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Federal Urban Policy (General)

The Role of Community Outreach in Place-Based Initiatives

In our Promise Neighborhoods How-To Planning 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.
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.

Michelle Obama Playing Leading Urban Role?

Interesting article in The Politico today ...

In tackling the problem of childhood obesity, first lady Michelle Obama is doing something that her husband rarely does — talking about an issue bluntly in terms of race and helping urban America.

She is, some say, filling a role that Barack Obama seems less inclined to fill, serving as a kind of bridge from the White House to black America in much the same way that she functioned during the campaign, observers said.

and

... in Michelle Obama, many observers see an unexpected ally — an urban first lady.

"So far, she seems to be very adept at highlighting problems particularly entrenched in cities and particularly identified with cities without raising alarms about an administration fearful of urban decline or overly deferential to a certain population," said Harry Moroz of the Drum Major Institute, a nonpartisan think tank focused on big-city issues. "The first lady can’t make up for what the White House Office of Urban Affairs is not doing. The more the first lady talks about model local policies, the more cities will be seen as problem solvers, instead of problems."

Proposed Spending Freeze Unlikely to Adversely Affect Promise, Choice Neighborhoods

The New York Times and Politico tonight are reporting that President Obama is planning to announce a three-year spending freeze on domestic discretionary programs during Wednesday's State of the Union address and in his budget, which is expected to be released February 1. If implemented, the freeze would cut spending in real, inflation-adjusted terms for most domestic programs, possibly including the Promise and Choice Neighborhoods programs.

In reality,  however, this proposal probably won't mean much for Promise and Choice Neighborhoods, and here's why.

First, it is important to note that the freeze will only apply to 'discretionary' domestic spending, meaning entitlements and defense spending will not be affected (nor will a few protected programs such as those for veterans).  Still, the proposal will cover about $447 billion in spending, probably including all of the spending that would fund Promise Neighborhoods in the long run.

But the freeze will not apply to every domestic program in this category, just the overall level of spending. That means the president will still be able to propose new spending for some programs as long as offsetting cuts are found elsewhere. In other words, favored administration programs like Promise and Choice Neighborhoods probably won't be greatly affected. Of course, we won't know for sure until Monday, but it seems extremely unlikely (i.e., impossible) that President Obama would have touted these two programs as recently as last Thursday if he wasn't going to fund them.

But there are also other important factors at work. The president's budget submission is merely a proposal. It is up to Congress to decide how much actually gets spent and this Congress is unlikely to enact substantial cuts. Even Republican Congresses under a Republican president (President George W. Bush) couldn't do that, and they were more inclined to do so. The political backlash for proposing cuts in education and similar programs is simply too high.

At first glance, this might seem to be a good thing for Promise and Choice Neighborhoods. But if Congress fails to implement administration cuts, it will probably also be less able to fund new administration priorities and still appear to be holding the line on spending overall.

That's where a final piece of the puzzle falls into place. In most years, almost certainly including this one, Congress does not pass spending bills until well after the October 1 start of the fiscal year. Recall that the bill that funded the Promise Neighborhoods planning grants was not passed and signed into law until December. That means the spending bills won't get passed until after the mid-term elections are over, by which time the pressure to hold the line against a few outstanding administration priorities will be over.

In short, the most likely outcome is that most administration-favored programs will still experience a spending increase, including Promise and Choice Neighborhoods, but this may not be apparent until after the elections are over. And in many cases, it is likely that increased funding will be carved out of existing programs.

The more alarming long-term threat to Promise Neighborhoods is the possibility that Republicans will take control of the House or Senate in the fall. Although Republicans are not much better than Democrats when it comes to controlling spending overall, history suggests that they will still hold the line against presidential initiatives where they can, particularly in the run up to President Obama's campaign for reelection. That's not a partisan statement. Democrats would do the same to a Republican president if the situation were reversed. Sadly, it is more a reflection of the overly partisan nature of our national political system.

President Previews Urban Agenda

Speaking to a delegation representing the U.S. Conference of Mayors last Thursday, January 21, President Obama confirmed that his urban agenda will be rolled out in earnest beginning with his budget proposal, due to be released February 1.

