An assets-building model of community development

ABSTRACT: Faculty and staff of Washington State University--Spokane County Cooperative Extension developed a program to help neighbours create an environment in which youth and families in a despair- and crime-ridden urban neighbourhood could thrive. The basic principles were: (i) children, youth, families and community are interactive components of the neighbourhood ecology; and (ii) strategies building on the strengths of all components at once have the greatest impact. In the three-pronged approach, youth-development faculty trained youth-program staff; peer-educators taught home-based life skills to parents; and a community resource coordinator alerted leaders to opportunities in the neighbourhood/city, identified and encouraged their abilities and taught them to be assertive and creative in getting their needs met. Positive youth behaviours were tracked and rewarded. Peer Educators developed trust and respect, helping parents to become effective advocates for their children. Collaborative projects with the local schools, health district, police and community centre leaders helped create a spiral of ever increasing, interacting, positive behaviours at all levels. Coalition members addressed issues of "territory" and agreed to share credit. The crime rate fell from the highest to the lowest in the city, seventeen grassroots social programs were developed, parents volunteered 49,000 hours in the community and became more self sufficient.

INTRODUCTION: Traditionally, healthy neighbourhoods were maintained by networks of individuals, families, schools and other social systems. They provided the protection, support and opportunities needed for community vitality. Since the late 1940's, rapid social changes have caused a breakdown in these sustaining networks. Valuable knowledge of home and family management has been lost, leaving neighbourhoods vulnerable to violence, crime and despair. There are still, however, many individuals and families with strengths, talents and leadership qualities who have a vision of thriving and who look forward to a positive future.

The West Central neighbourhood in Spokane, Washington, changed significantly in the period from 1991 to 1996. This paper addresses the key role of Washington State University--Spokane County Extension's Family Focus Project in the revitalisation of this "underserved," "scapegoat" community.

DEMOGRAPHICS AND BACKGROUND: The City of Spokane is the largest urban centre between Seattle, Washington and Minneapolis, Minnesota and between Calgary, Canada and Denver Colorado. Spokane County has 356,000 residents, half of whom live in the city of Spokane. Less than 6 % are of racial/ethnic minorities. The selected neighbourhood, the catchment area for Holmes elementary school, includes 6,000 people in 168 residential blocks. The school, built for 500 students, had an enrolment of over 700 in 1991. Twenty percent of the students were racial/ethnic minorities, almost half being Native Americans. Ninety percent of the school children received free or reduced price lunches, an indicator of poverty or low income. The school district was unable to offer an after school care program because parents could not afford the cost. An after school recreational program was offered by the West Central Community Center but children were frequently dismissed from it for behaviour problems. The school experienced 125% turnover per year, as families moved frequently in and out of the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood had many low rent and poorly maintained homes. Many youth and adult residents had no sense of belonging to the school community or to the community at large. An additional high risk factor was the high crime rate. Police referred to the area as "Felony Flats" and the "Twilight Zone" , because of the number of drug and crime problems. In a 12 block area surrounding Homes School, there were approximately 300 felony crimes per year, including burglary, rape, drug sales, indecent liberties, and crimes against the person.

APPROACH: The social development model for comprehensive prevention (Hawkins and Weis, 1985; Hawkins and Catalano, 1990) identifies risk factors for young people that include lack of social bonding to family and school, little commitment to school, academic failure, transitions and mobility, low neighbourhood attachment, and family management problems. The model proposes that when youth have a personal investment in their schools, families, friendships and communities, they are less likely to participate in negative behaviours and situations such as substance abuse, dropping out of school, juvenile crime and other interrelated youth problems.

A review of the research literature identified additional principles that formed the basis of the project: The best time to begin prevention is when children are elementary age or earlier (Benard, 1991; Werner, 1992). Prevention is most effective when it involves a comprehensive program that integrates family, school and community life (Benard, 1991; Garbarino, 1992). Social competency training has produced improved interpersonal behaviour and decreased the risk for school problems and criminality (Brendtro, 1990). Improved individual and family functioning lowers risk factors, and may be achieved through a combination of parent and child training programs. Focusing on and building the skills and assets of the individuals, families, agencies and associations produces the greatest probability of creating an environment in which all members can thrive (McKnight and Kretzmann, 1993). Increasing resiliency factors in youth can be accomplished by creating opportunities for meaningful relationships with older youth or adults; providing opportunities for gaining knowledge, skills, and recognition; setting clear standards and high expectations (Benard, 1991).

The WSU Family Focus Program addressed the social isolation which was a root cause of the problem, and the need for practical life skills and community-building projects. A key to effective community-building and prevention programs and policy is reinforcing the natural social bonds between young and old, siblings, friends and neighbours, so that communities can collectively derive a meaning to life and have a reason for commitment and caring. In order to increase the protective factors for this neighbourhood, and for a positive investment from youth and families to occur, it was necessary to create appropriate opportunities for positive involvement, teach needed skills and find ways to recognise people's worth.

The Extension faculty and staff team proposed a three-pronged, holistic approach to neighbourhood revitalisation.

