| || Civic Dictionary |
Reprinted with permission from the Consensus Organizing Institute.
A New Vision of Civic Engagement
The United States of America, 1996. Money dominates the electoral process. Special interest groups contend with one another to grab the biggest possible share of the public pie. People are categorized, stereotyped, pigeonholed and isolated according to (among other things) race, wealth and geography. Discussions of many important public issues have been reduced to mudslinging and sloganeering. Some public officials have tried to advance their own careers by identifying (or creating) issues that are especially divisive and using them to stir up people's fear and anger.
Meanwhile, many of the nation's most pressing problems seem to be intractable. Despite decades of programmatic efforts to address poverty, many Americans remain trapped in an economic underclass, and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing. Despite years of public concern about the quality of our schools, student test scores have not increased, and people talk seriously about doing away with the public schools entirely in favor of a voucher supported private system. Despite a high level of public anxiety and costly efforts on a national scale, violent crime continues to plague most U.S. cities at near record levels.
For a great many Americans, these conditions have given rise to anger, frustration and a sense of futility. People believe that their communities and the nation as a whole are hopelessly, perhaps irreversibly on the wrong track. Anger at public officials and disdain for the political system are widespread. Voting and other forms of civic participation have fallen even as the public's displeasure and desire for reforms have grown.
Is it possible to reverse this frustration and sense of disconnection from public life? Can people take matters into their own hands, providing real leadership, making genuine progress and gaining the opportunity to share power with respect to the issues that affect their communities? Is it feasible to create an atmosphere in which people with different backgrounds, traits and talents work together to develop a positive vision of their communities' future, and form the partnerships necessary to make that vision a reality? Is it possible that an institution can be a genuine asset to everybody who cares about improving conditions in their communities and cities, whether they are homeowners or renters, employers or employees, ministers or mayors, corporate leaders or grade school teachers?
In communities across the United States, the Consensus Organizing Institute is demonstrating that the answer to each of these questions is "yes." By taking practical steps that rely on careful analysis and planning rather than rhetoric or false promises; by carefully crafting the relationships necessary to make progress on important issues; by seeking pragmatic solutions based on the common self interest of the people and institutions connected with a community; by forming surprising, dynamic partnerships between private and public sector leaders and community groups; by providing effective ways for individuals to use and develop their own skills and creativity on behalf of their communities; and by repeatedly succeeding at positioning people to make genuine, beneficial change on important issues, COI is giving shape to a new vision of active citizenship .
The Institutional Partner
Consensus organizing in a community generally starts with the identification and involvement of a local institutional partner. The partner may be almost any type of institution; COI has worked with charitable foundations, business organizations, social service agencies and government agencies. The partner provides financial resources to support the organizing process and helps open doors to similar institutions (referred to herein for lack of a better phrase as "downtown" interests, despite the inapplicability of the term in some settings) as the consensus organizers seek other partners and identify points of common interest. The fact of the institutional partner's ongoing participation is also used as a community organizing tool, as it gives skeptical members of the community a reason to believe that their efforts will lead to something tangible.
The Preliminary Assessment
The next step in the consensus organizing process is to conduct a preliminary assessment of both community and "downtown" interests. The community piece of the assessment is rigorous and detailed. What are the specific strengths and weaknesses of existing community groups? Who are their real constituents? Which issues and interests unite the community, and which divide it? Is there a tradition of volunteerism and involvement in the community? Which individuals have the widest sets of allegiances within the community? The "downtown" piece of the assessment is equally comprehensive and intensive. What relationships and linkages already exist among the local corporations, banks, hospitals, charitable foundations, service agencies and government agencies? Who has a vested interest in supporting or opposing the community's agenda? Is there a culture of involvement in the community, or a history of inactivity or hostility with respect to the community? The results of this assessment are subjected to careful analysis, and establish the basis for COI's strategy.
Building Community Organizations
Typically, COI's strategy involves building permanent, self-sustaining organizations that will operate as vehicles for community involvement, leadership development and advocacy. Sometimes these organizations must be built from scratch; in other cases, existing organizations make modifications to their compositions, missions and approaches. Building these organizations is central to the consensus organizing model because of the quality of the participation that they demand from community members. In order to form and sustain an effective organization, residents must collaborate to formulate and carry out tasks and agendas, listen to other residents, articulate community concerns and engage in diplomacy. COI's experience has been that consensus organizing works because of these extraordinary demands, not despite them. Participants typically find that using their individual talents and skills on behalf of the community is a tremendously invigorating and inspiring experience. Commitment creates ownership. Ownership inspires commitment. Community organizations employing consensus tactics achieve tangible successes, and those successes breed confidence. Confidence in the organization and its volunteer leaders inspires further community participation.
