Neighborhood Revitalization: Hope (Esperanza) Rising

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Photo by Dave Cooper

Photo by Dave Cooper

I recently worked in three neighborhoods that are striving to recover from decades of neglect and decay. These neighborhoods are very different geographically; yet, they have striking similarities. In Newburgh, New York, LaGrange, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia numerous agencies are taking a variety of approaches; directing their limited resources “at” solving the seemingly intractable problems of poverty, blight, homelessness, hunger and hopelessness. For many – perhaps most – agencies, the overarching theory of transforming (fixing) problems is rooted in programs. Programs are mostly externally resourced by foundations, charity-focused, and limited in scope. Programs follow traditional, linear management models of inputs, throughputs, outputs and outcomes and provide comfort, control and accountability for external investors and volunteers in the programs. Programs are typically sustained only as long as charitable funding is available: a challenge in our austerity-focused economy.

Photo by Dave Cooper

Photo by Dave Cooper

Importantly, “some” programs provide emergency food distribution, shelter from winter weather, health care, and more; all essential for relieving human suffering. Unfortunately, most programs overlook the capacity, vision, ingenuity, networks, trust and trustworthiness – the treasure trove of gifts and assets – that reside within and among those who live, work, learn, play, and worship in a community.

In the three communities mentioned above there are, respectively, three agencies that are continuing to do what they do best – developing, restoring, and sustaining affordable housing – while simultaneously discovering, encouraging, and supporting the “gifts of head, heart and hands” among resident community leaders. These agencies are boldly blending externally-developed, results-based programs with relationship-focused, resident-driven Asset Based Community Development, and community organizing. They are collaborating for the “whole” wellbeing (shalom) of the community.

In Newburgh, Habitat for Humanity is working with community leaders to build homes and neighborhoods. Through its Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, staff is devoted to working “with” visionary resident leaders and through its relationship hub, ReStore, it is collaboratively applying Asset Based Community Development. It is a bold move with neighbors and in neighborhoods: hope rising.

Similarly, in the Hillside Neighborhood, DASH for LaGrange is investing staff and resources into listening for resident leadership and supporting those leaders in fulfilling their vision of healthy and whole neighborhoods: hope rising. Like Habitat for Humanity Newburgh, DASH for LaGrange has situated its office facilities and staff in a neighborhood where transformation is taking place.

In a Richmond neighborhood, Oxford House works “with” formerly incarcerated persons to develop self-run, self-supported, substance abuse recovery housing. Residents function democratically and work with neighbors to co-create and sustain affordable housing: hope rising.

DASH LaGrange -Blog2

Photo by Dave Cooper

Within every community (neighborhood) there exists an abundance of often unrecognized and underutilized gifts and talents (assets) of “head, hearts and hands”. Every place, person, family, association, organization, and institution is the possessor and purveyor of its gifts. These assets (gifts) are the buildings, gathering places, schools, libraries, vacant lots, community gardens, tenant and landlord groups, agency programs, political representatives, corner businesses, congregations, school districts and – importantly – the capacity, vision, ingenuity, networks, trust and trustworthiness of residents who live, work, learn, play and worship in the neighborhood.

Photo by Dave Cooper

Photo by Dave Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We members of Communities First Association (CFA) are practitioners, coaches and advocates for Asset Based Community Development and community organizing. We envision that community is in the process of transformation (revitalization) when:

Photo by Dave Cooper

Photo by Dave Cooper

  • There are signs of increasing local ownership in and by the community
  • There is evidence of a growing sense of community (social cohesion – bonding)
  • Seen and heard is a shared vision among residents in the community
  • There is evidence of increased knowledge, skills, and resources working for shared benefit
  • Leadership is emerging in the community from the community
  • Evidenced are an appreciation for evaluation, reflection and ongoing learning
  • Residents develop and implement their own results based plans for sustainable transformation
  • People of all faith perspectives are collaborating and contributing to community wellbeing
  • Neighbors develop and participate in the community economy
  • Competition yields to collaboration

Connecting Community, Building Hope in LaGrange

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Asset Based Community Developer Ben Wheeler works through affordable housing developer DASH LaGrange and with the coaching support of Communities First Association to connect community and harvest hope in the Hillside Neighborhood of LaGrange, Georgia.

