Barbara and her daughter are one of our core MVP Families. They look forward to every meeting and haven’t missed a single one. Last week, when Barbara didn’t get the reminder text for the upcoming meeting when she expected it, she called our Family Engagement Coordinator, Shawn, to make sure everything was on track and to see if he needed any help.
To these core families, MVP Families is becoming a very important part of life. In the past two sessions, families have built goals together beginning with academic goals for the children. They have also worked on two family goals – a health and wellness goal and a financial stability goal. Barbara is focused on reading more with her daughter so that she “learns the right words and is ready for school.” She has also set goals to eat healthier and to secure more hours at her job at Vacation Lodge.
One of the most important aspects of a life well-lived is the discovery and pursuit of one’s own goals and aspirations. For those of us who practice Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), this is a fundamental part of the work – helping residents of a small geographic area leverage their skills and networks to realize their dreams. Connecting the dreams of particular residents to one another and those shared dreams to the overall transformation of a community is where the work gets exciting.
As straightforward as this sounds, this type of emphasis is quite rare. There are a few reasons for this, most of which are not bad. First, funding sources for programs tend to want to know what you plan to do before they give you the money. Makes sense. But then, that’s what you have to do. And if your grant was written to improve health outcomes in a community whose stated priority is jobs, then you have a conflict on your hands. The solution to this is to simply include a discovery phase for grants and to allow some ability to adjust to what is discovered.
Similarly, non-profits tend to get started to address a single, specific issue like homelessness, employability, school grades, or blindness to name a few. They then scale their work as they successfully help their clients address the issue. When the potential client-base is a city of over 200,000 people or a county of over a million people, a non-profit can continue its march towards excellence and success because it can and will focus its attention on those clients most amenable to what they have to offer. When the client-base is the residents of a particular neighborhood of 1,500 people, everything changes. And the business model of most non-profits simply will not survive that scale.
The solution to this is quite simple. Simply create a program whose sole purpose is to help the neighborhood residents establish and meet their goals while bringing in specialist partners who can help the residents succeed in particular areas. The biggest challenge to this is establishing sufficient trust to allow people to share their goals in the first place. Asking people what they are hoping to achieve in life is way more personal that asking them to show up to a cooking class. And this is one of the reasons that organizations don’t tend to do this type of work – it takes a very long time to build trusting relationships. But that is what we all need and desire in life.
We call this a Resident and Community Support Program after a program run by the East Lake Foundation in Atlanta. We are implementing a similar program on behalf of LIFT Orlando called MVP Families. Pictured above is Porcha, one of the core members of the program. The other day she took me aside to tell me how grateful she was for the program. She has now established her own goals for her family and is getting to connected to the best practices and some programs to help achieve these goals.
The most strategic philanthropic investment in the U.S. goes towards revitalizing the distressed neighborhoods that are the source of most of our social issues. These neighborhoods are also full of people with aspirations and talents. Philanthropist and businessman Tom Cousins said it this way, “America’s greatest untapped resource is the human capital trapped in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.” This is a new model for philanthropy – holistically addressing all of the issues in a single small geography rather than trying to address a single issue across a large geography.
POLIS has set out to make this happen in Central Florida since our baseline research concluded (2006-2009). We didn’t invent the model, we just discovered it. We also found no evidence of any mature effort to implement the model in Central Florida. Today, there are 10 comprehensive efforts to revitalize 33 of our 100 distressed neighborhoods. Each effort is distinctly focused on a particular geography in order to maximize the “holistic capitalization” required (the phrase we coined in our research to describe the approach). And each effort is in a different stage of the process. We help keep these initiatives on track while comparing any gains they produce to our overall “well-being” as measured by Gallup.
This is the POLIS framework for making a city stronger – strategically invest in its most distressed neighborhoods. Our role is that of a guide, facilitator, and evaluator. On behalf of a specific group of investors and for the primary benefit of the residents of these neighborhoods, we directly engage the community, equip community leaders, and evaluate the overall progress of the revitalization effort. We also run a Resident and Community Support Program in order to ensure that residents are armed with their own goals and plans when they engage with other non-profits and social service agencies that can help them achieve their goals.
Our work is important and it takes a lot of time to do this model. Time is money so we need and highly value your charitable contributions since they allow us to continue our march to propel Metro Orlando into the 90th percentile for well-being amongst America’s largest cities by 2030 (we are currently in the 59th percentile). As lofty as our primary goal is, the work boils down to affecting one family and one community at a time. Lend your support to our work today so that we can continue to make our city and our world a better place.
For the past 21 years, Florida Citrus Sports (FCS), has been investing in youth enrichment in Orlando through a program called “MVP Summer Camp.” This year the camp is being extended to a year-round program called “MVP Families.”
Through the combined efforts of FCS in partnership with Lift Orlando, Florida Blue, and the Polis Institute, the program is seeking to engage families in the 32805 neighborhood. Program objectives include assisting students with college acceptance and scholarships, developing community leaders, strengthening the bonds between parents and children, connecting families with other families, and setting and achieving family goals.
Once a the month, leading up to the MVP summer camp next summer, a dinner will be prepared for and by MVP Families program participants. Child care will be provided, allowing space and opportunity for meaningful discussion among the adults in a holistic approach to community transformation. The first of these meetings will be on Tuesday, September 6, 2016 at the Frontline Outreach Youth and Family Community Center (3000 C.R Smith St. Orlando, FL 32805) from 6:30-8:30pm.