The community organizations formed in the consensus organizing process are composed entirely of community members. "Downtown" interests, including the project's institutional partners, are not represented. The purpose of forming the organizations is to give community members the experience of responsibility and control, and to establish and implement a community agenda. While the community organizations are formed with the expectation that they will engage in cooperative ventures with "downtown" interests, it would not serve the community to allow the downtown interests to dominate or dilute the community organization's actions.
On the other hand, the consensus organizer seeks to achieve extremely broad representation from within the community. Even if the community consists predominantly of members of a single race, residents of all races are invited to participate in the organization. Even if the community consists predominantly of low-income people, residents of all income levels are invited to participate. The consensus organizer seeks participants from every group of people that lives or works within the community, or otherwise comes into contact with the community in a significant way. While the logistical impossibility of seeking out every single person in any community makes some selectivity necessary, the consensus organizer's strategic goal is to recruit the most widely trusted individuals from every group of people affiliated with the community, and not to write off or exclude any group. For example, the consensus organizer recruits the merchants with the widest set of allegiances among the merchants doing business in the community, and the public housing tenants with the greatest credibility among public housing tenants. The result is a viable community organization that has representation from, and credibility with, every segment of the community, composed of the individuals most likely to inspire commitment and enthusiasm by virtue of their involvement, with the greatest possible legitimacy in forming partnerships with "downtown" interests.
The consensus organizer also takes steps to pave the way for joint ventures between the community organizations and downtown interests. Such ventures may include both camaraderie building events, such as community cleanups or community newsletters, and more substantive collaborations relating to significant community priorities. The organizer starts by identifying points of common interest and temperament. For example, the organizer may discover that community members are interested in, among other things, creating job opportunities for residents. The organizer may further discover that the owners of the factory (and major employer) at the edge of the community, while disagreeing with residents about many issues, also bemoan the lack of well-trained local job candidates. Using strategy and skill, the consensus organizer may turn this single point of overlapping interest into the basis for a community venture, such as a training program that brings together residents and factory owners.
The long-term significance of such a joint venture may be less in the benefits of the program than in the opportunity it creates for community members to interact with their co-venturers. Such interactions may spark relationships built on genuine trust and respect. As a result, on other issues regarding which the parties' agendas appear to conflict, the community may be able to employ strategies that rely in part on the existence of such relationships. The relationships may also provide the vehicle for the parties to discover that their agendas are less directly in conflict than they appeared to be, because past miscommunications and misunderstandings have distorted each party's perception of the other's interests. Furthermore, the relationships may make it possible for the parties to think creatively together, and to discover solutions and compromises that have value for everybody.
Because of these relationships, it is entirely possible that the organizing process will result in no obvious climax to the community's pursuit of its long-term agendano single event or decision that becomes the focal point for the exertion of community power.
Rather, perhaps through a thousand small interactions in the course of a hundred relationships, the community may pursue its strategy, position its residents with respect to the entities with power, present its agenda, influence the course of events and achieve its objectives. The entire process may be entirely informal, diffuse and invisible to the casual observer. The only easily detected manifestation of the process may be the successful result.
As with the process of forming and maintaining a community organization, the process of carrying out joint ventures and building relationships with people affiliated with downtown institutions demands a great deal from the community members involved. As participants in joint ventures, they must utilize knowledge and skills appropriate to the particular venture. They may be required to employ skills in management, accounting, real estate, banking, teaching or a variety of other disciplines. In some instances, there will be interested people who already have the necessary skills, and will use them on the community's behalf. In most instances, it will be necessary for some people to develop new skills, or enhance existing skills, through training and practice. While the consensus organizer can help develop some of the necessary skills and arrange for training programs, it ultimately falls to the people involved to commit their time, talent and energy to skills-building, and to apply their skills with creativity and care in the appropriate settings.
The experience of the Consensus Organizing Institute has been that people can and consistently do rise to this challenge. Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, ordinary people have been perfectly capable of mastering technical information and skills, and of combining their new knowledge with their instincts and experience to help shape and lead collaborative ventures. Indeed, people have responded to such challenges with enthusiasm precisely because the personal demands are so great, and because they enjoy using their creativity and talents to achieve tangible results for their communities.
