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Tips for cities.

Is it "them" versus "us" ... or "us" versus "them"? It is hard to tell. The voices of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the riots provide clear indication that many residents feel threatened by others. African- American residents feel as if economic opportunities are being stolen by Korean-Americans. Korean-Americans feel as if their security and livelihood is frequently challenged by residents of the neighborhoods they serve. And many whites want to keep the "troubles" away from their neighborhood.

Yet the "troubles" will not be leaving soon. Urban American is facing an unprecedented change in demographics, new economic pressures, and increasing responsibilities. In St. Paul, school administrators have learned that one out of every four children entering kindergarten this year is Hmong, a Laotian tribe that has no written language. In St. Louis, over 12,000 jobs have been lost due to cutbacks in the Federal Defense Budget. In Washtenaw County, Michigan community leaders are struggling to house the estimated 1,500 homeless as the state eliminates General Assistance, General Motors eliminates thousands of jobs, and the legislature invokes a cap on property taxes.

But the severity of the problems has not stopped communities from seeking solutions. Indeed, the primary lesson learned at the Program for Community Problem Solving is that all communities have problems. Successful communities are those that are able to resolve their problems effectively. And the patterns of effectiveness lie in the ability of different groups, different sectors, and different political factions to come together to build agreements on how to solve a problem.

An agreement is necessary because with the recognition of the severity of the problems comes the understanding that no one group can solve the problem. Local government must work in concert with the schools, the private sector, the non-profit sector, the state, the feds, and most importantly, the citizens to build agreements that work. Instead of "we" versus "them", successful communities learn how to ask, "How can we all help one another."

Several principles undergird community efforts to build agreements. They are drawn from case studies of communities successfully resolving problems around the country:

Build a Shared Vision of the Future. If community leaders and citizens are not heading toward the same goal, the same vision--progress often becomes impossible. Imagine the chaos if every member of a football team had a different idea of the direction of the goal line. Cities, counties, and regions have engaged in community-wide, inclusive goal setting or visioning processes that have helped define the direction of the goal line, realistically addressed economic issues and defined economic niches, and addressed the varied needs of different groups and institutions in the community. Failure to do so can lead citizens to believe they can no longer have an effect or, the reverse, every decision becomes a battle over the direction of change.

Leaders in Savannah, Georgia, wanting to shake the area out of its economic malaise, initially brought together traditional community leaders to build a vision. After a great deal of discussion, they agreed, there was nothing they could do by themselves that could have the effect they desired. Only by involving the community could they begin the process of community transformation. They broadened their committee to specifically include leaders from the African-American community and embarked on the task of holding 22 simultaneous town meetings to coincide with the showing of a half-hour network-broadcast television show on issues facing the city and the county.

Participants in each town meeting discussed what they would like to see in the future in their community and then elected a representative to join the initiating committee in a weekend retreat to develop a vision statement and define the issues for discussion. After the retreat, a series of task forces worked for eight months to define a Blueprint for Action. Implementation plans have been developed and numerous improvement programs are underway.

Leaders in Savannah have begun to discover what one researcher found in studying the aftermath of the award-winning, community-visioning program in Newark. The researcher was attending a meeting of social service program leaders and asked what they knew about of the efforts of the Newark Collaborative.

The response: "We're not sure about any specific successes but we do know that we would not be in this room talking to each other, working on this problem if we had not been brought together through that project."

While Savannah's effort has finished much too recently to judge the impact, other cities have found quick successes. Abilene, after it's strategic planning effort, was able to pass a 1/2 cent addition to the sales tax for economic development, had the legislature rescind a law forbidding the expansion of the state community college system into Abilene, and held several successful multicultural leadership development retreats.

Wholeness Nurturing Diversity. Everywhere we look, cities are changing. Whether it's the influx of Hmong refugees to St. Paul or learning about the Pennsylvania city of Lancaster which has the highest percentage of Hispanics, -- many new citizens are looking for security and identity in their new homes.

Without security, people strike out in fear. Without identity, people battle to be heard. Community leaders must help create a social and political environment in which everyone is appreciated.

Frank Benest, City Manager of Brea, California, outlined a comprehensive strategy for multi-ethnic communities in a recent edition of Public Management:

Understand the role of local government and its leaders

Start at home

Shape the dialogue

Use food, song, dance, and history

Focus on shared values

Create positive multicultural interaction

Empower people to solve problems

Target audiences and target messages.

He contends a comprehensive strategy is necessary because we have to stop "managing" diversity as a problem, rather, like "forward-thinking corporations (we) have (to) embrace diversity as an asset." In Allentown, Pennsylvania these pursuing strategies includes offering a program titled a "World of Difference" focusing on prejudice reduction and raising 25-30 ethnic flags every year. Arlington County, Virginia staff have received special training in how to respond to diverse populations and have discussed how to specifically modify their citizen participation process--known as "The Arlington Way"--to better solve problems with their growing Asian and Hispanic communities.

Effective Participation and Dispute Resolution. Citizens feel they belong to a community when they have multiple opportunities to share their views in a forum where their views count. Nothing is quite so disempowering as inviting citizens to a public hearing after the decision has basically been made. All citizens recognize this feeling. When the citizens are members of a minority group, causing questions of whether they are respected by City Hall, the feeling is reinforced.

Many cities have made strides in creating opportunities for citizens to participate. The challenge is in helping citizens work together to effectively build agreements and solve problems. Two approaches are often used. Local government staff and leadership throughout the country have received training in facilitation, consensus-building, and dispute resolutions skills. The training enhances the ability of local government to design, manage, and run effective meetings that address difficult issues.

Cities have also contracted with dispute resolution and consensus-building professionals to manage especially difficult or complex projects. Durham, North Carolina asked its local Dispute Settlement Center to facilitate the delibrations of an 82-member task force focusing on whether to merge the city and county schools and how to improve educational programs. Nine months later, a 105 page consensus document emerged.

Building community is not an easy task. It requires the sustained efforts of political leadership, making sure that "politics as usual" do not trample effective efforts to build visions and implement goals, and that communities are allowed to embrace diversity, and use effective citizen participation efforts. Often called "facilitative leadership," this approach builds upon the need for political leaders to convene forums that bring together diverse groups in an effort to build consensus. Helping your community build effective problem solving forums will provide the firm foundation for building the best solutions to problems -- community developed solutions.

William Potapchuk is Executive Director of the Program for Community Problem Solving, a collaborative efforts of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, International City/County Management Association, International Downtown Association, National Civic League, and the National League of Cities, where it is housed. Many of the examples cited above are included in the Program's publications.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Report: Improving Our Communities; Los Angeles, California riots
Author:Potapchuk, William
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Words:1381
Previous Article:Coping with change: communities learn keys to effective problem solving; steps to consider.
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