The Case for Civic Engagement in Community Development

On all levels of government, community development policies and programs provide a unique opportunity for members of underrepresented communities to play an influential role in civic partnerships.

But these efforts can easily lose touch with the populations they aim to serve. As officials have acknowledged the importance of inclusive planning and democratic governance, a new program in its early stages can serve as an example for future efforts seeking to replicate its success.

I have had the opportunity to witness this highly effective strategy at work as a volunteer with the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI), an ambitious effort helping neighborhood children meet education goals and prepare them for college. The program received one of 21 planning grants from the Department of Education to create a neighborhood-based continuum of education and social services. Working with a team including researchers and community organizers, the efforts have enjoyed early success through an inclusive planning process that has empowered residents to help lead the change in their neighborhood. While more prescriptive place-based efforts of the past were deemed out of touch with local needs, and alienated residents as they developed, this campaign has approached community stakeholders as partners who can provide valuable insight and direction.

In addition to including local residents on DCPNI’s advisory board, the initiative leadership hosts monthly community dinners that brings locals together with school officials, public officials, and other civic leaders. DCPNI has also run focus groups with youth, educators, and parents in the program’s footprint to complete the Department of Education-mandate needs assessment. Another critical component of the program’s community engagement strategy are day-long resident retreats. In these gatherings, youth and adults attend a series of discussion sessions that help planners determine the priorities and concerns of the community. Having served as a discussion leader for these sessions, I have had the opportunity to engage in this intergenerational dialogue that has put a face to the social issues the Promise Neighborhood seeks to address.

Safe passage to and from school, nutritious meal options, access to quality healthcare, and increased academic support are just a few of the issues that we heard from the scores of residents who have attended the gatherings thus far. Across groups, anecdotal evidence began to reveal pervasive trends affecting most youth across the neighborhood. Stories of inadequate learning conditions and neighborhood gangs painted a picture of a hostile environment for youth. At the same time, residents sang the praises of what they felt their most valuable asset is: their neighbors. Caring parents, adult allies, and supportive school staff were said to comprise a community that has provided an informal network of support for youth. Based on these insights and recommendations, the Promise Neighborhood will build on these strengths by providing a comprehensive web of services to supplement these existing elements.

While DCPNI’s community outreach efforts have yielded results thus far, it will be critical for its leadership to keep stakeholder engagement a priority beyond the preliminary planning phase. Recent history has shown that similarly promising efforts can be derailed by local politics that quickly shift local power relations from democratic to despotic. Building on this complicated legacy, similar initiatives must sustain a level of authentic engagement that keeps residents at the table well into the implementation stage of the program. Democratic governance of these campaigns will give local residents a critical opportunity to maintain a stake in the future of their communities and empower them to enact real change.

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