This creative energy is not one-sided. When factory owners, hospital administrators, public officials, merchants or bankers work with a group of skilled and dedicated community members, develop relationships of respect and trust and carry out successful ventures, they often feel tremendous enthusiasm about participating in other, similar projects. They begin to feel a stake in the welfare of the community that they may not have felt before the community manifested as a cadre of respectable, trustworthy resident leaders.
Training Consensus Organizers
An important part of COI's work is the training of consensus organizers. In the communities in which COI works, COI provides talented individuals with analytical and strategic tools to use in identifying and developing community leaders, building community organizations and developing and pursuing community agendas. COI trains organizers in the use of consensus tactics and the building of sustainable, productive relationships. Even after the completion of COI's involvement in a community, organizers trained by COI may remain in the community as resources for future efforts.
One of the important skills COI teaches organizers is how to transfer "ownership" of a project from themselves to the community. This transfer of ownership is necessary because the central objective of COI's work is to position people to share power to improve their own communities. Perpetual reliance on outside assistance including COI's assistance would undermine this objective. In every community with which it works, COI prepares organizers to engineer a seamless transition of their own roles from primary catalyst to supportive spectator. After COI completes its work with a project, indigenous leaders, linked with each other and with institutional resources in a sophisticated network of relationships, continue to work together to make a real difference for their communities.
History of Consensus Organizing
A New Way To Save A Neighborhood
Traditional community organizers, trained in the classic conflict style pioneered by Saul Alinsky, have tried to engage and empower communities by leading them into battle. These organizers have operated from the premise that people and institutions with power will never surrender it voluntarily. Because of this belief, conflict organizers have devoted themselves to orchestrating the application of forceusually in a series of events, such as rallies or pickets. These events have involved gathering large numbers of people, because the organizers believe that numbers are the sole source of the community's strength. The role of the people participating in such events has been simply to stand up and be counted. Traditional organizers have tried to develop community leadership by securing "victories" over institutions with power, including banks, universities, corporations and government agencies.
Mike Eichler was well versed in these methods and assumptions in the early 1980's when he began his work as a community organizer for a neighborhood association in Pittsburgh. The neighborhood association was concerned about the activities of local real estate companies, which were trying to generate commissions in the neighborhood by engaging in "blockbusting." This practice involved destabilizing the neighborhood and encouraging resident turnover by stirring up fears that the racial balance would change and property values would plummet. Eichler responded the way conflict organizers are trained to respond: He organized residents to direct their hostility at the most successful blockbuster. He mobilized residents, turning them out in large numbers at public demonstrations, to put pressure on the real estate company to change its practices. He also helped residents file a lawsuit against the company.
The residents' campaign succeeded at least, in one superficial respect. The residents prevailed in their lawsuit and the company was found guilty of illegal blockbusting. However, the only penalty imposed upon the company was a fine of a few thousand dollars less than the value of the real estate commission for selling a single home. Meanwhile, the publicity generated by the residents' efforts actually drove the company's revenues upward, as people who sympathized with the company signed up as clients.
The blockbusting continued. Despite the legal triumph, with respect to its basic objective the campaign was a failure.
Eichler realized that if the residents wanted to make real changes in their neighborhood, they would need a new approach. His solution: Get residents involved in selling real estate. With their special knowledge of the neighborhood and their neighbors, the residents would have a natural advantage in the marketplace and they could use their status as realtors to dispel the cloud of suspicion and fear that made blockbusting possible. While conflict organizers operating in the area dismissed this strategy as "selling out," the residents were enthusiastic.
Unfortunately, Eichler's effort encountered an obstacle almost immediately: A state requirement prevented people from qualifying as real estate brokers until they had been practicing as real estate agents for three years. The consequence of this requirement was that the residents could not simply open a real estate office and start seeking clients. They would need to start by becoming agents, which would entail finding an existing real estate brokerage to sponsor their activities. The local conflict organizers groused that such a partnership would amount to a "dance with the Devil," but the residents remained intent on pursuing their objective, and pressed ahead.
The residents prepared a business proposal for submission to the established brokerages, emphasizing their strengths: dedication, knowledge of the neighborhood, and contact with people who would know about real estate opportunities (such as social service agencies and funeral directors). With high hopes, Eichler and the residents approached the biggest brokerage in the area and presented the proposal. The response: "Not yet." The brokerage's owner was direct about his reason: Property values in the neighborhood had not bottomed out yet. He wanted to wait until he had reaped all of the benefits of the latest round of blockbusting before turning brokers loose in the neighborhood so he could really make a killing. While the residents were disappointed at the rejection, to Eichler's surprise they were actually energized by the owner's provocative explanation. Having at least been treated with the blunt honesty appropriate among businesspeople discussing a serious business proposal, the residents were ready to try again.
