Strengthening the Capacities and Connections of Community Residents

in Comprehensive Community Initiatives

Highlights from Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, by Anne C. Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, Karen Fulbright-Anderson, and Ralph Hamilton. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

Community capacity: the interaction of human capital, organizational resources, and social capital existing within a given community that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and improve or maintain the well-being of that community. It may operate through informal social processes and/or organized efforts by individuals, organizations and social networks. (Chaskin, Brown, Venkatesh & Vidal, 2001).


The key features of communities with capacity are a sense of community among residents, a commitment by residents to organize and act to improve the community, an ability to act to solve problems, and access to resources within and beyond the community.

Because residents are the core of a community’s assets, they represent the first level in the ecology of community change. As both agents and beneficiaries of community change, they can play a central role in shaping, implementing, and sustaining the change agenda. In many low-income communities, however, residents lack opportunities and support for those roles. Efforts by recent community-change ventures to increase residents’ capacity involve developing them as leaders, creating social connections, and organizing people to participate in change.

Developing Leaders

Our definition and discussion of leadership development draws heavily from a recent publication on community capacity (Chaskin, Brown,Venkatesh & Vidal, 2001), which describes the following characteristics: [Leadership development] attempts to engage the participation and commitment of current and potential leaders, provide them with opportunities for building skills, connect them to new information and resources, enlarge their perspectives on their community and how it might change, and help them create new relationships.

Methods range from formal training programs, which convey information or develop particular skills, to on-the-job training in which participants become members of boards or planning teams, serve in apprenticeships or co-staffing positions, and receive coaching or other training that prepares them to assume new roles. These approaches can be used to cultivate individual leaders or cadres of individuals who can participate in any stage of the community-change process: developing the overall vision, creating the plan for change, performing activities to implement the plan, tracking progress, and spreading the news about results.


Core Principles of Community Building

in Comprehensive Community Initiatives

Excerpts from Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, by Anne C. Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, Karen Fulbright-Anderson, and Ralph Hamilton. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

Anne C. Kubisch

Community building—the process of strengthening the ability of neighborhood residents, organizations, and institutions to foster and sustain neighborhood change, both individually and collectively—is vital to the work of Comprehensive Community Initiatives and many other community-change efforts. The belief that community residents can be agents of change, rather than just beneficiaries or clients, is probably the quality that most distinguishes community building from traditional programs and activities.

Practitioners believe that community building is a democratic process and that the people who are most affected by what happens in a community have the right to be included in discussions and decisions about what and how things should be done. This dimension of the work often is what truly motivates leaders, staff, and residents as they carry out their daily activities. It underscores the values of equity, self-determination, social justice, and respect for diversity that they believe are fundamental to healthy communities.

Prudence Brown

Prudence Brown

The community-building principle also recognizes that strong communities are built on the strengths of their residents and the relationships among them. The isolation of poor neighborhoods can undermine residents’ emotional, psychological, and social supports and sap the energy and the will they need to produce changes. Community building tries to weave or repair the social fabric of a neighborhood by expanding and strengthening informal ties among residents. It also aims to link community members with supportive individuals, organizations, and resources outside the neighborhood.

Community building, as the name suggests, is an ongoing process. In the words of one funder, “Is there such a thing as a ‘built’ community? I don’t think so. There’s always room for improvement.” The goal is to put in place the will, resources, and capacity needed to sustain local improvement beyond the life of an initiative.


Robert Chaskin

Although successful Community Development Corporations and other community-based organizations began putting the philosophy into practice well before it went by the name “community building,” CCIs played a pivotal role in placing the principle front and center, backing it with financial and technical resources, finding ways to implement it, and attempting to measure it. Community building’s position within recent community-change initiatives spans the spectrum from being a means to an end to being the end itself.

Community building as a means to an end

Some CCIs undertake community building as a means for reaching or enhancing programmatic goals (e.g., increasing employment, building better housing, improving health outcomes). From the perspective of these practitioners, community building is one of many instruments for change—something that occurs in the service of the initiative. According to one CCI director, “Community building must be done around real projects designed to revitalize the neighborhood in response to the needs and issues articulated by the community. It’s not just a matter of holding meetings. It must be outcomes oriented … it must be intertwined with programs. It’s not an approach by itself: it feeds on and is fed by outcome-oriented projects”.

