Who are local community advocates and what role do they play in community development?

Community advocates are important to urban neighborhood development. These are the people who actually live in the community and have a personal stake in the overall vitality of their community.

What is a community advocate and what role do they play in community development? For professionals working in urban neighborhood development this two-part question is a relatively easy one to answer. Community advocates are those individuals that have a vested interest in the development and redevelopment of a neighborhood or community. They are willing to participate in block clubs, neighborhood planning activities as well as religious and social activities. The local community advocate is a resident living in the neighborhood and is concerned about the health and welfare of his or her community. These individuals are not only concerned, they are active. As a matter of fact, some planning professionals call them community activists.

Smart community-based corporations identify this role and budget for it in grant applications. These committed individuals know their community. They know the demographics of their community through interaction as opposed to data mining and census reports. They often know where the problems areas are and have a good understanding of the improvement activities that are needed, especially if the community is a severely distressed one. Community advocates represent a direct link into the neighborhoods. They are generally respected by their neighborhood peers and are willing to volunteer to serve on steering committees, action committees, community-based planning teams, as well as other local boards, commissions, or neighborhood improvement groups.

Local community activists have the respect of the communities where they live. It is this local clout that allows them to encourage other residents to participate in neighborhood redevelopment efforts. Effective activist can get strong local participation in neighborhood planning and development meetings. Experienced neighborhood engagement organizations such as Michigan State University Extension work to identify and engage local community advocates in such processes in Michigan’s urban neighborhoods.

While attending a professional development training, I sat in on a community-redevelopment planning process. The presenters were discussing their community engagement component of the program that involved at least three community meetings. Of a neighborhood with more than 10,000 residents, only 25 to 40 participated in input sessions. The panel was concerned about the low turnout and explained the difficulty of getting residents to participate. The first thing I noticed was that there was no community advocate identified in the process. While community advocates cannot guarantee greater participation, experience has shown me that they can help increase resident involvement in community development processes. Community advocates can be the difference between a successful project with strong community input and buy-in or an unsuccessful one with limited community involvement and neighborhood indifference.

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