The next brokerage that the residents approached accepted their proposal. Four of the residents volunteered to prepare for the next step: taking and passing the Pennsylvania real estate licensing exam. The statewide average passage rate for first-time takers was only 24%, and these four residents had no special background or skills that would have suggested that their prospects were any better. However, they did have special motivationthe opportunity to make a real difference in their neighborhood and confidence built by having come as far as they had. All four residents passed the test on the first attempt. The brokerage opened an office in the neighborhood, with the four resident brokers as staff.
Did this success solve the blockbusting problem? Unfortunately not. Almost immediately, the new brokers discovered another obstacle: The local banks consistently refused to lend funds to prospective buyers of homes in the neighborhood. The problem was that the homes' appraised values were too low, partly because the appraisers were taking into account the likelihood that blockbusting (and, therefore, declining property values) would continue. For example, the purchase price of a property might be $30,000. The buyer would make a down payment of $3,000 and seek a loan of $27,000. The appraiser would appraise the property at $26,000, and the bank would decline to make the loan. In addition to posing a real dilemma for the neighborhood and the new real estate brokers, this situation made the futility of the old strategy of demonizing the blockbusting real estate brokerages even more plain. As Eichler and the residents now learned, even achieving "victories" over the brokerages would not have solved the blockbusting problem. The machine was too complex for the "defeat" of a single cog to make enough of a difference.
The residents solved the appraisal problem by taking advantage of the one source of power they had with respect to the appraisal process: In order to make an appraisal, the appraiser had to obtain the keys to the home from the real estate agent. As a result, the four resident real estate agents knew when and where any appraisals of the properties they sold would take place. They began to organize neighborhood residents to meet the appraisers, not to create any conflict, but simply to offer some help with the appraisal process. The residents told the appraiser how nice the neighborhood was. They talked about the quality of the schools. They offered to show the appraiser their own homes. The result was that the appraised values of the homes started to increase, and the banks started to make the necessary loans.
The resident real estate agents also worked to end the blockbusting-induced panic by spreading the word of their own successes. As neighborhood homes sold at respectable prices, the fears of other residents about the value of their own properties diminished. In the end, the neighborhood stabilized and the blockbusting ended. The neighborhood remains racially mixed and a pleasant place to live to this day.
The Mon Valley Initiative
The success and unique methodology of the anti-blockbusting campaign attracted attention, as people involved in community improvement efforts throughout the greater Pittsburgh area recognized the value of an approach that emphasized strategy, pragmatism and relationship-building. Over the succeeding several years, Mike Eichler had opportunities to use and develop the fledgling consensus organizing model in a variety of settings.
Of all of those settings, none seemed more daunting at the outset than that of the Mon Valley, the region encompassing the industrial cities and towns located along the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh. The Mon Valley's economy was collapsing because of the declining fortunes of the U.S. steel industry. Massive layoffs had led to widespread unemployment and consequent poverty. The steel mills that had been the heart of the region's economic life sat dormant and abandoned along the river.
Anger and frustration were rampant. The leadership of the local unions placed blame for the situation squarely on the shoulders of the factory owners, who (they charged) had made their millions off the backs of the people of the Mon Valley, then walked away when times got tough. The factory owners, in turn, blamed the unions for refusing to make sufficient concessions, even when shifting economic conditions made such concessions necessary to the plants' survival.
The local political system was poorly equipped to address the situation. Local elected officials had spent their entire careers taking the fact of the steel mills' continuing operation for granted. As a result, they had little to offer in the way of creative solutions to the region's overwhelming problems. Moreover, many local officials were old-time politicians interested primarily in keeping control of the flow of public resources into the community. Unwilling to surrender power even to their constituents, such officials stood ready to thwart solutions that involved empowering residents of the Mon Valley communities to find creative ways to improve their circumstances.
From the perspective of many Mon Valley residents, the situation appeared nearly hopeless. The prosperity and stability of the Mon Valley's steel enterprises had been a central fact of their lives for decades. The steel companies had been more than just providers of jobs; they had been the most significant unifying force in community life.
