Jim Diers is driven by a passion to get people more involved in their communities and in the decisions that affect their lives. Over the past 40 years, he has served as a grass roots community organizer, community developer, and founding director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. Jim now shares the lessons from that work in his courses at the University of Washington; in international consulting through the Asset-Based Community Development Institute; and in his book, Neighbor Power. He has been recognized with an honorary doctorate from Grinnell College and as the Public Employee of the Year by the Municipal League of Martin Luther King County.
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By Jim Diers, 2021-06-14
It was early morning as we drove from Moab to Salt Lake City during a recent vacation in Utah. I was tired, so I exited the highway when I saw a sign advertising coffee in a town with the intriguing name of Helper. I emerged two hours later with a deliciously effective cappuccino and an inspiring story of a community revitalizing its town by building on its strengths.
The town of Helper grew up around the railroad. Soon after the track was completed in 1882, Helper was designated as a passenger and freight terminal. The railroad facilitated coal mining in Carbon County, and Helper became the hub for services needed by the mining camps. By 1925, Helper boasted 157 businesses including several hotels. The town’s 1600 residents spoke 27 different languages as the railroad, mining and service sectors attracted diverse immigrants.
Helper’s economy waxed and waned over the years along with the fortunes of the coal industry. Increasing mechanization of the industry cost some jobs but the real hit began in the 1970s with the closure of mines and a major railroad facility. By the end of the century, only three of the 30 mines were still operating. The hotels and most of the other storefronts were boarded up. Helper was no longer a hub. Some referred to it as “a living ghost town.”
Rather than dwell on their misfortune, the citizens of Helper focused on their strengths. They realized they had an abundance of underutilized resources that could be mobilized to revitalize their town. These included their rich history, intact architecture, beautiful natural environment, affordable real estate, good highway access, a passenger train stop, and most importantly, a strong sense of community and a belief in what it could accomplish.
Early on, there was a feeling that Helper’s history could be the basis for a new tourism industry. A small museum was created in one room of the civic auditorium in 1964. The museum committee also commissioned the statue of a 20-foot-tall miner, “Big John,” which was erected in front of the civic auditorium and can’t be missed as you enter the town.
The initial museum proved to be so successful that, in 1985, the City Council voted to make the four-story Railroad Hotel available for a greatly expanded Western Mining and Railroad Museum. The museum includes the facsimile of a coal mine, a miniature working railroad, exhibits on the mining camps with their baseball teams and brass bands. and themed rooms that house a company store, schoolroom, doctor and dentist offices, miniature locomotives, dinosaur fossils, a Veterans Honor Hall, and the shady side of Helper with its distilleries and brothels. The museum continues to be a major tourist attraction.
The museum also has a large lot displaying mining and railroad equipment including the town’s namesake, a helper engine. Trains climbing the steep grade from Helper up to the Wasatch Plateau on their way to Salt Lake City required an additional “helper” engine. These were stationed in Helper.
The town had a few artists, but its art scene really took off when David Dornan, who was born in Helper, returned in 1999. Dornan was an art professor at the University of Utah and realized that Helper could be the perfect place to establish a studio. With some colleagues, he purchased a two-story former hotel on Main Street for $16,000. The first floor was renovated as studio space which was made available to his students. In exchange for five hours per week helping with the renovation, students were each given their own small bedroom rent-free. There are 15 of these bedrooms in the former brothel on the second floor of the hotel. Some of the students have stayed in Helper and established their own studios.
The growing art scene combined with affordable housing and picturesque scenery attracted more artists to Helper. Historic Main Street buildings received badly needed renovations and now serve as art galleries, studios and living quarters. The Rio Hotel was reborn as the Rio Theatre for the performing arts. Artists have beautified the town with murals including a large mosaic that was created in collaboration with children and depicts the historic railroad. Artwork in the windows of otherwise vacant buildings makes the town seem more alive. Art-based events such as First Friday Gallery Strolls, the Butch Cassidy Film Festival, and the Helper Arts, Music and Film Festival attract locals and visitors alike to the Main Street.
Fortunately, there is an understanding that Helper’s historic architecture is also one of its core strengths. Main Street facades have been preserved so that it looks much like it did 100 years ago. Three buildings have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The vintage Sinclair and Conoco gas stations have been beautifully restored. The miners’ cottages at the town entrance have been preserved and all received a fresh coat of paint due to a recent community initiative.
Community members have worked hard to make Main Street as attractive as possible. Already in 1973, local Girl Scouts cleaned up a blighted lot in the heart of town and over the next few years created a park for their community’s elders. More recently, benches and brightly colored Adirondack chairs were installed throughout downtown to encourage pedestrians to relax and feel at home. Forbidding spaces between buildings were converted into attractive laneways. Cindi Curry, who owns the coffee shop I patronized, took it upon herself to install and maintain planters along Main Street. A local non-profit, The Helper Project, added decorative trash cans. In addition to the art events noted earlier, the Helper Outlaw Car Show and Cruise, Farmer’s Market, Lunatic Triathlon, and the official Utah Christmas Town celebration with its electric light parade help bring people to Main Street.
Yet another local asset is Helper’s natural environment. The community understands that Mother Nature has blessed them with much more than coal. The Price River runs through Helper which is situated at the mouth of the canyon. The town enjoys stunning views of nearby Book Cliffs, Balance Rock and Steamboat Mountain.
