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

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