While residents felt a great deal of frustration about the apparent paralysis that afflicted their elected officials, it was difficult for many of them to envision solutions that involved taking and using power on their own behalf. There were no active organizations developing or advocating community political agendas. To the extent that residents interacted in an organized way outside of the plants, it was in social or religious organizations with no political objectives. Moreover, some residents had internalized their positions within the former plant hierarchies. After years of laboring in subordinate roles and assuming that power would be exercised by the foreman or plant manager, it was simply difficult to imagine taking charge.
The situation was not improved by a series of traditional, conflict-oriented community organizing efforts. In an attempt to stir community passions, organizers tried to personalize the source of the communities' problems by demonizing the plant owners. One tactic they employed was to march into a plant owner's church during a Sunday morning service, disrupt the service, point to the plant owner and publicly accuse him of having caused the communities' unemployment, poverty and malaise. Such tactics usually backfired by generating sympathy for the targets. In the end, no widespread sense of resident empowerment, and no measurable improvement in the quality of life in the Mon Valley, resulted from these efforts.
Despite these bleak circumstances, there were outside institutions willing to take the initiative and devote resources to improving conditions in the Mon Valley. In 1985, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a group of corporate leaders in the Pittsburgh area, used funds from the Heinz Endowment to hire Mike Eichler to explore the possibility of implementing a community-based development effort. These self-selected institutional partners did not provide Eichler with a project design or even a job description. They simply allowed him to use the fact of their commitment and the promise of resources as an organizing tool. This flexibility reflected their confidence that the Mon Valley communities had substantial human assets, and that with the proper catalyst, the communities could develop their own agendas and take sophisticated, creative, beneficial action on their own behalf.
Eichler's most important task was to develop a strategy. Reconnaissance of the Mon Valley communities and downtown interests indicated that each bore a substantial distrust for the other. Residents were suspicious about the institutional partners' motives and depth of commitment. Would they really allow the residents to set their own agenda, or would they eventually seize control? Downtown interests were suspicious because of the recent conflict-oriented organizing efforts. Would hardened activists take control of the process and use the downtown interests' own resources to attack them? Eichler concluded that in order for the effort to have any chance of succeeding, he would have to persuade each side that the other had demonstrated a commitment inconsistent with the feared ulterior motives. In order to assuage the concerns of community members, he would have to have resources available to deliver immediately, as well as a clear mandate that projects resulting from his efforts be controlled locally. In order to assuage the concerns of the corporate partners, he would have to make the organizing effort broadly inclusive, ensuring participation beyond that of self-designated community leaders and activists.
Eichler decided to focus on quality control as another way of building credibility with both community residents and downtown interests, and of facilitating their eventual collaboration. In order to achieve a visible commitment to high standards, he worked with the Allegheny Conference to bring in the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) as an additional resource. As a national community development intermediary, LISC was useful under these circumstances because it contributed both funding and a staff devoted to maintaining quality control. Before it would release resources to community organizations, LISC required the organizations to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the project by successfully recruiting members and sustaining activity over a period of time. In this instance, LISC also required that the community organizations formed in the course of the organizing project become 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations meeting all applicable legal requirements.
These rigorous expectations appealed to the institutional partners, who were reassured that their investment would likely yield tangible, beneficial results. In addition, the standards themselves became an invaluable organizing tool. Contrary to the prevailing stereotype, many community residents were extremely attracted by the prospect of working for an effort in which the demands were so rigorous and the expectations so great. Moreover, the group of residents who were attracted by the project's high standards tended to have a particular set of qualities that made them extremely valuable members of community organizations. These qualities included pragmatism, patience, and an unwavering dedication to promoting and sustaining the organizations once they had made the initial decision to join. In the later stages of the organizing project, when the newly formed community organizations engaged in collaborative ventures with institutional partners, the partners were impressed, reassured and inspired by those very qualities in the resident leaders.
The organizing effort led to the formation of community development corporations or similar organizations to represent 14 Mon Valley cities and towns. The community organizations focused on a variety of development projects, as determined by the interests of the local residents and available opportunities. Often in collaboration with institutional partners, the organizations successfully completed projects relating to housing and to commercial, business and industrial property. These ventures produced tangible, if modest, improvements in conditions across the Mon Valley.
Despite these early successes, the initial impact of the community organizations' activities was substantially limited by the organizations' lack of political clout. Different portions of the Mon Valley fell within four different counties. Each of the Mon Valley towns represented only a small percentage of the people in its county. As a result, each organization faced difficulty in influencing public policy, because no county government was accountable, in any meaningful way, to the residents of any Mon Valley town.
