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Section 3. Our Model of Practice: Building Capacity for Community and System Change

Example 1: Healthy Communities: A Parable of Two Paths

In the early 1920's, the people of Prairie Center and Sunflower enjoyed a rich community life. There were strong ties among neighbors. People supported each other in many informal ways; through churches, in conversations at the local cafe, and on front porches. Adults cared for each other's children. When Billy or Maria did something wrong, their parents were sure to hear about it. People trusted each other to look out for them.

Gradually life changed in the two communities. Growth from nearby urban areas added people with limited ties to the community. Local zoning laws and regional planning separated the places where people worked from where they lived. Roads now cut through established neighborhoods, making it necessary to take the car to places people used to walk.

Individuals and families made new choices about how to use their time. Rather than visit neighbors, people stayed at home and watched television. Increasingly, both adults worked outside the home; often at several low-paying jobs to meet family needs. As a result, there were fewer adults to watch what kids were doing. All these individual choices and constraints added up: community folks had less contact with their neighbors, with their children, and with each other's children.

In Prairie Center, things changed gradually -- and so did the way local people addressed their problems. As drug use and violence increased in the 1980's and 1990's, the local media blamed on youth and their parents. Following advice from outside experts, the county jail was expanded at considerable cost. This left less public money for education and health. Those who could afford it sent their children to private schools. Those who could went out of town for health care. Poor people suffered the most; sharp cuts in public assistance could not be made up by local churches and charities.

People still cared deeply about their own children and family, but the sense was that each person and family should take care of themselves. Many people were increasingly distrustful of "them." "Them" was understood to mean everyone outside the family.

The people of Sunflower took a different approach. A tragedy in the late 1980's -- the deaths of two children in a drug-related incident really got people's attention. They began a process of community renewal. They started a dialogue about what really mattered in the community, and about what values they shared. They identified a common purpose: to create a caring place for all of the community's children.

The people of Sunflower began to work together in new ways. They formed action teams that cut across the usual boundaries. They included both the powerful and those people, such as youth and low-income families, who were seen by some as the problem. Now a diverse group of citizens, public officials, clergy, service providers, and business people joined hands. They worked to transform schools, businesses, health and service organizations, the faith community, and other valued assets. They established benchmarks for success:

  • All kids succeeding in school
  • Less drug and alcohol use
  • Fewer teen pregnancies
  • Fewer children living in poverty
  • Adults employed in decent jobs

They coordinated all of their efforts in what they called the "Sunflower Partnership."

Gradually, people started to notice a difference with the unfolding of community changes, both large and small, in Sunflower. Several major businesses allowed flextime for their employees so they could help children. The school district expanded the hours of neighborhood schools, creating safe places for children after school. The faith community collected donations to care for others. City government officials approved new guidelines for tax abatements that rewarded businesses for creating better paying jobs for the unemployed and working poor.

Taken together, all of these changes improved community life. Gradually, the differences could be seen. They also produced results: kids did better in school, fewer kids got in trouble, the neighborhoods were safer, and children and adults were more successful. There was more to be done, of course, but people could see that they were making progress. 

Stephen B. Fawcett