Community development: What works, or not?

Much has been written about community development from the perspectives of community members, educators, activists, local governments, social workers, or other participants. Although each perspective highlights particular issues, common themes run through some very diverse settings.

These themes are highlighted in a 2005 report, Community Development: A Guide for Grantmakers on Fostering Better Outcomes Through Good Process, written by Bill Potapchuk of the Community Building Institute, with Malka Kopell, of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. But the perspective is one I hadn’t considered, namely that of grantmakers, those who seek to foster community development through grants. The report identifies eight elements of good process for community development:

  • Requires advocacy, seeking a process that leads to more investment, connection, and authentic participation
  • Effectively coordinates, links, combines, and supports various initiatives to ensure that they work in concert, using a shared strategy and supporting a common vision
  • Responds to and reflects a widely divergent set of interests
  • Is not imposed on people
  • Ensures that community residents are meaningfully engaged and have sufficient power to influence decisions
  • Creates safe opportunities for authentic dialogue across differences
  • Fosters collaborative conversations that become more strategic, holistic, and systemic over time
  • Anticipates conflict and seeks to discuss it in ways that forges common ground

We could use these eight elements as a rubric for describing or evaluating community-building efforts. For example, I recently encountered a quasi-governmental organization, which had control over significant funding but distributed that in a very patriarchal way. There was little opportunity for authentic participation, which meant that it was difficult for different initiatives to work in concert, use a shared strategy, or support a common vision. Activities were imposed on people, thus lessening the value of even worthwhile initiatives. Meanwhile, real needs were often not met or even recognized. There was little authentic dialogue across differences or a chance to forge common ground. The net result was that the organization failed to meet its lofty mission statement.

In contrast, I’ve seen at St Andrew’s Resource Centre in Dublin an organization that embodies all eight elements–authentic participation, a common vision, respect for difference, all leading to collaborative conversations that forge common ground–even if they might use different terminology. Similarly, Paseo Boricua in Chicago succeeds in part because it creates that space for dialogue and a respect for each individual.

In fact, it is the respect for difference that enables each of these very different organizations to build a sense of a common purpose. In each case, the realization of the eight elements is both means and end. Engaging participants makes it possible to accomplish specific tasks, but the engagement is itself a crucial aspect of community building. As a result, the sense of purpose and individual worth within these communities enables them to achieve far more, even with limited resources.

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