost is a neighborhood-based organization in East Tampa, FL with one of the state’s lowest income populations. EI collaborates closely with Project Now – providing technical assistance and organizational capacity building.

Jerry concluded his formal education in 1973 when he was awarded his PhD from New York University. Prior to his retirement in 2002, he was founder and director of the Florida Community Partnership Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The center harnesses the massive human and technical resources within a large, comprehensive state university to improve the quality of life in impoverished neighborhoods in the Tampa Bay region. Before his retirement, he successfully created an endowment for his center, and it is now named the Jim Walter Partnership Center – as a result of a large donation from a family well known for affordable housing development.

Before Jerry moved to Florida in 1989, he was a professor of political science in New Jersey for 25 years at Essex County College in Newark and at William Paterson University in Wayne. While at the former institution, he founded the Urban Institute and served as a dean. Governors of the state appointed him to serve on several boards that impacted NJ higher education as well as its electoral process.

His background also includes extensive political campaign experience in the Democratic Party and experience as a professional consultant (including for the Meadowland Chamber of Commerce) and as a principal in an investment bank and import export company. In addition to teaching, research, and deep community engagement, he has been active in fundraising for organizations and political candidates that share his progressive values.

Nadeska Concha

Nadeska Concha

Nadeska is the Communications and Research Coordinator for the Evolution Institute. She holds an MSc in Sustainable Development from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has specialized in International Development in the Global South. Her work has included assessing commodity certification in conflict areas of Colombia and rural infrastructure projects in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. She believes in using both data analysis and storytelling to mend the human-nature relationship and is committed to science communication as a key for agency. 



Leave a Reply

<textarea name="ak_hp_textarea" cols="45" rows="8" maxlength="100" style="display: none !important;">

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.