A Holistic Approach to Community Empowerment and Ecological Engagement
Kimberly M. Harmon
Project SYNCERE is a Chicago based community organization, established in 2009, that serves as an agent for community empowerment. It is an organization founded by three, African-American male engineering and financial management professionals, who use science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum via in-school and afterschool programming, project based learning models, mentorship, and partnerships with corporate sponsors as the main method of empowerment and engagement. Marc A. Zimmerman (1995) describes empowerment from a community perspective as, “ individuals working together in an organized fashion to improve their collective lives and linkages among community organizations and agencies that help maintain that quality of life” (p. 582). The Project SYNCERE programs, partnerships, and mentorships help students develop confidence in their microsystemic potentiality as STEM scholars, professionals, and innovators, whose communal impact may become realized macrosystemically, both locally and globally.
Communities are multi-faceted, living entities. They are holistic networks of energy built upon relationships of co-existence and the sustainability of individuals, families, and environments. The members and components of communities grow and extend themselves much like branches of a tree; they bear fruit or expand in their life cycles while staying connected to and supported by their anchoring roots. The nurturing and cultivation of community through empowerment and ecological engagement helps to sustain those communal roots by fostering the proactive involvement of community members, on multiple systemic levels, in maintenance, control, and development of their own communities without solely relying upon outside influences and interventions. The necessity of community empowerment and ecological engagement, thus, become essential to the viability of a community, particularly if it is comprised of individuals, who have been systematically underserved or marginalized by the larger society. This marginalization gives breadth to the overarching cultural, academic, and community issues, which often present as impediments to personal and socio-economic successes of the members in the impacted communities.
Although it is located in the North Kenwood community, Project SYNCERE’s service community includes minority, girl, and underserved students throughout the Chicagoland region. This mesosystemic community also includes parents, guardians, and teachers, who serve as motivators and supporters of the students as they grow academically and personally. While the foundation of this mesosystemic relationship does exist, the interdependence between Project SYNCERE and the larger adult community may be strengthened by improved community empowerment and the adaptive capacity exhibited by the student community, various school environments, and neighborhoods in which the participants reside.
Many Chicago based minority and underserved youth populations and their surrounding communities are fraught with socio-economic issues that result in incidents of violence, school closings, poorly resourced academic and food environments, and fractured family structures. Noah Berlatsky’s article, How Bad is Violence in Chicago? It Depends on Your Race (2013), examines the Illinois governor, Pat Quinn’s desires to engage the National Guard as a violence prevention measure. This type of militaristic engagement is met with skepticism and resistance by some South Side residents, who view these gestures of concern as an example of insincerity coupled with what the residents perceive as systematic neglect. In addition, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed dozens of south and west side schools with little input from the community. These closing require displaced students to cross gang territory, and the city’s Safe Passage program, implemented to ensure the safety of displaced students en route to school, is viewed by many community members as ineffective. Wages for Safe Passage workers are low and the potential high turnover is potentially dangerous. Ultimately, the city’s commitment to this program is unclear (Berlatsky, 2013).
The ideas of community resilience, intergenerational partnership, neighborhood connectedness, ecological stewardship, and the sacred identity of community all lend themselves as possible preventive measures for many of the issues experienced in minority and underserved communities, similar to the aforementioned communities, which comprise some of the Project SYNCERE communities. All of these ideas comprise aspects of holistic community empowerment and they ecologically engage communities in a way that encourages sustainability and viability of human resources and environment.
