Transforming Communities

Over the past few years, many independent, housing focused CDCs have undergone a metamorphosis into broad-based groups or collaboratives. This change is driven from two directions: from without as more and more funders become committed to the ideas of “collaboration” and “community building;” and from within as community groups see that inadequate housing is part of a web with many damaged threads, all of which need attention if the community is to be revitalized.

At the same time, residents are rebelling against the notion that they are communities of need, empty of resources. They have assets, they say, that can be harnessed to transform their neighborhoods. John Kretzmann and John McKnight, in their book Community Building from the Inside Out [see article this issue] describe this model of community transformation.

We asked a number of people from various backgrounds to examine what it takes to transform neighborhoods, the promise and pitfalls of comprehensive community building strategies, and how community groups are using or not using the Kretzmann and McKnight mode. Phil Tom provides some answers and more questions, some directions and plenty of cautions. As we revisit this topic frequently over the next year, we hope to hear about your experiences in rebuilding communities.

Courageous Leaders

By Phil Tom

Your housing complex is falling down around you, your community is rife with drugs and weed-filled vacant lots, your neighborhood is called Dodge City because it boasts the city’s worst crime rate, and city and HUD officials aren’t supportive of your efforts to rebuild housing. They want you to leave the neighborhood. Why would a group of women and their families living in this neighborhood want to stay?

The residents of Hometowne, a HUD housing complex in Indianapolis, stayed in their neighborhood because it was home and they believed they could make it a better place to raise their families. These women knew the problems in the neighborhood: they lived with the consequences daily. Yet they could also see the possibilities. They could envision the vacant lots around them as places to plant their community garden, to build a playground for their children, and to build their new homes. They could envision building and managing their housing complex as a means to create employment opportunities and skills training for themselves and their neighbors.

Over a three and a half-year period, the residents organized themselves as the Hometowne Resident Council, recruited community partners, and managed an effective coalition that led to a successful victory in 1995, when the Council secured support and funding to build new homes. Its new housing complex is called Unity Park to reflect this new start, and the Hometowne Resident Council renamed itself the Unity Council. Unity Council is co-developing the housing complex with a community development corporation and a local housing financing intermediary. As the council builds its new homes and works to transform the neighborhood, residents of Unity Park are pursuing, with the same passion, their visions of developing an affordable childcare center and providing employment and other economic opportunities for their families and neighbors.

Unity Park residents’ success in transforming their neighborhood vividly demonstrated the confidence they had in their own ability to create a better future for their community. The obstacles before the Hometowne residents in fulfilling their vision were great and would have sent some neighborhood groups packing. But Hometowne residents knew they had to work hard and smart to make their vision become reality. They knew no one else was going to do it for them.

Robbie Johnson, past president of the Hometowne Resident Council and one of the major neighborhood leaders who helped transform the Hometowne neighborhood, assessed Hometown residents’ accomplishments and the work still to be done in the July 17, 1995, Indianapolis News. “I want the kids over here to know we’ve passed the bad times,” she said. “We have nothing left but good to do.”

Neighborhood leaders like Robbie Johnson and the members of the Unity Council embody the asset-based thinking described by John Kretzmann and John McKnight. Unity Council members see their neighborhood not just as a place of needs or problems, as viewed by outsiders, but as a home filled with assets. The biggest assets to these leaders are the people of Unity Park and the surrounding neighborhood. This perspective of community was reaffirmed early for the leaders of the Hometowne Council when they went to Chicago in 1992 to meet with members of the Cabrini Green Tenant Council to discuss how Hometowne members could develop and manage their own housing units. A member of the Cabrini Green Tenant Council told the Hometowne residents, “First of all, understand that as tenants, you have rights. Some people think we’re nobody. As a community of all black people, we’re stereotypes to them. Just because you’re on public assistance doesn’t mean you don’t want to better yourself.”

The achievements of the Cabrini Green Tenant Council and the Unity Park Council demonstrate a key component for successful community transformation. You must have effective neighborhood leaders who can initiate, guide, and organize their neighborhood development strategy. This is old news. Effective community leaders are trusted and respected by their neighbors. These leaders see things whole. They are able to lift up and link people to resources in their neighborhoods. They know the woman whose home provides a safe place for children after school. They know the local store owner who can help out a neighbor during a crisis situation. They know what talents and skills their neighbors can offer to others.

Effective community leaders are not just visionaries, they are persistent, determined, and hopeful in their work. Many people would not have the will or passion to have tackled the challenge laid out before the Hometowne residents. Strong community leaders do not let the overwhelming problems and needs in their communities paralyze their ability to organize local resources. They know their work is an uphill battle. Sometimes they take two steps forward only to fall back five steps; but they can see their small progress and achievements. These leaders are not just committed to a vision; they’re committed to getting things done.

Just recently in my neighborhood, someone tried to gun down one of our leaders because she had been involved in trying to shut down a drug house on her block. Although there was a lot of anger and fear in the neighborhood because of this retaliatory act, many neighborhood leaders rallied together with our neighborhood organizations to continue dealing with drugs and crime in our community. These leaders moved beyond their fear and anxiety for their personal well-being. Yet they do not see themselves as heroes or heroines. They are just ordinary folks who simply know that they must be willing to face the forces destroying their neighborhoods. Such communities are neither empty nor poor. They are rich with talented and committed people and institutions who care deeply about the well-being and future of their neighbors and neighborhoods.

We need to affirm these leaders and acknowledge the rich reservoir of assets in every neighborhood. Too often, staff and members of community, social service, or religious institutions create programs for the neighborhoods they serve without consulting or inviting neighborhood leaders to participate in the decision-making process. Recently, one social service agency organized a community development corporation to create economic opportunities for a neighborhood. The new development board consisted mostly of staff members from the agency and persons who did not live in the neighborhood. This common practice by helping institutions and professionals perpetuates the perception that the neighborhoods they serve are neighborhoods of need and violates the spirit of community empowerment.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

There are no easy formulas for community empowerment and transformation. But working with neighborhood organizations, church-based community organizations, and community development corporations makes it clear that neighborhood leaders who love their neighborhoods, who are committed to the arduous battle, who see the assets as well as the needs in their neighborhoods, and who can mobilize their neighbors and neighborhood institutions are the essential foundation on which strong communities and long-term transformation are built.

 

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