The biggest problem in many neighborhoods–especially low-income ones–is caused by perception more than reality. A part of town gets the reputation for being “bad,” “tough,” or “declining,” which is constantly reinforced in the media and local gossip. A negative incident happening there is widely reported as more evidence of “social breakdown,” whereas the same thing occurring in a different part of town would be thought of as “an unfortunate event” and quickly forgotten.
Making things worse, many well-intentioned efforts to help these afflicted areas wind up stigmatizing the community even more. The whole focus is on everything that’s wrong: bad schools, bad crime, bad housing, bad kids, bad economic opportunities. The people who live there come to feel negative their community and helpless to do anything to change things. It’s all just bad. Yet even in the most economically and socially challenged communities, there are a lot of good things going on–and those can be the building blocks to make things better.
Chicago’s Grand Boulevard neighborhood is a case in point. On paper, things looked bleak. Eighty-two percent of children there lived in poverty, and unemployment was 34 percent. Yet below the surface, not visible in government statistics or a quick drive through its rundown streets, there were ample reasons for hope. Grand Boulevard’s residents were not just hapless victims, waiting for someone from the outside to rescue them from poverty and social ills; they were taking matters into their own hands. This predominantly African-American community of 36,000 on the city’s South Side was home to no less than 320 citizen groups working to improve life in the neighborhood.
These groups–which ranged from church committees to senior citizen centers to mothers’ support groups–were mostly involved in basic care-taking, such as providing support for single mothers or taking in abandoned children. Yet after a number of these groups organized themselves into the Grand Boulevard Federation, they took on more complex issues, such as creating jobs in the neighborhood and improving social services. They formed partnerships with government agencies, non-profit organizations and businesses, such as UPS, which reserved 50 part-time jobs for local residents needing to get on their feet. This has all made a difference in Grand Boulevard–in concrete economic and social measures, but also instilling the community with the faith that they can solve their problems.
“For the last 40 or 50 years we have been looking at communities in terms of their needs,” says John P. “Jody” Kretzmann, co-director of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University. “We have run into a brick wall with that approach.” Kretzmann and John McKnight, his colleague at Northwestern, pioneered a new approach to urban problems that starts with looking at the assets that exist in a community rather than just what’s wrong. This empowers people, Kretzmann says, drawing on the abilities and insight of local residents to solve a neighborhood’s own problems. This does not mean, he is careful to note, that troubled neighborhoods don’t need outside help.
Any neighborhood can benefit from taking stock of their strengths. Kretzmann suggests all local revitalization project begin with an assets inventory–which can be as simple as a list of what’s good about the neighborhood. Solicit the opinions of everyone, including youngsters and senior citizens, when compiling your list.
The ABCD Institute has worked all over the world supporting initiatives that uncover and strengthen communities’ inherent capabilities to solve problems. For more information see the book Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets, by Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight.