Voices from the Field LEARNING
FROM THE 
EARLY WORK OF 
COMPREHENSIVE
COMMUNITY 
INITIATIVES

3
Getting Started: Findings from CCI Practice
Core Principles in Action

CCIs continue to struggle with the challenge of defining the core principles of comprehensiveness and community building in terms that promote effective action. Because of their breadth, these principles have been useful in establishing fundamental commitments but they have not necessarily facilitated the creation of immediate agendas for change.

Comprehensiveness

Recent experience in the initiatives suggests that the principle of comprehensiveness-defined as a requirement to achieve individual/family, neighborhood, and systems change in the physical, economic, and social sectors-has not proven a useful guide for action. It is too broad and difficult to operationalize for a variety of reasons, including such practical considerations as the constraints in staffing and resources faced by CCIs. As one participant in the peer group discussions describes:

While we use the phrase, "comprehensive community initiatives," if you use a dictionary definition of "comprehensive," which I assume means something like "all-inclusive, everything," something like that-none of these initiatives can possibly be comprehensive at the community level, with [the resources that they have available]. Neighborhoods are such complex institutions and a foundation-funded intervention, even with a lot of leveraging, can make an important difference. But is it really comprehensive? I'm increasingly wondering.

Moreover, the notion can be paralyzing: addressing the full spectrum of needs and circumstances at once is an impossible task, and the freedom to do everything does not help clarify the basis for making strategic choices. As one evaluator points out, comprehensiveness may represent an overreaction to the failure of categorical approaches. While a broad, permissive vision avoids limiting an initiative, it also gives little guidance as to what an initiative will accomplish:

It is important for people, as they envision new and different ways of combining actions and groups of people and institutions, to somehow not lose-to demand of themselves-a level of clarity about both what is being done and the impact it will have on people's lives as early as possible. The [comprehensive] vision is very seductive.

Although the notion of comprehensiveness may not have proven useful in moving the initiatives forward, particularly in the short term, most of the discussion group participants support the articulation of a comprehensive vision if it is understood as an "ideal" or a "developmental process"-a way to frame the long-term objectives of the initiative. Thus, in the words of one participant, comprehensiveness is better and most usefully understood as "permissiveness: a lens that allows you the freedom to pick strategically for community-building purposes." That is, it frees an initiative from categorical constraints, allows a range of strategies to be explored, and enables actors to take advantage of opportunities as they come up. Understood as the "absence of limitations," therefore, comprehensiveness allows initiative stakeholders to develop and pursue their own vision of what is needed in their community.

There are conditions that facilitate implementation of a comprehensive approach, including a flexible funding base that supports comprehensive activity, local capacity to move away from categorical planning and implementation, technical support to aid in the building of linkages across projects, development of a broad strategic plan, and identification of a clear starting point from which to launch the plan.

Community Building

The CCI field is, in many respects, defining the meaning of "community building" as it goes along. In an effort to reflect current thinking and practice, this document offers a definition that focuses on building capacity in neighborhood institutions, strengthening ties among residents, and developing individual capacities in order to work individually and collectively toward neighborhood change. This section describes how the definition is playing out at this stage of the CCI movement.

Capacity building in the neighborhood. The capacity building dimension of the CCI enterprise is front and center for all initiatives. As one participant explains, CCIs are "not about solving any particular problems like child care or drugs or whatever, but about generalized problem solving capability, which to me implies a collection of people...and an ability to reach out to the outside." In the words of another respondent:

What we're talking about...is the long-term agenda of building the capacity in these communities to take on whatever agenda pops up.... We're talking about trying to get to the point where you really have a group that is accountable, or a group of groups that are accountable, to people in the neighborhood, that can really run with an agenda and have results that benefit people.... It's building that ability of a community to set a vision and go for opportunities and actually produce results. That's what community building is.
But, as discussed in chapter 2, an emphasis on capacity building sometimes means re-prioritizing programmatic strategies. As one resident explains:
You have to hear what the community is saying. And although they may have an idea that they want to put a fence around a playground, that may not be important to you. You may be saying "'My God, we have economic development problems here, we have health problems here, and all you're interested in is a fence?" Well, if we can help you get that fence, you will see that accomplishment. And once you have that feeling that, "Hey, I gave this idea and it was successful," then we begin to pull you in more.
A commonly held view is that while any particular product that emerges from the work of a CCI is surely valuable, what is more important is the feeling that "we figured that if we could do that one thing, we could do some other things in our community too." Thus, the capacity building element of the community building agenda is an area where thinking among all stakeholders appears to be converging.

Strengthening social networks. Strengthening social networks, both formal and informal, among residents is a high priority in CCIs. Some place priority on strengthening social relationships because of a strong belief in the power of social-organizational forces at the neighborhood level to affect individual outcomes. In this case, neighborhood-level change may be an end in itself, but it is also seen as a vehicle to improve individual lives, as illustrated in this comment:

We think there is something about the overall set of values that's out there in the street and in the community that also has an effect on whether people become teenage parents, whether they get a job, whether they have a work ethic. A lot of things of that kind are collective values, and that's one of the things that community building is about.... Are there block parties? Do people come out for meetings? Is it safe to go out on the street? Do people help each other with things? These in my lexicon have an intrinsic validity to them and are part of what community is about. At the same time we think that they also may pay off in people's individual outcomes as well.

For others, the associational aspects of community building are key. These might be accomplished through informal means, as illustrated in this comment:

I really resonate toward the relationships, the new relationships that are built. I asked the residents who sit around the steering committee table every time we meet, "How many new people did you talk to about this neighborhood plan since last time we met?" That's something to measure. There's where you're beginning to get people talking about neighborhood revitalization and what they can contribute to that process.... You need to do something, whether it's build a fence or get rid of illegal dumping. You can do leadership development, you can do technical assistance, you can do a whole lot of research and study... around what you do, but it's those relationships that are going to last. And it's that information that you share with others that's going to be transferred and cycled back and forth again and again.
Community building through association can also be pursued more formally:
So when we talk about community building, one level that I see is that we have created this very tangled network now of our church network and our nonprofit network. And it's kind of like these strings that go all across the neighborhood. And everybody in our neighborhood is somehow connected to one of those strings that are hanging down.
One participant reports that his collaborative started screening projects at all levels for the potential to set in motion something that strengthens "social capital" and "civic participation." The aim is generally to strengthen both affective and instrumental ties between people. In other words, individuals benefit from both the emotional and psychological support that they get from relationships with others as well as from the social supports, access to information, access to opportunity, and so on.

An important aspect of working to strengthen relationships among people in some CCI neighborhoods is building cross-racial and cross-cultural communication, trust, and collective action. Some CCIs have developed strategies for promoting inclusiveness, but progress on this front needs to be monitored.

Leadership development. Even at this early stage in CCI history, participants can report in depth about how the leadership development process works and its impact. Leadership development has emerged as a fundamental element, both because of its role in improving the life circumstances of individuals and because it is a central aspect of the community building process. In the CCI context, leadership development is seen as "supporting people through the slow process of building confidence and self-esteem" and strengthening their perceived ability to influence the events affecting their lives. One participant notes that when people see themselves as failures, they don't want to become involved and risk being judged by others. They are too vulnerable: "Parents don't come to the PTA because they don't want to feel stupid."

Leadership development is a particular priority for CCI participants who are residents or otherwise very close to the neighborhood. As one CCI staff person who is also a resident explains: "I hope not to be doing this ten years from now. I hope somebody else sits there, who's maybe 15 or 20 years old now, who can sit up and say, 'Hey, we're taking this vision to an even higher level.'" They speak powerfully about how developing and supporting leaders is a "one-on-one" process that requires holding people's hands, bringing them to meetings, and reinforcing the message that they are important and needed. They describe how disempowered people need to develop trust and to feel secure enough and have the confidence to become involved in more significant ways.

