At FCS, we believe that the neighborhood is the unit of change. Our approach differs from many nonprofits and ministries in this key way. Our belief is woven into our DNA.
Why is the Neighborhood the Best Unit of Change to Examine?
When we think about the work of community development – when we’re trying to improve a place or spark positive change – it’s best done at the neighborhood level. Though it’s not as easy to quantify as a town or zip code, the neighborhood is innately how people see the places they live. It’s how they experience the world.
If you want to see long-term impact, you need to focus on the neighborhood.
This is a paradigm shift for a lot of folks. Often, the unit of change is often seen as the individual or the family. Because we care about someone, we initially always think of the person as the unit of change. Though we must care about individual people, that approach prevents us from understanding why certain individuals face so many barriers to flourishing. It’s important to zoom out and see why specific challenges keep presenting themselves to particular people.
We Didn’t Get Here By Accident
Neighborhoods were created on purpose.
Throughout our history, certain neighborhoods received investment while others received disinvestment. Often, this happened in connection with the race of the people who populated these neighborhoods.
Redlining is a prime example. Beginning in 1938, a series of maps that guided investments across America. The most “risky” investments were shaded red on the map. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there were “green” neighborhoods where investments were seen as a safe bet. These maps relied heavily on race-based zoning ordinances.
Once these markers have been set out, the damage ripples across the decades. Patterns of disinvestment and erasure continued when it came to urban renewal projects – and interstates and railroads bulldozed thriving neighborhoods. Banks were reluctant to invest in Black neighborhoods, but not in white neighborhoods. Housing covenants prevented people from living where they wanted. Black and brown people couldn’t get the same loans or rates that White people could. The impact of this disinvestment is easy to see.
Effects Aren’t Equal
Disinvestment has wide-ranging consequences. The work of Raj Chetty – Harvard economist – highlights this fact through his Opportunity Atlas and Opportunities Insights. The research shows that where you live impacts your income, your health, your life expectancy, and much more.
Even worse – the longer individuals live in a lower-income neighborhood, the more it affects their outcomes. Clearly, challenges like material poverty and limited income aren’t just issues of personal choice. There are larger forces at work.
Why Shouldn’t We Just Move People to Opportunity?
On the surface, it seems easiest to move individuals from one neighborhood to another – but the effects of this mindset are disastrous. It’s not just about better housing or schools. Neighborhoods are social fabric. You can’t just send people out into a housing market that isn’t built to give them home owning opportunities.
Instead, we need a holistic approach that reverses and restores the negative effects of disinvestment over the decades. Poverty is not inevitable. Investment matters, but it needs to be strategic. It will take reparative work – it will take decades to undo and redo that level of work to move us forward. A focus on the neighborhood as a unit of change is the best way to start.
Neighborhoods Are An Ecosystem
At FCS, we think of neighborhoods as an ecosystem. Each is a combination of systems that work together in healthy and unhealthy ways. When conditions produce unhealthy organisms, it affects the whole. Balance is key.
The ecosystem includes physical environment, physical health, workforce opportunities, schools, sidewalks, air quality, greenery, and more. Whatever you do or don’t do affects the whole. If you’re just investing in affordable housing, but if it’s not done in a way that’s strategic for the whole ecosystem, it won’t produce positive results.
How Is FCS’ Approach Different?
At FCS, we’re both place-based and holistically focused. It’s possible to focus on just place without thinking about the whole. Other organizations fund projects in historically disinvested neighborhoods (a focus on place), but there’s often a lack of connectivity to the people on the ground. Too often, neighbors aren’t brought into the conversation.
FCS takes a different, intentional approach to bring neighbors into the room in these historically disinvested neighborhoods. We center their vision for the community. We move at the pace of trust. One of our core values is dignity. We work in partnership with local leaders because neighborhoods are used to being “acted upon,” and even when this is positive, that’s problematic. We focus on restoring the power and agency that’s been removed.
Do’s and Don’ts
Throughout our work, we’ve developed some Do’s and Don’ts for organizations seeking to do place-based, holistic work to restore neighborhoods.
- Don’t rush – don’t just build homes, build a sense of community
- Do meet people
- Do place the neighborhood over your organization
- Do be willing to fail and own the failure
- Don’t step into a neighborhood and do something it can do itself
- Do invest in people (they’re the solution not the problem)
- Do focus first on assessment, then alignment, then activation