Upstream City #8: Shift Power Out of Systems

Upstream City” by FPP Director Nora McCarthy ran as a column in The Imprint from 2022-2023.

“I am here supporting the Child and Family Well-Being Fund,” said Embraia Fraizer, stepping forward at a press conference on the New York State Capitol steps last Tuesday, “because who can know the needs of our communities better than the ones who live and serve there daily?”

Fraizer, 23, spent time in foster care in childhood and “was raised in the underserved poorly funded communities of Harlem and the Bronx,” as she put it. She was advocating for the new fund not only because it would invest millions for family support in New York neighborhoods most impacted by child welfare involvement, but also because of how it is designed to operate: It will offer dollars and capacity-building to small community groups without ties to the child welfare system. And it will allow decisions about local investments to be made in a unique way: residents will lead a process of mapping community assets to decide for themselves what strengths to build on.

“Leaders and ambassadors of change, like many of us here,” Fraizer said, glancing up at the system-impacted young people and parents gathered with her, “we as a collective get to be the change we desire to see for ourselves and generations to come.”

The kind of community-led planning and decision-making process embodied by this fund — and the YouthNPower project, where Fraizer is a researcher — is a key to real transformation of neighborhood conditions and support for families. Typically, those most impacted by policy and funding decisions are, at best, invited to have a “voice” and “input” in planning. But successfully enhancing conditions for family flourishing requires planning that builds on a neighborhood’s specific assets and identities. That means investing in civic processes that amplify local expertise and power.

The Well-Being Fund would use asset-based community development, a structured method to draw together community residents to solve problems. Like participatory action research and participatory budgeting, it’s not fail-safe in eliminating tokenization and marginalization, but offers structures and a values system to counter those dynamics and shift power to those who will bear the brunt of the impact.

Right now, we’re seeing the child welfare establishment respond to calls for abolition by talking about “system transformation.” But if government agencies, foundations and institutions actually want to seed transformation, they will need to yield significant power.

“It’s hard to call something transformative if you’re doing the same thing that’s always done,” said Vera Institute for Justice’s Cameryn Okeke. “If we are trying to transform public life, we have to transform the process of making policy and how we evaluate policy impacts.”

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In 2021, Okeke and colleague Saadiq Bey gave a talk on investment in transformative communities where they outlined critical elements in community-led policymaking: First, connect with people already doing good work. Then build relationships and trust. Listen. Build the capacity and power of people impacted in the process of the work. Ensure that those accountable to their community define how success will be measured.

These were the goals five years ago when the Detroit Planning and Development Department decided to support community planning projects, including a “child-centric” plan for Warrendale-Cody Rouge, an area that struggles with blight and speeding cars but boasts strong traditions, a riverside park that includes a farm run by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and “corner yards” tended by neighbors.

A group of 12 teens led the planning, supported by consultants from the planning firm Hector. The work built on the existing assets in the neighborhood. A youth council brought together by an experienced organizer anchored the Neighborhood Frameworks Investigators Program, and a dozen organizations with community roots formed the steering committee that met monthly with city leaders.

“It was important that young people were the ones who set up the table,” said Damon Rich, a Hector co-founder. They interviewed city planners to understand what a “neighborhood framework” would look like and presented their vision for the planning work ahead at a neighborhood forum. That helped establish that residents would hold real power in decision-making, which was critical to building community trust and investment. “Residents had to be convinced it would be worthwhile for them to spend time giving their two cents to the city.”

COMMUNITY-LED PLANNING AND DECISION-MAKING PROCESSES ARE A KEY TO REAL TRANSFORMATION OF NEIGHBORHOOD CONDITIONS AND SUPPORT FOR FAMILIES.

More often, community members are invited in but locked out of power to define the problems and solutions. Teresa Marrero, a staff member at the parent advocacy organization Rise, vividly remembers being “just a face in a space” when she and other people “with the title L.E. next to our names (Life Experience)” were asked to join the steering committee of a group focused on families in her neighborhood, as she wrote in a paper on tokenism. “Plenty of times I sat in meetings and I was clueless. There were never any check-ins or opportunities for clarity.” Consensus from community members was not taken into consideration in decisions. “I can’t even think of an instance when we opposed something and our opinions were heard,” Teresa wrote.

In Detroit, Hector played a role in “making spaces within spaces” to keep institutional forces from monopolizing the project. Basic processes, like allowing young people to chair and open a major public meeting, enabled young people to publicly contest decisions.

“There’s always a tension about wanting to bring young people into the process and being uncomfortable and resistant to what young people actually say,” Rich says. “We all do that. We all have notions of what needs to be achieved and it’s hard to lose control.”

Research shows that the process of collaboration in diverse groups can feel worse, and diverse teams feel less confident, but they get better results. People have to think harder when working amongst peers with different perspectives. If they succeed in knitting together different types of unique knowledge, they reach better conclusions. Yet process matters. Studies also show that unfamiliar perspectives get shut out of the conversation if inclusion is not intentional.

Using structured processes is particularly important in efforts to address child welfare impacts, because the dynamic of being present but not heard mirrors the child welfare experience itself. At court hearings and conferences, parents and young people must often show up but stay silenced as people who don’t know their families decide what they think is best. 

Confronting these same dynamics in advocacy can feel agonizing. Inclusion, then, needs to mean that those involved in community planning efforts go far beyond a meeting invitation. As Rise staff member Halimah Washington described, “It means calling people or going to their house if you haven’t seen them in a while. It’s about investment in people’s wellness and seeing them.”

In that sense, transformative policy begins with personal transformation, including for those in power, said Bey. “You shouldn’t do this work if you’re expecting to stay the same. It has to be that we thought we knew something and what we believe now is something different.”

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Democratizing planning and policymaking requires that those holding power in government — and philanthropy — recognize their power and let go of control. In a study of participatory decision-making efforts in Chicago, Harvard Professor Archon Fong wrote that democratic processes fall apart because “political and administrative leaders are unwilling to tolerate the kinds of criticism that are inevitably raised by capable community and activist organizations.” Community-led planning efforts “require leaders to become less defensive and alter their notions of professionalism to include heavy, but healthy, doses of public criticism.” 

That will require both institutional and personal transformations. Many individuals and organizations are invested in our current system, even if they recognize its harm. Fears of loss of power, influence and identity can derail change.

Another barrier to coordinated community planning in New York City is the lack of an obvious city entity to fund this work. In addition to the Child and Family Well-Being Fund, shifting investments upstream may require figuring out a city office to anchor funding, as the New York State Citizen Review Panels has recommended

That’s something that could be explored through a community planning process. As Fraizer said, standing with her peers on the Capitol steps, “There is an innovative mind and strategy waiting to be heard in the voices of yours truly.”
 


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