Faubourg Tremé and community engagement

Thinking about Faubourg Tremé and also an earlier post about Cooking up a storm gives me a different understanding of community engagement or civic renewal. Sirianni and Friedland (2005), for example, talk about a broad civic renewal movement in the US in areas such as community organizing and community development, neighborhood associations, civic environmentalism, civic journalism, and healthy communities. They also discuss policies that can foster civic capacity building and problem solving.

Although their survey is useful (I use it in my own course on community engagement), three things seem missing from their picture. The most glaring omission is race. Every one of the areas they discuss is deeply imbued with the history and present circumstances of race relations in the US. The very notion of civic capacity building and problem solving can’t be examined fully without taking into account that there is a legacy of oppression and a lack of understanding about how race has shaped American history and policies.

A second omission is history. Much of Sirianni and Friedland focuses on current movements and tools for organizing, all useful, to be sure. But without a grounding in historical precedents it’s difficult to see clearly our way forward. For example, long before the present generation of civic renewal, Jane Addams and colleagues led the way through their work in Chicago on health care, working conditions, literacy, and participatory democracy. Before that, the Paris Commune built social institutions based on liberty, justice, and equality, with a deep respect for learning by all. Even before that, Faubourg Tremé showed how an engaged community could work together to establish effective civic journalism, work toward racial equality, and build a healthy community.

A third area of omission is art. John Ruskin argues that art and culture reflect the moral health of society. Ruskin influenced Jane Addams, who saw that art in all its forms, including crafts, theater, and cultural practices was essential to community and individual development. The importance of art as a means for a community to find shared values, maintain its own history, and to express itself is striking in both the Faubourg Tremé and Cooking up a storm stories as well. I’m not sure that art ought to listed as a civic renewal movement per se, but it does seem crucial to understand more about what it means for civic health and civic renewal.


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