In order to overcome this problem, the community groups banded together to form a regional organization known as the Mon Valley Initiative. Regional organization allowed the united community groups to appeal directly to the Pennsylvania state government on matters of public policy. The state was a willing object of such appeals, both because the united community groups represented such a large number of citizens and because the state needed regional resources to address regional problems.
An additional benefit of regional organization was that it created new opportunities for resident leadership development. Community members began to be exposed to politics and policymaking on an enormous scale, and faced the challenge of developing, advocating and implementing a regional agenda. Moreover, the residents began to develop relationships with policy makers and opinion leaders from across the state. While carrying out these tasks required that the residents develop and employ skills not normally associated with members of low-income communities, they did so enthusiastically and successfully.
Uniting the local community organizations to form the Mon Valley Initiative made sense for another reason as well. Not surprisingly, the people making decisions on behalf of local corporations and other downtown interests tended to think of problems regionally. Political boundaries such as county lines were essentially irrelevant in devising, for example, marketing strategies and workforce recruitment plans. Consequently, representatives of downtown interests believed, and recognized, that for the locals to view and address problems regionally required a profound degree of sophistication. The concept of the Mon Valley Initiative impressed and appealed to the very corporate leaders whose willingness to become a partner in community and regional projects was a key to the Initiative's success.
More than seven years after its creation, the Mon Valley Initiative continues to function as an effective catalyst and forum for community involvement and leadership development. Several hundred residents are involved in a variety of Mon Valley Initiative groups and committees. The Initiative and its component organizations have created over $14 million in new investment in the Mon Valley, and the Initiative serves as a respected participant in regional economic development and business retention efforts.
The Development Team
Following the success of consensus organizing in the Mon Valley, both Mike Eichler and LISC were ready to apply the model in other cities around the nation. LISC hired Eichler to lead its new Development Team, which would plan and carry out pilot consensus organizing projects. These projects eventually went forward in six urban areas: Little Rock, Arkansas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Palm Beach County, Florida; Houston, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Las Vegas, Nevada. The basic objective of each Development Team project was to give residents of lower income neighborhoods a meaningful opportunity to address and measurably improve conditions within their communities.
Eichler hired, trained and supervised talented individuals who took charge of the consensus organizing efforts at several of the sites. These project coordinators included Richard Barrera (Little Rock), Reggie Harley (New Orleans) and Mary Ohmer (Palm Beach County). Each project coordinator, in turn, identified and hired local organizers to serve as the primary contacts and catalysts for the various communities. With training and supervision from the project coordinators, these organizers (a diverse group of 18 organizers at the 6 Development Team sites) became skilled strategists and communicators, and played a central role in developing resident leaders and building community organizations.
The organizers began working in a variety of neighborhoods at each site, gathering detailed information about people's perceptions of their neighborhoods and of each other. After analyzing this information with the help of the project coordinators, the organizers used the information to identify potential resident leaders, and to develop and carry out strategic plans for bringing people together to form community organizations. These community organizations included respected representatives from every segment of the communityhomeowners, renters, business owners, clergy, social service providers. Once the community organizations were active, strong and stable, they commenced the formal process of becoming community development corporations (CDCs). The Development Team's work led to the creation of 32 new CDCs, each with a board of directors composed of committed volunteers from the communities they would serve.
At the same time, the project coordinator at each site undertook a detailed analysis of the private and public sector institutions around each community, and built relationships with many of the people associated with those institutions. By carefully assessing the real interests of these people and institutions, identifying potential common ground, identifying pragmatic individuals and building strategic relationships among them, each coordinator assembled a cadre of people who could provide resources to the project. These institutional lenders, representatives of philanthropic organizations, corporate leaders and government officials formed an advisory board at each site. In addition to contributing resources, many advisory board members became personally involved in the projects, interacting with community residents and taking an active role in encouraging the efforts of the new community development corporations.
The community development corporations developed and implemented plans reflecting the aspirations and needs of their constituent communities. Some of the CDCs focused on home ownership, building new homes or renovating existing homes in order to improve the physical appearance of their neighborhoods and to provide opportunities for lower income people to own homes. Other CDCs built or renovated rental units, improving their neighborhoods by ensuring that the facilities would be well-managed and occupied by law-abiding, community-minded tenants. Many CDCs purchased and developed commercial property, bringing retail stores, offices and light industry, as well as job opportunities, to their neighborhoods. In all, the 32 CDCs raised and invested millions of dollars in their communities.
