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Example 6: Needs Assessment Survey: Voluntary Associations in Low-Income Neighborhoods, Grand Boulevard in South Chicago, Illinois

Community asset mapping identifies strengths within the community. In south Chicago, the Institute for Policy Research developed an assets map of the Grand Boulevard neighborhood to identify strengths within the community. They began by collecting written materials about local organizations, including newspapers, newsletters, and membership and contact lists. They then interviewed local leaders in multiple sectors to help add to the list of organizations and associations. They also conducted a block-by-block field survey that identified additional organizations and specific geographic characteristics that were used to divide the community into areas for their phone interview/survey.

Ultimately, this yielded a list of assets within the Grand Boulevard neighborhood mapped by organizational type, function(s), community activities implemented, and willingness to engage with future community building and economic development activities.



There is great concern in the United States about the current and future health of civil society. While definitions of civil society are diverse, almost all analysts include local citizens' associations as a vital expression of civil society and civic culture. Recently there have been studies and reports indicating a decline in civil society measured by associational membership These studies represent the conclusions drawn from data that are aggregated and reported by central sources. They do not include data regarding those associations that are not connected to central data collection systems. In order to better understand the actual current status of associational life, as well as the functions they perform, we need to begin by gathering primary data at the local level. This report summarizes a recent exploration of the nature and extent of the associational life of the Grand Boulevard community on Chicago's South Side. In addition, the project surveyed a representative sample of those citizens' associations' leaders concerning their current activities and their willingness to undertake further specific community building and economic development activities. These explorations focus on associations because they are the naturally existing community organizations for empowering individuals and mobilizing their capacities. Quite simply, an association is a group of citizens working together. It is an amplifier of the talents, resources and skills of individual community members. It is clear that any community-based effort to solve problems must begin by recognizing the creative power of a community's formal and informal associations


Grand Boulevard is a low-income neighborhood on Chicago's South. A community of about 36,000 residents, Grand Boulevard is 99 percent African-American. In 1989,82 percent of children in the neighborhood lived in families with a cash income below the poverty line. (Nationally, 17.1 percent of children live in poverty) Median family income, at $8,371 in 1989, was less than a third of median income for the city of Chicago ($30,707). The 1989 income figure represents a 30 percent decline in family income, after adjusting for inflation, since 1979. The shifting of manufacturing employment out of Chicago and the growth of the suburbs have hastened the decline of the community .The unemployment rate increased from 24 percent to 34 percent during the eighties. Between 1970 and 1990, Grand Boulevard's population halved, and, in the same period, almost 10,000 housing units were lost. Much of the community's population lives in high-rise public housing. The loss of population and housing stock, and the concentration of high-rise public housing, impose strains in addition to those of poverty. Grand Boulevard residents, despite these depressing economic figures, have organized to rebuild their community The community is the home of creative and vigorous community organizations, and is part of an ambitious economic development scheme, the Mid-South Plan, to reinvigorate that part of Chicago.


This study inventoried local citizens' associations which were defined as face-to-face local organizations whose essential work is done by members who are unpaid. An association of this type might have a small paid staff, i.e., pastor, organizer, or choir director. However, the primary work of the group is carried out by the citizen members rather than professional or paid workers. This definition excluded from the survey, therefore, local not-for-profit and governmental agencies as well as businesses. "Mapping" Grand Boulevard '8 associational life involved a range of methods, of which four primary approaches proved most productive. The process began by gathering all of the written materials that could be found, including items from newspapers and newsletters, as well as membership and contact lists from local institutions, and from both public and nonprofit groups. The second step involved more than 45 interviews with local community , civic, religious, governmental and political leaders. During these discussions, leaders were asked to edit the existing inventory and to add groups not yet listed. A block-by-block field survey of the Grand Boulevard neighborhood then yielded both more specific associations, as well as a working map of the neighborhood 's distinct characteristics such as patterns of public and private housing and differences in residents' income levels. Finally, using this working map in Grand Boulevard, 100 stratified phone surveys were conducted asking residents to add groups to the inventory. The telephone survey targeted residents of four different subsections of Grand Boulevard, asking them about the associations in which they were involved as well as the issues and activities that interested them. The four subsections included public housing (both high- and low-rise); senior citizen housing (both public and private); an area of concentrated single-family homes; and a section containing a mixture of rental units and smaller single-family residences. The survey uncovered many new groups in each section of the neighborhood, as well as some interesting variations in the types (not the numbers) of groups with which residents in each area are affiliated. (Middle-income residents, for example, were much more likely to belong to associations outside the neighborhood than were lower income people).


