When I tell people that I am a Community Development grad student they usually reply “Cool! What does that mean?” The easy answer is to quote William Biddle, “[F]or the present, all approaches which claim to be Community Development be accepted as legitimate contributions.” For the sake of this non-introduction “[c]ommunity development encompasses a loosely tied group of concepts based on the experiences of community development practitioners.” With that being said, I would like to share something I wrote as an exercise to tie together my day job and my graduate studies.
The Full Circle Youth Program (FCYP) serves children between the ages of 7-18 who receive housing assistance through the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority (LDCHA). FCYP offers a variety of programs and services aimed at promoting family self-sufficiency, youth development, and educational achievement. As the program coordinator it is my job to ensure that the programs and services being offered meet the needs and wants of participating families. This paper will analyze the situations in which FCYP follows the Community Development Society’s Principles of Good Practice as well as the areas that need improvement.
The first principle of Good Practice is, “promote active and representative participation toward enabling all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives.” This is a contentious area in the social services. Many agencies and organizations attempt to incorporate aspects of participatory planning into their work. Many social workers have been influenced by participatory action research (Healy 2001). FCYP does not currently employ social workers. Their staff does work closely with the Applied Behavioral Sciences Department (ABS) at the Kansas University. This relationship has proven to be beneficial in helping FCYP meet the first principle as many ABS practitioners utilize participatory action research principles.
Staff regularly speaks with children and guardians to determine if their needs are being met. Last year a practicum student designed a survey using the Community Toolbox (Work Group for Community Health and Development 2015). She then spoke with tenants in their homes to complete the survey and gather additional feedback. It is intended that staff will use the survey yearly to determine if programs and services are accomplishing their goals.
FCYP staff attempts meet principle one by actively seeking input from LDCHA tenants. There is still room for improvement. Some of the issues are systemic. FCYP is part of the LDCHA which is a government agency. There are many benefits to being part of a government agency, but there are some difficult aspects as well. Change can be very slow. This is a barrier to including tenants in decision-making processes. Many tenants utilize LDCHA services temporarily. The 5-person Board of Commissioners has one seat that is reserved for a tenant. This is a full voting member. Tenant representation on the board is important, but at the same time it is impossible for one board member to accurately represent the 2,695 individuals who received LDCHA assistance in 2014 (Oury 2015).
FCYP will continue to improve active and representative participation by engaging and encouraging youth and families to express themselves and share their concerns about programs and services. Efforts will be made to incorporate their suggestions into regular programs.
FCYP succeeds in “[e]ngag[ing] community members in learning about and understanding community issues, and the economic, social, environmental, political, psychological, and other impacts associated with alternative courses of action” (Community Development Society 2015). Staff participates with community based organizations that deal with various issues facing tenants. More importantly staff engages with tenants where they feel most comfortable whether it is on a walk or in their homes. Staff includes walks through the neighborhood as part of their regular routine. Casual conversations with tenants increase the understanding of the events that play a critical role in their lives.
Each staff member has a specific age-group focus. The Early Childhood Specialist works closely with a family therapist, Parents as Teachers, and an onsite daycare. These relationships work to expand her knowledge base around early childhood and development issues. The FCYP Coordinator has a longstanding relationship with the neighborhood elementary schools and neighborhood association. These relationships give him a better understanding of the issues that are affecting families served by FCYP. The coordinator also lives less than one mile from the FCYP.
Learning alternative courses of action is both useful and difficult. It requires extra work in an already busy schedule. However, new ideas can lead to new and better results. A new course of action can, in some cases, require major changes. This will make change seem slow, but listening to tenant concerns and implementing change when possible will help to build further trust and understanding.
The third Principle of Good Practice is “[i]ncorporate the diverse interests and cultures of the community in the community development process; and disengage from support of any effort that is likely to adversely affect the disadvantaged members of a community” (Community Development Society 2015). FCYP staff attempts to meet principle three by following the ten practices for youth engagement described by Adam Fletcher in The Practice of Youth Engagement. The practices are 1) learn the basics of youth engagement, 2) name the reasons, 3) plan, 4) build, 5) take action, 6) assess, reflect, and celebrate, 7) see how it stops, 8) think critically, 9) sustain, and 10) engage adults (Fletcher 2014).