Trails have been developed on abandoned rail lines that connected Helper to former mining camps. These are now popular with hikers and mountain bikers. A new business in Helper provides trail information and guided tours. It also rents bicycles as well as rafts, kayaks and paddleboards for the river.
The community developed a trail along the river to make this amenity more accessible. The River Walk leads to a beach, a playground of boulders (another local asset), and a sandstone labyrinth. A suspension bridge crosses the river. Old concrete structures on the route are painted with street art. Benches are strategically located under shade trees. What a delight to experience this serene environment and its rich bird life only a block from Main Street.
As part of a much larger project to revitalize the river, Helper Middle School students removed invasive plants from the banks and replaced them with native species. A new community group, the River Helpers, now waters and maintains the vegetation.
In 2017, Mayor Lenise Peterman invited the American Institute of Architects to bring its Sustainable Design Assessment Team to Helper. They facilitated the development of a community-driven action plan that engaged ten percent of the town’s 2200 residents over the course of three days. Goals of the plan include attracting young families, stewarding the local environment, and moving from an energy-based economy to a destination-based one.
Many of the specific recommendations have already been implemented and others are in the works. These include initiating an entrepreneurial training program, creating pop-up businesses in retail stores, enhancing public spaces, developing a wayfinding system, and becoming certified as a Dark Skies community,
There is still much to be done, but my walk down Helper’s Main Street was truly inspiring. In addition to the art galleries, theatre and museum, Main Street now boasts restaurants, salons, and antique stores. The Vintage Motor Company with beautifully restored motorcycles and classic cars now occupies the first floor of the renovated Lincoln Hotel. More buildings were being renovated even at the early morning hour when I was there. The planters, seating, laneways, art, and decorative trash cans and the posters publicizing a variety of events demonstrated how much people care for their community. Gateway Lanes continues to thrive and my guess is that no one bowls alone in Helper.
Not only is Helper’s revitalization building on its own unique resources, but the process has been community driven. City Hall only has 10 full-time and seven half-time positions, so the community has done most of the work themselves. Helper, both the engine and the town, remind me of one of my favorite children’s books, “The Little Engine that Could.” Despite the steep climb, that engine kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” and it finally succeeded. As Mayor Peterman puts it, “If a community has hope, there’s no stopping it. If you have hope we can do these things, we can get them done.”
By Jim Diers, 2021-06-03
“It is more blessed to give than to receive,” said Jesus. Most of us have experienced that truth. In giving, not only do we feel blessed, but we gain a deeper sense of self-worth. Ideally, we also give because we genuinely care about the recipients. But, if that is true, why do we deny so many of them their own pleasure of giving?
A gift isn’t a gift until it is given, and people can’t give unless others are willing to receive. Unfortunately, people seem to be more comfortable giving than receiving. That is the biggest challenge facing many time banks. Times banks are based on the principle of reciprocity and their members are expected to give and receive in equal measure. For every hour of service they provide, they are entitled to an hour of a service they need from another member. If services aren’t being requested, they can’t be given and the program doesn’t work.
Communities are confronted by this same dilemma. Community depends on its members receiving as well as giving. Community is all about mutual support. It’s based on the notion that everyone has gifts and everyone has needs. Community is at its best when its members are sharing one another’s gifts to meet one another’s needs.
Our society has tried to get around this problem of too few recipients by creating two classes of people – the haves and the have nots, those with the gifts and those with the needs. We have even labeled the needy people to avoid any confusion. When we refer to people as disabled, poor, at risk, non-English speaking, homeless, etc., we think of them as the have nots. But, if some people are doing most of the giving and other people are doing most of the receiving, it’s no longer about community. It’s about services. The relationship isn’t one of neighbor to neighbor or citizen to citizen but rather one of donor/volunteer to recipient/client.
Not only are such one-way relationships detrimental to community, but they are detrimental to the individuals involved – both the giver and the recipient. All of us are better off when we have the humility and wisdom to realize that our lives can be greatly enriched by accepting the unique gifts that others have to offer.
True, some of us have much more time and money than others and we should give accordingly and unconditionally. But, we must also acknowledge that we don’t have a monopoly on gifts. Gifts of knowledge, skills, passions and relationships can be even more valuable than money, and everyone has those. No one has everything they need for a good life. We need one another’s gifts.
This reminds me of an initiative sparked by Lois Smidt in Ames, Iowa. Lois understood that everyone has poverty in their lives. For some, poverty is a lack of money and for others, it is a dearth of meaning and relationships. Lois found that those with the most money often had the least meaning and fewest relationships. So, she brought people together across class to share their gifts in ways that helped one another address their poverty.
Likewise, the pandemic highlighted the indispensable role of mutual aid. Even with physical distancing, our sense of community deepened and expanded as we realized that we were all in this together. We felt connected to people beyond our immediate circle of friends. We experienced how interdependence is key to our health and happiness.
The pandemic reminded us that everyone has gifts and that our community needs them all. In my own community of Vashon Island, Washington, we gained an increased appreciation for the role of workers in health care, food, transportation, education and other essential services. Neighbors supported one another with rides, shopping, child care, little free pantries, physically-distanced companionship, and whatever else was needed. Other volunteers met the needs of the larger community by preparing meals, sewing masks, offering counseling, and helping with COVID testing and vaccinations. Musicians performed virtual concerts to keep us entertained and artists used their craft to encourage us to adopt safe practices. A fund was created to help neighbors who needed money for food or rent. An individual, who some may have labeled as developmentally disabled, delivered flowers to comfort those who were grieving or isolated and to thank those who made extraordinary contributions. Most people found a way to give and everyone benefited. I have heard of similar responses to the pandemic in communities throughout the world.
