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Coping with change: communities learn keys to effective problem solving; steps to consider.

The riots in Los Angeles and other cities have come and gone. Order has been restored. Our losses have been assessed. We have turned to the task of rebuilding at least our neighborhoods, if not our relations.

In some of our communities, we have come to grips with the violence and destruction that erupted. Where things remained calm, at least on the surface, there is a sigh of relief.

But what about the fundamental conditions underlying those terrible events? And what about those fundamentally bent and broken interpersonal relations?

In communities that remained calm, we can't help but wonder: What about my community? Can it happen here? Can we avoid the same fate? Where there was violence, elected local officials ask what they can do to begin the healing and rebuilding process?

We offer the following thoughts as a preliminary self-assessment guide toward better racial and ethnic relations in our communities.

1. Learn from the past and act on that learning. In December, 1965, the McCone Commission, which was appointed to investigate the causes of the Watts riots, reported the following as fundamental causes for the riots:

[section] unemployment

[section] poor schools,

[section] police brutality

[section] overcrowding

[section] living conditions, and

[section] poor public transportation

More than 25 years later, the residents of South Central Los Angeles perceive little change in these conditions. Fundamental problems don't go away by themselves and the failure of the majority society to respond to legitimate needs of minorities inevitably causes them to fester.

We can't predict where or when, but sooner or later, pent up separation, disappointment, injustice and despair cannot fail to come boiling to the surface. Failing to learn from history dooms us to repeat it.

Question: What is the history of racial and ethnic tension in my community, how has it changed over time and to what extent has the community changed as a result of what we learned?

2. Involved your citizens in analyzing your community's needs and in developing responses to them. Often the best advice on both problems and solutions comes from those within the community who are most affected. Viewing a neighborhood. or a group of people as "the problem" is almost always a mistake, but it is never an error to view them as essential to "the solution."

In an accompanying article, Bill Potapchuk looks at some successful community building strategies that emphasize bringing diverse communities together to create citizen consensus.

Question: What mechanisms are we using within my community to assess needs and problems, and how are we involving our neighborhood and minority residents in that process?

3. Focus on "problems" and "needs" as they are defined by your community's minority residents. To what extent are problems within the community seen as economic? social? attitudinal? or behavioral? The best way to find out is to ask the question--and listen very carefully to the answer.--even if the answer makes you uncomfortable.--even if you disagree with the person's views.

Question: How do my community's minority citizens define the problem, and what is my community doing to address the problem or need as they see it?

4. Dealing with underlying conditiontions. A "riot," such as that experiences in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and other cities is a single event. However, it occurs because of a whole set of underlying conditions -- objective conditions, such as the availability of jobs and income, public safety, educational opportunities and housing as well as individual attitudes and behaviors. In the long run, it is those conditions that must be addressed if we are going to improve the racial and ethnic health of our communities.

Questionn: What are the objective conditions within my community, and what are the attitudes and behaviors of our citizens toward each other across racial and ethnic lines?

5. Focus of keeping your community's residents safe. The most fundamental need of a civilized society is the safety of its people. It is unjustifiable, and it should be unacceptable in your community, to allow some segments of the community (some neighborhoods, some people) to be provided with a less safe environment than others. The level of benefit afforded your community's residents is the measure of your government's effectiveness, not the level of effort which goes into providing that benefit.

Question: How safe does my community's racial and ethnic minorities feel, and how safe are they compared with the community's majority citizens?

6. Build on your strengths. Every community has assets and every neighborhood has strengths. We just need to focus on them and maximize their use.

Families, neighborhood organizations, churches and local businesses are all assets to a community. The commitments and loyalties of neighborhood residents, their desires and aspirations, and their values and beliefs are all strengths. Finally, the knowledge, skill and volunteer time of your neighborhood residents need to be seen as assets.

Question: To what extent is my community maximizing its assets and building on its strengths?

7. Think of building systems and institutions to assess racial and ethnic issues (rather than creating events or projects). Basic conditions are rarely changed in a fundamental way by a single event. It usually takes a long time and a lot of effort. If it didn't, basic conditions wouldn't be basic conditions in the first place. To be effective, change-agents must have sustainability-a degree of permanency.

Question: To what extent do we have institutions and processes within our community that can help us keep attentive to racial and ethnic issues?
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related information about the report; Special Report: Improving Our Communities
Author:Davis, Bill; Borut, Donald J.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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