#096 Nov/Dec 1997

Community Tool Box for Welfare Reform:

In a struggling, isolated Portland neighborhood, a group of neighborhood women have organized a Neighborhood Pride Team (NPT) over the past few years. They started their community building work by […]

In a struggling, isolated Portland neighborhood, a group of neighborhood women have organized a Neighborhood Pride Team (NPT) over the past few years. They started their community building work by interviewing neighbors about their skills and abilities. What they discovered was a gold mine: they uncovered a llama bridle maker, a motorcycle circus aerialist, and a resident sword swallower, along with cooks, musicians, gardeners, and computer experts.

NPT has nurtured these skills carefully, and the neighborhood has come alive. The group has created its own community development corporation and job skill center, which helps local residents make the move from welfare to work and develop their job skills. While the community still faces immense challenges, these efforts have begun to restore neighborhood pride and help residents realize their full potential.

Around the country, community groups such as NPT are using inventive local approaches that could powerfully affect how welfare reform unfolds in the next few years. These efforts show that welfare reform can involve not just political leaders and experts, but every neighborhood in the United States.

What can community builders contribute to this moment of reform, a moment filled with both intense fears and real possibilities? While many activists recognize that welfare reform is a community issue, some say it’s difficult to do anything about welfare reform at the local level. At most, they argue, we can organize and advocate for a more generous set of policies at the federal and state levels. Real welfare reform, however, may turn out to be less about changing huge systems than building strong and inclusive local communities. The “tools” being invented and adapted for rebuilding troubled communities could provide useful ways for citizens to support the journey from welfare to work.

Consider, for example, the following five tools emerging as a kind of starter kit for a “Community Building Tool Box.”

Tool 1: A Capacity Inventory

Designed to gather information about an individual’s capacities, skills, talents, interests, and gifts, a capacity inventory is an essential first step in moving people toward productivity and active citizenship, as NPT and groups in many other communities are discovering. As long as people are defined solely by their needs, problems, and deficiencies, they will remain recipients and clients. But the moment they and their neighbors begin to focus on their “capacities,” new possibilities for connection and contribution begin to appear. “What do you do best? And where can you do what you do best?” Those central questions open doors.

The church-based community organizing group Interfaith Action, in Minneapolis, has also worked to uncover skills and talents in its community and mobilize those skills for economic development purposes. Among its predominantly Hispanic congregations, Interfaith Action found vastly under-used capacities and experience in, for example, theater, music, arts and crafts, and specialty foods. Some of the still-unfolding uses of this wealth of skills include new enterprises and job connections, a new business and community association, and plans for a 3-day Fiesta and a “mercado,” or market, built on the businesses of the dozens of entrepreneurs uncovered through the inventories.

In New York’s South Bronx, the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, an organization with two decades of community development experience, has been an important factor in the efforts to rebuild that part of the city. For about the last ten years, Banana Kelly staff and leaders have used a capacity inventory process with the new residents of the apartments they build and manage. The skills and talents of residents become major resources for governing and maintaining the buildings, and for planning and leading future Banana Kelly projects.

Often, capacity inventories explore two broad categories of skills, those that might lead to employment or enterprise creation, and those that might contribute to the community. Obviously, both sets of skills are important in the context of welfare reform.

Just as important as economic development agendas are those civic or community building activities often fed by the capacity inventory process. Neighbors create a “skills bank” through which talents can be bartered (or offered freely); a “learning exchange” among residents; and a variety of community celebrations featuring the cultural traditions and artistic skills of residents. These activities reconnect “recipients” to the broader community as valuable contributors to its well-being. New relationships collapse some of the boundaries between the employed and those without jobs, between “haves” and “have-nots.” These connections are critical not only because they provide social support, but also because they open paths to economic opportunity.

Tool 2: A Self-Help Peer Group

Many are already familiar with the power of “self-help” groups, the fastest growing form of associational life in America. In recent years, twelve-step or self-help groups have involved more than 25 million Americans, and represent some of the most effective approaches available for addressing everything from alcoholism to eating disorders. In addition, peer support groups in many communities are proving to be valuable educational tools, with students teaching students often more effectively than those non-peers called teachers.

The experience of Chicago’s Womens’ Self-Employment Project and its sister organizations across the country demonstrates the power of peer-driven “loan circles,” modeled on Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank experience. Low income women with entrepreneurial ideas support each other’s business development strategies and efforts. The resulting microenterprises provide households and neighborhoods with dozens of new success stories.