While strengthening our common bond, the pandemic in combination with the murder of George Floyd was a jolting reminder that some of us are much more privileged than others. The disproportionate mortality rate for Black, Latinx and Native Americans due to DOVID-19 and police violence brought the evil of racism into sharp relief. It also brought many more people into the struggle for social justice.
Unfortunately, some of the more privileged social justice advocates only compounded the problem. They were so focused on oppression that they failed to recognize the gifts and agency of those they sought to liberate. In the process, well intentioned liberators became the oppressors. Of course, systems of racism, classism, ablism, sexism and ageism must be dismantled so that everyone has the opportunity to realize their full potential, but those struggles must be led by those most impacted. The relatively privileged can be most helpful by honoring that leadership and offering support.
It is imperative that we move towards equity if we are going to realize Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a Beloved Community. But, we must do so in a way that builds on everyone’s gifts. When we all give generously and receive graciously in support of the common good, then we will be truly blessed.
By Jim Diers, 2020-06-22
Confronted by unanticipated expenses and greatly reduced revenues due to COVID-19, local governments are searching for a way to balance their budgets. Fortunately, Black Lives Matter is showing a path forward with its demand: “Defund the Police, Invest in Community.”
The Great Recession of 2008 was the last time local governments faced such a major budget crisis, and the general response was, “We need to get back to basics.” In most jurisdictions that meant cutting “soft” programs like community development so that they could continue to fund “essentials” like police at a continuing or increased level.
A few local governments, however, took a very different approach. They argued that there is nothing more basic than community. They recognized that neighborhoods aren’t just places with needs but communities of people with tremendous and underutilized skills, knowledge, energy, relationships and other resources. There was an understanding that communities have a unique and crucial role to play in addressing issues of safety, care, resilience, health promotion, environmental stewardship, economic sustainability, social justice and democracy itself. They invested in community because that is how they could leverage additional resources and make the biggest difference.
This latter approach is being taken much more seriously now due to the uprisings throughout the United States and beyond that were triggered by the killing of George Floyd but are a response to the ongoing epidemic of institutionalized racism. Elected officials are starting to take a hard look at police budgets that have skyrocketed over the years with little scrutiny. There are asking: Why does law enforcement trump other needs? Are there better ways than law enforcement to achieve safety? What are the opportunities for more community-based solutions?
With their demand to “Defund the Police,” Black Lives Matter has drawn attention to the huge but previously sacrosanct budget for law enforcement. An Urban Institute report documented that state and local inflation-adjusted spending on police and corrections in the United States more than tripled from $60 billion in 1977 to $194 billion in 2017. It is questionable whether these additional investments have made people, especially Black people, feel any safer.
Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka recently noted that the $400 million the City of Seattle “spends on policing is more than the general funds we spend on arts, culture, recreation, health, human services, neighborhoods and development combined.” As Barack Obama has reminded us, “a budget is an embodiment of our values.” Black Lives Matter is demanding that we place more value on developing healthy and equitable communities.
Black Lives Matter is also calling on local government to implement more appropriate and effective alternatives to achieving safety. Much of police work involves responding to domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness, student discipline and other concerns that could be better handled by community-based social workers and health care providers. Neighborhood disputes should most appropriately be resolved by the neighbors themselves. Rather than militarizing the police, why not train communities in conflict resolution? Rather than jailing people for non-violent offenses, why not support community efforts for restorative justice?
And why are so many resources being focused on punishment, especially punishment that is so unjust? Punishing with fees, fines and bail is most detrimental to people in poverty. Punishment by imprisonment and death falls disproportionately on Black people. Instead of punishment, the priority should be prevention. There is truth to the adage that hurt people hurt people. Equitable opportunities for education, employment, housing, health care and nutrition would contribute to safety as well as social justice.
The key to crime prevention is community. Community members actively care for one another so that there are fewer people who hurt. Strong communities can hold police, elected officials and one another accountable. John McKnight, co-founder of the Asset Based Community Development Institute, has observed that “There are two primary determinants of our local safety. One is how many neighbors we know by name. The other is how often we are present and associated in public life – outside our houses. Police activity is a minor protection compared to these two community actions.”
Just as local government would be well-advised to take a community-centered approach to safety, it needs to take a similar approach to many of its other responsibilities. Research shows that social determinants are the major influences on our health, and those are better addressed by community than by medical institutions. Rather than pursue economic development by building infrastructure and offering tax breaks to corporations, providing support to small local businesses would be more sustainable and the profits would stay in the community. Planning done by communities instead of detached professionals would address the residents’ priorities in ways that make sense to them and consequently leverage their resources. These community-centered approaches would not necessarily require additional government expenditures. They are simply alternative and often more cost-effective ways of doing work that has been funded in the past.
Of course, none of this is possible without strong communities. Government actions have often eroded community by creating dependence or by erecting obstacles to community initiatives. But government can instead be a catalyst for community. Here are low-cost ways in which some local governments currently serve as community builders:
- Sponsor leadership training.
- Move from block watch programs to block support where neighbors are more focused on mutual aid than surveillance.
- Train volunteers to be block connectors who build relationships and bring neighbors together around shared interests.
- Make it easy to barricade streets for block parties, playtimes, and other community activities.
- Match sweat equity with funds for community-initiated projects. This is a powerful way to bring people together while greatly leveraging government resources.