Former basketball player and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley once said, “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” So true. You could also say the same about a community. While leadership is certainly not the only ingredient in a community becoming better, it is easily the most important. And it is surprisingly undervalued. That may because the type of leadership we often see, particularly in struggling communities, is authoritarian and self-serving – the opposite of what Senator Bradley extolled. And so people grow suspicious of the very idea of leadership and learn to distrust the leaders that they follow – often by default. This persists even when the efforts of these leaders do not result in improvements or the unlocking of potential.
Polis Institute is adding a certification course in Growth Leadership to our training lineup in order to meet the need for more effective, other-focused community leadership. I am very excited about the pilot class that is being facilitated by Dr. Bahiyyah Maroon in Eatonville, Florida. Last night was the second of six classes in the series that will conclude on September 26th. The sense that potential was being unlocked before our eyes was palpable as the group shared positive stories of people living out moral principles – such as integrity, respect, and kindness – that are the foundation of the training. Early next year the program will be available to others who want to apply valuable leadership skills in their communities.
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) involves leveraging what a community has to offer so that it can move itself towards a desired future. A first step in the process is typically some kind of inventory of what is there – talents of individuals, programs and facilities, informal groups, property – the whole nine yards. This information is captured, analyzed, and visualized so that connections can be made and initiatives can be created that benefit the community. The product of this inventory is often called an asset map.
Art is a great way to visualize these assets and can serve as a nice complement to the more common options of a tabular list or a map. The most useful asset maps include all three – artwork, a database, and on dynamic online map. All three can depict the same information but are just displayed in different formats, each with its own appeal. The tabular data gives you just the facts, the map shows you where assets are, and artwork provides emotional and narrative content.
This video describes an art project that POLIS led as part of the LIFT Orlando project:
The project described in the video above was fairly complex. POLIS was contracted by LIFT Orlando to do the asset mapping project and hired ArtWorks to do the creative process with the children. There was a lot of planning to conduct the sessions in four different locations that included a school and three community centers. There were expenses to pay and significant expertise from the ArtWorks staff to guide the students through the process. But the end result was amazing. The art from the kids was inspirational and aligned very closely with what over 1,500 adults had said in door-to-door surveys.
The survey information was entered into a database which was also loaded into a GIS (Geographic Information System). But the information was also visualized in a more artistic way, or at least a graphic way. This involved loading the responses into an online word cloud generator called WordItOut (there are several) that produced a graphic of all of the recorded words of responses to the survey questions. The more frequent the word, the larger the word in the graphic.
Three of the questions that POLIS asks during its asset surveys are depicted below followed by example word clouds from the LIFT project.
What is your favorite thing about the neighborhood?
What would you do to make the community a better place?
What is something that other people say you are good at?
These representations of what people say or imagine invoke much more of an emotive response than merely hearing a statistic or seeing a dot on a map. Data and maps are very helpful but less structured graphic and artistic representations of community assets can be especially helpful for unlocking ideas and vision – which are essential to making positive change. These images are presented at community meetings, along with stats and maps, to help build initiatives that are most likely to engage community interest and provide a tangibel community benefit.
Door-to-door community surveys are commonplace, especially in low income areas. I recently heard a long-term resident of such a neighborhood say, “We’re like rats in a cage here. People always studying us, trying to fix us.” Universities, non-profits, community groups, government officials – everyone wants to know “What should we do to help people in this community?” A common response to that question is, “Well, let’s first find out what people need.” This often prompts the commissioning of a needs-based survey that catalogs and prioritizes these needs. The results serve as supporting evidence for raising funds and as a baseline against which progress can be measured over time.
Asset-based approaches stem from a desire to know “What do people in the community care about enough to act on themselves?” And, “What resources are already present in the community to make a start.” These types of surveys yield ideas, reveal trusted groups and leaders, and expose the talents and interests of residents. The survey process is used as a catalyst for conversation and the foundation of community-led initiatives.
The differences between these two approaches, and the types of surveys that result, go far beyond the mere ‘glass half-full/glass half-empty’ perspective. They are actually two different glasses used for two different purposes and having two different primary financial beneficiaries. The purpose of the needs-based ‘glass’ is to provide services to a community while the purpose of the asset-based ‘glass’ is to engage community interests and skills. The needs-based glass is designed to primarily benefit service providers financially while the asset-based glass should primarily benefits residents financially. Both approaches involve needs and assets and both can be viewed from ‘half-full/half-empty’ perspectives. The difference is in who owns the glass – service providers or residents – and what’s in the glass – talents of service providers or talents of residents.
For entities outside of a community that want to help, following an asset-based approach means doing things with the community rather than for the community. It requires emphasizing and utilizing what the community has to offer over what it lacks. And it is is distinguished by the types of initiatives that result – who is involved, what the goals are, who leads, how they are sustained, and who benefits financially. Greater community involvement results in more sustainable initiatives and greater community impact over the long term. If you want to empower a community to chart its own path forward, needs based services will never get you there. It is simply a different ‘glass’ altogether than the asset-based glass.
The table below contrasts some of the key differences between asset and needs-based surveys:
Focus on learning about the needs of a community so that services can be provided for them or goods can be given to them.
Focus on learning from a community so that initiatives can be built by the community and with the community.
Pose an extensive list of closed-ended questions to a minimum representative sample of a community.
Pose a short list of open-ended questions to as many people in the community as possible.
Yield problems for which a service provider can provide solutions and programs.
Yield ideas most likely to directly engage the community in addressing their hopes and concerns.