Abel Geleta, Contributing Photographer

Doreen Abubakar is the founder and executive director of Community Placemaking Engagement Network, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve communities from the inside out by investing in community assets. 

Abubakar’s work focuses on addressing the challenges and problems that urban communities in New Haven face, focusing on the Newhallville community in particular. Through her vision for a stronger community, she has transformed the formerly neglected and under-resourced neighborhood of Newhallville into a vibrant and lively space.

“About eight years ago, I adopted the neighborhood of Newhallville and wanted to bring to life basically vacant lots and public spaces to become useful assets to help the neighborhood thrive,” said Abubakar. “What CPEN has been able to do in the center of Newhallville is takeover a public space called the Mudhole and transform it into the learning corridor.” 

Newhallville is a community of 7,500 people less than a mile from Yale’s central campus. However, Abubakar said this community has been underserved for decades, plagued by high crime rates and declining future prospects. She said this motivated her to act on behalf of her community members. Abubakar has an accomplished track record of leadership, having volunteered and been an engaged citizen of New Haven for many years. With CPEN, she wanted to create something of her own that focused on supporting the needs of community members and serving all ages.

The Mudhole was once a crime hotspot characterized by drug dealing and community violence. Now, the same location is occupied by the community assets that Abubakar, along with a vanguard of other like-minded and invested community members, have brought to their neighborhood. These include the development of community gardens, outdoor exercise areas, a state-of-the-art water fountain, a bicycle repair station and a turtle sculpture. 

Abubakar embodies an urban environmentalist who is working to beautify the Newhallville community while also encouraging residents, particularly youth, to get involved in outdoor activities such as woodworking, gardening or biking. With her organization and efforts, Abubakar hopes to bridge the gap between nature, science and access for inner-city students to learn about the outdoors to improve their quality of life. 

The Learning Corridor, situated in the center of Newhallville, is an integral part of the mission and objectives of CPEN. It includes a summertime ecology class and 25 bikes available on Saturdays for families to explore the city, among other things. Through the program, Abubakar hopes to foster an environment in which community members of all ages can collaborate to address some of the most significant challenges faced by minority residents of these neighborhoods. 

“We’re basically just trying to expand and create a space that not only is for Newhallville but also for New Haveners and to keep it as a free place for them to come so it doesn’t cost you anything,” Abubakar said. “You can come with your family and just have, you know, two hours of something positive to do on a Saturday.”

83 percent of the Newhallville population is African American. Abubakar is taking numerous steps within her organization to address the racial inequities faced by majority-minority communities as well as to combat community violence and encourage healthy living. 

As communities such as Newhallville reckon with their plight, Abubakar is committed to using her knowledge and understanding of her community to seek various solutions and partnerships that allow her organization to maximize its impact and improve the lives of its members.

“One of the things that I’m participating in is trying to start a conversation for Black-led nonprofits, to have a conversation centered around race, what they call racism and equality,” Abubakar said. “So many times I’ve gone to various workshops and conversations and it ends up with, you know, people feeling like they need to apologize for their privilege. And that compensation is not getting to the root of how we can start on the same balanced playing field.”

Abubakar said much more dialogue and planning between various stakeholders is still needed to properly understand the historical, socioeconomic, and political factors that place communities of color in unfavorable and disadvantageous circumstances. 

She hopes to serve as a beacon of solidarity and collaboration to unravel the generational trauma and marginalization that plays out in clear ways today, including assisting “institutionalized racism practicing institution[s]” to recognize how their practices and behaviors still negatively impact communities.

Newhallville resident Randy Fleming has worked with Abubakar since she began her nonprofit work. Fleming has witnessed the positive effects of CPEN on his neighborhood first-hand and has developed a passion and appreciation for his work with Abubakar through CPEN. They began their work in The Hill, a neighborhood in south New Haven, then transitioned into Newhallville over eight years ago. 