- Support community gardens especially in neighborhoods that are food deserts.
- Make surplus land and buildings available to community land trusts as a basis for permanently affordable home or business ownership.
Perhaps most important, local government should work as one body in a decentralized way so that the focus can be on whole neighborhoods rather than separate functions. This will also make it possible for government to be community-driven.
While any neighborhood could benefit from this approach, the priority should be communities of color. Black people have long been targeted for police surveillance, and now their community must be the focus for social justice. Only then can we honestly say that Black lives matter!
By Jim Diers, 2020-03-07
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, public health officials are warning us to practice social distancing. That seems like good advice given the contagious nature of the disease, but it is also essential that we connect.
Eric Klinenberg wrote Heat Wave about another silent, invisible disaster 25 years ago that killed more than 700 Chicago residents. As a sociologist, Klinenberg studied two adjacent neighborhoods with similar demographics and found that one had a death rate six times higher than the other largely because it lacked social connections. People didn’t know who needed help as their neighbors died behind closed doors.
Now is a good time to think about neighbors who could use some support. Could you call that neighbor who is feeling isolated and vulnerable to check on their welfare and to assure them that they are not alone? When you go to the store to stock up on supplies, could you also get some for your neighbor who is fearful of going out or has no means of transportation? Is there a way you could support the family whose parents need to report for work but whose children have had their school closed? Could you make it a point to patronize Asian restaurants and other small businesses impacted by the outbreak?
Of course, given the contagious nature of the disease, we need to provide support in ways that don’t endanger our neighbors or ourselves. People are finding creative ways to greet one another while avoiding skin contact as shown in the above graphic posted at our local Vashon Center for the Arts. Let’s get equally creative in finding safe ways to provide support. This crisis calls for clean hands and open hearts.
We especially need to open our hearts and connect with the struggles of those most vulnerable. Klinenberg found that it was Blacks and poor people who died disproportionately in the Chicago heat wave. Similarly, inequitable access to health care, housing and paid leave make many people more susceptible to coronavirus, and that’s bad for everyone’s health. We must insist that people get the immediate help they need and rededicate ourselves to working towards an equitable society. The coronavirus outbreak is a powerful reminder that we are in this together.
By Jim Diers, 2019-09-03
Where we once dreamed of livable cities and revitalized neighborhoods, we now bemoan gentrification and displacement. As neighborhood conditions have improved, the small businesses and low-income residents, typically people of color, have been driven out. The neighborhood is only livable for those who can afford it.
The blame for gentrification is justifiably placed on institutional racism, young middle-class whites seeking starter homes, corporations attracting highly paid employees from elsewhere, speculative developers, and government programs such as urban renewal and policies promoting growth. But we fail to recognize that well-meaning neighborhood activists are often unwitting partners in gentrification.
Gentrification is the last thing on their mind as activists work to make their neglected neighborhood a better place. They focus on the immediate challenges of blight and crime. They work hard to paint out graffiti and create public art, clean vacant lots and build community gardens, renovate substandard housing and revitalize the business district, and lobby the government for new and enhanced parks, better transportation, good schools and other public infrastructure that more affluent neighborhoods take for granted. As conditions improve, however, the value of the real estate increases and some of the very people who worked so hard on behalf of their neighborhood can no longer afford to live there. Such is the nature of our market-driven economy.
I believe in taking an Asset-Based Community Development approach to neighborhood revitalization. That involves building on the neighborhood’s strengths and doing so in a way that is community-driven. Every community has abundant resources that it can mobilize to strengthen social capital and improve the neighborhood. These assets include the gifts that every individual has to offer, the collective power of the neighborhood’s many formal and informal associations, and the positive identity that comes with the local history, culture and stories. However, it is important to acknowledge that many communities lack sufficient ownership or control over two assets that are key to preventing displacement – the neighborhood’s real estate and its economy.
Confronting economic challenges in the Canadian Maritime Provinces in the 1930s, Father Moses Coady pronounced: “They will use what they have to secure what they have not.” He helped lead the Antigonish Movement that resulted in producer cooperatives and credit unions. Coady’s dictum still makes good sense for community development work today, especially as we seek to revitalize neighborhoods without gentrifying them.
Neighborhood planning can be a great way to coalesce local associations and tap the knowledge, skills and passions of their members in developing a strategy for gaining greater control over the neighborhood’s real estate and economy. To the extent that there is broad-based participation in the development of the plan and ownership of its vision and recommendations, the neighbors will likely take action to implement their plan and push city hall to do the same.
It’s essential that neighborhoods plan ahead, way ahead. Unfortunately, most communities don’t think about gentrification until it’s too late. The best time to counter gentrification is when it is unimaginable and the real estate is still affordable. So, in addition to working on immediate projects and issues to make their neighborhood more livable, the residents and local businesspeople need to create a plan for keeping it affordable.
A good example is Boston’s Dudley Street neighborhood. The neighbors organized to address the immediate issues of poverty, illegal garbage dumps, and arson for hire. But, even then, when conditions seemed desperate, they were planning for the future. Their goal was to develop a strategy for revitalization without gentrification. That planning effort generated widespread participation and when the document was completed in 1987, a united community was able to convince the mayor to help them implement it. The plan called for the community to be given the power of eminent domain. Normally, eminent domain is a power exercised by government to take control of private land so that it can be redeveloped, typically at the expense of a low-income neighborhood. But the Dudley Street residents were able to use eminent domain to gain control of vacant lots owned by absentee landlords. Then, they secured City funding to redevelop the property through a community land trust, enabling them to provide permanently affordable opportunities for home ownership.