 
DASH has a long track record of partnering in the development and operation of affordable housing in LaGrange. However, facing ongoing financial challenges posed by the Great Recession and seeking a sustainable model of development, DASH is taking a new approach. It invests not just in what it has done so well for so long: successfully developing housing. It is now focusing on the development of neighborhoods in which housing is an essential component. Through place-based, asset-focused, relationship-building, community-led, and collaborative investments among a broadening base of community partners, DASH is uncovering previously unrecognized networks of capacity and hope, and together weaving a strong and enduring fabric.

 

Ben Wheeler and his family live, shop, dine, earn, learn and recreate in the Hillside Neighborhood (Hillside Revitalization Area) and describe it as “four neighborhoods in one”. In this space that holds three hundred fifty families reside affluence and poverty; small business and industry; faith communities and civic associations; single family and multi-family housing. Ben and his family know well the assets and challenges that reside in the community.

 
A walking tour of the neighborhood reveals much. The quietness of the neighborhood is interrupted only by the occasional train horn as freight moves steadily through the community. A smiling old man sits in his front yard holding his puppy. A group of children play basketball in the roadway using a single net. A public school teacher speaks of an at-risk youth that he has taken under his wing. A community garden waits for the coming spring. And, a couple moved by the challenges faced by low-income immigrants are co-creating affordable housing. Here are a long-closed Laundromat, a thriving Big Sams Barbeque, housing, the Troup County Health Department and several churches.

 

On a beautiful fall afternoon, a community pot-luck is held in a space owned by DASH. Here among the people of the community, new resources emerge as people gather and share their gifts. Dean the photographer and small engine mechanic delivers up home-made bread and vegan soup. Deborah shares her love of reading to children and helping to build their self-esteem. Mike is organizing resources to build a neighborhood Montessori school. Jane discovers that she is not the only one in the neighborhood with a Coyfish pond. A youth shares her drawings and her passionate love thereof. Ben Wheeler shares his love of connecting people for the common good.

 
There is much to learn from and grow among the delightful people and the gifts that reside in Hillside Neighborhood of LaGrange, Georgia. Thanks to DASH LaGrange, Ben Wheeler, and Communities First Association for applying Asset Based Community Development practices to connect community and harvest hope.

 

David (Dave) Cooper is an Asset Based Community Development practitioner, entrepreneur, catalyst, connector, coach, educator, advocate, consultant and planner. He works nationally and internationally through Shalom Makers to advance and support equitable, sustainable and collaborative community development. Dave may be reached at: dave.cooper@shalommakers.com or my phone: 804.614.6254

Living Economies: Place, People and Power Matter

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I recently attended the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) conference where I met some amazing entrepreneurs, including friend and colleague Adrian Pyle of the Uniting Church in Australia; all passionately engaged with building and rebuilding sustainable local communities through place-based economic and social development. The passion, commitment and local successes among these amazing people are contagious. Hope abounds along with a sense of urgency: a tipping point is at hand.

 
A presenter at the BALLE Conference, Marjorie Kelly, states in her new book, Owning Our Future: the Emerging Ownership Revolution, the time has come to shift away from dominate, corporate-led, top-down-controlled economy that “extracts” from communities and toward locally led, shared ownership, small business enterprise, generative economies that are restorative and sustainable. Quoting Margaret (Meg) Wheatley, Kelly re-tells a story all-too-common in nearly every corner of extractive capitalism:

“…she’d noticed increasing levels of anxiety in formerly progressive workplaces, with everyone working harder yet seeing years of good efforts swept away. People are required to produce more with fewer resources…and new leadership is highly restrictive and controlling, using fear as a primary motivator”

Kelly goes on to state that “the reason is the forces in control are outside the life of the firm, in capital markets, which are already swollen with excess yet demand still more, every quarter”. Where is the voice of the local community in the extractive, power-over economy? Mostly missing!

 
David Korten writes on similar concepts and approaches in his book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (neighborhoods).

