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Your City's Families conference draws 250 participants.

"As municipal officials, our job is to help every one of our city's families thrive, and to make it possible for all of our children to grow up happy, healthy, and safe," NLC President Don Fraser told the 270 participants at NLC's first conference on "Your City's Families." In that opening statement, Fraser crystalized the goals and motivation of the participants, who came to his city of Minneapolis from cities large and small.

That theme of optimism - about an important and troubling issue - was a common thread from start to finsish, picked up on by U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. In his closing keynote address, Wellstone advocated determination and enthusiasm as the keys to creating change. Fraser, and other participants and guests, emphasized the need to promote positive change through upbeat approaches, including building community connectedness, encouraging collaboration, fostering a feeling of obligation to help others in the community and focusing on local capacity rather than problems.

More than thirty communities created and brought to the conference teams of four or more people, including local elected officials; human service providers; community activists; and school, recreation, and library officials. Individuals and those attending the conference in groups of three or fewer attended a special session on team building and maintaining momentum. The session prepared all participants to take action once they once they brought home the ideas and philosophy of the conference.

The most valuable time I spent at this conference was in the team meetings with the facilitator,"said Nancy Bates, mayor of Farmington Hills, Mich. "At most conferences I have to really think about what I'm going to do with all the information when I get home. This way, I have a plan. I'm so excited, I can hardly wait to get back and get started."

Participants had been encouraged to come in teams, representing a variety of municipal departments and community agencies from their respective cities. Teams came to Minneapolis from cities as small as Newport, Ky. (pop.18,871) and as large as Cook County, Ill. to refine their vision for their city's families.

Each team was assigned a facilitator who met with them twice during the conference. Facilitators helped teams turn the ideas they were hearing from conference presenters and participants into specific strategies to try when they returned home.

Throughout the weekend conference participants shared information as they discussed the successes and challenges of programs in their hometowns.

The first general session, moderated by Karen Pittman, senior vice president of the Academy for Educational Development, expanded on Fraser's opening remarks about cities and families needing one another in order to thrive.

Mayor Fraser was joined by panelists Dorothy Inman Crews, mayor of Tallahasee and chair of NLC's Human Development Steering Committee; Charles Jordan, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation of Portland, Ore.; Marsha Ritzdorf, associate professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and Ed Sullivan, executive director of the Heritage Fund of Bartholomew County in Columbus, Ind. As the panelists discussed the ways in which their communities and municipal governments have created supportive environments for families, several major themes emerged that would be developed throughout the three-day conference.

The Capacity Model

Many presenters emphasized that focusing on families and children requires a new way of thinking about the problems and potential of families and youth. To replace the familiar |deficit model,' where negative statistics such as teen pregnancy and juvenile crime rates are the focal point of government policies, a capacity model,' that seeks to strengthen the positive assets of families and youth, was suggested.

"One of the most useful things I've gotten out of this conference is the concept of the capacity model - we've got to move to get people thinking in terms of the capacity model instead of the deficit model," said Phyllis Wolfe, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Children's Defense Fund.

Community Involvement

Community involvement and connectedness were the focal points of the conference's second general session, which featured teams from Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Savannah, Georgia.

The Baltimore team described their success in involving the residents of Sandtown -Winchester, a Baltimore neighborhood, in efforts to revitalize the community. The team consisted of Barbara Bostick-Hunt, the executive director of Community Building in Partnership; Anita Marshall, a human services consultant and Jerry Cross, a community activist and Sandtown-Winchester resident.

Bostick-Hunt identified three keys to their successful community building effort: "From the very beginning, we have always operated under the premise of planning, doing, and owning. We do not plan or move forward without community participation and approval."

"The other part,"Bostick-Hunt continued, "has been the owning - not just sitting and planning, but making sure those plans are |do-able.' If you can't do them, then the community knows why, because they have been around the table."

Panelist Lucy Gerrold, director of Minneapolis Community Crime Prevention/SAFE, described the importance of connecting families to each other, to their neighbors, and to government.

"One significant thing that came out of a recent evaluation we did was that people in the community were thrilled that someone cared about their problem and did something - that there was a face to City Hall. They had people that came out and talked to them, who sat at their kitchen tables, who attended their community meetings, who knocked on their doors, who gave them access to the monolith that is government."

Connectedness was also the theme of a video shown at the opening session, which detailed Minneapolis's efforts to create and encourage support networks for families and children. "The concept of community, of reciprocal obligation, has eroded," said Mayor Don Fraser. "The protective envelope over the family has big holes in it. But we can change that, by encouraging as many connections to the family as possible, and by getting policy makers to appreciate the importance of the informal networks which emerge from connections."

This 10-minute video, the Spirit of Connectedness, is available through the National League of Cities. For more information contact Tonya Gary at (202) 626-3030.

Cities can encourage those "information networks" by providing a number of programs and places where connections can be made. Many presenters used charts showing overlapping circles of support that cities could provide for their families and children through parks and recreation, schools, libraries, city and county programs, and community agencies.
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Author:Donehower, Kim
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Sep 27, 1993
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