The self-help tool converts people who have needs into people who have resources and who give help. As Frank Reisman, director of the National Self-Help Clearinghouse, puts it, “paradoxical as it may seem, giving help is the best way of being helped.” Clearly, a committed group of peers can immeasurably aid the effort to move from dependency and clienthood to interdependence and productivity.

Tool 3: A Circle of Support

This tool, which began as a way to reconnect people with disabilities to the larger community, is less common in the US than in Canada. A “circle” comprises a small group of unpaid friends who agree to come together around an individual’s dream for his/her future and to help that person realize his/her dream. People come together to help make the vision concrete, to set goals and discuss barriers, to strategize about how to move from here to there. The “client” learns to plan, to gather resources, to ask for help, to build new relationships, to use his/her skills, and to reconnect with the broader community. The circle of support can be an effective community-based tool for moving people from clienthood to citizenship.

Another circle of support has formed around Joan in Denver, a welfare recipient diagnosed as chronically mentally ill. Joan is a talented writer who dreams of writing professionally. Her circle has helped her deal with her illness, social isolation, and economic challenges. Today she writes for a neighborhood paper, reads her poetry in public, and has joined a local church, where she trains others who want to learn to use this tool.

Tool 4: An Associational Inventory

Associations (so named by Alexis de Tocqueville) are the face-to-face, voluntary groups that exist in even the poorest communities and still serve as the foundation of community life. They can be very small or quite large, informal or formal. They include block clubs, choirs, youth groups, churches, and softball teams. From the Civil Rights Movement to the still-growing Alinsky-style community organizing movement, activists have long recognized the critical community building powers of such associations. They function as activators of residents and amplifiers of individual community members’ talents, resources, and skills, and represent important points of reconnection and contribution for people who have been isolated as recipients. This tool is designed to rediscover and reactivate this vast array of organizations.

Current studies are beginning to reveal both the density and usefulness of these often overlooked community resources. One such example is a preliminary summary of the types and numbers of associations in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, Grand Boulevard, a community of about 30,000 on the city’s near South Side.

Far from being bereft of resources, which is how Grand Boulevard is often regarded, this community turns out to harbor a rich and varied associational life, the extent of which astonished even longtime community leaders. Moreover, a large majority of these groups indicated in follow-up interviews that they would be very willing to take on many more community building tasks, if only someone would ask and help organize them. Many, in fact, indicated a willingness to welcome welfare recipients into their midst, and to support recipients as they become stronger contributors to community life. Surely these voluntary associations constitute a vital set of resources for any community’s welfare reform tool box.

Tool 5: A Business Inventory

The final tool in the community’s kit is a thorough inventory of local businesses. A set of interviews with local business owners and other employers can provide valuable information about local opportunities for employment and reconnecting with the economy. This inventory can also be used to build relationships with a key sector of the community that is often – and inexplicably – left out of the welfare reform discussion. Further, local employers’ involvement will help ensure that any job training programs are designed with real employment opportunities in mind.

In one low-income Chicago neighborhood, for example, resident public housing leaders decided to conduct a thorough inventory of the businesses within the square mile surrounding their development. To their surprise, they found 199 enterprises. About half were very small, employing fewer than five people, but nearly 100 were larger, and many were looking for qualified workers. Interviewers pressed employers about ways to increase local hiring, and local purchasing, as well as their interest in investing in the neighborhood and involving their employees in community development activities. One clear result of these systematic interviews is the reconnection of local residents to the labor market closest to them.
The Community Building Tool Box and Welfare Reform

Together, these five tools identify and build on the skills and capacities of recipients and their local communities and constitute a tool box for residents working to construct a community-based response to welfare reform. However, using this tool box to help people move from welfare to work depends first on a community-based understanding of the welfare recipient’s experience.

Always the object of others’ help or service, many welfare recipients, or “clients,” experience continuous, numbing vulnerability. Disconnected first from a productive role in the economy, the client is also frequently cut off from opportunities to act as a citizen and contribute to the community’s life and well-being. This double disconnect traps many in a cycle of increasing isolation and despair. Recipients also often have to overcome some combination of the four strongest and most universally cited barriers to the return to productivity: good health, including access to insurance and services; adequate child care; effective and affordable transportation; and the opportunity to save and grow financial assets.