With the help of the organizers and project coordinators, the community residents who volunteered to serve on the CDC boards became skilled developers, diplomats and advocates, participating in every phase of the CDC development projects. Board members who served on their CDC's Site & Legal Committee navigated the process of formally securing properties for development. Design Committee members made decisions about the physical appearance of new and renovated facilities, taking into account the interests of the community and the aesthetics of their neighborhoods. Marketing Committee members found buyers and renters for properties developed by their CDCs. Finance Committee members helped obtain and layer the funding necessary to complete development projects. While each of these responsibilities required that the participants develop new skills, absorb technical information and contend with a variety of challenges, the CDC board members responded with enthusiasm to the opportunity to shape the character of their neighborhoods.
In addition to identifying leaders, assembling volunteer CDC boards and developing the skills of board members, the project coordinators and organizers at each site recruited a diverse and talented group of professionals to provide technical assistance to the CDCs. These technical assistance providers included expert architects, marketing specialists, attorneys and/or development consultants specializing in supermarkets, business incubators, light industry, commercial real estate or other aspects of economic development, depending on the nature of the projects going forward at a site. In addition to contributing their expertise in connection with the projects themselves, the technical assistance providers worked extensively with CDC board members, further developing their skills and preparing them to make key decisions with a full understanding of the options and their consequences.
The project coordinators also made sure that the CDC board members had opportunities to build relationships with people associated with resources not represented on their local advisory boards. For example, CDCs went through the process of applying for (and receiving) Block Grant funds and HOME dollars, and in the process became familiar with the people and institutions providing those resources. Such experiences allowed CDC board members to learn the process of seeking private and public resources for development projects, and positioned them to navigate the process successfully in connection with subsequent projects.
One of the enduring legacies of the Development Team projects has been the group of dedicated community volunteers whose skills were developed in the course of their involvement at each site. For example, a community volunteer and CDC board member from the Little Rock site became LISC's coordinator for the Las Vegas Development Team project, responsible for hiring and supervising the community organizers at that site. Another volunteer, from one of the Palm Beach County CDC's, built on his CDC experience to become a private real estate developer, specializing in low income neighborhoods. Still another volunteer, also from a Palm Beach County CDC, has been asked to chair a task force to develop an infrastructure plan for her community, and has started and secured funding for an Enablement/Tutorial program for local children. For these and many other volunteers at the six sites, the consensus organizing process helped to catapult them into positions of leadership, responsibility and community service.
The Consensus Organizing Institute
With the Development Team's success in six cities, interest in the consensus organizing model grew. Entrepreneurial individuals from cities and towns across the nation, representing organizations addressing the gamut of economic and social issues, heard about the model and began to think and talk about how consensus organizing could position people to solve problems and make lasting changes in their communities.
At the same time, the model itself was evolving. Originally devised in response to a particular set of conditions in a single neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the model had been refined and tested in Pittsburgh and the Monongahela Valley and further developed under the auspices of the LISC Development Team. Each venture in consensus organizing reflected the trials and lessons of the earlier efforts, and enhanced the model's applicability in new settings, in connection with new issues.
In fall 1994, Mike Eichler and his Development Team colleagues decided that the time had come to create an institutional home for consensus organizing. They envisioned an organization that would dedicate itself to developing the consensus organizing model and realizing its potential for enhancing people's lives and improving their communities. The new organization, to be known as the Consensus Organizing Institute, would practice and teach consensus organizing in diverse settings across the nation, and would advise local organizations about how they could help address issues and solve problems using consensus organizing techniques.
With initial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Surdna Foundation and the Mott Foundation, the Consensus Organizing Institute opened its doors in November, 1994. Richard Barrera, Reggie Harley and Mary Ohmer, experienced members of Eichler's Development Team, joined Eichler at the new organization as Regional Coordinators.
Since its creation, COI has had the opportunity to put consensus organizing to work in numerous communities, in connection with a variety of dynamic initiatives. As more and more people have come into contact with the Consensus Organizing Institute and learned of the results obtained through consensus organizing, COI's portfolio of projects has grown rapidly in its size, scope and diversity. Among the projects with which COI has worked are the following:
- Kansas City, Missouri
COI provides strategic advice to an alliance of neighborhood organizations regarding program design, neighborhood leadership development and organizer recruitment and training. COI also provides strategic advice and trains community organizers in another program aimed at building civic participation and improving the quality of life in Kansas City block by block.