Eminent domain, community land trusts, and land banks are good examples of tools that neighbors can utilize to secure property while it is still affordable. The neighborhood plan might also recommend home sharing, accessory dwelling units, rent control, and property tax reductions or deferrals to keep the existing housing stock affordable and virtual retirement villages enabling elders to stay in their homes. In addition, the plan might urge the city to adopt inclusionary zoning that requires developers to make a percentage of their new housing units affordable.
Ideally, the goal should be more ambitious than keeping low income people in the neighborhood. The plan should also look at ways in which the neighbors can benefit from a more robust local economy by pursuing community-based economic development. The objective is to build a local economy on the strengths of the residents and their neighborhood in a way that contributes to the ongoing welfare of the community. Tools for community-based economic development could include provisions for credit unions, microlending, business incubators, timebanks, and worker or consumer owned cooperatives, and requirements for living wage jobs and the employment of local residents.
Of course, a plan can’t anticipate all the developer proposals and government policies and programs that might impact the neighborhood. That is why John McKnight, co-founder of the Asset Based Community Development Institute, has proposed that plans include a Neighborhood Impact Statement. While this tool could be used to assess all sorts of impacts, it seems particularly well suited to addressing gentrification. Specific and unanticipated developments could be evaluated by the neighbors against a set of broad values and guidelines included in the plan. Such impact statements could also provide a good basis for negotiating community benefit agreements with developers.
Revitalizing neighborhoods without gentrification will always be a challenge in a capitalist economy. Even in Dudley Street, displacement continues to be a challenge. But, unless neighbors organize, plan and take appropriate action at an early stage, gentrification will continue unabated.
By Jim Diers, 2019-08-12
“First, do no harm.” This dictum is frequently but mistakenly associated with the Hippocratic Oath. Although it was disconcerting to learn that our physicians are not guided by this rule, I’m suggesting that it be adopted by community workers as the basis for our own code of conduct. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we often inadvertently harm the very communities we are trying to help and pledge to work in ways that contribute to their health. Here, then, is an outline of principles I would like to see included in a Hippocratic Oath for community workers whether they are social workers, recreation coordinators, clergy, community police, public health workers, planners, educators, service learning students, outreach staff, organizers or other community-based professionals.
Do No Harm
Don’t usurp the community’s power
“Never do for people what they can do for themselves.” That’s the iron rule of community organizing. It was drilled into me by my mentor, Tom Gaudette, who received his training from Saul Alinsky.
After my first week of work as a community organizer, I met with Gaudette. “Tell me what you did not do this week,” he began. I was highly offended because I had put in long hours and felt that I hadn’t neglected anything. “I knocked on hundreds of doors, researched the issues, designed a flier, and even wrote a press release. I did everything,” I concluded. “You’ve got it all wrong,” Gaudette responded. “Your job isn’t to speak or do for the community. Your job is to develop the capacity of community to do and speak for itself. So every week, I want you to tell me one more thing you are not doing.”
The iron rule is especially difficult for community workers to obey. We do this work because we care deeply about the community. But, in our rush to help the community, we often deny them their own agency. We usurp the power of the people.
Don’t make the community dependent
A related principle is to refrain from making the community dependent on you, funding or other external resources. After all, none of us will be around forever and neither will our organizations, programs or services. We must always ask ourselves: Will the community be better or worse off because I was here? Have I built more capacity or created more dependence?
Don’t define people by their needs
We make people dependent when we focus exclusively on their needs. We emphasize people’s deficiencies when we label them as disabled, at-risk, non-English speaking, poor, homeless, etc. While there is truth to every one of these labels, it is only part of the truth. Everyone has needs, but everyone also has gifts. When we focus on people’s needs, they are clients in a service system. When we focus on people’s gifts, they are citizens in a community.
Don’t fragment the community
The main reason I love neighborhoods is because they provide the context for building inclusive community. It’s in our neighborhoods that people with diverse identities and interests reside. Unfortunately, many so-called community workers contribute to keeping people divided.
Most community workers aren’t focused on the whole community. Instead, they work with the narrow segment of the population that relates to the mission of their agency or association. That mission is typically limited to a specific topic or category of people.
There are community workers who focus on a particular segment of the population. Separate organizations, programs and services segregate people who are old, young, disabled, refugee, etc. The people are organized the way that community workers are organized rather than by the neighborhood where they live. This raises the question: Who is serving whom? Confining people to separate silos makes inclusive community impossible.
Other community workers are in agencies organized around a special interest whether that is public safety, health, the environment, emergency preparedness, affordable housing, transportation, recreation, etc. Dozens if not hundreds of agencies are reaching out to the same neighborhood. Their community workers are trying to recruit individuals to their separate causes. Not only does this divide the community, but it fails to recognize the unique opportunity for a holistic approach that place-based work makes possible.
Don’t distract the community from its own priorities
In addition to dividing neighbors, community workers who push particular agendas provide little opportunity for the community to address its own priorities. The community is always being engaged around what the community workers think is most important or what their agency or grant requires of them. When people fail to engage, we call them apathetic. No one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. If the true objective is to engage and empower the community, it would be much better to start not with answers, but with questions: What are you most passionate about? What are your fears? What are your dreams?