1. Direct service to the community youth through staff training and program funding

2. Home-based life skills training for the parents and

3. The services of a community resource coordinator.

Children, youth, family and community are seen as interactive components of the neighbourhood ecology. Building on protective factors for all of the components at once has the greatest impact. These areas network with each other. For example: new learning for the children (such as conflict-resolution skills) was better understood by the empowered parents who began volunteering in community settings; as community events and classes were created, parents and youth developed more community attachment and pride; as parents began to make friends, social isolation was reduced, and parents began pursuing educational and vocational interests.

IMPLEMENTATION: With the impetus of a grant from USDA's Extension Service for work with youth-at-risk, Spokane's WSU Cooperative Extension team were able to put their three-part strategy to work.

1. Youth Enrichment:

Members of the faculty gave training in the principles of youth development to staff at the existing community centre. As a result, the centre's recreation program shifted emphasis from merely entertainment to youth development. Staff gained skills in positive discipline which increased the attendance of youths in before- and after-school programs. An average of 75 youths per day participated in after school care and an average of 45 came before school. Approximately 1,700 young people participated in the five years of the project. The K.A.R.E.(Kids Achieve Through Recreation and Enrichment) Club's goals were defined to teach kids to make positive choices and healthy behaviours. To accomplish this, children were exposed to many different approaches to help them make positive choices. Examples are drug and alcohol refusal skills, anger management, self-esteem building, health and fitness activities, cultural awareness activities, career choice activities and positive decision making skills. Other components of the program were to provide positive role models from whom the kids could learn (mentors), a junior leader program and opportunities for community service. Two 4-H clubs were developed with 95 children enrolled. (4-H is Extension's youth development program.)

2. Parent Education:

The parenting and life skills education component was modelled after the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), a successful program originally developed by Cooperative Extension 30 years ago. Four Extension Educators were selected for their ability to relate to this specific audience. Three were experienced EFNEP assistants. An additional person was recruited from the Native American community since that is the largest minority population residing in the neighbourhood. They recruited parents of school age children and conducted classes with small groups in the neighbourhood. Groups met weekly in members' homes or at Head Start and the Native American Treatment and Intervention Project. There were 392 parents in this parenting and life skills program. Seventy two percent of them were white, 22% Native American, 2% black, 2% Hispanic and 2% Asian. The curriculum, consisting of teaching guides and parents' workbook, was developed from existing Extension materials, with input from the Extension Educators. It included twenty lessons, with a major focus on parenting skills, plus resource management and interpersonal relationship skills.

Parents participated in periodic events designed to bring them together in a supportive environment. Informal support groups developed as a result of participation in the program. In addition to the groups of parents, youth from the same families were involved in small groups meeting in homes during the summer months. Curriculum used with the youths included food and nutrition skills, communications and conflict management skills to parallel the skills taught to parents.

The Extension Educators also facilitated parental involvement in volunteering for community building activities. Parents from the parenting and life skills education program have moved on to leadership roles in the community, including presidents of COPS West (a community policing system developed as a result of the project) and the West Central Community Center steering committee.

3. Community Resource Development:

Following the principles of good practice of the Community Development Society and Building Communities From the Inside Out (McKnight and Kretzmann, 1993) the Community Resource Coordinator established reciprocal relationships with citizens, identifying latent leaders and helping them develop their talents. She helped facilitate the neighbourhood processes which led to increased citizen participation, problem diagnosis and the understanding of economic, social, political and psychological impacts of various solutions. She assisted community members in designing and implementing activities chosen by them.

IMPACTS: In February 1996, a final project celebration was held with 50 parents and community people participating and giving testimonials about the impact of the program in their lives and community. One of the most dramatic testimonies from a West Central parent is: "This is the proudest thing I have ever done... No matter what else happens in my life, no one can ever take this away from me. You have given me my life back." This statement captures the spirit of many project participants who have gone on to improve their lives in significant ways. Children have been quoted as saying that they felt safer and that "Mommy isn't so mean to me any more."

1. Youth Component:

Pre- and post-test assessments were made of the children's attitudes and behaviours. The assessments were compared at the end of the program year. Overall there was an increase in positive attitudes and behaviour in 75% of the youngsters. There was less change in the remaining 25% because their behaviour was good at the beginning of the program.

Staff anecdotal assessments were also used as an evaluation tool. Each staff member wrote paragraphs about children during the first month of every school year and continued watching and documenting their behaviour during the year. At the end of the year these assessments were reviewed. Significant changes in attitudes were noted by staff, parents and some children.

All children increased their knowledge of a substance-free lifestyle and gang-resistance strategies. Youths became acquainted with new adults who helped them connect to the community.

2. Parent Education Component:

Increased investment in family and community was documented by measuring how parents used their time. On enrolling in the program, parents completed a recall of how they had spent their time in the previous 24 hours. The same exercise was repeated when they graduated from the program. As of the end of the project, matched pairs of data taken both at enrolment and graduation were collected for 168 parents through 24 hour time recalls.