Review of Interventions
There are multiple approaches to community empowerment and ecological engagement with various methods of intervention, which could potentially aid Project SYNCERE in their quest to improve upon their community impact and outreach. Kingston, Roger Mitchell, Paul Florin, and Stevenson (1999) examine ecological engagement as method of establishing sense of community to engage community members and measure their connectedness to the community. Using a database of 2,409 randomly chosen residents of 21 neighborhoods in a Northeastern city, the researchers conducted telephone interviews to examine the importance of neighborhood physical attributes, grassroots neighborhood associations, an individual’s importance within the community, and an individual’s life particulars such as income and education (Kingston, Mitchell, Florin, & Stevenson, 1999). The study examined in the article did not necessarily reflect a connection between grassroots neighborhood associations, neighborhood physical characteristics, and an enhanced sense of community. The researchers did suggest that more consideration should be given to the complexity and holistic nature of a community and its citizens’ engagement when attempting to increase and affect sense of community. They also suggested that neighborhoods may be the center of facilitating a sense of community.
The necessity for a strengthened sense of community is keenly felt in communities that have experienced overwhelming change, excessive loss, and unseasonable transitions. The Chicago community, particularly its underserved and minority students, who comprise the Project SYNCERE community, experience disproportionate amounts of violence, which have an extensive impact upon various families and individuals, who seek service via Project SYNCERE. Landau (2007) examines how Linking Human Systems (LINC) Community Resistance Model can foster and sustain connectedness within communities by drawing upon pre-existing community, familial, and individual strengths. Landau states, “ This competence can be nurtured by helping people regain a sense of connectedness with one another; with those who came before them; with their daily patterns, rituals, and stories that impart spiritual meaning; and with tangible resources within their community” (Landau, 2007, p. 351). The connectedness is enhanced by encouraging community members to serve in significant capacities within the community.
Landau and her research partner, le Roux, worked with the cities of Lackawana, New York and Buffalo, New York along with Catholic Charities’ caseworkers to help mitigate the communities’ financial and social stressors resulting from the closing of Bethlehem Steel Company in 1983. Landau and le Roux initially used the LINC model to foster camaraderie with the caseworkers via music and dance. Once that foundational trust was established, Landau, la Roux and the caseworkers worked together to create geographical maps of the most compromised neighborhoods and list the desired goals for those areas. Upon working in the communities, some of the caseworkers, who were residents of those neighborhoods, formed natural partnerships and were identified as community connectors and leaders (Landau, 2007). The researchers and the caseworkers visited the various neighborhoods of Lackawana and Buffalo and conducted monthly meetings for one year. As a result, the application of the LINC model facilitated co-operative relationships between community members, police officers, and community leaders, who co-created community watch organizations and utilized other resources in the communities to initiate relief from drug trafficking and arson while increasing shared elder responsibility for afterschool childcare. The program’s success continued decades after the initial input of the researchers.
Community wellness and cooperative relationships cannot be created without the establishment of functional relationships between adults and youth. Intergenerational understanding, respect and support form the core of healthy and sustainable communities. Ginwright (2005) explores how various components of youth-adult partnerships (Y-AP) in urban, African-American communities are shaped and impacted by environmental factors such as neighborhood violence, generational tensions, unemployment, and under-performing schools. The article also examines how the personal, continued development of the adults within those communities, and the practices which facilitate that development, directly determine their capacity to forge viable partnerships with youth (Ginwright, 2005).
Ginwright, through her community organization Leadership Excellence, conducted an international, two-week program in Accra, Ghana with an intergenerational group of 15-20 adults and youth, from Oakland, California. The program used Y-AP’s to allow participants to learn about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the forcible human trade which transported more than twelve million Africans to the Americas from the 16th through the 19th centuries, and its aftereffects via slave dungeon visits and to engage with local community members to discuss local and global socio-economic issues and their impact on Ghanaian citizens. The participants’ end of day debriefings encouraged intergenerational conversations regarding commonalities in heritage and socio-economic experiences in Oakland. The long-term effects of this Y-AP international experience included participants returning to Oakland with an increased sense of intergenerational, cultural pride and socio-economic and political awareness, including wearing traditional African clothing and hairstyles; participation in AIDS reduction in Africa awareness organizations; seeking educational opportunities to revisit Africa; creating school and work programs, which address the needs of African-American urban youth (Ginwright, 2005).