The client/recipient’s dilemma points to the critical role local communities must play if people – our neighbors – are to be supported in their efforts to reconnect, to move from “dependent welfare recipient” to “active community citizen” and “work force producer.” The Community Building Tool Box provides a set of opportunities for communities to take welfare reform seriously as a local challenge. It reminds community leaders and residents – especially those active in key institutions such as churches, community organizations, even schools and chambers of commerce – that they can act in powerful ways to reconnect recipients to their communities’ economic and social centers

Using the Tool Box

Not all of the tools in the box will be appropriate for every recipient who wants to move from isolation to connection. Just as each community is one of a kind, every person’s life experience is unique, including her or his encounters with the welfare system.

For example, observers divide the recipient population into three very broad categories:

  • “Citizens in Crisis,” people whose experience of welfare is triggered by an emergency – a job loss, health problems, the death of a loved one – and who will only receive assistance for a short time.
  • “People with permanent disabilities,” whether physical or mental, who can certainly be more centrally and productively involved in community life, but who will in all likelihood always need some public economic assistance.
  • “Client families,” a group between these temporary and permanent recipients. These “longer term welfare families,” have been the central focus of much of the national welfare reform debate.

Different combinations of the five tools may be helpful in addressing different life circumstances and community contexts. Perhaps, for example, the self-help peer group will be most helpful to those in the “client family” category, while both those folks and “people with permanent disabilities” could use circles of support. Each community must construct its own tool box, using the tools most appropriate to the challenge at hand.

The Community Guide

This sketch of the tool box leaves a central question. Who is the carpenter? Whose job is it to assemble the tools and begin to use them? Obviously, no current job description includes carpentry, or community building, defined in just this way. But a number of communities are exploring one approach involving a “community guide” – a term often used in Canada’s circles of support – which could encompass many functions that build and engage the tool box.

A community guide is probably not a professional helper. Rather, the guide is probably a well-connected and trusted community resident, a person who recognizes the capacities of others, who builds relationships and trust easily, who regards the community itself as a rich and varied set of resources. Such a person might seed the capacity inventory process, introduce peers to each other and help the self-help group get started, assemble the initial circles of support, and initiate inventories of local associations and businesses.

A community guide, or guides, should be connected in some way to a representative “community council” made up of leaders supportive of these approaches. Such a community council might offer support for guides as well as recipients/citizens, garner money and other resources, help interpret the work to the larger community, and work on important policy changes in areas such as health care, child care, transportation and savings.

What seems evident is that communities already have such people in their midst, along with many of the raw materials for building stronger and more inclusive local communities. A set of handcrafted and customized tools provides a way for communities to organize around and build on those resources, to ultimately build the bridge from welfare dependency to productive citizenship.

Of course, these community-based approaches to welfare reform exist in a larger context of policy development and contention. Anyone serious about welfare reform will recognize that larger issues of justice and equity, must also be addressed. Clearly, discussions about the nature, extent, and proper division of federal and state contributions to our most vulnerable citizens are critical. Such debates about the shape of effective welfare reform deserve all the energy and attention they are getting, and more.

At the same time, we should recognize that this particular moment of policy change is fraught with both frightening potential and significant opportunities for positive change. The challenge is much too important to leave to the Beltway policymakers; it is a challenge meant for all of us.


  • For many more examples of capacity inventories, and their uses in different kinds of communities, see A Guide to Capacity Inventories: Mobilizing the Community Skills of Local Residents, by John P. Kretzmann, John L. McKnight, and Geralyn Sheehan,  and A Guide to Mapping and Mobilizing the Economic Capacities of Local Residents, by John P. Kretzmann, John L. McKnight, and Deborah Puntenney, both from the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 1997.
  • Frank Reisman, “Ten Self-Help Principles,” Social Policy: Spring, 1997, p. 8. The work of Reisman and the Clearinghouse is invaluable for anyone seeking to apply self-help to new areas such as welfare reform.
  • Two powerful books describing Circles of Support in some detail are: What’s Really Worth Doing and How to Do It by Judith A. Snow,  Inclusion Press, Toronto, 1994; and Safe and Secure: Six Steps to Creating a Personal Future Plan for People with Disabilities by Al Etmanski et al., Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), British Columbia, 1996.
  • Voluntary Associations in Low-Income Neighborhoods: An Unexplored Community Resource, by John P. Kretzmann, John L. McKnight and Nicol Turner, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, 1996.
  • For further approaches to a business inventory, see A Guide to Mapping Local Business Assets and Mobilizing Local Business Capacities, by John P. Kretzmann, John L. McKnight, and Deborah Puntenney, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 1996.




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