A Community Development Strategy

I have attempted to introduce the Harlem Children’s Zone in the last couple of blogs and now will begin the process of analyzing their philosophy of change and strategy of engagement.  Almost everything in these posts can be found on their website if you desire more.

This is just the introduction to the description of their strategy, but even the opening is filled with important statistics and observations.  First, notice that nearly one in five children in our country live in poverty.  One in five! Dr. Marian Wright Edelman calls this “America’s 5th Child” and asks if any family would stand for one of their five children being treated like this.  Of course not!

The introduction makes a case as well for the cost to America’s future competitiveness, which I imagine is particularly important for those who are motivated more by economics than they might be faith or morality.  Also, look at the description they give of what middle class communities take for granted and what low-income communities lack.  Finally, notice the point they make about the limitations many nonprofits face due to a narrow focus.  This plays a very central role in their strategy.


In the United States today, more than 13 million children—nearly one in five—live in poverty.  We know that that these children face a future in which they are far less likely than other children to get a good education or adequate health care and more likely to enter prison. The odds are that they will not, by a long shot, live up to their full potential. But we must understand this: Their future is the future of America.

Poverty now costs the U.S. about 4% of its gross domestic product annually in lost production, decreased economic output, and increased social expenditures. As today’s poor children enter tomorrow’s workplace, under-educated and ill-prepared, the cost to America’s future competitiveness in the world marketplace is incalculable.

That such great numbers of American children live in poverty is, of course, a national disgrace and a cause for shame and indignation. But shame and indignation alone will not improve their lot. We need a strategy to combat poverty effectively and broadly, one that addresses not only how to help improve the lives of poor children, but also the great number of children that need that help.

Over the last ten years, the Harlem Children’s Zone® (HCZ®) has developed such a strategy in Central Harlem, a New York City neighborhood with a child poverty rate of 40%, more than double the national average. In most poor neighborhoods, the fabric of the community is in tatters. Things that middle-class communities take for granted—working schools, useable playgrounds, decent housing, support from religious institutions, functioning civic organizations, safe streets—are all but nonexistent. And when they do exist, their effectiveness is marginalized by pervasive neighborhood dysfunction.

Under these circumstances, the gravitational pull of negative forces is so strong on already fragile families that only a small fraction of the children in these neighborhoods thrive. These exceptional youths are labeled resilient and are justly celebrated for beating the odds. But by definition, most children are not exceptional. Most poor children lack the means to overcome these crushing forces and reach their potential. Instead, they grow up poorly prepared to find good jobs with decent wages as adults, and many fall into substance abuse or end up incarcerated.

Most traditional poverty-fighting approaches are narrowly focused. Hampered by a lack of resources, many are not able to provide high-quality programs, or if they do so, it is only for a few hundred children. Others attend only to a single issue or single age group, approaches that fail to address all the developmental needs of children throughout their childhood. And the great majority of approaches neglect the neighborhood environment that surrounds children and affects them profoundly.

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