“Our intent is to share success stories of participatory methods that evidence profound respect and inclusive participation,” said Jane Stallman in her opening remarks to a webinar on community development co-hosted by ICA and the Center for Strategic Facilitation (CSF). On hand to share these case stories were ICA Program Director Seva Gandhi and Jennifer Vanica, co-lead of VanicaCummings and Senior Fellow with PolicyLink.
Jennifer further introduced the theme by defining community development itself. While there are “millions of definitions” for community, she noted that most share a sense of connection and interdependence around everything from work and practice to faith and identity. Community development most often focuses on geography, and the social and psychological attachment that accompanies place. Development, in the traditional sense of “revitalizing disinvested communities”, focuses on the economic expansion of the built environment. In other words, it also revolves around place, but tends to emphasize projects rather than people. Community development, Jennifer said, “brings these two things together: it’s a focus on people and place and projects.”
Seva put it another way: “Comprehensive community development is the idea that communities have their own answers to their own problems and just need to come together to figure them out.” She said that principle is foundational to ICA’s approach, which began to take in the 1960s in Chicago’s Fifth City neighborhood before expanding in the 1970s to 24 worldwide Human Development Projects.
She explained that one result of that vast body of work was ICA’s Social Process analysis, in which healthy societies balance their economic, political, and cultural elements. ICA recognized that culture is often dominated by economics in decision making. “We are the Institute of Cultural Affairs because we’re here to help people make meaning and significance again of their lives, of their time together, of their communities, and co-create plans of action, and through that work we’re helping re-balance that social process,” she said.
Another result was the Technology of Participation (ToP) methods, which were distilled from nearly 30 years of working alongside residents to design and implement comprehensive community development projects.
ToP methods are as needed today as ever, Seva explained, as the professionalization of community organizing and planning has led to a trend of professionals who are not from the places about which they are making decisions. Participation, which is central to ToP, is mandatory for reversing that trend and ensuring that people who are most affected by the development process are at the head of the table and creating the changes they seek.
She offered the Uptown Coastal Initiative as an example, in which ICA used ToP methods to convene neighborhood residents to create an action plan for enhancing awareness and stewardship of natural assets on the coast of Lake Michigan. That early planning later resulted in Out and About Uptown’s Coast, a public education series that engaged hundreds of Uptown residents in experiential learning activities.
Seva also brought ToP methods to LISC Chicago by training leaders participating in their Chicago Plans initiative, which worked with residents to develop Quality of Life Plans for Chicago communities. Community partner Austin Coming Together convened over 800 people to participate in a consensus workshop that informed the Austin Quality of Life Plan.
Jennifer echoed Seva’s sentiments, saying that “people need to be the architects of their own destiny for anything to work and for it to be sustaining.” This principle grates against common practice in the philanthropic community, which tends to favor predetermined outcomes delivered by trusted institutions, and hesitates to relinquish control—and resources—to emerging, resident-driven planning.
The development of Market Creek Plaza in southeast San Diego, was a cross-disciplinary collaboration of 14 funders working to overturn that paradigm. “We needed to be able to mobilize immediate action, but allow the vision to be increasingly dynamic and to emerge and to get at really huge underlying barriers that are caused by disinvestment and our history of race and class,” said Jennifer, who worked extensively on the project through the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. With Market Creek, funders began by asking what if? What if we asked residents what they wanted, valued, and needed? What if we valued resident expertise, experience, and ownership of the process? What if we put residents at the center of planning and implementation?
ToP methods were fundamental to asking those questions in a way that would build a sense of ownership among residents. According to Jennifer, ToP also inspired the inclusivity and emphasis on contradictions that were essential to success.
The Market Creek development project resulted in first major grocery store, over $50 million in economic activity, and the creation of 250 jobs—79% of which were secured by residents. More importantly, residents reported social changes such as greater interconnectedness, sense of belonging, and more resilient spirit. There was a profound shift in from residents being clients or consumers of services to residents being leaders and agents of their own futures.