By Jim Wehner
“How do we get started in our neighborhood?” It’s a question we hear often at FCS. People want to do good. They want to see neighborhoods transformed and poverty eliminated, and they are heavily invested in the mission of their organization and/or their community.
They may have researched community development or studied neighborhoods where the community turned a corner after a local school got new leadership or a business found success or a housing development thrived. When we’ve seen solutions that work, we are often eager to apply them in our context. We want to find that program or initiative that will unleash the change we desire so deeply for our communities.
After five neighborhoods and 38 years of ministry, FCS is often approached by enthusiastic, passionate practitioners eager to learn from our experience. In fact, three times a year we have between 50-80 people come visit FCS to learn how we “do” neighborhood-based community development.
Our experience has taught us, however, that poverty alleviation can be an elusive goal. And unfortunately, no silver bullet program exists. Our work in the neighborhood of East Lake, for example, was connected with the development of a local golf course. Now we are focused on Historic South Atlanta, where the company with the biggest swath of land is a towing company. What works well in one neighborhood is not guaranteed to work in the next.
So the strategies and solutions we need in a new neighborhood must be new. Still, we cannot and do not toss out everything we have learned about addressing urban poverty as there are important tenets that remain the same. Here are three valuable practices we have applied in every community where we have worked:
#1 A "give away" paradigm does more harm than good. Countless books and examples exist to show charity programs that not only fail to relieve poverty, but produce dependence rather than freedom. We cannot solve chronic need with crisis (“give away”) response.
#2 Thinklong-term. In community development, long-term solutions are needed to answer chronic need. There will be short-term wins along the way, but true development simply has a longer timeframe than most of us assume at the beginning.
#3 Different neighborhoods demand different solutions. It’s not that neighborhoods are headstrong or resistant to all change, but their uniqueness requires custom strategies. Housing needs and solutions for one neighborhood may be different for an adjacent community. When you recognize this nuance and add flexibility to your process, your programs can be more successful.
Back to the original question, “Is there a silver bullet to ending poverty?” If the answer is no, then where do groups and organizations begin in their efforts to bring change? We recommend some simple ideas:
#1 Become a neighbor. Proximity transforms how you answer questions within a neighborhood. If you don’t live there, it’s very hard to build long-term solutions or identify the root of issues in the community. Not everyone in your organization or group needs to move in, but you ought to have clear neighborhood representation on your team.
#2 Listen first. Listening is one of the most important things on your task list. Build authentic relationships and participate in neighborhood events. Join in the local activities that are already addressing needs you experience as a member of the community, rather than issues you saw from the outside.
#3 Do not lead. Support others in the neighborhood rather than assuming a leadership role. This advice is especially important if you represent a demographic different than the neighborhood.
There is still a need for partnership and collaboration to bring lasting transformation to local neighborhoods. Some areas, including housing and economic development (jobs/businesses), require specific skill sets and capital investment that a neighborhood might need to draw from partner resources. When organizations work with community voices, they can discover together the most important needs of the neighborhood and the solutions that will help them reach their goals together.
There is no silver bullet to ending poverty. Neighborhood-based development demands long term community-focused commitment.
Photo credit: Christy Taylor