Responsible Civic Engagement: Supporting Sustainable Communities

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The topic of civic engagement and participation of a wide variety of stakeholders as a strategy for sustaining the growth and development of urban communities is of paramount importance to the common future of entire regions in the United States. The urbanization process being experienced by many countries around the world, makes our issues and challenges in America relevant to those of the larger global community. This paper provides a framework for nurturing and leveraging the engagement of NGO’s or community based organizations as agents of change and sustainability in urban revitalization efforts. As a university professor who has been successful in engaging my university in such efforts for community and neighborhood development, I will also discuss the importance of building partnerships between NGO’s and higher educational institutions to sustain long-term development. I will discuss Camden City and my efforts in developing a community based school under the auspices of the university as a case study for discussion.
Historical Role of NGO’s/Community Organizations in Community Building: Where have we been and where are we going
Historically, community based organizations (CBO’s) or non-governmental Organizations (NGO’s) have played an important role in community development that targets the revitalization of distressed urban and rural neighborhoods. (NCCED, 1999; Vidal, 1996) NGO’s have served as “agents of change” because of their ability to adopt innovative approaches, take risks and facilitate active participation from all levels. These organizations play five basic basic roles in the process of community building (Srinivas, 2000): The Social Welfare Role – which focuses on relief and direct services; The Mediatory Role – which focuses on communication and leveraging of resources for development and social action; The Consultative Role – which focuses on documentation and dissemination of information and expertise; The Partnership Role – which focuses on leveraging the collaboration of critical stakeholders in moving forward common agendas; The Social Agent Role – which focuses on bringing to the forefront of local discourse issues of critical importance to disenfranchised communities and spearheading the organization of stakeholders at the grassroots and governmental levels to exercise positive change.
The social agent and partnership building roles are of critical importance in sustaining the work of NGO’s and CBO’s and in leveraging the capacity to influence larger agendas that will promote social change. Thus, it is critically important for the leadership of NGO’s and CBO’s to build capacity and become proficient in the skills that are needed to implement effective collaborative efforts that will bring substantial gains in their local agendas.
In the United States, community based organizing emerges as a strategy for revitalizing communities and serving the needs of disenfranchised people during the civil rights and anti-poverty movements. (Pierce & Steinbach, 1987) Over the past 40 years, community development has evolved into an important field characterized by institutions and organizations that perform a solid service to disenfranchised communities in need of development. The need now exists to ensure that community development and organizing progresses from a movement to a field that incorporates solid organizational and leadership frameworks (Anglin and Herts, 2004).
NGO’s and CBO’s as Agents for Community Building
As communities all over the United States and beyond struggle with meeting the challenging needs of the poor and disenfranchised, our organizations need to shift their focus from one of merely “community development" to that of "community building". Community building as a term encompasses a more comprehensive approach to community renewal than the one that has been practiced in the past. This paradigm shift emerges from our understanding that to effectively address issues of poverty and economic opportunity in poor neighborhoods, we must invest “in the kinds of social capital that comprise the "fabric" of community: mutual assistance networks, social and economic relationships, public safety, and education, to name a few.” (Traynor, 1995) This kind of paradigm shift places new demands on the leadership of these organizations, including: Broadening the scope of activities and initiatives to provide for more comprehensive approaches to development; Re-tooling the organizations to ensure that they develop the necessary infrastructure and systems to accommodate a higher level of expectation and performance; Investing in research and accountability so that we can adequately document best practices and articulate standards for the field; Engaging multiple partners through institutional collaboration as a strategy for leveraging resources, bringing needed expertise and cultivating the support of important stakeholders; Investing in training and development as a strategy for building capacity at various levels of the organization from the leadership to the constituents. Andrew Mott, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change, sums up the challenges with the following statement: “To generate the constituency, power and movement to bring about large-scale gains in life prospects for poor people, community groups must dramatically increase their ability to influence major public and private institutions' policies. This will require either the rekindling of a mass movement or a series of changes in the priorities and behavior of all the actors in the field of community change.”