Since the 1960s, citizen participation in community development has been an ideal intended to spur neighborhood revitalization. Yet that ideal – embedded in such programs as CDBG and HOME – seems removed from the reality reflected by poorly attended public hearings and reduced participation in neighborhood organizations. Like waning voter participation, the decline of public participation in community development has many public officials openly wondering if people even care anymore. It also provides groups often accused of being insensitive to the grass roots with a justification for business as usual. The resulting decrease in public oversight has left local governments less accountable to the neighborhoods they serve.
To counter this trend, the Louisville Community Design Center, a technical assistance provider founded in 1972, created The Neighborhood Institute – a 12-week seminar designed to teach effective citizenship, citizen participation and leadership. The Neighborhood Institute trains local leaders to better manage their citizen-based organizations and helps them define the roles those organizations must play as advocates in the community development process.
Since the first class held in the fall of 1987, The Neighborhood Institute has graduated over 150 leaders representing around 70 neighborhood-based organizations throughout metropolitan Louisville. Graduates of the Institute have gone on to revive declining neighborhood groups and challenge them to assume more ambitious roles on behalf of their communities. This new generation of leaders has begun redefining citizen participation beyond attending meetings and hearings, to revitalizing neighborhood institutions and forging partnerships for community change with local government.
The Neighborhood Institute played a key role in establishing the collaborative spirit that led to the Smoketown/Shelby Park Neighborhood Partnership and Strategy. When the City first designated Smoketown as a priority in 1992, the Mayor wanted to keep government from acting in a way long-feared by the neighborhood – as an urban renewal agency “burning the village to save the village,” with the long-suffering residents standing by helplessly. Instead, the City sought to throw open the door to community involvement in formulating and leading the revitalization strategy; but it feared that the citizenry – alienated by decades of official neglect – would not know what to do once that door was finally opened.
From this concern, The Smoketown/ Shelby Park class of The Neighborhood Institute was born. The class invited both long-time and aspiring leaders to learn development processes and to discover the array of municipal resources available for neighborhood revival.
During the 12-week course, class members met with key officials representing city departments with a daily presence and impact in the neighborhood – public works, housing, sanitation, planning and zoning, police. The participating city officials and neighborhood leaders learned how to work together to solve neighborhood problems, moving away from the passive-dependent-reactive mode more typical of neighborhood/government relations. By providing officials and residents with common ground to share concerns and perspectives, citizens were elevated to peer status with officials who gained a new respect for these citizens; a respect that can only come through direct personal contact.
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The outcome of the class was the graduation of 25 leaders ready to assume roles within the emerging community-based organizations serving Smoketown and Shelby Park – the same institutions that are now engaged with the City of Louisville in devising the Smoketown-Shelby Park strategy plan, and the same institutions that will serve as the agencies for implementation of the strategy beginning the first quarter of 1995.
Knowledge is, indeed, power. The Neighborhood Institute has empowered neighborhood leaders to serve effective citizenship roles on behalf of the neighborhoods they represent.