 

So do theologian Walter Brueggemann and Asset Based Community Development catalysts and practitioners Peter Block and John McKnight.

 
So, what are communities to do? What are some starting points toward building a new, generative economy? Different names are used by various practitioners and authors to describe it, but they essentially point to local, Asset Based Community Development practices by which locals take the lead to recognize their community assets, organize them into sustainable community-enhancing plans, projects and businesses and retain local control of the economic and social outcomes. Finally, Yes Magazine’s Sarah van Gelder suggests there are at least thirty one ways to re-build local economies.

 
When it comes to local living economies; place, its people, its resources, and its power matter.

Fare well, Communities

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A CCDA Café (Christian Community Development Association meeting) took place on June 29, 2011 in Richmond, Virginia. I participated in this wonderfully diverse group of people that came together from around the city for one purpose: to work collaboratively for the well-being (shalom) of Metro Richmond. From across our variations in faith perspectives, congregations, neighborhoods, political points of view, gender, employment, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds, we came together in unity for the common good of our communities.

 I was in Washington D.C. on June 16, 2011 with a group of interfaith clergy leaders that gathered from across the United States to advocate in the U.S. Congress and the White House for something that has not been done in 46 years: a complete evaluation of the entire U.S. criminal justice system that will include recommendations for improvement of this costly, vastly complex, and extensively broken system. We were and are advocating for the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 (S.306) – NCJCA. From across our differences in geographies, faith traditions, gender, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds, we came together for a unified moral purpose: to voice our support and advocacy for justice and mercy via the National Criminal Justice Reform Commission Act.  

We all have some stories to share about our various communities working and advocating for the co-creation of common good; however, especially in America today, the win-lose battles being fought in the states and at the federal level threaten to severely cripple and perhaps to destroy the common good and the good will extended to America. The congressional volleys appear more like bullying tactics than civil discourse and mutual agreement for the good of “all”. Clearly, the legion gridlocked battles are primarily the result of unilateral “power-over” politics rather than attempts to achieve policies roted in “shared power”. I believe that our nation’s Founders would be outraged at the current state of bickering, divisiveness, and power-wielding bullying that result in disunity, inequity, anger, fear and ever-deepening isolationism and classism. It is not the kind of community – not the kind of “United States” – that I believe the Founders had in mind.

 In the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution appear these words:

 We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The word “Welfare” conveys the cognitive assent and practical actions necessary to “fare well” or to live in a state of well-being. Welfare is not a pejorative term even though it has been used to stereotype the poverty-stricken. Rather, welfare may be translated “well-being”. Furthermore, well being is a semantically accurate though incomplete translation of the community, individual and societal assent and acts of wholeness conveyed by the Hebrew word “shalom” (see Robert C. Linthicum on shalom). As evidenced in Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, mutual provision for the well being (shalom) of all – with special emphasis upon the poor – is essential to the life and sustained success of the entire society (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Jeremiah 29:7, Proverbs 28:27, Acts 20:35, Matthew 5:7).  Why are we not endeavoring to achieve well-being for all?

 Why in the name of Economics are powerful policy-makers, organizations and institutions failing to see, hear and respond to the agonizing cries of the suffering masses who are jobless and underemployed; who are physically and spiritually hungry; who live in the woods because their homes have been foreclosed; who are imprisoned by a grossly engorged criminal justice system; who have lost faith, trust, and their investments in equity-producing systems and programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc) that were established by a past generation for future well-being?

Why in the name of Human Life are the factorings of federal and state budgets producing bottom lines that afford abundant benefits to the powerful, the wealthy, the influential, the elite, well-fed, well-housed, and the well-insulated; while unilaterally consigning the vulnerable masses to struggle and suffer in a sea of scarcity?

Why in the name of Politics are we so complacent, so accepting of inequity, so comfortable, so isolationist, so quick to judge, so cocksure, and so angrily limited in mercy?

 Why in the name of God are we not unifying with mutual empathy across our many differences to form interdependent communities of well-being (shalom) that collectively build, rebuild and sustain the common good?

