Commentary: Enhancing Social, Economic and Political Networks in and between Communities

July 01, 2009

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Exploring Innovation conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. My role was a bit different from most participants because I was chosen to serve as a student volunteer.

This conference was truly like no other due to the level of interaction between participants. Rather than describing what most conferences are like, I want to tell you how this one was different.

The first session I participated in was "Exploring Financial Innovations that Expand Economic Opportunity" with Michael Torrens of CFED. Upon entering the room, I immediately noticed a large, colorful timeline that stretched the length of two walls. Participants were asked to brainstorm the ways finances have evolved throughout the years and to imagine what they may look like in the future. Individuals had the opportunity to scribble their ideas on colorful sticky notes and add them to the timeline. Afterward, small group discussions were formed based on the grouping of the sticky notes and interests of participants.

The thought-provoking "Innovation Workshop," led by Langdon Morris of Innovation Labs, engaged participants by sharing stories of challenges and successes firms encountered when their brand names helped or hindered innovation within the firms. Participants were given time to brainstorm how these lessons could relate to their organization and what innovations could develop as a result.

The final activity I participated in was Friday's plenary session. Participants were split into four groups. Each group was assigned a color and a question. Participants were then asked to pair up with a person from another group, and each person in the pair had five uninterrupted minutes to answer the question posed by their partner. Originally I thought to myself: "This is going to get boring." I knew that I would be asking two more individuals the same question, and I anticipated receiving similar responses. Much to my surprise, this was not at all the case. Since the topic of the conference was community development, a broad range of professionals attending each brought their unique perspective to the discussions; therefore, each answer brought a new perspective to my question.

A reoccurring question from a number of individuals at the conference was, "How can we define community development?" My perspective of community development includes enhancing social, economic and political networks and relationships within and between communities. Each of these categories connects to another in a number of ways; therefore, community development truly encompasses each of these components.

In terms of social networks, I am referring to strengthening ties between community members and organizations—not just within individual communities, but with surrounding areas as well. I recently read a story in the local newspaper about an older woman in another state who had died at home. One day an authority figure finally broke into her house to see if anyone was living there and was shocked to find the decomposed remains of the woman and her dog. I read a number of comments ranging from "That poor woman!" to "Didn't her neighbors ever check on her?" and I thought to myself that this could have happened anywhere. Community development, in part, means strengthening the ties and recreating a sense of family both at home and at work. This concept involves individuals of all ages coming together and learning from one another.

When discussing economic networks, I am referring to business development, job creation and household incomes. One of my professors describes economic development as a means for low-income individuals to break free of financial constraints. I am a believer in this school of thought; however, I think it is equally important to stress the need for the right kind of development. In my own community, as well as surrounding cities, there has been an influx of retail stores and restaurants. On one hand, it is nice to have these franchises come into the community; but, on the other hand, it is upsetting that the majority of the employment opportunities created pay minimum wage. The ordinary person would have to hold two jobs to make ends meet. Economic development departments within cities must begin to see the connection between the businesses they recruit and the employment opportunities they present. And then they must ask, "Can individuals working in these businesses afford to live within the community?" If the answer is no, one must question if these individuals should be able to live within the community and how that could be made possible.

Lastly, political networks refer to the political environment as well as elected officials. Development in this area includes civic engagement and the democratic process. Ensuring the elected representative actually represents the people of the community is important. This way it becomes much easier for that person to make decisions in the best interests of the constituents. This past April, the mayor of my community ran unopposed; he believes it is because his constituents are pleased with his work performance. If you ask residents in the community, you will hear another story. It seems, like in a number of communities across the country, ordinary individuals have become turned off by the political environment. As residents of this country, each within our own communities, we are doing ourselves and our neighbors a disservice by not addressing this issue. Politicians become our voice. Therefore, it is important to redevelop the political environment and get more people of all ages engaged.

The Exploring Innovation conference brought together professionals from across the country who are involved in many facets of community development. Each shared their unique experiences and backgrounds. I am thankful for having had the opportunity to participate as a student volunteer and am hopeful that students will once again have the opportunity to participate in this capacity.

Nina Ghatan is a graduate student in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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