In our Promise Neighborhoods Planning How-To Guide, we discuss the importance of community outreach to the success of place-based initiatives. Such outreach is particularly important when conducting needs assessments, collecting data, and examining existing services. Community outreach can be accomplished in a number of ways, including neighborhood surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
However, beyond providing critical information to help inform place-based strategy, neighborhood residents should also be tapped to play a more direct advisory role in the decision making process. Although some critics argue that previous efforts have been inadequate, federal place-based strategies have prioritized community involvement in the past. This strategy was employed by the Office of Economic Opportunity, which established Community Action Agencies (CAAs) during the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty.” While their efforts at community outreach and involvement were often criticized, the experience nevertheless provided many valuable lessons. These nonprofit groups were tasked with implementing community action on the local level that required “maximum feasible participation” by low-income neighborhood residents. These organizations addressed an array of social issues on the local level, ranging from pre-K and adult education to youth employment and healthcare services. Many of these services were subsequently replicated by the federal government and remain a vital part of community-based social services.
Another more recent example was the 1994 federal Empowerment Zone program, which mandated resident participation in the initial planning phases of the place-based strategy. These requirements provided for the creation of local task forces that helped provide guidance on community needs and priorities. Despite these early steps, the program was later criticized by some for the lack of sustained community participation. Although there have been divergent opinions on strategy and best practices, some practitioners still acknowledge the importance of taking a range of perspectives into consideration.
Many local place-based programs have also incorporated residents in the planning process. Through outreach meetings and planning sessions, leaders have created a space for local residents to share ideas and gain a stake in these initiatives. Besides providing useful insight, these sessions also aid place-based efforts by building trust and reducing the potential for skepticism among stakeholders. One apparent success story was the Milwaukee-based Zilber Neighborhood Initiative, where many residents were invited to meetings and visioning sessions that resulted in the initiative’s 2009 Quality of Life Plan. This plan reflects priorities that were voiced by neighborhood residents and reflected their specific concerns.
The Harlem Children’s Zone has also benefitted from this democratic approach. In various interviews, local supporters of the HCZ have shared the initial skepticism they harbored against the latest institutional “solution” to local issues. However, the HCZ seems to have gained the confidence of many stakeholders thanks to its extensive grassroots outreach and inclusionary practices.
A report published by our partner organization the Alliance for Children and Families highlights elements of this strategy, discussing ways that local nonprofits can collaborate with stakeholders as partners and present them with opportunities to shape policies that affect their communities. The report details case studies in which constituents
- became familiar with the civic process;
- developed strategic advocacy plans;
- learned how to communicate in public settings;
- organized neighborhood meetings;
- met with elected representatives, public officials, and providers; and
- advocated on behalf of their and their families’ needs.
Regardless of whether or not they receive federal funding, this approach to civic engagement may be a critical component of success for Promise Neighborhoods across the country.