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

Introduction

Comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs) are neighborhood-based efforts that seek to improve the lives of individuals and families, as well as the conditions of the neighborhoods in which they reside. This report presents a framework for understanding the challenges and potential of the approach taken by CCIs to neighborhood revitalization. It defines the goals, principles, operations, and program activities of CCIs, with an emphasis on how they interact and inform one another. Most of the lessons that can be drawn about the field at this point are best understood with reference to those dynamics and the tensions that they create as a CCI is implemented.

The CCI Phenemenon and Its Implications

This report emphasizes that the growing field of CCIs is defined as much by how the initiatives work to promote individual and neighborhood well-being, and by who makes the decisions and does the work, as by what actually gets done. The implication of this finding for general social policy and for the design of poverty alleviation programs is significant. It implies that neighborhood transformation may depend less on putting into place a model configuration of comprehensive neighborhood-based activities than on developing capacity at the neighborhood level to define and effect responses to local needs on a sustained basis. This is not to suggest that more and better programs, increased economic activity and opportunities, and improvements in housing and neighborhood conditions are unimportant. Rather, it warns that these alone they will be insufficient to achieve the kind of change that is needed in distressed neighborhoods today and into the future. It also suggests that unless local capacity is strong, program elements such as services, housing, and crime reduction will achieve only a fraction of their potential.

At the same time, however, the “tools” that are available for the majority of community change efforts across the country have been cast in the “old” mold of discrete program activities. To a large extent, foundations still operate as grantmakers rather than partners in the change process; funding is still allocated in short-term intervals; technical assistance is still provided on a problem-specific, temporary basis; evaluation is still focused on measuring broad indicators that can be unambiguously linked to particular interventions; and capacity building and community building are still considered secondary to putting programs on the ground. CCIs represent the field’s best attempt to modify and apply those rusty tools to current neighborhood circumstances—and, in some CCIs, new tools are even being forged—but because those tools are not well suited to the task at hand, fundamental tensions emerge as CCIs attempt to put their guiding principles into practice.

These findings also suggest that fundamental and lasting neighborhood change will require all actors to move beyond traditional definitions of their roles. Initiative staff, governance participants, funders, technical assistance providers, and evaluators will be required to take on multiple and overlapping roles, and the definition of “stakeholders” in the neighborhood will need to be broadened. Moreover, the complexity of the CCI undertaking requires a rethinking of how these players interact with one another and, in the words of one CCI stakeholder, the development of “new partnerships for change” at the neighborhood level.

Understanding the Complex Dynamics of CCIs

CCIs are based on two principles: comprehensiveness and community building. In the interest of comprehensiveness, CCIs work across social, economic, and physical sectors and attempt to foster synergy among them. Toward community building, CCIs work to strengthen the capacity of individuals, associations, and institutions in the neighborhood to enhance community well-being. Translating these principles into action is what makes CCIs so complex and challenging.

The principles of comprehensiveness and community building are enacted through a variety of strategies—including governance, funding, staffing, technical assistance, and evaluation—which in turn spearhead or support the development and implementation of particular programmatic activities. How the initiative actually unfolds will be the result of how the involved actors—including funders, directors and staff, residents and other stakeholders—define and enact the goals, principles and other component parts of the model. Thus, while the core principles are shared, individual participant perspectives about the operationalization of the principles often differ greatly, and may sometimes be in opposition, creating tensions within the initiatives. In this analysis of the CCI phenomenon, two central tensions are introduced and examined in depth:  the tension between “process” and “product” and the tension between “inside” and “outside.”

The process-product tension, emerging out of the need to attend to both means and ends on a continuous basis, is a central by-product of the community building agenda. At one level, CCIs are process-driven. They seek to catalyze and support the creation of mechanisms to sustain a process of decision making, capacity building, and implementation rooted in the circumstances of neighborhood residents and other “stakeholders.”  At the same time, CCIs seek to promote broad and measurable changes in the quality of life of neighborhoods and their residents. A balance needs to be struck between these two objectives, and where aims are competing they need to be negotiated.

The inside-outside tension is fundamentally about relationships. This tension is defined by the fact that CCIs are construed as locally driven, locally controlled efforts at neighborhood transformation, while at the same time they are catalyzed, supported, guided, monitored, and studied by actors and institutions beyond the neighborhood. It is also fundamentally about power and authority—about who makes what decisions, when, and how. The relationship between the funder of a CCI, and often by extension the technical assistance provider and evaluator, and the neighborhood in which it seeks to support change is paradigmatic of the inside-outside tension. It is not, however, the only relationship that exemplifies it. In CCIs, there are many insides and many outsides, and the boundaries that define them often shift according to shifting circumstances and perspectives. In the operation of CCIs any of a number of participants may at one point or another be seen by some as “outside” to their “inside.” The tension is thus not just about power, but about legitimacy, accountability, representation, and respect.

These two tensions are inherent in the nature of CCIs. They may be creative or debilitating. When they are successfully negotiated by the participants in an ongoing give-and-take, they may support a dialectical process in which interaction between poles—process and product, or inside and outside—enriches planning and implementation and guides the CCI toward its long-term goals.

The Scope of This Report

The report begins in chapter 1 by introducing and describing the CCI phenomenon: the goals of individual, neighborhood, and system change; the core principles of comprehensiveness and community building; the operational dimensions of governance, funding, staffing, technical assistance, and evaluation; and the programs that CCIs undertake covering the social, economic, physical aspects of individual and neighborhood well-being.

Chapter 2 focuses on two central tensions that appear to be intrinsic to a CCI. They are the tension between “process” and “product”  and the tension between “inside” and “outside.”  Many of the operational lessons to be learned from CCIs at this point can be understood in terms of, or as reflections of, the two tensions. They underlie intent, interaction, and interpretation. They can be seen in the relationships among stakeholders, in the processes of strategic planning and project implementation, and in the monitoring of progress toward particular objectives. While there are discrete, practical lessons to be learned from the experience of CCIs, to focus solely on these lessons without first exploring the fundamental dynamics that affect them is, in the view of the authors of this report, insufficient for understanding the nature of CCIs and of limited value in applying the lessons to practice.

Drawing on the elements described in chapter 1, chapter 3 then summarizes early findings. It is important to remember that any “lessons” that emerge from the analysis of the tensions in chapter 2 are derived only from the start-up phases of CCI initiatives. Operational findings are limited in part because of the relative newness of the CCI field. Even the most long-standing of the current generation of CCIs have been in place for perhaps seven or eight years, and most are much younger.

Thus, what this report cannot tell us is whether CCIs are powerful enough to deliver on their promise. The nature, scope, and scale of activities that are being undertaken may still be inadequate to transform impoverished neighborhoods: contextual circumstances beyond the influence of a neighborhood-based initiative may overwhelm local efforts, however meritorious they may be. Certainly those who have participated in this analysis, whether as funders, directors and staff, evaluators, governance members, or neighborhood residents, believe strongly in the potential of CCIs. It is for this reason that they shared so openly with us their experience and the conclusions they are drawing from their work. But there is also a sense that this is only a beginning and that much remains to be learned.


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