(2000) Through my efforts in developing the LEAP Initiative in Camden City, I was able to bring together a mix of stakeholders ranging from local parents who were committed about the education of their children to university faculty who brought important resources that could be used in developing a community based charter school. The process by which we engaged all sectors of the community at-large has yielded a series of practices that are replicable and could be used in spearheading other efforts with direct impact in the community. In developing this school model, we were successful in engaging community partners and organizations through a comprehensive strategic planning process that incorporated critical steps that have proven to be effective in sustaining civic engagement. These steps include: establishing a process for shared leadership; building trust and ownership; defining a shared vision and goals; developing the technical tools of collaboration; providing an environment for participatory and open-ended planning; collaboratively design of education vision integrated with community life; leveraging and nurturing the engagement of residents, including provision of training and capacity building; supporting the formation of multi-racial/ethnic networks; and, the engagement of institutional partners. For this effort, Rutgers University, a public research institution with a campus in Camden City played and continues to play a critical role. Historically higher education institutions have played an important role in the process of revitalizing urban communities and NGO’s need to capitalize in the opportunities for bring these institution closer to their agendas. Few institutions have more to offer in propelling economic development on both a national and local basis than our nation’s colleges and universities. They are the creators and disseminators of knowledge and understanding that can help address urban challenges. As leading institutions in their communities, they are powerful economic drivers, technology centers, employers, developers and investors. As we were able to show through the LEAP Initiative, in partnership with local NGO’s, as well as governmental entities, Rutgers University is contributing a array of resources, including: education/job training; investment in Prek-12th education; access to arts and culture; training/capacity building; knowledge/innovation/entrepreneurship; and real estate and infrastructure development.
Camden, NJ: A City in Crisis
To fully understand the impact of LEAP, it is important to learn more about Camden City. Camden, New Jersey has the notorious distinction of being the second poorest city in the U.S. The city is plagued with many of the social ills that have made impossible for a segment of our population, mostly African American and Latinos, to compete in the American economy. It has few businesses and no critical mass of middle income residents, hallmarks of an economically healthy city. Its deteriorated environment makes it nearly impossible to attract those critical middle income residents and businesses, and it creates a very difficult life for the families who have stayed in Camden. Camden shares a set of characteristics that are common to other cities in crisis, including: an ineffective educational system; dilapidated neighborhoods; high incidence of drugs and alcohol abuse; lack of local industries, businesses and jobs; high incidence of crime and violence; lack of adequate health & human services; inadequate government services and processes; and a history of corruption and abuse by political officials.
Camden’s decline started with a post-World War II exodus of businesses and middle income residents that hit Camden particularly hard. Like many cities, Camden saw both businesses and people leave the city in the decades after the war ended. Camden’s economy and work force were badly hurt when RCA was purchased in 1960 and New York Shipbuilding closed in 1967. From 1950 to 1970, Camden lost half of its manufacturing jobs. In 1980, one of Camden’s last remaining large businesses, Campbell’s Soup, decided to scale back its operations in the city. Historians note that political leaders were slow to react to the initial exodus of businesses from Camden and that the city never recovered from the loss of its traditional big businesses. (Annie Casey Foundation, 2001)
With the flight of businesses and middle income residents, class and racial polarization emerged. Political theorist Myron Orfield argues that a city’s “core of poverty” grows densely when those who have choices and resources leave blighted neighborhoods. Consequently, the growth in poverty results in increasing social disorder, such as unemployment and violent crime, which turns into a decline in the overall environment. Once, this level of neglect and abandonment is present, it becomes increasingly difficulty and complex to turn the tide and shift the patterns of failure and social/economic dysfunction.
A number of U.S. cities fell victim to this devastating socioeconomic dynamic in the last half of the twentieth century, but it was carried to an extreme in Camden. From 1950 to 1990 the number of minorities living in the city increased dramatically. In 1990 86 percent of Camden’s population was minority individuals, compared to less than 10 percent in the suburbs. While the first exodus of middle income residents had been predominantly white, the second wave, following the riots in 1971, included affluent and educated minorities who joined their white counterparts in the suburbs. All of this deepened the concentration of low income minorities living in Camden. Racial and class tensions between the city and the suburbs grew. The cycle continued as a concentration of poverty was followed by an escalation of social disorder, characterized by high crime and unemployment, that ultimately led to today’s deteriorated environment.
In the midst of this level of desolation, there are also positive signs of civic engagement on the part of residents and community leaders. Through local NGO’s, residents are taking a stand for the future of their communities. Universities and hospitals have also taken an active role in contributing to the revitalization of the city. As a result of these efforts, millions of dollars from state and federal sources have been raised to improve the quality of life for Camden residents.
