I hold this deep faith and commitment to the promise of this country — this heartfelt hope that we never ever break the contract we have with the world — that if you come here and work hard it will pay off. If you use your gifts and your voice, you will belong. This has to be — if not the promised land — a promised beginning for those who would seek a life different than that they were born to and be willing to work for a future conceived of their own imagination. My work is to create landing places for those seeking a better life.
Community development work
We know people fare better supported and encouraged by community — community defined as a group of people with shared aspirations, common hopes and dreams. Nonprofit community development organizations, settlement houses, community centers seek to cultivate and fertilize those shared aspirations by delivering the basic elements for realized dreams: education, economic opportunity, cultural celebration, political voice. These are the elements of a vibrant neighborhood.
We sometimes behave as if we are mystified about what the “model” looks like, what innovations are needed in low income and immigrant neighborhoods. But really, little has changed. Everything old is new again. We called them settlement houses in 1890, social clubs in 1930, one stop shopping centers for social services in 1950, multipurpose centers in 1960, community action agencies in 1970, community centers in 1990, and now we build village centers.
The basic design elements have not changed much either. There is a building; it ‘belongs” to the community. It has a custodial institution but if you ask a neighbor “what is that building?” they will say “oh, that’s our community center!” Inside there are activities that reflect community aspirations. The mix varies but the elements are fundamental: health, financial opportunity, education, cultural exchange, political engagement, social enrichment. A place to learn, earn, and belong.
World over, community by community, are countless examples of community centers as landing places for newly arrived and as action centers for newly awakened. They are such a staple of revitalization and recovery that they are often created first — and after disasters, rebuilt first out of whatever is available.
We know about the community center model of neighborhood revitalization, because it is the neighborhood we all seek to live in. It’s the neighborhood with a trusted bank, a good school, an accessible clinic, a space for enjoying the company of our neighbors, safe and affordable housing.
Choking on bureaucracy
Those of us seeking to work comprehensively with struggling communities face enormous obstacles and often the very levers created to assist are also the biggest hurdles. Significant enough so they may not be ignored, difficult enough to stifle creativity, these obstacles drain our energy from the real work: to engage communities to work on their own behalf.
While we are desperate for integrated, neighborhood focused, strength-based approaches, we have siloed, scattered, deficit models. Where we need flexible, evolutionary and results-focused funding, we have rigid, rule driven service unit contracts. While we long to be held accountable for long term transformation at the neighborhood scale, we are drained and battered by demands for meaningless data and soulless compliance. Every funding source requiring their data in a unique data grid, in a different format, using their own proprietary software. There is no sense of proportion or focus on what happens with the children or families or our neighborhoods — just a rules based game played out in every nonprofit lucky or unlucky enough to stand at the end of the funding pipeline.
This is not a small thing. The reckless demands of dysfunctional bureaucracies and a poisoned political environment, often thwart our efforts to make responsive changes. Our bureaucracies have turned on us.
Punishing pyramid of policies and regulations
In a single early childhood center, where we are compelled to weave together child care funds, state preschool funds, and federal Head Start funds, to get the full-day, quality, accredited early childhood experience our children need, we are subject to hundreds of Head Start regulations, state childcare licensing standards, local ordinances governing occupancy and fire safety, national accreditation standards, state preschool rules and standards, and nonprofit corporation requirements. That’s not all of the regulations that will govern a single center — just the broad categories.
Sometimes it seems as though for every teacher working with 20 children, we have fifty adults monitoring, evaluating, inspecting, reviewing, examining, and testing. It doesn’t just seem that way — it is that way. And not just in education, but in housing, health, immigration, infrastructure. We explain and plead and document and track and go to meeting after meeting and just when we’ve sewn it all up so that it works for our neighborhoods — another monitoring report, another bid cycle, another improvement, new requirements, unfunded mandates, funding cuts… and the story goes on. Weaving it up, watching it unravel, weaving it up again. How many more of these do we have in us?
We could just walk away from public and private funding bureaucracies. (God knows in Texas, we are famous for elected officials who say “we don’t want that government money.) We could abandon state and federal funding to avoid their punishing requirements. But, everything we have given over to educate, to cultivate, to nurture people toward a higher level of functioning — all of our precious resources are trapped in these bureaucracies — so we stand in the long bread lines of government grants, proving our need, documenting our brokenness so we can retrieve what is ours.
It shouldn’t require heroic effort. We should be able to retrieve what is ours, plant new life in our neighborhoods in the ground of our own choosing.
As I watch bureaucracies stumble, choking in their own restraints, I wonder what will replace these rigid unresponsive structures. Some things are clear. We can’t pretend we can educate in isolation from the neighborhood, or fix housing without fixing education. We can’t continue to build enormous single purpose buildings that can only be used for one activity and only in certain hours of the day. We cannot afford to destroy the connection between schools and neighborhoods and break the relationship between work and family. We can’t afford bedroom communities, empty soulless cul-de-sacs of isolation. We won’t educate children by sequestering them away from the world we want them to understand. We must find ways to integrate, to cohabit, to interweave, to join based upon common aspirations, not separate based on funding streams and regulations.
Build on local strengths — share the space
With all the obstacles and challenges we face, non profits often succeed — in neighborhoods and in large landscapes. There are assets in every community and strengths in every individual, so every effort must begin with mining for these. More and more stories are emerging of people taking matters into their own hands. Local everything. “Our” replacing “my” and “shared” replacing “owned”. The school as community center, the playground a garden, the community as a laboratory for children, teachers as community leaders. A village created out of spare parts and conviction. Sharing space is the first step. Developing the rituals of community and connection, the habits of collective effort, honoring the impulse to reach out to one another — well that happens over time. But we work toward it, using education funds, and housing funds. Finding dollars for immigration and language classes, raising money for credit unions. Making a place for families to gather. Using every creative tool at our disposal and all the fearlessness at our command so that when our neighbors walk through the center it feels seamless, it feels like home, it works for them even as they work for themselves and their families.
Disaster recovery communities have so much to teach us as they must plant new community life in barren destruction. If they can do it, if they can face making a way out of no way at all, if they have the courage to embrace the reality that no one is coming, then we can all learn to do that. We can all begin again in our own neighborhoods. Feeding our friends, caring for our children, rebuilding house by house, block by block.
And if the job is still too much for us, if the work exceeds our remaining years, we can do what so many have done — love our children into greater courage and humbly launch them to tackle what we could not accomplish.
(from my work journal. February 2012)