Pre Post Change

A. 24 Hour Time Recall

  • Activities directly with children 2.5 hrs. 3.9 hrs. 56%
  • Self improvement activities 2.5 hrs. 4.25 hrs. 70%
  • Watching TV 2.7 hrs. 1.6 hrs. -40%

B. Parents working or going to school (FT/PT) 55 119 116%

Parents also demonstrated increased investment in school and community by involving themselves as volunteers. Over the life of the project, Family Extension Educators documented volunteer contributions of parents enrolled in the parenting and life skills program. Parents donated a total of 8,750 hours in activities directly associated with the project, the equivalent of 4.2 full time employees for a year. In addition, they donated 40,963 hours to other activities in the community, equivalent to almost four full time employees for each of the five years of the project.

Families became more stable, as evidenced by a lower turnover rate at the school and Child Protective Services reports that child abuse cases are down significantly in the community.

3. Community Component:

The most easily documented positive result was the reduction in crime. This neighbourhood's crime rate fell from the highest to the lowest in the city. Neighbourhood activism resulted in 81% fewer drug houses, according to the police.

The Community Resource Coordinator documented increased connections to the community through telephone surveys of randomly selected parent participants. Parents reported increases in number of friends, acquaintances and volunteer roles as a result of their involvement in this program.

The increase in "power" of neighbourhood groups was also significant: establishment of COPS WEST, the neighbourhood community oriented public safety station, became an international model; the Community Center assumed an even more effective leadership role in the neighbourhood; the West Central Neighbourhood Coalition, Neighbourhood Education Team, West Central Dispute Resolution Team, Magic Mediator Club, Neighbourhood Observation Patrol and Neighbourhood School Watch were established; an electronic skill and resource network was launched (The West Central Mining Company) and neighbourhood seasonal celebrations were instituted (WinterFest, Neighbor-Days). In one weekend "neighbourhood clean-up" 380 tons of rubbish were collected and hauled away.

CHALLENGES: We are convinced of the effectiveness of this program and encourage its adaptation to fit local situations. Others might want to consider these points learned along the way:

  • Establishing cooperative relationships within the large agency-dominated coalition was a complicated dance.
    • The use of the "expert model" was a point of contention between the social workers and the educators. Extension uses an empowerment model in which the participants are considered to be the expert on themselves and their families.
    • Involving marginalised citizens in the coalition meetings was another point of disagreement.

Eventually those agencies and individuals who understood and supported grassroots definition and solution of problems remained in the coalition.

  • Changing power structures always produces resistance, and, for example, introducing peer-mediation into the schools was problematical. We found that some teachers did not really want the children solving their own problems. Eventually we developed a peer mediation club outside of the school.

REPLICATION AND IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FUTURE: Two other neighbourhoods in Spokane have requested custom replications of this project. A patchwork quilt of funding is supporting the work of two Extension Educators and a Community Facilitator in the East Central neighbourhood beginning in March, 1997. We hope that by working with the newly formed East Central Neighbourhood Council, we will be able to generate the kind of cooperation and credit sharing established in the West Central area. Barriers to be overcome are significant historic competition for resources, perceived low public safety and lack of trust in the police by minority groups, and cultural differences.

Several counties in Western Washington are using the life skills curriculum to build protective factors in their small communities. The curriculum is being translated into Spanish for use with our growing Hispanic populations. Using the same philosophy but customising it to fit local situations is producing significant results there as well. 4-H curriculum and Family Challenge activities (an adventure-based program for families) are successful additions.

There are profound policy implications from this work, some of which are being implemented in the Washington State legislature and some in Washington DC. Building on strengths, as opposed to focusing on problems, is a novel idea for government. One example is that the State Family Policy Council is supporting each county in doing "asset mapping" (creating an inventory of the positive characteristics and strengths of communities and their members) and in planning strategies for increasing protective factors, as contrasted to focusing on needs, problems and risk factors. Another is that State funding is often being made available only to communities with strong human service coalitions, and in order to form a strong coalition, group members must identify each other's strengths.

RECOGNITION: The Family Focus Project has been recognised for its work. Among this is:

  • Carnegie Mellon Foundation selection as one of top three innovative educational programs for children, 1995
  • DeWitt Wallace Reader's Digest "Strengthening Our Capacity to Care, Youth At Risk" Award, 1996
  • International Community Development Society's demonstration village for the 1996 conference in Melbourne, Australia
  • National USDA Honor Award and College of Agriculture and Home Economics Excellence Award for exemplary team work, 1997.


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Brendtro, L., M. Brokenleg and S. Van Bockern (1990), Reclaiming Youth at Risk, National Educational Service, Bloomington, IN.

Garbarino, J. (1992), 'Sociocultural risk and opportunity', Children and Families in the Social Environment, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 35-70.

Hawkins, J. D. and R. F. Catalano (1990), 'Broadening the vision of education: schools as health promoting environments', Journal of School Health, 60(4), 178-181.

Hawkins, J. D. and J. G. Weis (1985), 'The social development model: an integrated approach to delinquency prevention', Journal of Primary Prevention, 6, 73-97.

McKnight, J. and J. Kretzmann (1993), Building Communities From the Inside Out, Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

Werner, E. E. (1992), Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.