March 25, 2008

Top-Down/Bottom-Up: Part 2

Here's a question that I've been thinking about since last week's top-down/bottom-up posting on the closing of branch libraries and community centers in Memphis:

If branch libraries and community centers are indeed valuable neighborhood anchors, why aren't neighborhood residents outraged, or at least speaking out, about their imminent closure? If the "top" has made a decision that will be bad for the neighborhood, where is the "bottom" (and why aren't we hearing from them)?

This question led me to a wonderful new report issued by the Woods Fund of Chicago on Chicago's South Side Initiative. After looking at the distribution of their grants over the past decade, the Woods Fund, with its long history of support for community organizing in Chicago, asked why some of the poorest and most distressed neighborhoods in Chicago were not engaged in community organizing. What they learned is that residents in these communities thought that organizing was about asking the government to provide needed services - not increasing the power of citizens to shape the future of their neighborhoods and the larger community. The Woods Fund learned that they needed to invest in increasing organizing capacity on the South Side - identifying opportunities to connect with residents and grassroots groups in new ways, and supporting their learning journey about the difference between asking for services and working from a position of knowledge and power.

Community organizing is in the water in Chicago. It's not in the water - or anywhere else - in Memphis and many other cities, especially in the South. This plays out with neighborhood residents taking on a service agenda as volunteers - volunteering to clean up their park, volunteering to fight crime as part of a walking patrol, volunteering to provide kids with more options after school or in the summer.

Volunteering is wonderful. But there are questions behind the issues - parks, crime, youth - that need more than volunteering. They need people acting as "active citizens" - bringing their values, their wisdom, and their hopes for their community to policy and decision-making tables with authority and power. When volunteering is the only perceived role for residents, it's a lot easier for residents to accept decisions such as those the Memphis Mayor made about branch libraries and community centers as outside of their control and not really their business.

There are important lessons from the Woods Fund's South Side Initiative for such places. And, a reminder from Memphis about why this lesson matters.


  1. Janis,
    You are absolutely right that the most exciting community development efforts these days are ones which combine top-down and bottom-up strategies. One of the examples that influenced me most is Southwest Delray Beach, Florida, which I wrote about in my book. I think the great mission - and hope - of neighborhood councils and other kinds of permanent neighborhood structures is that they sustain this top-bottom combination over time. They can create arenas where citizens can bring their issues and concerns, talk about them, and do something about them; and those same arenas are then useful to public officials who want to support this problem-solving and get citizen input on key city-wide policy questions. But these structures need physical spaces in which to meet - which makes the decision to close libraries and community centers in Memphis even more frustrating.

  2. Hi Matt - It's good to hear from you here - and thanks for connecting this discussion with the wonderful examples in your book.

    Your comment about how basic meeting space is to making local democracy work was particularly on target for me. My hunch is that in Memphis, these branch libraries and community centers are being closed after years and years of staff and infrastructure disinvestment - making them places that no one will really miss because difficulty of accessing meeting rooms and other spaces had moved them to the outside edges of neighborhood life. No one seems to be swimming in the gulf between top and bottom there, but there is a lot of opportunity if someone would get in that water!