Being successful with the third principle is complicated. Diversity is an important element in healthy relationships. Unfortunately, a study in the Journal of Social Psychology found, “the more diverse or integrated a neighborhood is, the less socially cohesive it becomes, while the more homogenous or segregated it is, the more socially cohesive” (Florida 2013). FCYP staff attempt to positively engage youth participants in ways that are culturally appropriate while promoting diversity and acceptance of other cultures.
A FCYP community mural shows the diversity of tenants living in the Edgewood Homes public housing neighborhood. The mural was designed by the youth with support from FCYP staff and professional mural artists. In other situations, staff has addressed gendered language and stereotypes with youth. When necessary, outside agencies and programs are brought in to deal with sensitive issues. Principle three is a difficult topic that will be addressed on an ongoing basis.
The Coordinator of FCYP has completed a community leadership program and the Midwest Academy’s Organizing for Social Change program. The positive values learned in those programs are incorporated into regular programming. Youth are encouraged to take the lead whether it is on a school project, afterschool art project, or organizing a pick-up basketball game. Staff also support youth when they are making an effort to demonstrate their leadership skills. Those activities coincide with principle four, “[w]ork actively to enhance the leadership capacity of community members, leaders, and groups within the community” (Community Development Society 2015).
FCYP believes that leadership as an action and not a position (Kansas Leadership Center 2015). The youth served by FCYP understand that they have the ability to exercise leadership in situations where they are not the authority figure. They are also taught to be respectful when demonstrating leadership. Their actions can be perceived as forceful or intimidation if they do not show respect for those they are trying to lead.
One area dealing where principle has not been successful is with adults. There have been some successful relationships, but parental engagement with the demographic being served is extremely difficult. Efforts are made but are rarely successful. Engaging adults and promoting leadership skills will help move them towards self-sufficiency.
It is fitting that principle five of the Principles of Good Practice deals with long-term planning. FCYP, with assistance from ABS, is working on establishing protocols and procedures that promote sustainability of the program. The out-of-school program has become an important part of the community. FCYP staff also provides basic assistance to tenants without children, specifically when the tenants have questions, comments, or concerns about the neighborhood. If the questions are beyond their scope, staff will direct them to the appropriate person. Strategies compliment principle four’s goal to, “[b]e open to using the full range of action strategies to work toward the long-term sustainability and well-being of the community” (Community Development Society 2015).
To work towards long-term sustainability and well-being is not easy when programs function on grant cycles. Staff and volunteer longevity is not very long. FCYP has two staff who have been employed with the program for more than 3 years (eight and four). Other staff are temporary or through AmeriCorps. This helps with the long-term planning, but it also makes it difficult to envision a time when there will be a completely new staff.
Community Development Society. 2015. “Principles of Good Practice.” Community Development Society. Retrieved October 19, 2015 (http://www.comm-dev.org/about-us/item/86-principles-of-good-practice).
Fletcher, Adam. 2014. The Practice of Youth Engagement. Common Action Books.
Florida, Richard. 2013. “The Paradox of Diverse Communities – CityLab.” Retrieved October 19, 2015 (http://www.citylab.com/housing/2013/11/paradox-diverse-communities/7614/).
Healy, K. 2001. “Participatory Action Research and Social Work: A Critical Appraisal.” International Social Work 44(1):93–105.
Kansas Leadership Center. 2015. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Kansas Leadership Center. Retrieved October 9, 2015 (http://kansasleadershipcenter.org/about-us/frequently-asked-questions).
Neal, Zachary P. and Jennifer Watling Neal. 2014. “The (In)compatibility of Diversity and Sense of Community.” American Journal of Community Psychology 53(1-2):1–12.
Oury, Shannon. 2015. Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority 2014 Annual Report. Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. Retrieved October 3, 2015 (http://www.ldcha.org/news/documents/2014AnnualReportApproved.pdf).
Work Group for Community Health and Development. 2015. “Assessing Community Needs and Resources | Community Tool Box.” Retrieved October 19, 2015 (http://ctb.ku.edu/en/assessing-community-needs-and-resources).