Advocates of this view are sometimes impatient with the process oriented, “touchy-feely” community builders who, they believe, are lax about linking the work to outcomes. As a representative from one neighborhood-based employment effort explained, “If we find out that the neighborhood residents didn’t get jobs, we will not have succeeded. If we find out that they increased their self-esteem but didn’t get jobs, we just won’t accept that.”

Community building as an end in itself

Other practitioners believe that community building is an end in itself, a goal to pursue. Their initiatives use community building to drive all strategic decisions, and they assume that community-building outcomes—resident leadership, social capital, and neighborhood empowerment—are both valuable in their own right and essential for producing other types of change. People who subscribe to this view would argue that a community improvement effort that builds housing or increases employment but does not engage or empower residents is not successful.


Improve the Community, Deter the Criminal

in Comprehensive Community Initiatives

Crime is a serious and costly social problem that touches every neighborhood in this country. The knowledge base for developing effective neighborhood crime prevention initiatives has expanded significantly in recent years. When targeting these processes, certain interventions have been fairly successful in reducing the prevalence of crime in specific areas. Whether this knowledge can be used to produce sustained reductions in neighborhood crime rates is an important social policy question.

Since the mid-1960s, the United States has been embroiled in a war against crime, and has sought to control crime though the traditional responses of deterrence, incapacitation, and (occasionally) rehabilitation. The results of this law-enforcement approach are apparent. Expanded criminal codes and enforcement have produced huge jail and prison populations, disproportionately persons of color. While many policymakers have sought to justify these actions by citing reductions in crime rates, regardless of the merits of this argument (which are debatable), the financial and human costs of these policies are enormous and underestimated.

Although the criminal justice system is a necessary component of neighborhood crime prevention, it is not sufficient and can easily be overused. Clearly, the criminal justice system, as currently structured, is extremely limited in its capacity to prevent neighborhood crime. Hence, the best bet for promoting safe and healthy neighborhoods is to achieve broad understanding of the causes and impacts of violence and work to develop a broad array of preventive responses.

One important insight to emerge from scientific inquiry into neighborhoods in the past few decades is that problem behaviors tend to cluster in geographic areas and within individuals and families. Consequently, these behaviors tend to reinforce one another. Delinquency, violence, dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse often co-vary. As a result, new models are emerging for improving neighborhood safety and health, beginning with the premise that organizing around broad goals at the neighborhood level will result in improved quality of life for local residents. Inherent in these new models is the belief that traditional approaches to improving social conditions are not effective at the neighborhood level and that communities and regions play a much larger role in producing real change. These new models are diverse, but mutually supportive.

  • Individual and family interventions are now giving greater attention to early intervention in the life cycle.
  • Community models now recognize the need for achieving justice through harm reduction and offender reintegration rather than through isolation and retribution.
  • Restorative and community justice models are enticing because they offer justice by linking community and agency resources through a process that may strengthen collective efficacy at the neighborhood level.
  • Technology models are seeking to empower communities with web-based information networks, while pursuing resources to close the “digital divide.”
  • Macrolevel interventions are needed to regulate the economic and government forces that have historically resulted in community decline and disinvestment and provide new opportunities that can discourage crime.

Despite gaps in knowledge, progress has been made in designing successful neighborhood crime prevention initiatives. The recent developments in neighborhood-based programming have ignited hope—a hope that crime-ridden neighborhoods can become safe and healthy places for residents to raise children and achieve a reasonable quality of life. Comprehensive community programs have shown some success and are being replicated in many locations. However, there is much more we need to understand and much more we need to do. To take the lead from Penelope Tricket and her colleagues, today’s residents deserve the best we can offer with our current knowledge; tomorrow’s deserve better.

from Community Change: Theories, Practice, and Evidence (pdf). Amie M. Schuck and Dennis P. Rosenbaum. Edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. The Aspen Institute.