The Case of the Rutgers/LEAP Academy
My involvement in this process has been primarily through the development of the LEAP Academy University Charter School, a community based school serving over 700 children from pre-school through high school. LEAP features a variety of innovative instructional approaches including: an extended school year (September - July) and extended day (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.); a strong partnership with Rutgers University, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the Delaware River Port Authority; parental engagement and training; curricular focus on mathematics, science, and technology; pre-college orientation; continuous professional development for teachers and staff; and, on site health and human services. At the heart of this initiative lies a commitment to the healthy physical, intellectual and emotional development of our children and families. Addressing these within a comprehensive framework of school-community collaboration and planning is a relatively new and perhaps untested idea in cities such as Camden. Given the importance of providing a quality education to children in all communities, particularly children living in poor neighborhoods, LEAP emerges as an opportunity for creating sustainable change in a poor city by involving parents and community, in partnership with institutions of higher education, foundations, business and government. LEAP’s holistic and comprehensive model provides the necessary continuum of education and service to ensure that children are part of a system that supports them from early childhood through high school and then to college.
LEAP Academy was born out of a comprehensive community development effort targeted at enhancing the opportunities for the children and families of the City of Camden. The basic principles underpinning this effort were that: All children will be ready to succeed in school; All children will receive a high quality education and have access to a variety of school linked human services that meet the needs of the whole family; All residents will have access to an integrated health and human services system; and, All residents will be empowered to achieve self-sufficiency and maximize their potential. As part of the planning process a 60-member Working Group was established and included key stakeholders from the following organizations and sectors: the Camden City school system, the Camden County Department of Health and Human Services, civic representatives, business leaders, the Mayor’s Office, community based organizations, non-profit groups, area churches, the Camden Police Department, the Rutgers Police Department, the Camden Aquarium, and a Parents Advisory Board. In addition, faculty, staff and students from the Rutgers’ Schools of Nursing, Social Work, Law, Education, and Business actively participated in this planning effort.
This collaborative effort reflected extensive input and dialogue from representatives of civic organizations, public school teachers, parents and students. Our efforts were based partially on the belief that public schools could be improved and strengthened in terms of pedagogy and effectiveness by tapping into the experiences and resources of community stakeholders. Our efforts showed how planning and civic teamwork could be introduced for public dialogue and action in non-threatening and non-divisive ways. The emergence of the Rutgers/LEAP initiative and the LEAP Academy Charter School illustrates that citizens have the capacity to initiate and support educational innovations aimed at improving the overall academic and social preparation of children and young people if they are given the opportunity and the necessary tools. We believe that the strategic planning process developed for this effort has contributed to a heightened sense of civic spirit among sectors involved with public education, as well as increased the level and quality of parental involvement in the education of their children.
The collaborative and partnership building process for this initiative produced several important accomplishments for the city of Camden in addition to the establishment of the city’s first charter school-- LEAP Academy. These accomplishments include the adoption of a comprehensive model for involving parents in schools; building trust and enhancing the quality of relations between the community and the university; building a multi-racial and ethnic network of community leaders focusing education; and establishing strong relationships with foundations and organizations interested in working to solve the educational crisis in Camden City.
Throughout the process of building the LEAP Academy, we have learned a number of important lessons that can inform other groups as they launch comprehensive initiatives for community building. As we continue to find effective strategies for shifting the failure paradigm that affects so many urban cities, the role of our organizations must change. First, partnership building is a critical factor to the long term sustainability of our organizations. The ultimate success of our efforts in community building depends ultimately on the capacity to build strategic partnerships between governments, the private sector and NGOs. For these partnerships to work, they need to be strategic and jointly managed. Governmental, for-profit and NGOs need to recognize each other as being integral partners with distinct and important roles to play in community building. Governments enact and enforce policy and regulates overall processes; for-profit organizations offer resources, and technical assistance, while NGOs offer practical on-the-ground knowledge, relationships, and access to local networks needed to get the job done in a way that renders the final product sustainable. (Giunta, 2000). Government and corporations should view NGOs as critical extensions of their work that permit them to realize the return they seek, whether those returns are financial or social in nature. Second, NGO’s need to shift away from reaction to proaction. By design, NGO’s are in the best position to play significant roles in bridging communities with resources. They are entrepreneurial in their approach and over the years have develop the type of rapport with local folks that facilitates a mediation role with other organizational stakeholders. Third, NGO’s need to be accountable. There needs to be mechanisms in place to ensure transparency and sharing of information with all stakeholders and constituents. Accountability is also critical to assess and evaluate the course of action and the need to change. Fourth, we need to document what are considered best practices that can be used for replication and dissemination. Hari Srinivas from Human Strategies for Human Rights calls for “an enabling environment that fosters such local innovations and solutions to local problems” and incorporate some of the following features: Building the innovative capacity of local leaders and organizations; Identifying, documenting and disseminating innovative practices; Creating opportunity for peer-to-peer exchange; Bringing together multi-disciplinary and multisectoral groups around common problems or points of collaboration so that they may collectively generate, implement or replicate innovations Finally, we must tap on financial resources that will ensure long-term sustainability. Given the constraints and competition for funds, collaboration becomes a critical factor in ensuring the financial sustainability of NGO’s. Creative financing and the identification of opportunities for generating revenues become important strategies for long-term sustainability.