Prior to Abubakar’s arrival, Fleming said that “it was like nothing was here” in Newhallville.

Since Abubakar brought her initiatives and efforts to the community, CPEN has been able to develop a park and outdoor gym within the Newhallville community, located on the New Haven’s Farmington Canal Green-way and a community garden amongst other things . 

“She goes around the community, she goes around to schools, she tries to pick up people that want to do the work. She doesn’t force them,” Fleming said, speaking to Abubakar’s effort to galvanize the rest of the community to engage in her work. “You’re free to join, you’re free to come whenever you feel like. It’s a welcoming space.” 

Fleming emphasized that his involvement with CPEN was instrumental in helping him discover his passion for the outdoors and gardening. Fleming highlighted that he has been able to “broaden his horizons” and develop meaningful relationships with other youth working alongside him as a result of Abubakar’s community garden, nursery and numerous activities she works to provide through her nonprofit organization.

“For this community, she’s been wonderful, like the changes you experience,” Fleming said. “She got me into gardening, [and] it’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve enjoyed my time working with her.”

Stephen Cremin-Endes, director of community building and organizing at Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, or NHS, is one of Abubakar’s close friends and colleagues. He met Abubakar for the first time almost a decade ago through his work with the West River Watershed Coalition, which brought him to the Mudhole in Newhallville. 

Cremin-Endes’ work throughout New Haven focuses on assisting with house renovations and improving living conditions for New Haven residents. He ended up working with some Newhallville residents and was able to connect with Abubakar as a result. Cremin-Endes said he noticed Abubakar’s visionary leadership from his initial encounter with her. 

“What I really admired is her ability to listen to residents, to knock on doors and to just speak with people as they’re walking on the sidewalk and engage with people,” Cremin-Endes said. “She’s got multiple different skills and abilities to do that. Very quickly, she partnered with the urban resources initiative. They work really closely together to create a pollinator pathway. And they have a whole program they’re working with residents.” 

Throughout his involvement with CPEN and providing support to CPEN in numerous ways, Cremin-Endes highlighted how resourceful and proactive Abubakar has been in finding the right people and resources to support her mission. From securing a large shipping container to storing equipment for barbecuing, fishing and biking to collaborating with various organizations to bring their work to Newhallville, Cremin-Endes said he has been grateful to witness CPEN blossom into an impactful and productive community organization addressing serious and important issues within the Newhallville community and broader New Haven. 

“She’s a startup, I would say. Now she has a few years with her nonprofit, so she’s able to partner even on a more equal footing,” Cremin-Endes said. “Doreen is just infectious, and she’s fun to be around. She shares about herself personally. She’s interested in others.” 

Aden Gonzales ’25 volunteered at CPEN this past spring as an intern for the NHS. Through her work with Cremin-Endes, she was paired with Abubakar to assist at the Learning Corridor. When Gonzales started volunteering, Abubakar was focused on trying to provide more affordable high-speed internet access to community members through a partnership with Comcast. Gonzales said she quicked realized Abubakar was a dynamic leader focusing on numerous activities and initiatives to improve CPEN’s offers to its community.

“I saw that Doreen was really welcoming,” Gonzales said. “I was new to New Haven. I didn’t know much about different neighborhoods or even where Newhallville or Dixwell was. She was really good at explaining the dynamics in New Haven and the history of New Haven and different community needs. … It’s really crazy that she’s so involved, but also so supportive and able to listen to whatever you have. It’s rare that someone who’s that important and significant is so accessible.” 

Learn more about CPEN at their website here.

Abel Geleta covers Yale New Haven Health (YNHH) for the Science and Technology desk at the News. Previously, he covered stories and topics at the intersection of Science and Social Justice. Originally from Ethiopia, Abel has lived in northern Virginia for the past 12 years. He is currently a junior in Berkeley college studying History of Science, Medicine and Public Health as a scholar in the Global Health Studies Program