Below is the relevant excerpt from the speech, which mentions both Promise and Choice Neighborhoods. You can see a video of the speech on the White House web site.

Two years ago, I addressed your gathering and I outlined a new strategy for urban America that changed the way Washington does business with our cities and our metropolitan areas.  And since taking office, my administration has taken a hard look at that relationship — from matters of infrastructure to transportation, education to energy, housing to sustainable development.  My staff has traveled around the country to see the fresh ideas and successful solutions that you’ve devised.  And we’ve learned a great deal about what we can do — and shouldn’t do — to help rebuild and revitalize our cities and metropolitan areas for the future.
 
So the budget that I’ll present next month will begin to back up this urban vision by putting an end to throwing money after what doesn’t work — and by investing responsibly in what does.
 
Our strategy to build economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, opportunity-rich communities that serve as the backbone for our long-term growth and prosperity — three items:  First, we’ll build strong regional backbones for our economy by coordinating federal investments in economic and workforce development — because today’s metropolitan areas don’t stop at downtown.  What’s good for Denver, for example, is usually good for places like Aurora and Boulder, too.  Strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America.
 
Second, we’ll focus on creating more livable and environmentally sustainable communities.  Because when it comes to development, it’s time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion, pollution, and ended up isolating our communities in the process.  We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality public transportation, that bring our communities together.  (Applause.)
 
That’s why we’ll improve our Partnership for Sustainable Communities by working with HUD, EPA, and the Department of Transportation in making sure that when it comes to development, housing, energy, and transportation policy go hand in hand.  And we will build on the successful TIGER discretionary grants program to put people to work and help our cities rebuild their roads and their bridges, train stations and water systems.  (Applause.)
 
Third, we’ll focus on creating neighborhoods of opportunity.  Many of our neighborhoods have been economically distressed long before this crisis hit — for as long as many of us can remember.  And while the underlying causes may be deeply-rooted and complicated, there are some needs that are simple:  access to good jobs; affordable housing; convenient transportation that connects both; quality schools and health services; safe streets and parks and access to a fresh, healthy food supply.
 
So we’ll invest in innovative and proven strategies that change the odds for our communities — strategies like Promise Neighborhoods, neighborhood-level interventions that saturate our kids with the services that offer them a better start in life.  Strategies like Choice Neighborhoods, which focuses on new ideas for housing by recognizing that different communities need different solutions.  And, by the way, we’re also expanding the successful Race to the Top competition to improve our schools and raise the bar for all our students to local school districts that are committed to change.

Promise Neighborhoods in SOTU, FY 2011 Budget?

We are still waiting for the administration to release its RFP for the $10 million in Promise Neighborhoods planning grant money that was passed by Congress last December. (Tick, tock all you insiders reading this! Although in fairness, they are assuredly as aware of the calendar as anyone). In the meantime, there are two important events looming on the political horizon.

The first is the president's State of the Union (SOTU) speech, scheduled for next Wednesday, January 27. Large segments of the speech are likely to be devoted to jobs, health care, and anti-terror efforts at home and abroad. But the president has not been shy about talking about Promise Neighborhoods in previous speeches, so it would not be surprising if it received a mention. Given the push back the administration has received from the Congressional Black Caucus in recent months about its attention to urban issues, a mention like that could go a long way. Although a fully fleshed out jobs initiative probably would go a lot farther. (CBC offices reading this are welcome to comment ...).

The more substantive event coming up is the president's forthcoming budget for FY 2011, which begins October 1. This will be the administration's first real budget, one where there was enough time to put together all of the details. Presidential budgets often contain outlines of legislative proposals, so it will not be surprising to see an outline of a legislative proposal for Promise Neighborhoods, with details revealed in departmental addenda. Congressional leaders recently met and made a verbal commitment to bringing up ESEA reauthorization (aka, No Child Left Behind) later this year. If it happens, that is where a Promise Neighborhoods initiative might be lodged.

The budget will be released on February 1. We will keep you posted.

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by Dr. Radut