Voices from the Field II – Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change

in Comprehensive Community Initiatives

Excerpts from Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, by Anne C. Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, Karen Fulbright-Anderson, and Ralph Hamilton. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

In 1997, the Aspen Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives distilled early lessons and emerging conclusions from the practices of CCIs during their first years. Drawing on information gleaned from focus groups with 94 different stakeholders—residents, program directors, funders, technical assistance providers, and evaluators— Voices from the Field: Learning from the Early Work of Comprehensive Community Initiatives described the overall functioning of CCIs and highlighted the fundamental challenges in their design and implementation. That volume (hereafter referred to as Voices from the Field I) was intended to synthesize then-current thinking and provoke useful discussion about the goals, approaches, and dynamics of community change.

Now, five years later, we can begin to weave the ongoing experience of CCIs into the fabric of knowledge about community change that comes from a broad array of initiatives, approaches, and activities—efforts that are all in some way about “community building” and “comprehensive community improvement.” Together, these constitute a loosely defined, informal field of work, with some shared goals for community change and some common principles that guide action. The threads represented by CCIs offer lessons that reinforce, modify, and add to the experiences of other approaches. Collectively, they can increase our knowledge base about what it takes to substantially improve struggling neighborhoods and the quality of life within them. With this volume, we review the current state of these community-change efforts, synthesize what we know about their potential and their limitations, extract lessons about effective strategies, and propose a framework to guide future action.



The means for solving poor neighborhoods’ problems lie only partially within communities’ boundaries, and expectations for the outcomes of community-based change must reflect that reality.

Opportunities for significant improvement in disadvantaged neighborhoods rely on two essential factors.

  1. that communities must maximize their ability to produce whatever kinds of change are within their control. Effective local anti-poverty work thus requires enormous community “capacity”—a resource whose scarcity in impoverished neighborhoods debilitates and undermines much good work. To advance this agenda, we must improve our definition and understanding of community capacity and develop, test, evaluate, and reproduce strategies for building such internal strength.
  2. that communities must be able to use interactions with structures, resources, and other influences beyond their boundaries to the maximum advantage of the community. This means that community-change efforts must develop more sophisticated analyses of political, economic, and social dynamics and find better ways to tap into them, benefit from them, make demands on them, and improve their operations in distressed communities.

The challenge of committing to “community” while also recognizing its limitations has been a major struggle for CCIs and other community-change efforts. In the recent experience of CCIs, the challenge of tackling internal and external problems simultaneously has been so overwhelming that many confined themselves to what was possible: they focused almost exclusively on localized needs and did not address the major structural and institutional barriers that constrained their communities’ ability to change. Now, some are re-examining and questioning the underlying premises of their work.

How should we act on this message? Unfortunately, the answer is not an easy one. The solution is not to abandon our current work but to do it better, with more sophistication and from a more strategic vantage point. It involves working more deeply within communities and more aggressively beyond their bounds. To do so, we need better theories of what the process of community change should really look like and better knowledge about how to do the work. Then, we will need to apply the theories and knowledge to a better infrastructure for action and sustained community improvement. We envision an ecology of change that has four principal levels:

  1. Change among community residents;
  2. Change within and among community-level institutions;
  3. Change among those who provide technical, financial, practical, and other supports;
  4. Changes in broad policies and structures that have enormous influence on community residents and institutions.

Finally, we need to be sure to invest in a continuous cycle of tracking our work, distilling lessons, applying new information, and learning as we go. This book offers a first step in that direction.

See also: Core Principles of Community Building

Click here for more from Voices from the Field

Community Change: Theories, Practice, and Evidence

in Comprehensive Community Initiatives

Edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. The Aspen Institute 2006.

A growing body of literature has begun to document encouraging lessons about interventions and factors that contribute to positive changes in communities. While the evidence base is, for the most part, neither strong nor robust enough to provide definitive answers to some of the most vexing questions about community change, the literature points to promising areas that deserve sustained, careful attention. The purpose of this volume is to pull such insights together in one place.

The volume includes reviews of literature from the following programmatic areas, hereafter referred to as strands—community building, neighborhood safety, education, employment, economic development, housing, youth development, and social services. The authors draw on the experiences of a range of community- based efforts to bring about positive community change, including formal organizations, such as community development corporations and comprehensive community initiatives, and less formal associations of community residents.

COMMUNITYCHANGE-FINAL.PDF (application/pdf Object).

See also: Improve the Community, Deter the Criminal