- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
Dwight Holley, Research Intern, Kirwan Institute,
One of the most often repeated lamentations about engaging with traditionally marginalized communities is that initiatives often go nowhere. Local residents don’t appear to have much interest in participating in the redevelopment process despite the broad agreement that redevelopment may be necessary. There may be deep skepticism about the process despite earnest efforts to engage local community members, and in some cases, there seems to be a lack of capacity for the local community to take the project forward after the initial planning process is over. Tapping into the wide range of informal networks and activities that occur in marginalized communities may provide a solution to these problems.
Every community has assets that don’t normally show up on the official spreadsheet. While these informal assets are not explicitly recognized within the official power structure and have little to no rulemaking authority, they remain very powerful institutions within the community. Social, civic, and religious organizations and even book clubs can be repositories of local power and organizational capacity. Informal organizations and networks are most active when traditional pathways to power and opportunity are unavailable. During the civil rights movement, churches and informal local block groups provided opportunities for marginalized African-Americans and other minorities to gain power to address abuses by local government authorities. Early unions were often organized informally, sometimes secretly in order to give workers a means to address grievances in the workplace. Settlement houses have long offered job training, childcare, and financial literacy classes in order to expand the capacity of disenfranchised populations looking to make a better life.
As communities stabilize and more formal assets become available, these informal resources tend to fade into the background. However, informal assets remain effective for many reasons. First, they tend to follow the rhythms of the local communities. Conducting conversations in conjunction with religious services, in often visited local businesses, or during important local festivals can help residents feel more comfortable participating in the development process. Also, having informal officials drive the engagement process may give the engagement process more legitimacy and help build buy-in for new initiatives in areas that have been let down by previous processes. In rural Ghana, many local land and development processes are convened by members of the local tribal hierarchy, which gives those decisions more legitimacy in the opinion of local farmers than would civil law.
Also, community organizations may help to bring the process closer to the community ensuring that the processes and outcomes address the issues that are relevant to local residents. African-American and Hispanic communities often face the challenge of higher rates of unemployment and incarceration rates which may lead residents to build organizations specific to these issues that may use different strategies in order to address those issues relevantly. For example, in the community of White Center near Seattle, the White Center Community Development Agency works with advocacy groups related to immigrants in order to address language barrier and job training challenges. This in turn helps those residents build the capacity to find gainful employment and also gain a voice in community development. Informal groups also are more horizontal in structure, allowing residents to come closer to the decision-making table and making it easier for them to provide valuable insight into how these problems begin.
Deep engagement with informal networks can increase the level of transparency and accountability for a process. Local organizations such as tenet associations and community savings clubs tend to be comprised of neighbors who often know and trust each other well, and have more access to one another, making process feedback easier. Also, when informal assets are legitimized by the larger region, the community may find itself more able and willing to act on other challenges that hinder opportunity in the area. In Thailand, low-income residents near Bangkok’s historical center built informal networks between communities, NGO’s and academic institutions, allowing them to gain equal footing with the nation’s powerful development ministry as they convened a process to redevelop the area. Despite their informal standing, these networks were able to build leadership capacity and regional network connections that not only led to a more fair development plan, but also led to more equitable representation long-term.
Encouraging existing informal institutions to take the lead in the engagement process often leads to an increase in local leadership capacity. Groups or networks that are engaged in garnering basic services, without having any official standing or capacity may have the local cache and organizational capacity to take an effective leadership role in the process. These experiences may help them build upon their current skills in local leadership and also lead to a sense of leadership for taking the process further.
Many marginalized communities rely heavily on informal networks and organizations to provide structure and opportunity. By engaging with existing informal assets, the civic engagement process can become a vehicle for local empowerment and help build they type of leadership in the that can push a community forward.
 The Ohio State University. “Offinso Tomorrow: A Framework for Planning in the Offinso North District, Ghana”, p.16 Spring, 2010. http://knowlton.osu.edu/sites/default/files/sites/default/files/docs/341_ghana.pdf
 Reece, Jason et al, “Opportunity and Mapping Analysis for White Center, WA”, p.58. August 2011.
 Wungpatcharapon, Supreeya. “The Roles of Informal Community Networks in Public Participation: The Case of Thailand:, p.8 University of Sheffield, UK. February 2009.