Classic community development dilemma.
A neighborhood battles all of the challenges and negative forces associated with poverty - urban decay, declining population, crime, drug abuse and trafficking, low performing schools, various public health epidemics, little or no viable economic infrastructure and, thus, few employment opportunities. Despair thrives here.
A neighborhood needs a new start, complete with decent housing, new economic development and strategies for improving every aspect of the social infrastructure.
Steps toward improved health outcomes, quality retail grocery options and new employment options should be taken as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming list of negatives blocks the entrance of the needed positives that would contribute to neighborhood renewal. Somehow the logjam must be broken up.
Enter committed partners drawn from several sectors. The language is important here:
- Committed - this won't be easy, the work of community renewal. Players must be determined to stay in the game for the long haul, no exceptions no matter what. There will be no quick fix. This is where we must begin.
- Partners - every one who comes to the table must decide to leave something on the table; some real resource with discernible market value. Soft or hard, the contributions must be real and they should be sacrificial.
- Several sectors - the partnership must be diverse. No single sector of a community can pull this one off alone. Public players from the city, county and state must be involved. Community leaders out of the grassroots tradition must be engaged and trusting. Business partners, including bankers, realtors, developers, retailers and urban planners will have to be present. Non-profit and community-based organizations have an essential role to play in the process. Health care providers must be involved. Church and others from faith communities will be needed.
Whenever a group like this comes together to bring about comprehensive, sustainable change, be prepared. The "boo-birds" will show up - they always do - to explain just why such renewal is virtually impossible and should be left alone until "market forces" decide to work change according to the "natural flow" of the economy. [Note: Those voices are often heard here whenever something significant is proposed.]
Often, these same critics will try to reduce the community effort to a focus on individuals alone by stressing individual change as more important than community or neighborhood transformation. No doubt, individuals must and will change whenever communities experience renewal. But, we've learned that it will be group transformation that speeds along individual betterment and not the reverse.
Like I say, be prepared for battle and don't be surprised, just endure!
My only point here is this: if the right partnerships are constructed, change can happen. Neighborhoods don't have to be held hostage by the pessimistic thinking that too often dominates our understandings of low-income communities.
Hard work, very hard work; determination, faith and commitment to a collective effort can bring about change.