Don’t take people’s time without showing results
While most community workers I know take their jobs seriously and try to be as productive as possible, we often take the community’s time for granted. We may think of it as free time, because there is no cost to our organization. We fail to recognize that time is precious to the people with whom we work. Time they spend with us is time when they could be earning an income, interacting with family and friends, or simply relaxing and having fun. If people don’t see some value to their participation, they’ll soon learn that it doesn’t pay to be involved. Yet, community workers often invite people to meetings or subject them to surveys or interviews that produce no visible outcome to those involved.
Don’t treat non-profit organizations as the surrogate for community
Oftentimes, it is the staff of non-profit organizations who are called on the represent the community. After all, they work the same hours, speak the same professionalized language, and get paid for their time so they are more likely to participate. Non-profit organizations can play a valuable role, but their role is not to be the surrogate for the community. Most are less accountable to the community than are the local elected officials. The role of the community worker is to reach beyond the people who are being paid.
Do Some Good
I’ve used the word “we” in this blog because my entire career has been as a community worker. I’ve been employed by large agencies as well as by small, grassroots associations. I know how difficult it is to follow the principles I’ve outlined and I haven’t consistently done so. Our training, funding, organizations and other systems often push us in the opposite direction. But I’ve also learned some principles that will enable us to do good in the community.
Get out of your cubicle and into the community
When I started organizing 43 years ago, I was nervous about approaching strangers. I walked around my assigned neighborhood for a long time trying to identify the most welcoming house and work up my nerve to knock on the door. I was less embarrassed to admit this shortcoming when I read that Cesar Chavez experienced a similar discomfort when he facilitated his first house meeting.
Today, community workers have an alternative. They can use a computer. It feels so much safer and much more comfortable to work out of a secure, climate-controlled office.
But, you can’t be effective if you aren’t in the neighborhood. You need to see the neighborhood, its opportunities and challenges, with your own eyes. You need to make personal contact with people. There are so many individuals who will never access your website or respond to your e-mail blasts. You need to go where the people are, listen to them and build relationships. Only then, a computer might be helpful for staying in touch.
Listen and learn from the community
A good community worker brings new knowledge and perspectives to the community, but the best community worker values the knowledge and perspectives of the residents. They are the experts on their neighborhood – its history, strengths and challenges. The neighbors already have relationships with one another and know the local formal and informal associations. They also know what their perspectives and priorities are. Community workers would be well advised to listen to the community before sharing their own insights. Listening will generate trust and give the community worker access to the information that will make their work effective.
Help the community to discover its resources and power
While every place and everyone has abundant resources, they often go unrecognized. Needs assessments and media coverage cause whole neighborhoods to be known as nothing more than low-income, high-crime, distressed, blighted or some other negative description. In these same neighborhoods, professionals have labelled most of the individuals by their deficiencies. The residents typically internalize this characterization of their neighborhood and themselves. Lacking a sense of their own capacity, they feel powerless and dependent on external resources. The most valuable perspective that the community worker can bring is to shine light on the strengths of the people and their neighborhood. That’s the basis for community empowerment.
Help the community to identify common interests and root causes
Another valuable perspective that the community worker can bring is to help the community see the big picture. Too often, individuals are overwhelmed and paralyzed by what they think are their personal problems. The role of the community worker in this case is to make private pain public. The idea is to bring individuals with similar concerns together so that they can realize they aren’t alone, identify their common societal issue, and work collectively to address it. A similar approach is needed to act on people’s dreams. As New Zealand artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser noted: “When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when many dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.”
Seeing the big picture also involves digging below the symptoms to discover the root causes. For example, rather than complain about at-risk youth, it would be more useful to identify and act on the unjust systems that put young people at risk. The best way to educate people about the systemic issues isn’t by lecturing them but by taking a Freirian approach of asking questions (often whys) that cause the community to reflect deeply on its own experience.
Share tools that enable the community to take the lead and share their gifts with one another
The community worker, like any other tradesperson, should have a full toolbox. Some of my favorite tools are learning conversations, storytelling, appreciative inquiry, asset mapping, block connectors, placemaking, matching grants, microlending, time banks, visioning, open space, and accountability sessions. There are different tools for different situations, and the community worker must know how best to use them. They should share their tools with community leaders and train them to be proficient in their application. There are no trade secrets for community workers.
Assist associations and agencies to network with one another
Through listening, the community worker will quickly discover that the neighborhood is already organized. There are dozens if not hundreds of formal and informal associations in every neighborhood. There is no one association that can adequately represent the community. Most associations consist primarily of one type of people whether they are homeowners, businesspeople, or residents with a particular culture, religion, politics, age, gender, school, address or interest. An inclusive community voice can be created by bringing these many networks together for regular forums, social events, visioning, planning, etc. but few neighbors can afford the time to organize such gatherings on top of their other community commitments. More problematic, there are often tensions between associations and it would be difficult to find any active neighbor who is trusted by all of them. The more neutral community worker could play a valuable role in facilitating the associations to network with one another.
As described earlier, the community’s fragmentation mirrors the siloed nature of the agencies that work in the neighborhood. Another way that community workers could help unify the community would be to assist the staff of local agencies to network with one another. If they can work together as one set of agencies with a focus on place, outreach would be more efficient, community-friendly and effective.
This was the approach we took with the Department of Neighborhoods in the City of Seattle. Thirteen Neighborhood Coordinators helped associations network with one another through representation on District Councils and participation in neighborhood planning. The Coordinators also facilitated communication between the community and other City departments as well as non-profit organizations. They thought of themselves as “overt double agents.”
