August 30, 1993 - From the August, 1993 issue

Community Empowerment: Lip Service or Savior?

by Elizabeth Bar-El 

"Community Empowerment": political lip service or a movement that will save our cities? At the Los Angeles chapter of the American Planning Association's July conference on "Planning and Community Empowerment: Organizing for Change,'' planners and community leaders explored this contentious issue of public participation at the neighborhood level. 

There is often disagreement surrounding the term "empowerment," but most agree that it involves a sense of "ownership" in the governing process, enabling people to get involved, to express their opinions, and become part of the prolonged struggles to improve their lives and their futures. "Empowerment grows in baby steps - planting a tree, owning a home," said Michaele Pride-Wells, director of the Design Professionals Coalition and co-chairperson of the seminar. As involvement and its results break down the skepticism and distrust that generally characterize relations between troubled neighborhoods and City Hall, empowered communities can redefine the agenda and direct the local government to address the issues that really affect them. Eventually, this process of community involvement can lead to the revitalization and return of the neighborhood to the community. 

Focus on Human Capital 

"We must focus on human capital. We must focus on people as a regional strategy," declared Manuel Pastor, chair of Economics at Occidental College and keynote speaker at the conference. He argued that the greatest potential lies in empowering the working poor who make up the largest group living in poverty ­ but are usually the ones most ignored. 

One problem with community participation strategies is not only breaking down the barriers of communication but also deciding the political decision of who should participate. Professor Pastor also raised the issue of including not only traditional community groups and the working poor but also recent immigrants who are often engaged in community building on their own terms. Several of the conference participants expressed concerns about the politicization of public participation and the fine line planners must walk when undertaking ambitious community participation projects which could push planners into the political fray. 

In the past, planners often discovered that community participation is a difficult and frustrating process. Sometimes the only result is the creation of a new group of activists to oppose their efforts. Yet, despite this possibility, cities are beginning to invest staff time and resources to nurture community groups, and to bring out the "voiceless" as the most effective strategy for encouraging community and economic development. 

Community Solutions 

As Rachel Jacky, executive director of the Portland Office of Neighborhood Associations explained, "We need the community at the table (because) problems today in our cities exceed the ability of the government to solve them." In other words, community empowerment has become an effective tool in an era of economic recession and declining city budgets for cities desperately trying to cope with rising crime and other urban problems where neighborhood organizations can make a contribution. 

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Community empowerment is essential to combat what Brenda Funches, executive director of Common Ground, described as environmental racism. This trend involved locating undesirable projects near poor, disenfranchised communities, who are presumed to be indifferent to their environments. These communities generally consist largely of Latinos and African-Americans, including growing numbers of non­citizens who remain voiceless and therefore powerless. "As planners working in these communities that are so economically distressed, you need to be finding ways to help them to attract businesses into their communities on their terms," Funches stressed, adding that residents have strong opinions on how their neighborhoods could be improved, both physically and economically, if planners and city officials would make an effort to listen. "Planners must overcome their own professional biases and learn to respect cultural differences and communication patterns. Listen to their definition of the problem. Understand how their design needs can be met (and) let them set the agenda," said Funches. 

"Top Down" Community Outreach 

Conference speakers also stressed that while it would seem that empowerment comes from the grassroots, many cities have initiated "top-down" community outreach programs to foster neighborhood organizations. While this trend has been developing for years, the events of April, 1992, in Los Angeles increased consciousness of the distance between city service provision and community needs, particularly in poor communities, prompting more interest in these programs. 

Long Beach Director of Planning and Building Bob Paternoster told of the restructuring of his planning department to include five community planners, each working with the community groups in their assigned neighborhoods. The Long Beach Neighborhood Improvement Strategy aims to improve the city's ability to offer services to residents. Two particularly problematic neighborhoods chosen for the program had no existing community leadership. Two other neighborhoods had sufficient community leadership to start development of an action plan for the community. While this program has been more effective in neighborhoods where community leaders already existed, increasing awareness and participation in the other type of neighborhood has proven more of a challenge and, in one case, threatens the program's success. The lessons learned from this strategy have allowed residents to identify the key problems in their community and to set the city's agenda for solving them according to their own priorities. The results in the neighborhoods with existing leadership have been cooperation with the city and police to close drug houses, remove undesirable activities, close buildings in gross violation of building codes, and provide for recreational needs. As the city and community build mutual trust, previously elusive accomplishments are being achieved. 

Neighborhood Associations 

A long-time leader in the neighborhood association movement, the city of Portland, Oregon is a model example of providing citizens with a mechanism for community empowerment through the Office of Neighborhood Associations. Rachel Jacky, ex­ecutive director of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Associations, outlined the Portland community development structure: 90 associations are organized into seven District Coalitions, which contract with the City Office of Neighborhood Organizations for City general funds to provide citizen participation and crime prevention services within their areas. These associations make up part of the city structure in Portland, giving them legitimacy and an office within the city bureaucracy that serves their needs. The neighborhood associations address issues of land use and transportation planning, regularly receiving invitations to participate in pre-development conferences between developers and the city, as well as community policing, and parks and recreational development. While some of the neighborhood associations are very active, addressing issues that are consistently relevant, others wage campaigns as needed, remaining inactive at times when they have no particular challenges that demand a response. Also, the neighborhood associations serve as focal points for community activities such as mediation services, job counseling and community events, all of which help to create community involvement at the neighborhood, street-corner level. The bottom-line in community outreach, said Jacky, is simple. Citizen involvement is "not so mysterious," she claimed. "The key is to think like a member of the community."

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