Though no list of a community's associations can ever be regarded as complete, the inventory of Grand Boulevard's associational life represents at least an indicative snapshot of the neighborhood in 1995. In all, some 319 associations were located in Grand Boulevard. Only a few of those associations were of the very informal, unnamed kind. Further interviews conducted by local residents might well have uncovered more of these less visible groups. Nevertheless, the number and variety of associations uncovered in Grand Boulevard is significantly larger than most residents or experts expected. What kinds of groups make up the associational life of Grand Boulevard? They are so diverse that it is hard to generalize. There are 71 religious congregations of various sizes and denominations. Beyond these, the groups range from those which are very small and informal -e.g., unnamed associations, such as a group of seniors meeting regularly to discuss neighborhood improvement, a group of adults and children gathering regularly around an artist who teaches them - to those that involve hundreds of people and even employ minimal staff- e.g., Alliance of Congregations Transforming the South Side (ACTS), or the Mid-South Planning Council.

One way of categorizing the 319 groups is depicted on the "Associational Map of Grand Boulevard" (Table 1). The map identifies ten different clusters of groups in the community, and provides an introduction to the ways in which citizens in Grand Boulevard organize their energies and commitments. The Associational Map reflects also the particular nature of the Grand Boulevard community. The ubiquity of public institutions, for example, has spawned a large number of associations whose tasks include advising and/or assisting schools, parks, public housing developments and the police. The large number of religious congregations, and of associations connected to local churches reflects the importance of religious institutions in the life of Grand Boulevard.

Table 1

Grand Boulevard Associational Inventory
Total Number of Groups: 319

Grand Boulevard's Associations: What Might They Do?
The database of local associations created by the mapping process which includes their addresses, phone numbers, and names of leaders allows community leaders to build relationships with the local associations, and to explore ways in which they can contribute to building the community.

To facilitate that process further, the second part of this inquiry involved designing, testing and administering a survey aimed at discovering: What functions these neighborhood associations currently fulfill; Which associational activities have already affected the wider community; and What kinds of community economic development and more broadly defined community building activities associations would be willing to undertake.

The interviews probed past experience, current activity and potential future activities in three major areas:

  • Providing Mutual Care Through Work on "Neighborhood Projects"
  • Addressing Issues in the Community
  • Contributing to Economic Development

A random sample of 23 leaders of the associations were engaged in the survey. These interviews revealed a rich and varied set of current involvements, many of which have impacted the community's life. More than half of the groups surveyed, for example, report having worked on "neighborhood projects," including those supporting youth, senior citizens and families, and those aimed at beautifying the neighborhood, and at improving neighborhood health and safety. Many of these projects represent the associations' experience entering into relationships that provide help, support, and mutual care to those in need. However, many fewer association leaders reported that their groups had already been involved in working on neighborhood issues, as opposed to mutual care projects. Whether teen pregnancy, child abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence, youth groups, or issues facing people with disabilities or those who had been in prison -these pressing issues have not, for the most part, engaged the efforts of local associations.

In a parallel result, an extensive set of questions aimed at discovering how local associations might have been involved in direct economic development activity or in supporting the vitality of the local economy or in job training and placement, revealed very little previous activity. But what the surveys do reveal, in question after question and category after category, is the consistent willingness of the association's leadership to seriously consider doing more. As concrete potential activities were put before them, the answer heard most often by the interviewers was, "Well, we've never done that before, but we'd certainly be willing to try." The following four tables summarize the local leaders' responses regarding the present and potential community-building functions of their groups in the areas of Mutual Care (Table 2), Job Placement / Training (Table 3), Local Economy (Table 4), and Neighborhood Challenges (Table 5).

Table 2

Table 3

Table 4

Table 5