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

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?

Stories of Shalom

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In my journeys this past year (2010), I have heard and told many, many stories. Some narratives have been shared through tear-streaked grimaces, revealing paths through valleys of pain, suffering, and unimaginable loss. Other accounts are told with smiles that exude great joy and thanksgiving: perspectives from mountaintop vistas, some having been attained after traversing deep valleys.

You know the stories. I know the stories. We tell them; and, we listen to them. Our stories chronicle, they shape, and they guide our destinies in and through the communities in which we live, work, learn, and play.  For all those who shared their lives, their resources, their stories with me and who listened to mine; thank you for enlarging the circle of community.

My grandmother, born in 1886 and died in 1968, often told me a story of her journey through the Great Depression (circa 1929-1935). Her story described loss, scarcity and suffering. She told of meager amounts of government-issued flour, salt, sugar and salt-pork that when added to their garden-grown produce, canned goods, and hand-me-down clothing (patches upon patches), provided just enough to endure. Yes, just as we hear in 2010, she also told of the wealthy that lived in luxury and opulence while the masses clamored and clung to life. My grandmother was a poet and short-story writer that has captured, often in great detail, much of her life for future generations to read and hear. As I now remember and re-read some of her stories, there is a powerful and moving element in my grandmother’s Great Depression account that most captured my ear and interest. She spoke first of her faith in God, and she described a community that graciously and collaboratively shared their meager resources in order to survive (shalom-making): “neighbors shared what they had and gathered round evening fires to tell stories of hope, imagination and determination”.

As we journey through the Great Recession, through our valley and mountaintop experiences, the importance of our being present to and for one another in our communities – sharing our resources and life’s stories – is vitally important to our collective future. It is the elemental stuff of building and sustaining community. Like my grandmother, who lived through the days of horse and buggy, and the advent of motorized cars, flight, and a person stepping onto the moon, we must share our resources, our hope, imagination, determination, and I add creativity in all the places where we live, work, learn and play.

In this season of light, joy, family, friends and hope, I conclude with two pieces of writing. The first is both ancient and contemporary: a beautiful account of a steadfastly loving and care-giving God. The second has been written in the past few days and mostly tells the story of both charity and shalom-making justice. The second is also personally pertinent in several ways; especially as I am enjoying the sweet, innocent, wholly dependent presence of my 16 month old granddaughter. I offer these stories, along with the many that you and I have shared in our journeys through this past year (2010): in the Spirit of hope, imagination, determination and creativity.�

First is a passage from Hosea 11:4: “I led them with kindness and with love, not with ropes. I held them close to me; I bent down to feed them”. 

The second comes from the writing of Rebecca Solnit: Vision: How a Better Future Is Being Made Right Now. Following is an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s December 22, 2010 article.

As 2010 ends, what really interests me aren’t the corrosions and failures of this system [Adam Smith’s Free Market], but the way another system, another invisible hand, is always at work in what you could think of as the great, ongoing, Manichean arm-wrestling match that keeps our planet spinning. The invisible claw of the market may fail to comprehend how powerful the other hand — the one that gives rather than takes — is, but neither does that open hand know itself or its own power. It should. We all should.

As 2010 concludes and 2011 arrives, may we in our communities find and share hope and apply the Power that is “now” working within and among each and all of us to accomplish abundantly more than we could ask for or even imagine.

In the Spirit of shalom,

Dave Cooper