Communities of Excellence and the Spatial Fix

By Kruse Scholar Amy Jones

When we look around the country at the racial and wealth distribution in various neighborhoods, it is obvious that the vast majority of the US remains highly segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. Pockets of high poverty mean that where you are born can have huge impacts on your economic and social mobility opportunities as well as your health outcomes. High-poverty areas have lower quality housing, more exposure to environmental toxins, fewer job opportunities, worse schools, and less resources.

An important aspect of the spatial disparities that we see today are the social and historical contexts that allowed for these to arise. From Slavery to the Jim Crow era to the National Housing Act that redlined certain predominately minority communities, to the US interstate highway program that disproportionately demolished lower income neighborhoods or cut them off from resources.

These huge inequalities led to a big push in the 1990’s and early 2000 for dispersal programs. These programs focused on providing families with opportunities to move out of the city by requiring suburbs to build more affordable housing options or providing families with housing vouchers only valid in low-poverty areas. Programs like Moving to Opportunity (MTO) and HOPE VI had huge hopes for the impacts that they would have on the families that moved out of higher poverty areas to areas lower poverty. Decades later, most of the research on the impact of these programs show only mixed results. MTO brought some better mental health outcomes for girls, but worse mental health outcomes for boys. The $7 million dollar investment for MTO brought only minimal economic benefits for the families that moved and left the areas of high-poverty that they moved out of unchanged.

As researchers began to examine and discuss why programs like MTO and HOPE VI had failed, they saw that moving was causing a huge amount stress on these families - taking them away from social networks and placing them in areas where they will likely be stigmatized because of their lower socioeconomic status or race. They also began to realize the strength of the identity-place attachment and the impact that moving can have on identity. Identity is often intertwined with place, and many people will choose to stay in a higher-poverty area because of that place attachment, rather than move to a lower-poverty suburb that may provide better economic opportunities. MTO in particular brought a select group of families out of an area of high-poverty, but made no efforts to impact that original community, causing a perpetuation of the low-resource spatial disparity that had already existed. 

So how does Communities of Excellence relate to the spatial disparities? After a history of top-down discrimination and poorly planned policy approaches, I think it’s time to empower people to invest in their own communities through community development projects, such as Communities of Excellence. Rather than spend millions of dollars to move people out of their high-poverty areas, why not build the people potential within a neighborhood, recognizing that not all neighborhoods are equal - they have differing levels of resources available to them, and need different resources to survive. Too many of the top-down approaches rely on the idea that there is a homogenous public and the same program will work equally well for each community. Communities of Excellence is unique in its bringing together of community leaders - people who know what people in their community need to thrive and deciding collaboratively what the needs of the community are and how best to build the capacity of people in the community by building on the community identity to strengthen the place-attachment of people and provide them with what they need to work towards a better community.

Furthermore, COE is a fluid approach, not a strict prescription. Through developmental evaluation the community leaders can monitor the impacts that their work is having and adjust their work when things aren’t working to better fit what the community needs. As I wrote about back in September, here’s where the Collective Impact Framework is important, particularly for a more grassroots approach to community development.

Dispersal programs aren’t working. It’s time for policymakers to recognize the history of discriminatory practices that have perpetuated the spatial disparities. It’s time for policymakers to recognize the power of the people within their own communities and provide some water for the grassroots, empowering people through Communities of Excellence Framework to build their communities and ensure that all communities provide more equitable access to opportunities. Perhaps Communities of Excellence will finally provide the spatial fix we’ve been looking for in the US.

Read more about Amy Jones here

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