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Renewing Hope in Urban Areas

Innovative program builds on neighborhood's strengths

Darlene Ford sits cuddling a baby on her lap in a room full of stuffed animals, books, and toys.

Five years ago Ms. Ford and her three daughters were living in her father's apartment on Chicago's West Side, dependent on welfare checks for survival.

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But despite Ford's difficulties, Bethel New Life Inc. - a church-based community group - saw her experience raising children as an asset to the community. Bethel New Life helped Ford and 23 other women convert vacant lots into homes and day-care centers. Ford contributed her labor to the project and now leases the three-bedroom home with an option to own it. Through her new business, Ford takes care of four children full time and three part time so their parents can also work.

"I liked it from Day 1," Ford says. "I get to help the kids with their ABCs and reading."

Ford's work with Bethel New Life is part of a growing movement called asset-based community development that has spread from Chicago to neighborhoods around the country. The idea is to revitalize urban communities by using their strengths instead of focusing on their deficiencies. This approach creates hope and excitement instead of dependency and despair, its advocates say.

"It's turning the negatives into opportunities," explains Mary Nelson, Bethel New Life's president. "When you discover the assets of a community, it gives energy."

The movement's nerve center is the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Since 1994, the institute has distributed 50,000 copies of its workbook, "Building Communities From the Inside Out," written by its co-directors, John Kretzmann and John McKnight.

Last year the institute's researchers visited Chicago's Grand Boulevard Neighborhood, where 82 percent of the children live below the poverty level. In three weeks they identified 319 active groups ranging from choirs to political clubs. The majority of these groups said they were willing to work on projects such as attracting new businesses to the community and starting job-training programs.

"That's the organizational turf in the fourth-poorest neighborhood in the US where everyone assumed nothing was happening," Mr. Kretzmann says.

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People are discovering similar resources around the country. In Cincinnati, neighborhood groups mapped out their assets with the help of Xavier University and the United Way. Groups are now transforming these resources into jobs and community-improvement projects, says Terry Grundy, the United Way's director of community initiatives.

"We've seen some remarkable progress in some neighborhoods," Mr. Grundy says. United Ways in other cities, including Atlanta, Denver, Fresno, Calif., Memphis, Tenn., and Mesa, Ariz., are also trying asset-based development, he says.

The question remains of how much asset-based development can accomplish when urban communities face larger social and economic forces such as crime, drugs, decaying schools, and the migration of jobs. The asset-based approach is an essential building block for strengthening urban neighborhoods, says Michael Stegman, a professor of city planning and business at the University of North Carolina. But these neighborhoods still remain isolated from the sources of most jobs and investment, he says.

"If you can't connect them to where the broader strength in the economy is, it's limited how far it can go," says Mr. Stegman.

But many communities see asset-based development as a starting point. For instance the city of Hollywood, Fla., decided to use the strategy after its mayor attended a workshop earlier this year. The city is working with community groups to develop an inventory of skills of people in different neighborhoods.

The asset-based strategy has its roots in a previous era when neighbors worked together to build their communities instead of relying on outside agencies, Kretzmann says. "I think it's only been in the past 30 years that neighborhoods have been asked to concentrate on their deficiencies and ask for help," he says. "A lot of this is rediscovering common sense."

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