All local and global communities are bolstered by the communal participation of their citizens. Foster-Fishman, Collins, and Pierce (2013) examine how the progress and change within citizen participation is impacted by the nature of community leadership. This article centers on the evaluative process of the 2005 community building, W. K. Kellogg Foundation funded initiative Yes we can! (YWC!). Focused on economically challenged neighborhoods in Battle Creek, Michigan, this study examined how emergent resident leaders moderate the relationship between ecological factors and citizen participation. It also examined the dynamics of those relationships over time (Foster-Fishman, Collins, & Pierce, 2005). Randomly selected citizens, who resided in 52 block clusters, or ecological areas, within the neighborhoods were surveyed for this study.
The YWC! initiative encouraged community empowerment, sense of community, and collective efficacy via leadership development, community organizing, civic engagement, and advocacy (Foster-Fishman, Collins, Pierce, 2005). While the study was effective at examining the organic and participatory nature of community involvement, it also uncovered some of the challenges researchers may face when attempting to discern whether citizen participation was a result of the study or the nature of citizen participation processes. The study results also indicate the variances of ecological factors, which are dependent upon when and for whom they matter (Foster-Fishman, Collins, Pierce, 2005).
Youth populations are often well served by community participation, engagement, and thoughtful interaction with adult community members, who serve in mentorship capacities, particularly if those interactions are as a result of organic relationships formed between youth and adult community members within the setting of an organization, institution, or natural environment designed to facilitate and encourage those relationships. Hurd, Sánchez, Zimmerman, and Caldwell (2012) examine the long-term academic benefits natural mentors may have upon African American adolescents through the influence of the adolescents’ racial identity and academic beliefs ( Hurd, Sanchéz, Zimmerman, & Caldwell, 2012). The study focused on 541 African American adolescents (54% female), the researchers obtain information via face-to-face interviews conducted either in school or in homes and community centers for students, who had previously dropped out of school. There were also post-interview questionnaires for the adolescents. Hurd et al. (2012) found that relationships with natural mentors may foster resilience among academically at-risk African American adolescents by encouraging more positive racial identity and reinforcing the understanding in the relevance and significance of school for actualizing future success, encouraging more positive racial identity and reinforcing the understanding in the relevance and significance of school for actualizing future success.
Community cohesiveness, whether facilitated through natural mentorships or other forms of citizen participation, is essential to the stabilization of the structure of the community and its members. Cohesiveness is often determined by socio-economic and cultural similarities shared between citizens within a community. Lenzi, Vieno, Santinello, Perkins (2012) examine neighborhood cohesiveness and its impact upon community in accordance with the norms and efficacy model. The researchers’ work explored whether the structural and institutional aspects of a neighborhood affect various aspects of neighborhood social connectedness (Lenzi, Vieno, Santinello, Perkins, 2012, p. 451). Hierarchical linear modeling was used to analyze the information derived from 389 early and middle adolescent students, aged 11-15, from 31 Northeastern Italy neighborhoods. The study revealed that higher levels of population, ethnic diversity, and physical and social disorder may be hindrances for the creation of social connectedness within neighborhoods. Conversely, if there are neighborhood meeting locations and the activities, there are increased levels of connectedness (Lenzi et al., 2012, p. 451).
Adolescence is a period of development that is demarcated by dynamic periods of growth and change. These developmental periods often hinge upon the individual’s ability to create social connectedness to help navigate stressful social parameters inclusive of gender and race related issues. DuBois, Burke-Braxton, Swenson, Tevendale, and Hardesty (2002) discuss how race and gender related issues impact the development of youth in the early stages of adolescence and how their adjustments are affected by those issues. The researchers used an integrative model and a sample of 350 Black and White youth to illustrate how the daily struggles with race and gender contribute to an increased general stress context, which subsequently impacts levels of behavioral and emotional challenges in adjustment (DuBois, Burke-Braxton, Swenson, Tevendale, & Hardesty, 2002). Although both gender and racial identification, particularly among Black youth, contributed to elevated self-esteem and helped to support their social adjustment capabilities, discrimination and prejudice still contributed to emotional challenges faced by this group with additional adjustment problems specific to Black girl subgroup (DuBois et al., 2002).
