Best way to identify community needs quickly

Visitor Question: I am volunteering to help a local church reach out to its surrounding community and open its doors and 40,000 square feet of unused space to the community for their use.

The church has all sorts of ideas about what the surrounding communities need but the church is situated in the middle of a very culturally, economically, racially diverse area of many neighborhoods with different and potentially competing interests. The church offers a space where these diverse but next door communities can come together.

The subdivisions that are primarily white and just above the median income level are eager to tell us the programs and services they would like to see offered by the church. The difficulty is getting the residents of areas that are primarily black and just below the median income level to offer any suggestions of what programs or services they are missing in their community that they would use if the church offered them for free.

How do we bridge this divide and make this place a space for the entire community, regardless of race, income, education level, etc. How do we bring widely diverse populations together and offer them what they both want and need? I know the answer isn't a simple one. I'm trying to identify key people in each community who know their neighbors' needs and interests and advocate for them, and use these people to help plan programs and services to offer. Any suggestions you have would be appreciated. Basically, how do we make this space into a gathering place for the diverse communities surrounding it?

Editors Reply: What a worthy project! Congratulations to you and to the congregation for wanting to help open the doors.

Your instincts are exactly right here. The key to participation of community members who are not affiliated with your church will be to line up respected leaders of each neighborhood. People will tend to follow their leaders in deciding whether or not some group of Not-Us People are OK or not. This doesn't happen overnight, so don't expect it to. Build this expectation widely within the congregation also so that they don't kill this project prematurely if it isn't what they want in a year or two.

Don't wait to have complete buy-in before you start programming. This is unlikely to occur. Aim to establish one program that would be attractive to the population slightly below median income. You might have to enlist a governmental or quasi-governmental organization to start the ball rolling, since often these groups are grateful for the space. That might be a branch of your local library, state assistance office, health care navigators, extension agents, or business development centers. Police sub-stations are appropriate in some locations, but if you do this, make sure they will actually generate some traffic instead of just planting the idea that something dangerous is likely to happen here.

Also the congregation might invent some new social event that would appeal across the board to all neighborhoods. Especially events geared toward children and events centered on holidays are well received. With winter holidays coming up, that could provide the start for a party idea. Try to have the details of the social event reflect the different facets of the adjoining neighborhoods. Whatever the congregation can do to get people inside the building once will help with eventual acceptance.

Make sure you have an effective handout about community use of the space, and then take copies of the handout to any and all neighborhood festivals. Outline whether outside groups can use the space (or must they convince the church to offer a program that serves their constituents?) If so, what times of the day and week are available, is there any charge, what are the rules about refreshments, and so forth.

If the church plans to sponsor and run all the programs themselves, we think your best bet would be to form an advisory council that is broadly representative of all the populations you are trying to serve. Include a few leaders from other faiths and congregations to participate in this, as they too are good spokespersons for their communities, especially in an African-American environment. But don't allow religious leaders to dominate completely.

In the event the church intends to sponsor and manage all programs, make your handout accurately report this. But use the handout to tell people how they can contribute ideas and requests; maybe this requires a dedicated email address, or maybe the church will sponsor a community meeting or two. As the church rolls out programs, revise your handout every time.

Incidentally, when we say handout, we don't necessarily mean a fancy color print brochure. We are thinking about a single sheet of paper, printed on the office copies on an as-needed basis and revised often to show new developments.

In sum, we suggest a combination of one-on-one meetings with identified leaders of the different neighborhoods and populations, handing out flyers at neighborhood events and festivals run by others, inventing a new social event with widespread appeal, taking advantage of the fact that governmental entities often are eager to have the chance for a new branch office, and forming an official advisory council to gain input. Hold a few open houses, or even have an open hour every week and see who shows up. The open house hour could even be varied from week to week, ranging from free morning coffee all the way through evening table tennis.

Social constraints against going somewhere perceived to be not friendly to your neighborhood are very strong, but keep chipping away at finding ways to be welcoming. Persistence is key. Don't let the desire for a perfect program design be the enemy of the good start.

We don't think you can necessarily identify all community needs quickly! But you can surely make a great start by interviewing and involving leaders. Lastly sometimes you need to identify your assets more than your needs. For more on this, you can see our page on asset-based community development.

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