- Chattanooga, Tennessee
COI is working with a local foundation dedicated to improving Chattanooga's schools on a program that will create permanent, highly effective community/school partnerships in lower income neighborhoods. The project involves building new community organizations, identifying interests shared by schools and their neighbors, and building new relationships between neighborhoods and Chattanooga's corporate community. COI designed the program and is guiding its implementation, including the hiring and training of the project's local staff.
COI is working with a nationally recognized employment policy research firm on a national demonstration project designed to create employment opportunities and incentives for residents of public housing projects. The project is being supported by a national foundation and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and will go forward in six cities. COI's role in the initial phase of the project is to visit and analyze potential sites and participate in site selection.
- Fort Worth, Texas
In an initiative funded by a local corporate foundation, COI is working to convert a federally funded antidrug abuse program into a vehicle for community capacity building. COI works with and builds relationships among program administrators and community organizers, Fort Worth businesses and institutions and local leaders. In addition to assisting in the design of the new program, COI provides advice and training to organizers and volunteers.
- New York, New York
With financial support from a community foundation, collaborative organizations have formed to run community projects in three diverse New York neighborhoods. Each collaborative is composed of seemingly unlikely partners. For example, one collaborative is composed an umbrella group of Jewish organizations, a Puerto Rican organization, a church and the local Navy Yard. COI works with each collaborative to address issues of planning, strategy and relationship-building, helped each collaborative hire a community organizer, and trains each of the organizers.
- Boston, Massachusetts
COI is administering the Boston Initiative, a project funded by community foundations and other local organizations. The project began in February of this year, and over the next two years will bring together neighborhood organizations and citywide support organizations, including a housing organization, a coalition of private sector leaders, a group devoted to public safety and an organization devoted to business development, to create productive relationships and run programs that will improve the quality of life in Boston's low income communities.
- New Orleans, Louisiana
COI trains community organizers and provides strategic advice to six community development corporations formed by COI staff when they were members of the Local Initiative Support Corporation Development Team. COI also has drafted a report on consensus organizing techniques for a local university.
- Dayton, Ohio
A social services provider in Dayton hired community organizers to work in four Dayton neighborhoods, to identify community needs and concerns. COI provides training to the organizers, and works with volunteers and community organizations to build leadership capacity in the four neighborhoods.
- Palm Beach County, Florida
COI trains community organizers and provides strategic advice to six community development corporations formed by COI staff when they were members of the Local Initiative Support Corporation Development Team.
- Las Vegas, Nevada
COI worked with and advised a national community development intermediary in forming new community development corporations. COI now provides regular strategic advice regarding program design, organizational development, technical assistance procurement and relationship building to the local project director and the new community organizations.
- San Diego, California
COI works with a group of business, institutional and public sector leaders, to build relationships with community leaders in San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico in order to address a variety of cross-border issues. The major focus of this effort has been to plan an agenda for growth in the San Diego-Tijuana metropolitan area, with a particular emphasis on children's health care, education, nutrition, family planning, home ownership and environmental issues. This project is funded through an initiative of a national charitable foundation.
- Utica, New York
Utica received a grant through a state program in order to establish a neighborhood advisory council. COI provides strategic assistance to the city in designing the program to meet local needs and developing a Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan.
- Bridgeport, Connecticut
COI worked with a national community development intermediary to recruit and hire, and now trains, an organizer to build neighborhood leadership in The Hollow neighborhood.
- Baton Rouge, Louisiana
COI worked with a national community development intermediary to form and advise six community development corporations.
- Dubuque, Iowa
COI provided strategic advice to the City of Dubuque, and provided training to fledgling neighborhood groups regarding organizational development strategies.
- Hillside, New Jersey
COI provided strategic advice to a child care resource and referral agency in connection with its coordination of a statewide collaborative effort to develop a professional development system for people working in the field of child care and early education.
Responding to COI's early success, the COI Board of Directors, at a Strategic Planning Retreat in May, 1996, articulated an ambitious vision for the organization's work and growth over the next five years. As COI brings the consensus organizing model to more cities and addresses an even wider range of issues, the institute will also be adding to its existing training capabilities, planning national consensus organizing initiatives, building relationships with entrepreneurial institutions, expanding its core staff and carefully documenting its progress. COI will also continue to refine and enhance the collection of insights, tools, strategies and tactics known as consensus organizing, making the model an increasingly effective catalyst for a potent new form of civic engagement.
 A description of COI's work in various communities is set forth below, beginning on page 19 of the original text.
Back to dictionary