In public policy, it seems that zones are all the rage. There are Enterprise Zones in which tax incentives to businesses encourage private investments to revive the local economy. There are Nuclear Free Zones where nuclear weapons are banned. (Berkeley, of course, has declared itself one. Sebastopol too.) And the great success of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in New York City in breaking the cycle of generational poverty through targeted health and educational services has inspired the federal government to fund programs to replicate HCZ in urban areas around the country.
What characterizes a zone? It’s a geographic area in which targeted efforts and incentives are drawn together to address locally defined priorities. Here in San Francisco we are adding a new member to the zone lexicon. Through a collaborative effort involving city and county government, public and private universities, and neighborhood based organizations and residents, we have launched an initiative, Engaged Learning Zones (ELZ), where community, university and government resources work together in a long term commitment to create a bottom-up capacity building effort at addressing community needs toward the goal of creating resilient and sustainable communities. We have launched this effort during a challenging time when a depressed economy has greatly limited the resources available from state and local government. Then again, it’s an ideal time to realize that neighborhood communities possess invaluable assets and knowledge that can be utilized to confront whatever issues arise.
At San Francisco State, the Institute for Civic and Community Engagement is dedicated to promoting community-based learning and research throughout our campus. More than 6,000 faculty and students participate each year in service learning, community based participatory research, internships, social entrepreneurship, and volunteerism in schools, clinics, non-profit agencies and government offices throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Our counterparts at the University Community Partnerships Office at UCSF, the Leo T.
McCarthy Center for Community Service and the Public Good at USF, and new partners at the Art Institute, the Presidio School, and others are equally committed to engaged learning. We have long known that these approaches provide an effective means for developing leadership and character in our students, what we refer to as high impact educational practices. The Engaged Learning Zone provides something more of a platform for sustained and continuous efforts and that lead to longe term improvement of our communities.
ELZ program development follows a multi-phase process driven by community and supported by city agencies and academic institutions. In advance of launching an ELZ our team engages key community stakeholders in a dialogue that is meant to assess the level of interest there is in such an effort as well as the identification of local residents who can serve on a steering committee.
The next phase can best be described as a community listening & mapping tour. University representatives begin with a process of identifying key stakeholders in a neighborhood businesses, nonprofits, schools, faith based organizations, youth, and neighborhood residents and conduct interviews and story collecting about the history of the community, its politics, its aspirations, its culture, its issues. The process involves snowballing i.e., interviewees are asked to identify other key individuals who best represent local community.
Data is collected from city and other sources on local health, economy, demographics, and other characterizations, and in parallel, an inventory is taken of physical assets in the neighborhood. Asset mapping software is utilized to present data in an effective visual mode.
The next phase of the process is characterized by a focused capacity building effort – utilizing city and university resources to help address short term projects determined by community members. The goal of this effort is three-fold, first to build social capital within the community as community members work with each other to identify issues to address, second to build leadership capacity as these efforts involve training and support to existing and emerging leaders, and third to made an actual difference in community problem solving. The ELZ becomes poised and ready to move to next phase which involves the creation and support of a local Resiliency Council.
The Council will provide a deliberative forum for the neighborhood to engage in larger, long term problem solving endeavors. An ELZ with a strong Resiliency Council will be able handle most any challenge that confronts a community. Among other issues, an effective Council can respond in a collaborative way to issues involving crime, health and environment, business development, recreation and transportation needs, child safety, moderating ethnic strife, and local neighborhood beautification.
If the neighborhood wishes to find the resources to build a library, create a playground, uncover a long hidden creek, respond to a crime wave, encourage new housing, modify traffic flow, or develop a socially responsible business, the Council is seen as the voice for the community.
Most importantly, in a city such as San Francisco, threatened by the inevitability of a natural disaster (there was a 3.5er as I write this), the Resiliency Council will become a key agent in all phases of earthquake management â€“mitigation, preparation, response and recovery. We have taken important lessons from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the recovery efforts in New Orleans. Neighborhoods that have done the best in recovery can often be characterized by the level of social capital they have created, by the degree at which neighbors are committed to rebuilding together what was damaged or lost.
We have begun Zoning in three neighborhoods this year. Watch for an ELZ near you.
Gerald Eisman is the Director of the SF State Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. The Institute provides opportunities for civic engagement and leadership development for students, faculty, and community members.