In recovering from the Civil War, to restore after the Great Depression, for rebuilding after World War II, to liberate incarcerated minds, hearts, bodies, economies and relationships in every community, America has been successful because of its unity, empathy and shared power (resources). Now, in the wake of the Great Recession, at a time when hope, empathy, unity, and mutual power are necessary for achieving the common good, America has again arrived at a time for recovery, restoration, rebuilding, and liberation: a tipping point!

Will cocksure political and economic power result in a distant, passing wave of farewell to the struggling masses in our communities? Or will Americans unify in our collective recovery, restoration, rebuilding, and liberation?

Have You and Your Neighbor Read the U.S. Founding Documents?

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New Year’s greetings to you.

Over the past few days, some television news and written articles have captured my interest and motivated more research and reflection upon power and its uses and abuses with a special emphasis on U.S. Founding Documents

Over the Holiday weekend, I overheard a television newscaster mention that the entire U.S. Constitution would be read at the opening of the 112th United States Congress on January 5, 2011. I did not find this particularly unusual given the power vested in the Congress by the document; however, since this moral document holds such power and has been so frequently used and misused in political rhetoric, the news prompted me to get out my copy of the U.S. Constitution (including Bill of Rights), Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, and to re-read them in their entirety: something that every American Citizen should do with regularity: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html.

What most strikes me as I re-read the U.S. Founding Documents is that current political rhetoric excerpts sections of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights to support unilateral power (“power over”), while other counterbalancing sections of the Constitution and Bill of Rights (“shared power”) often remain silent in political discourse. I’m not surprised. A similar thing happens when certain sections of the Bible are proof-texted to support a perspective of particular favor while counterbalancing sections are ignored. Here is one for- instance.

In the opening lines of the U.S. Constitution, the moral and beneficent role of government to “promote the general Welfare” – providing for the poor/poverty-stricken, homeless, foreclosed, uninsured, unemployed – was clearly an intention of the U.S. Founders and is asserted in our Founding Documents. The same morally sound perspective may be found in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and other areas of Scripture.

However, often heard, particularly in conservative political rhetoric, is the dominate goal to downsize government and increase business revenues at a cost that “appears” to yield economic benefits (though history and public policy dictates that the benefits will be unequally distributed); while the same goals simultaneously bankrupt the moral and social fabric of our nation: counter to the letter and spirit of our Founding Documents and Scripture. If less government and more “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” public policies are the goals to which conservative government aspires; does this not mean abdication of the benevolent role of government?

Will less government, less regulation, more unregulated capitalism and individualistic consumerism, less access to health care, and more laws truly help and empower people and communities that have little or no power: no boots to pull up, no roof over their heads, no living wage jobs, no political representative that will seriously (sans rhetoric) take up the causes of the poor and downtrodden? Is unequal distribution of power that is achieved unilaterally the intended design of our Founders and Founding Documents? I think not!

Let’s all join with the U.S. Congress to re-read the U.S. Constitution (and Bill of Rights); and, while we are at it, let’s re-read the Declaration of Independence, and Articles of Confederation. Let’s also re-read the Sacred Texts that guide our spiritual and moral sensibilities. Finally, let’s re-consider morally sound, equal distribution of power, and re-calculate costs not just in economic terms but also in the social, political, physical and spiritual costs of both our actions and inactions.

I conclude today’s entry by pointing to a recently published article that further explores and exposes the issues about which I have written:

Consortium News article by Robert Parry, entitled We’re Headed for a Major Battle with the Tea Party Crowd over the Constitution Itself, published December 31, 2010 and re-distributed by Alternet.

Light bearer or light switch?

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In biblical terms, it is God who watches out for and rescues the “people of the land” (Hebrew: “Am ha-aretz”) bringing light to the darkness. Conversely, government and countless religious rulers, through most of history, have been less than benevolent care-takers of the “people of the land” (the poor/poverty-stricken). Yet, the Scriptures are filled with moral mandates for people to care for one another; and, it is especially those who posess and control substantial resources that are mandated by God to provide for the downtrodden, the poor, the oppressed. The moral, biblical mandate for mutual love, mutual care and equitable distribution of resources so that there are no poor/poverty-stricken remains a serious moral issue today as it has for thousands of years. Why? In the name of fiscal prudence, the resources that bring life (and light) to the Am ha-aretz (people of the land) are being shut off, leaving many in darkness. In a New York Times article, Paul Krugman writes that America Goes Dark. What shall people of faith, in fact what shall we all do in response to the countless millions that are crying out in anguish, hoping for rescue, as their lights flicker and threaten to be extinguished?
 

