At P.S. 63 on the lower east side of Manhattan, a group of reformers called the Neighborhood Group established a self-governing neighborhood social center. Reformers envisioned that the bottom-up energy, commitment, and ideas of residents would improve opportunities for immigrant children and families. They were optimistic that focusing on a small defined geographic space and linking neighborhood change efforts with neighborhood schools would positively impact children, families, and the community.
Don’t try to Google “The Neighborhood Group” to see how you can get involved: the scenario described above happened in 1912. But, with a renewed focus on place-based initiatives (PBIs) 1 for education reform, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and community schools – and the estimated ten billion dollars that foundations have spent on PBIs in the past two decades – it’s worth another look at history. From the Progressive Era to the War on Poverty to right now, documentation and evaluations of such initiatives point to one common thread that unraveled them: under-representation or pure omission of the voices of the people with the most to lose or gain.
Despite the good intentions of the Neighborhood Group and its parent organization, the People’s Institute of New York City, professionals were given a far larger and louder bullhorn than residents. As the work expanded to more schools and neighborhoods, professionals were increasingly looked to as “experts.” Social service provision replaced the initial goal of self-governance; many believed that professional control was more efficient and scientific, less politically incendiary, and a whole lot safer. It was also not sustainable. Without community leadership and buy-in, the People’s Institute dwindled into extinction along with waning support for neighborhood initiatives after World War I.
Over the past 100 years, a similar story has echoed repeatedly in cities across the country. The actors are different, but the plot is always the same. This is a shame, because PBIs have tremendous potential for closing educational opportunity gaps in underserved neighborhoods. PBIs approach educational reform from 360 degrees, drawing on a wealth of research showing that out-of-school factors account for about two-thirds of the achievement gap. They consider how young peoples’ experiences within and beyond school walls influence their educational outcomes and seek to improve the settings young people encounter from “cradle-to-career.”
There is a tactical reason and a moral reason why it’s time to get serious about ensuring equitable community engagement within PBIs. Tactically, solutions are more likely to succeed in the short and long term when they respond to lived experiences; are informed by people who have been around for awhile and know what works, what doesn’t work, and why; and are cared for by community members who fight for them to stick around after the money dries up. Morally, those with power and privilege in the United States have an obligation not to replicate – albeit with good intentions – our nation’s shameful history of systematically excluding certain groups from the political process. When outsiders make unilateral decisions about the fate of communities, PBIs dehumanize the people living, learning, parenting, and teaching in a neighborhood.
So, how do we turn history off repeat?
First, all PBIs need to share a common definition of what equitable community engagement is and what it is not. This definition should include decision-making processes involving community members and respected community leaders from the beginning; various opportunities for members to engage in an initiative; safe spaces where people with varying levels of power can engage in conversations that might be uncomfortable; and professionals who spend ample time in the community building relationships.
On the other hand, equitable community engagement should not be defined by a few active residents showing up to a meeting designed for professionals; a single survey forcing people to reduce their experiences to preselected categories; or a campaign where community members are mobilized and then left behind once the campaign is won.
Applying this definition in practice starts with PBI funders. Funders should structure their funding proposal requests in such a way that requires applicants and community members to envision a bold plan for equitable community engagement. Scoring systems should ensure that a proposal with a narrow definition of community engagement is not funded. Doing so requires funders to trust that the people whom they typically consider the targets of reform can drive the reform. This paradigm shift will be hard, but it will be easier than continuing to invest time, resources, and reputations into initiatives that fall short of their intended goals.
Second, funders or other technical assistance providers need to support anchor organizations to do this challenging work. Leveling power dynamics between professionals and community members across racial, socioeconomic, educational, and linguistic difference is not quick or easy, particularly in neighborhoods with high levels of mistrust. Technical assistance providers should support organizations to bridge these divides before implementation begins and convene regional and national learning networks that disseminate innovative methods for equitable community engagement, such as the P.S. 2013 bus tour in New York City, PhotoVoice, and participatory action research.
Third, researchers examining education reform and PBIs should learn how different stakeholders define and experience equitable community engagement within PBIs and convert findings into tools that communities can use to assess the strength of their community engagement practices.
Political and financial support for neighborhood initiatives to fight poverty waxed and waned throughout the twentieth century, and now the tide has turned again in their favor. Let’s be better than we were one hundred years ago. The time is now to learn our lessons from a century of missed opportunities for educational equity.
More Information on PBIs and Community Engagement
Residents Engaged in Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2000)
“Roundtable on Community Engagement and Collective Impact,” by M. Barnes, R. Harwood, S. Savner, S. Stewart, and M. Zanghi. In Stanford Social Innovation Review (Fall 2014).
“Community Organizing and Citizen Participation: The Efforts of the People’s Institute in New York City, 1910-1920,” by R. Fisher. In Social Service Review (September 1977).
Smart Education Systems: Community Centered School Reform
by Warren Simmons, Annenberg Institute for School Reform (2011)
“Cross-Sector Coalitions for Smart Education Systems: Deepening Grass-Roots Engagement,” a Rhode Island Foundation keynote by social change activist Greg Hodge (April 2014).
1 PBIs, as defined here, offer a comprehensive and coordinated set of “cradle-to-career” supports to children and families in a defined geographic space. They are also sometimes called comprehensive community initiatives.
The author would like to acknowledge Fiorella Guevara, AISR program associate, and Jaime Del Razo, AISR principal associate, for their valuable feedback on this commentary.