Pay attention to segments of the community that are being excluded and find ways to engage them
Most community associations claim that they would like to be more inclusive, but they aren’t very good at it. The leadership, agenda, language and relationships have already been established, so newcomers and especially those who are different don’t feel very welcome. The community worker should constantly assess who is underrepresented in community life and find ways to engage them. The best place to start might be in assisting marginalized individuals with a shared identity to establish their own association, so that they can support one another, build power, and interact with other associations and agencies on their own terms.
Develop new leaders
Community leadership tends to become entrenched, stale and out of touch over time. That’s because some leaders won’t step aside, but it’s also because people are reluctant to step up to this role that can be overwhelming for a volunteer. The community worker should constantly be on the lookout for potential new leaders especially from those segments of the population that are underrepresented. The availability of leadership training will give more people the confidence to step up. The training should emphasize collective leadership that makes an association more sustainable, utilizes the different skills of many people, and doesn’t place a burden on any one individual.
Raise objections when you encounter discrimination
While it is essential that the community worker listen to the community and follow its lead, the community worker shouldn’t be a blank slate. The community doesn’t always get it right especially if its membership isn’t inclusive. When the community acts in ways that are discriminatory, the community worker has a responsibility to object. This could be done directly, by raising pointed questions and/or by redirecting their support to those who are being discriminated against.
Practice what you preach by being active in your own community
Too often, when we refer to community, we’re talking about the communities of others – the ones we are helping as an outsider. We fail to recognize that we need to have our own community. Sometimes our excuse is that we are too busy to be involved in our community. But, isn’t that the excuse that we hear and dismiss so often in our work? How can we argue that everyone else needs community but not us? We can’t be credible and effective community workers unless we are active in community outside of work. That’s the only way we can fully understand the joys and challenges of living in community. Moreover, it is our community that will sustain us in this rewarding but sometimes difficult work.
By Jim Diers, 2019-04-19
Community is built on relationships and people develop relationships through frequent contact with others. So, if you want to build community, you need places to bump into other people. The closer those places are to where you live, the more likely you are to bump into the same people over and over again.
Most neighborhoods have an abundance of bumping places. There are public places such as community centers, libraries, schools, parks, athletic facilities, sidewalks and trails. Local business districts with their pubs, coffee shops, grocery stores and other bumping places can be equally effective. There are also collectively owned gathering spaces such as clubhouses and places of worship.
Unfortunately, neighborhoods have been losing their traditional bumping places. Benches have been removed and access to parks and other public spaces has been restricted out of a concern that the “wrong people” have been using them. Online shopping, big box retail and gigantic malls have led to a decline in many neighborhood business districts. Regional so-called community centers are replacing those that were neighborhood-based. The large scale of many new recreation and retail facilities leaves people lost in the crowd and anonymous. An increasingly mobile population often shops, works, recreates, worships, and attends school outside of the neighborhood where they live. People have many different communities, and in a sense, they have no community at all. They seldom bump into the same people in more than one place.
Some neighborhoods were never designed for bumping into other people. Bedroom communities are often more friendly to cars than pedestrians. There are no places to shop, eat or drink within walking distance even if there are the rare sidewalks. Residents drive in and out of a garage adjoining their house and have little opportunity to bump into neighbors. Likewise, there is a dearth of bumping places in rural areas, and long distances between houses make it difficult to connect.
People are social creatures, however, so there has been a growing interest in placemaking. Rather than trying to prevent people from using public spaces, the new thinking is that safety is better achieved by attracting more people from all walks of life. Business districts are being revitalized by creating a distinctive experience that malls can’t replicate – small scale gathering places, shops and restaurants with a local flavor, personalized service, and community-based events such as art walks, heritage days and parades. The local food movement is bringing us community gardens, community kitchens, farmers markets and other prime bumping places. At the block level, neighbors are reclaiming their streets by painting murals in the intersections, installing street furniture, and periodically closing the street for parties and play. Apartment buildings and condos sometimes have rooms for common use, but when they don’t, a sofa or a table with a teapot might be placed in the lobby or next to the elevator to spark interaction. Some people are turning their homes into bumping places by installing a little free library, moving their barbeque to the front lawn, staging concerts on their front porch, or hosting welcome dinners for new neighbors.
Creating bumping places in suburban and rural areas can be more challenging, but they also have homes and yards that could be used for gatherings of neighbors. Practically everywhere has a closed or underutilized school, church, grange hall, or other facility that could serve as a venue for community dinners, educational programs, concerts, dances, movies, swap meets, cider making, game nights, holiday parties and all sorts of other events that would attract the neighbors. Portable bumping spaces are another option; some communities operate a wood-fired pizza oven, tea station or espresso cart that can be driven or pedaled to a prominent intersection, popular trail, cul de sac, or other location where people are likely to congregate around it.
Sometimes, though, the only option is to start with virtual bumping. In new suburbs where the housing is being developed more quickly than the public infrastructure, communities have effectively used a Facebook page as their initial bumping place. Contact on the internet can lead to relationships in real life. I’ve heard many stories of Facebook friends helping one another in times of need even though they had not previously met one another physically.
If you want to develop an inclusive community, you need to have inclusive bumping spaces. While neighbors typically have all kinds of differences in terms of age, income, culture, religion, politics, interests, etc. they tend to gather with people who are like themselves. To be inclusive, a place should be accessible to those with differing abilities and incomes. To the extent that the place includes signage and art, it should reflect the full range of languages and cultures in the neighborhood.