Perhaps, some of the adjustment and emotional challenges experienced by early adolescents can be better facilitated with the implementation of stronger support systems during early teen and pre-teen stages of youth social and emotional development and in the middle school environment. Juvonen (2007) investigates how efforts toward reform in the middle school support students’ social engagement and relationships with a factor analysis of international middle schools to determine whether American schools are particularly lacking in these social support efforts and environments (Juvonen, 2007). Using World Health Organization data on the Health Behavior in School-Aged Children, which surveys North American, Israeli, and some European 11-, 13-, and 15-year olds, Juvonen examines how the improvement of middle school supportive environments, teacher and student engagement, fostered peer relationships, and continuity can be enhanced by the utilization of research guided practice pertaining to these methods for facilitating a healthier academic environment.
While healthy academic environments play an important role in the development of youth as engaged citizens and the continuity between youth and adult mentoring relationships, another key component to citizen and community development is the cultivation and beautification of the natural community environment. Afforestation in urban communities may serve as an ecological community engagement tool, which facilitates the holistic nurturing of citizens and their surroundings. Moskell and Broussard Allred (2012) examine the ecological relationship between human systems and the natural world and the increased urban forestation movement, which also requires community participation and engagement (Moskell & Allred, 2012). Community psychology and environmentalism share focal points such as social justice, psychosocial processes, and environmental sustainability on an individual, community, organizational, and macro-policy (Moskell & Allred, 2012). Consequently, these disciplines may work together to explore the development of the natural environment and citizen stewardship of urban forests by engaged community members, which may also facilitate community cultural connections. Following Hurricane Katrina, citizens organized and planted trees not only to replace the ones lost but also, symbolizing the renewal of the community. Tree planting initiatives can be considered Multi-level Ecological Interventions (MILE’S), because they engage citizens and encourage the embedding of ecological stewardship in the culture of the community. (Moskell & Allred, 2012).
The sustainability of community engagement and empowerment must have an organic component in order to remain viable. Community members, who have identified and cultivated their individual uniqueness, interests, and societal, familial, or personal relevance will often have a greater sense of purpose and may more readily identify and act upon the unmet needs within their community. Moran (2009), defines purpose as,” an internal compass that integrates engagement in activities that affect others, self-awareness of one’s reason, and the intention to continue these activities. Moran finds that intrapersonal intelligence should be cultivated in youth through intention, engagement, and pro-social reasoning and her analysis, which was part of a larger, four year study, consisted of 270 youth who were interviewed in suburban and agricultural California, rural Tennessee, and urban Trenton/Philadelphia. Her findings showed that the development of youth’s purpose, which can be self-motivating and self-regulating and helps one decipher his or her contribution to the world, can also be extraordinary. While it is the development of purpose is unusual among youth, many elements must fuse together (empathy for prosocial reasons, imagination for the projection of self, intentions into the future, and recognition of opportunity of engagement) to create the precocious development of purpose (Moran, 2012).
When considering the presented articles and methodologies for the viability of their application in the community which Project SYNCERE (PS) services (minority, underserved, and girl students), they each contain various components, which make them well-suited for PS’s increased community engagement desired outcome. Aspects of the presented findings explore not only areas for intervention but also ecological levels of empowerment and community engagement. In addition, PS may also find opportunities for engagement, which may have been previously unforeseen in at least one of the articles.