While it may be argued that social safety nets are in place for the “least of these” (poor/poverty-stricken, oppressed), the nets are torn, filled with holes and controlled by powerful and exclusive set of rules, regulations and power-holders. One does not have to look far to see that the support system (safety net) is badly in need of repair – rescue is on everyone’s mind. There is scarcely a private, public, or congregation budget and the safety nets they support, that has not been cut in the name of keeping the lights on (see Krugman’s article). Perhaps the time has come for the governing forces (those with power) to serve not as a strict parent that controls scarce resources; rather, to serve as a nurturing, morally prudent, beneficient care-giver (and care-receiver) – a light bearer rather than a light switch.

In biblical history, the Am ha-aretz are referred to as the common people left behind when the Babylonians removed the elite leaders and artisans to exile in Babylon in the late 6th century BCE. There was a sense of darkness that came with the removal of resources from the land by powerful rulers: rescue was on the minds of the Am ha-aretz as it was on the minds of the people that went into exile.
 
The concept of God’s providential rescue in early societies as well as the current day is problematic. Is “rescue” an eschatalogical concept that is relegated to another place and time (end times), a present reality of humankind’s collective role in shalom-making, or both? Is God the only one responsible for rescue? Who keeps the lights on when things go dark?
 

Throughout recorded history, people have prayed for rescue and release. Some have found eyes of faith to see and experience God’s rescue; whereas, countless millions of others suffer in horror as their babies were cut from their bellies (Assyrians known for this), they were ravaged by horse-mounted, fear-instilling warriors (i.e. Babylonians), were thrown mercilessly into prisons and put to death (all cultures up to the present), and torn asunder by lions and other wild animals (Roman Empire). Other destructive oppressors present in early Christianity were the wealthy, religious elite (Sanhedrin), the middle class, live and die by the letter of the law (Pharisees), the politico-religious elite (i.e. Herod Antipas), and of course the political rulers (Roman Empire). Much as in earlier history, today, we do not have to look far to see and hear the cries of the Am ha-aretz (poor/poverty-stricken) as they yearn and plead for rescue from social, political, religious, and economic storms that threaten to snuff out their lights.

Only after having critically read the Bible, studied theology, sociology, anthropology and psychology, and having lived and worked among the powerful and the less than powerful have I come to realize that the eschatological and practical concepts of rescue are very problematic. For instance, if God manifests perfect love and has no favorites, why are some rescued from horrific circumstances while countless millions suffer and die?  If God is omnipotent (all powerful), why does God not rescue all who are suffering (see Rabbi Harold Cushner and others)? Is God schizophrenic, pouring out vengeance on some while showing mercy to others? If the major and minor prophets spoke God’s judgment upon all who would oppress/harm anyone, especially people of the land, why do we still have so many poor and oppressed among us? What then shall individuals and communities do? Importantly, what are the roles of people, congregations, organizations, associations, and institutions as the current day powerful Sanhedrin, Pharisees,  politico-religious elite, and economic forces exert unilateral (dominate) power over others with threats of turning off the lights?

The U.S. is not there yet; however, it seems we are quickly approaching a “tipping point” at which the U.S. as a whole will either equitably unify and move forward (live), or inequitably divide and fall (die). Corporate and political profits must yield to the biblical prophets admonitions so that there is shalom (holistic well-being) in this land and across the earth. In Deuteronomy 15 and Acts 2 there are found the requirement and model for people to live and share equitably – together – so that there will be no more poor: the shalom community becomes manifest both now and in an eschatological future.

From as early as the eighth century BCE (nearly three thousand years and more), God’s mandate has been in place, re-emphasized by prophets, and yet the poor/poverty-stricken people of the land remain among us: we are they. How is God at work to keep the lights burning? What will we collectively do to keep the lights on?