by Cheryl Bardoe

Grand Boulevard is a poor, mostly African-American community of 36,000 on Chicago’s South Side. For many, the neighborhood is summed up by a series of numbers that reflect its deep needs. In 1989 Grand Boulevard’s median income was $8,371. Its unemployment rate was 34 percent. And 82 percent of its children were living below the poverty line. These statistics have not changed much in the past six years.

But Grand Boulevard- like any community, wealthy or poor- has a flourishing variety of resources, as well. In addition to the community’s rich urban history and architecture, a recent survey shows that Grand Boulevard has more than 320 local associations, groups of citizens working together to improve life in their neighborhood. These associations are among a community’s most important tools for problem solving and community development, says Jody Kretzmann, director of the Neighborhood Innovations Network at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.

“For the last 40 to 50 years we have been looking at communities in terms of their needs,” Kretzmann says. He contends that this has been both costly and ineffective. “We have run into a brick wall with that approach.” So for the last few years Kretzmann and his Northwestern colleague John McKnight have been developing an approach to community building, laid out in their 1993 book Building Communities From the Inside Out. They start by identifying a community’s assets, then mobilize those assets to address local problems. This is the opposite of traditional approaches, which try to eradicate urban problems through an ever-increasing system of social services.

Many social service agencies have ignored the potential of community residents to solve their own problems, Kretzmann says. This does not mean that communities suffering from continued disinvestment have everything they need to fix their broken economies. But asset-based organizing empowers them to make the most of what they do have and to put to better use resources coming in from the outside.

Focusing on assets allows organizations to learn more about their community’s originality. “If you think about needs, all communities look the same,” Kretzmann says. “Real community building is about finding and organizing particular resources, people, institutions and businesses.” Asset-based organizing recognizes the potential contributions of each individual.

Three years ago, before working with associations in Grand Boulevard, Kretzmann used the asset-based approach in Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side. Peoples Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing organization, wanted to renovate a theater space in one of its buildings. With Kretzmann’s help, the group surveyed 1,080 area residents about what they would like to see at the arts center and what they could contribute.

When first asked, most residents said they couldn’t do anything artistic, says Thomas Tresser, director of cultural development and manager of the center, which is not the Howard Street Theater. But when prompted with specific activities, such as story telling or rapping, people began to realize they had a lot to offer. “People need to be reminded of their own talents,” Tresser says. “If you say, ‘You have some skills and resources,’ people can take action from that.”

In the end, 42 percent of those surveyed said they would participate actively in the center. Last year, more than 8,5000 were involved in some capacity. The center has begun exploring the economic development potential of its programs. Students in the center’s tile-making classes, for example, are researching commercial opportunities for their hand-painted tiles.

In Grand Boulevard, asset-based organizing is being used to bring more community residents into the discussion of how to reform social services and solve problems such as high crime, unemployment and school drop-out rates. Kretzmann is focusing on associations for two reasons. First, they are groups who are voluntarily organizing themselves to solve problems and to invest in their community. Associations empower individuals to do more than they could alone. “Through associations people come together. Nobody elects them, and they aren’t specially schooled. But they come together and think they have the power to define problems, to define solutions and to act,” he says.

Second, these resources are often invisible to outsiders and even to more formal local institutions, such as social service agencies and larger community-based nonprofits staffed by professionals from outside the community. Mobilizing associations brings more local citizens to the planning and development process.. By discussing issues “in the absence of people who are usually considered problem solvers, we might get some new answers,” Kretzmann says.

Kretzmann found the names of many Ground Boulevard groups in newspapers, phone books and social service directories. Others were identified by talking to people at known groups or places where organizations might meet, such as churches, parks and schools. Still more were identified through a telephone survey of local residents.

The hundreds of associations identified in Kretzmann’s survey included everything form a church hand bell choir to a mothers’ support groups, from a senior citizens’ social club to a youth group organized by a local postal worker. Many were already involved in mutual care-taking activities, such as helping single mothers or adopting parentless children. Few had experience with economic development or job creation, but they were willing to try. The next step in the organizing process will be to bring these associations together to brainstorm. by aligning their resources, groups can present themselves to the outside world as a more cohesive network.

The Grand Boulevard Federation is one example of how this is already happening. This group, comprised of 22 community residents and representatives from community-based social service agencies, works with the State of Illinois to coordinate and improve the effectiveness of social service delivery in the neighborhood.

The group is currently working on a pilot project to help 50 low-income families achieve economic self-sufficiency. Each family would be sponsored by a community organization, which would coordinate mentoring, job training, GED programs, after-school programs for kids, day care and any other services the family needs. United Parcel Service has committed to reserving 50 part-time jobs to help a member of each family get job experience and earn money.

Discovering the variety of local associations in the neighborhood paints a better picture of residents’ commitment to their community, says Marice Coverson, director of the Elliott Donnelley Youth Center and a member of the federation. “This tells us that Grand Boulevard has people who understand collaboration, who are ready to work, and who have a commitment to making the community better,” she says.

Sokoni Karanja, also a member of the federation agrees. President of the Centers for New Horizons, a nonprofit human service and community development agency, Karanja says knowing about local association increases the potential of his and other organization to improve the quality of life in Grand Boulevard. “It’s like having good earth to plant seeds in,” he says.

For more info contact:

Marrice Coverson
Elliott Donnelley Youth Center
3947 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60653
312.268.3815

Sokoni Karanja
Centers for New Horizons
4150 S. King Dr.
Chicago, IL 60653
312.373.5700

Thomas Tresser
Howard Street Community Arts Center
7510 N. Asbland
Chicago, IL 60626
312.262.5900 ext. 125

Neighborhood Innovations Network
Northwestern University
2040 Sheridon Road
Evanston, IL 60208
708.491.8744

Reprinted with permission of The Neighborhood Works, 2125 W. North Ave., Chicago, Il. 60647. This article originally appeared in the January/February 1996 issue of The Neighborhood Works.