A key reason why places aren’t sufficiently inclusive is because so many are single purpose. They only attract gardeners, basketball players, seniors or whomever the space was specifically designed for. An inclusive place will be multi-purpose. Project for Public Spaces, the premier placemaking organization, calls this the Power of 10. They assert that every place should accommodate at least ten different kinds of activities. Not only will this make the place more inviting to a wide range of users, but it will make it more likely that the place will be used more extensively, at all times of the day and during all seasons of the year making it safer for everyone.
Having an inclusive space isn’t sufficient, however. We’ve all experienced elevators, bus stops and other public places that are crowded with people doing their best not to make eye contact with anyone else. Sometimes an intervention is needed to get people off of their smartphones and interacting with one another.
Public libraries are a good example. They attract neighbors from all walks of life, but the diverse readers seldom interact except for families during Saturday morning story hours. Increasingly, though, libraries are trying to serve as the neighborhood’s living room. Many libraries have incorporated coffee shops or other spaces where people aren’t shushed. Some have living book programs through which a person can spend time getting to know someone who is different than themself. After hours, libraries have hosted sleepovers, concerts and even miniature golf where people putt their way through the stacks of the Dewey decimal system.
My favorite bumping places are the ones that are designed and built by the neighbors. These places are most likely to reflect what is special about the residents and their neighborhood, and they are designed to work for the people who live there. Through creating the place, neighbors feel a sense of ownership. They are more likely to use, maintain and program it.
Of course, it is critical that the design/build process is inclusive as well. All of the potential users, whether they are young or old, business or homeless people, have a valuable perspective to bring to the design process and everyone has contributions they can make to creating a place that makes it possible to do the bump together.
By Jim Diers, 2018-03-12
As a proud practitioner of Asset-Based Community-driven Development (ABCD), I’m convinced that every person and every neighborhood has abundant and often underutilized strengths that can be mobilized to accomplish what is best done by community – caring for one another and the earth, promoting health, preventing crime, responding to disaster, creating great places, strengthening democracy and advancing social justice. But, I’m also aware that there is nothing inherently progressive about ABCD. In fact, unless an ABCD approach is accompanied by a strong commitment to social justice and an understanding of what that entails, it has the potential to exacerbate current inequities. Following are some actions to take and pitfalls to avoid on the road to social justice.
For starters, we need to stop talking about everyone’s glass being half-full. True, all people have valuable skills, knowledge and other gifts. But, the notion that everyone’s glass is half-full reinforces the myth that we all have the same opportunities. It ignores the fact that privilege based on race, class, gender and other identities gives some people an incredible advantage. The obscene concentration of wealth and mass incarceration of African Americans are two manifestations of the extreme inequity in our society.
It’s not enough to be community-driven; we need to ensure that those who are less privileged are in the lead. As many community organizers have observed, “It is those closest to the problem who are closest to the solution.” Inclusive engagement won’t happen unless we are intentional. We need to engage people where they are – their networks, gathering places, language, culture and priorities.
While emphasizing that there is no substitute for community, we need to acknowledge that there are some things best done by government, not-for-profits and other agencies. Portraying them as the problem aligns us with the right-wing. Similarly, a solely strengths-based approach echoes the conservative notion that people can and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Appropriate professional services are needed, and agencies can be good partners. We must help them work in ways that are more strengths-based, holistic and community-driven.
At the same time, we must embrace the idea that a key role of community is to hold government and corporations accountable. Thus, we shouldn’t be content with organizing for mutual support. We must also organize for social and earth justice. The networks built through an ABCD approach could make a powerful impact on external forces, but typically, we miss that opportunity as we focus on self-help.
As we work to make our communities stronger and our neighborhoods more attractive, we must recognize that our actions are likely to make local real estate more desirable and thus less affordable for existing residents and businesses. That’s hard to imagine when conditions seem desperate, but that is exactly the time when we need to plan for the future. As we’re working on small projects, we should be consciously building the capacity to establish cooperatives, community lands trusts and other forms of community ownership. We must also organize for a living wage and ensure that government and developers act in the interest of the community, especially those at greatest risk for displacement.
Just as it is important for those practicing ABCD to be open to community organizing, my friends who are organizing for social justice would do well to encourage their members to engage in mutual support and other ABCD activities. I’ve found that this is a great way to develop a much stronger base, especially among those people who are averse to meetings and conflict. Then, when it comes time for the fight, the members of the organization don’t have to yell so loudly because they have the whole community with them. Including an asset-based approach also provides opportunities for members to sustain their relationships with one another during those times when they aren’t involved with an issue campaign. ABCD and issue-based organizing are incredibly compatible, but few organizations utilize both approaches.
And, just as communities need to find ways to partner with government and other agencies, it is incumbent on elected officials, civil servants and not-for-profit staff to step back and make room for community. Ironically, many of my progressive friends are some of the biggest obstacles. They seem to think that people’s welfare is tied exclusively to rights and services, and they fail to acknowledge the vital role of community. It is a grave injustice when people are treated only as clients and customers and not as citizens with gifts and capacity. Government officials often have a paternalistic attitude towards the community and don’t sufficiently value its knowledge or trust its judgment. They have a skewed sense of power and guard it selfishly while failing to recognize that power is infinite and grows as you give it away. Social justice has always depended on the power of the people. Now, more than ever, progressives need to act on that truth.