You have to begin with someone feeling good enough about themselves to take a risk. And that's at the very bottom of it and that's where new leadership comes from. Now, you could take someone that already grew up with a high level of confidence and self-esteem, but that's not what we're really all about. We're about moving people up on the ladder.
Among residents, there is a high degree of consensus around these views, summarized as, "You cannot empower people. People have to empower themselves." Perhaps the best illustration is the personal story of one woman who is now a resident and leader in one the CCI neighborhoods:
I can remember vividly when I was right here in New York State, when I was seventeen years old, with a teenage husband and two children. And I was in the migrant stream in a little place called Pooleville, New York.... There was a day care center nearby and my two babies were in the day care center, and I would take them there and get ready and go to the bean field, come back, and get my children out of day care. The nurse would come around the camp at night, you know, to see the children's shot record and physicals, or to talk to you about the children.... This was a big problem, you know, having parents hold onto shot records or be able to produce them at the time or even take the children to get them.... The nurse was impressed with me because I was so young but yet I had my shot records and I had my children up to date. She was so impressed with that that she would come to me and ask me if I would walk around to talk to the other mothers in the camp.

I would do that with her [the nurse], whenever she'd come.... And somehow or another she talked to the day care people and said that she thought it would be a good idea if they would hire me to be an aide over there, maybe help with lunch and this and that...so I could be a link between the parents and the center. They hired me to be an aide...and my whole life changed...because I realized that there was something that I could do to help somebody. I felt so good about it and I wanted to do it. And I've been doing it ever since. Had she not come along to encourage [me] and to let me know that I was valuable, that I have something to offer, I probably would have been in the [migrant] stream today.

CCIs are, in effect, opportunity structures within which new leaders can emerge and be supported. Leaders can grow within the organization as employees, board members, task force members, participants in community meetings, interns, and volunteers. Most CCIs have adopted staffing strategies that deliberately involve neighborhood residents and provide them with opportunities to take on greater responsibility over time. As one director states:
That's really been, I think, the greatest thing about this-that we do have a continuous and ongoing training system for residents and we have been able to hire residents.... [Part of our] very competent staff are two young men who grew up in the neighborhood and who have learned the job, have been with the initiative six years now and are really leaders from the community...but they started out as trainees under someone else in the job.
One CCI has adopted a strategy of "parallel staffing" for leadership development. In parallel staffing, a deputy with growth potential is brought in to work alongside a highly qualified senior person to learn from him or her on a daily basis. "Now that has cost implications and management implications and sometimes race implications and all kinds of implications, but the fact of the matter is that the only way to grow capacity is to take time to nurture it."

Over and over again, participants at all levels of CCIs spoke of "people waiting to be asked" to participate in some capacity, and of the challenge of ensuring that initiatives reach out to new people on a continuous basis:

One of the really important things that I see happening is an emergence of new leaders. I think that what happens in a lot of poor communities is there's a sort of core group of people, and they're on the advisory board of this, and then you go to the police station meeting, and they're over there. And you go to a school board meeting, and they're over there.... And a lot of the potential leaders get missed: that 25-year old single mother with four kids, who's the leader of her tenants' association. And so, I think it is important to give [CCI workers] the opportunity to identify these leaders on the ground, and not really do all the organizing themselves, but really find the leaders to do the organizing.
Few CCIs report having had much success with formal training programs. Several have developed linkages with local universities, where CCI participants are taught technical as well as management and communications skills. Those that incorporate practical experience working within the neighborhood on particular problems appear to have been the most helpful from CCI participants' perspective.


Back to Voices from the Field index.


Copyright © 1999 by The Aspen Institute
Comments, questions or suggestions? E-mail webmaster@aspenroundtable.org
This page designed, hosted, and maintained by Change Communications.