Y-AP’s are indicative of a holistic approach to community engagement, because they illustrate a balanced and equalized relationship between the relevance of youth input and insight into community affairs and the need for adults to continue to grow and expand in their personal development. This approach to intergenerational partnership reconfigures the usual generational assumptions, which presume the unquestioned wisdom and finalized development of adults and the inexperience of youth and their continual need for growth. It an important an applicable method of re-enforcing a reciprocal learning environment that may bolster youth self-identification and confidence while challenging and encouraging active, participatory self-development within the adult population. Y-AP’s would well serve the corporate partner/STEM professional/student relationship on which PS is founded.
Ecological Stewardship may be initially challenging for the PS community to consider exploring, but it is a creative and holistic approach to community engagement. MILE’s illustrate the viability of interdependence within the ecological model, and they support not only the natural environment but also the citizen’s connectedness to sustaining the environment. STEM curriculum and learning projects can become naturally inclusive of the exploration, design, and development of environmentally efficient and innovative urban garden and farms. The implementation of MILE’s within the PS curriculum can also encourage community building and and development of environmentally efficient and innovative urban garden and farms. The implementation of MILE’s within the PS curriculum can also encourage community building and relationship and organizational collaboration with Chicagoland and Wisconsin area projects and organic farms such as the Bronzeville Alliance Green Team, The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living, The Healthy Food Hub, and Growing Power.
The LINC model provides an applicable method for encouraging and facilitating a sense of community. The STEM professionals, who serve as staff and community partners for PS, provide invaluable mentorship opportunities for participating students, and the LINC model encourages the use of community outreach and connection in order to build upon community strengths. PS could make use of LINC model interactions by providing community presentations and informational workshops with community members, who have previously been disengaged with the organization’s services. Since PS is physically housed in Chicago’s Kenicott Park district building, perhaps they could utilize the building’s facilities to not only engage the community through historical and factual information about their services, but also use the LINC model to structure demonstrations of STEM projects, which encourage the community to share their previously learned or established strengths. In this way, PS and STEM practices become more accessible and approachable and community members feel connected through their sharing of knowledge.
Similarly, the YWC! community engagement model supports the utilization and development of citizen strengths and leadership skills. Perhaps, PS should establish community and leadership connections within the community by linking with previously established academic and cultural institutions, such as the Center for Inner City Studies, to discover ways in which those organizations have previously identified and supported the development of academic and cultural institutions.
The integrative model used to examine how race and gender shape the social adjustment of adolescents as well as the investigative efforts toward reforming middle school supportive environments both provide tools which can benefit underserved, girl, and minority youth. The development of support systems within organizations such as PS and the academic environment can help to teach and support youth efforts toward active coping with the external stressors of prejudice and gender insecurities. In particular, PS is concerned with providing a supportive environment in which girls feel nurtured, understood, yet academically challenged to excel in and embrace STEM curriculum and professions. The continued mentoring provided by women STEM professionals, who serve as PS staff and corporate partners will be further enhanced if there is continual research about best practices of support for students who face the issues described in the Juvoneen(2007) and DuBois et al. (2002) articles, so that the adults are better capable of providing competency enhancement approaches to social, cultural, or gender stressors.
The norms and efficacy model in the Lenzi et al. article provided some information, which did not necessarily apply to the PS community. Most of the community population is comprised of minority and underserved students, therefore there is no great range of diversity to impede the
social connectors. Conversely, the cultural connectors within the PS community should lend itself to the organization’s efforts to provide a space for STEM activities, which encourage connectedness.
PS provides a strong example of natural mentors, who encourage STEM competence and a primary prevention method by cultivating students’ focus on academic and socio-economic issues. The goal of PS, which is that of providing youth with the knowledge, mentors, and academic and professional skillsets to become emergent leaders on the local and global platform in the STEM fields, is supported by the information provided in the Hurd et al. article. PS staff and their corporate and academic partners worked together to strengthen and support the PS community students with microsystemic and mesosystemic tools of empowerment to create the best futures possible for themselves and the local and global communities.
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