Keywords: Building Partnerships and Collaboration, Sustainable Communities, Schools and Replication Model
Stream: Sociology, Geography
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Gloria Bonilla-Santiago

Professor, Public Administration and Public Policy, Rutgers University
Camden, New Jersey, USA

GLORIA BONILLA-SANTIAGO, PH.D. Is a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor at the Department of Public Policy & Administration and Director of the Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She received a B.A. from Glassboro State College; an MSW from Rutgers University; an M.A. in Philosophy, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from City University of New York (CUNY) and completed post-doctoral studies at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. As a leading scholar, researcher, speaker, and cross-cultural training consultant, Dr. Santiago brings over 15 years of experience in program development, strategic planning, fund-raising, and leadership training. She writes and speaks widely on the areas of community development, policy analysis, migration of women, diversity management, organizational leadership, and public policy. In 1993, she received the Warren I. Susman Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest recognition for teaching given to Rutgers' faculty by the President of the University. Dr. Santiago designed, delivered, and customized curricula for the following cultural diversity leadership programs: International Development Bank, Internal Revenue Services, Pharmaceutical Industry, Department of Education, Department of Community Affairs, and numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States and the world. Dr. Santiago is certified by Personnel Decisions, Inc. (PDI) to provide managerial assessments to assist clients in the following areas: employee promotion, performance appraisal, conflict resolution, diversity management, personnel research, and minority and community development. In addition, she has been an adjunct for the Center for Creative Leadership and provided consultations and services to many corporations and institutions of higher learning. During her tenure at Rutgers University, Dr. Santiago designed cultural diversity curricula for the following domestic and international programs: The South Jersey Regional Leadership Institute, The Latino Fellows Leadership Institute, The Teacher Development and Performance Institute, The Institute for Best Practices and Innovations in Urban Education, Project LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Partnership) initiative, Leadership Institute with Janssen Pharmaceuticals in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Dr. Santiago's most ambitious undertaking to date has been the creation of the LEAP Academy University Charter School and the Rutgers/LEAP Centers of Excellence, hallmarks of a major outreach initiative of Rutgers University. The mission for this comprehensive initiative is to enhance opportunities for the children and families of Camden through the collaborative design, implementation, and integration of education, health, and human service programs and community development. LEAP Academy is a PreK-12 school serving 756 students. The school, which is financed by the state per pupil allotment as well as federal entitlement dollars, feature a variety of innovative instructional approaches including: an extended school year (September - July) and extended day (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.); a strong partnership with Rutgers University, UMDNJ and the Delaware River Port Authority; parental involvement and training; emphasis on mathematics, science, and technology; experiential learning; multi-age groupings; multidisciplinary study units; pre-college focus; continuous professional development for teachers and staff; and, health and human services.
In addition to her work in education and professional development, Dr. Santiago is the author of two books: Breaking Ground and Barriers: Hispanic Women Developing Effective Leadership (Marin 1992) and Organizing Puerto Rican Migrant Farmworkers: The Experience of Puerto Ricans in New Jersey (Peter Lang 1988). Dr. Santiago has also published numerous articles and monographs; most recently, her chapter entitled "Latina Battered Women: Barriers to Service Delivery and Cultural Considerations" appears in Helping Battered Women, edited by A. Roberts (Oxford University Press 1996).

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