Lessons learned – Jim Diers, in Neighbor Power

I will conclude by summarizing what I have learned about community, community organizing, community initiatives, and the role of government.

A neighborhood is not the same as a community. A neighborhood is a geographic area that people share, while at community is a group of people who identify with and support one another.

Strong communities are those that rely on their own resources, including the assets that each and every person possesses.

Individual reciprocity is not sufficient. Communities are most powerful when they take collective action. The process of building that kind of power is called community organizing.

The key to community organizing is to start where the people are. The more local the activity, the higher the percentage of people who will get involved.

Organizing entails building on existing networks. Most people are already organized and cannot reasonably be expected to develop an entirely new set of relationships and find time for yet another organization.

Starting where people are also involves identifying their interests. That means listening. The organizer should be prepared to hear and understand interests that may be different from her own.

If a common interest involves an issue, that issue should be framed in a way that is as immediate, as specific, and as achievable as possible. People get involved to the extent that they can have an impact on the things they care about.

Community plans, projects, and social events are good ways to bring people together. Whatever the approach, whatever the issue, it is best to think big and start small.

Community self-help projects tend to have qualities that are missing in projects generated by institutions. Innovations are more likely to emanate from community efforts. Communities have a knack for converting a problem into an asset.

Communities design and build some of the best-known public spaces, which in turn build a stronger sense of community. A good example is community gardens, which are also a tremendous tool for conducting environmental education, and feeding the hungry.

If the community is involved in producing public art (and why else would it be called public), the arts will probably reflect community’s character and values and be integrated with the fabric of the neighborhood.

People tend to respect and maintain community projects.

Community initiatives generally have a positive effect on the environment. “Meeting pressing needs without jeopardizing future resources” is not only a common definition of sustainability; it is the goal of empowered communities.

Community school programs exemplify the creative use of resources that would otherwise go to waste. School facilities are typically underutilized on evenings and weekends and during summers. Yet school gymnasiums, libraries, computer centers, theaters, workshops, kitchens, classrooms, playgrounds, and parking lots could be put to good use by the community.

Neighbors with skills, knowledge, and time to share, meanwhile, are generally overlooked by the schools. By fully utilizing the resources of both communities and schools, community school programs benefit students and neighbors alike.

Strong communities can also play a major role in crime prevention. Too many block watch programs focus on encouraging residents to install deadbolt locks and peer through their peepholes for suspicious behavior by outsiders. Real security comes from opening doors to community life. No amount of public safety spending can buy the kind of security that comes from neighbors caring and watching out for one another.

Community initiatives such as these are essential as local government revenues fail to keep pace with increasingly complex social and environmental issues.

Government and Community

  • Government can be a catalyst for community initiatives, but to do so, it must first change some bad habits.
  • Too many local governments treat citizens as nothing more than customers; citizens, in turn, think of themselves only as taxpayers. Government resources, consequently, continue to decline.
  • Governments must learn to see neighborhoods not only as places with great needs, but as communities with tremendous resources.
  • Communities can do so much that government cannot, and working together, communities and governments can do even more than could not be done otherwise.
  • Citizens are willing to tax themselves for projects and programs that their communities request.
  • Government can tap the community’s resources to the extent that it respects the wisdom of the community and acts more as a facilitator than as an expert.
  • It can provide tools and resources for community initiatives, but government should never do for community organizations what they can do for themselves.
  • Community organizations dependent on government for their legitimacy and support are not community organizations at all.
  • Government programs intended to build strong communities should not be ghettoized within the bureaucracy. The best programs are those that help all government departments engage with the community. Gaining the participation of other departments and elected officials requires listening to their concerns, identifying their self interest, building relationships, and giving them credit.
  • Government workers are often as frustrated with the bureaucracy as all the citizens they seek the help, and community centered partnerships can help liberate them from their bureaucratic constraints.

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The missing link: Organizing the organizations. Seattle’s organizations are poorly networked. Because Seattle’s organizations — which are voluntary and largely unstaffed — have little contact with one another, it is difficult for them to join forces, and separately, it is difficult for any one of them to have an impact on issues that are larger than its own organization. Most never try. They tend to confine their attention to issues specific to their own community. Consequently, the cuts to the neighborhood matching funds and neighborhood plan implementation went largely unchallenged.

Building inclusive, broad-based neighborhood organizations, and bringing them together to work effectively a citywide level are challenges that remain to be addressed.

Excerpts from Neighbor Power, by Jim Diers.

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