A Community Organizing Approach to Micro-enterprise Education and Job Training
(James Thing, Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California, 2004)
Most micro-enterprise and job training programs focus on individuals. They provide skills that assist individuals to enter the employment market or to start small businesses. Sometimes these programs must first clear obstacles in the way of their clients to ensure their success when they start a new job or launch a business. This was the case in Los Angeles for a faith-based micro-enterprise and job training program. In order to create the healthy environment its clients need, its job-training activities are thoroughly embedded in community organizing strategies. This alternative approach to job training should be especially interesting to FBOs whose programs are neighborhood-based.
According to its director, this innovative program was founded “by the community at large,” e.g., by street vendors, religious associations, immigrant rights organizations, politicians, local universities and colleges, and various neighborhood groups. For over 15 years, these organizations had been engaged in a campaign to legalize street vending. Legalized street vending, coalition leaders believed, would provide ways for immigrants to enter the region’s mainstream economy. After all, street vending is a familiar activity for many of them. Such an initiative could also economically energize low-income neighborhoods, especially those home to large numbers of Latino immigrants.
The coalition succeeded. In 1994, the city identified eight potential vending districts, each of which could be brought to life when exacting standards were met.
A mainline Protestant urban development foundation came up with an imaginative idea: Create a micro-enterprise and job training program that could anchor a vending district, adjacent to the downtown district. It could serve as a laboratory, in which organizations could gain experience in discovering what it takes to meet city vending district standards, revitalize an urban neighborhood, and serve the needs of Latino participants. Groups that had been working to legalize street vending liked the proposal.
The program director, like any good community organizer, began by learning about the community, identifying those who would be directly affected by the new initiative. Over time, the venture attracted other potential collaborators: the Police Department, the Department of Parks and Recreation, business, city redevelopment agencies, neighborhood councils, local arts organizations, and private foundations. It also wooed public and private funders.
In many ways, activities associated with the faith-based street vending program mirror those of traditionally conceived job training programs. Participants, for example, receive training in specific skills—in this case, food preparation. They also are instructed in how to develop a sound business plans and manage a budget.
But there are big differences. Here are some of the ways that this program’s community organizing orientation is expressed:
- The program works closely with the Police Department around law enforcement issues. High levels of criminal activity in the surrounding area --drugs, prostitution, gang violence and the selling of false documentation for immigrants--pose serious safety risks for the vendors and the entire neighborhood.
Program stakeholders encourage the police department’s strict enforcement of laws related to street vending. “[When] there’s illegal vendors all around, there is too much competition,” the program director said. “They are not complying with government rules and regulations that confront legal street venders.”
- The legislation that established legal street vending districts requires that a Community Advisory Committee be set up to evaluate, advise and recommend changes to programs in each district. Because major changes to the program affect many of the organizations in this group, their input into the direction of the program is vital. One example: The committee was consulted when the program wanted to open a restaurant where the vendors could prepare and sell tamales. Local businesses, the police and park rangers ultimately agreed that the restaurant would benefit the neighborhood. It would bring legitimate business into the area, discouraging illegal activities of all sorts.
- Program staff have built relationships with local artists associations. “We’ve got family fun festivals going on… every Saturday and Sunday in the vending district…,” the program director observed. This partnership benefits the vending program by increasing traffic, and thus sales. Likewise, the various artist and cultural groups involved have benefited enormously from these weekend festivals. Creating “more pockets in the city with public art” advances the endeavors of local artist, musicians and dance groups by expanding their own business opportunities and by promoting an appreciation of their cultural labor for the community at large.
- Another surprising partnership was formed to improve the appearance of the vending district and to make the environment more welcoming for the vendors, their customers and surrounding businesses. To advance this goal, program administrators sought assistance from a Superior Court volunteer program. Now, on a typical weekend day, between 5 and 20 volunteers are busy beautifying the neighborhood. These volunteers are working off court-mandated community service requirements through improving the appearance and sanitation of the street vending district.
In short, the faith-based micro-enterprise and job training program mobilizes the efforts of many different constituencies and interest groups for the benefit of the program and the program’s neighborhood. At least potentially, all of the region’s and the city’s constituencies and interest groups win from working together.
Here are some recommendations for faith-based organizations that want to develop human service programs as part-and-parcel of efforts to improve the general well-being of the neighborhoods they want to serve.
- Seek out faith-based community organizing groups in your city. Learn from them about community organizing strategies. Since these groups usually have their own agendas, it would probably be best for your organization to retain the initiative in orchestrating your program’s future.
- Identify stakeholders who may be affected by the development of your program (e.g., residents, businesses, police, public agencies and commissions, nonprofit organizations, religious congregations and schools). Enlist their assistance. Encourage them to share their perceptions concerning how your proposals will affect the neighborhood. Listen carefully, and respond to their suggestions.
- Identify the public and private organizations that will work together in helping your program to benefit the neighborhood. Be sure that your communication with these groups does not lapse. Relationships should mature as trust develops.
- Try to create a win-win situation. As much as possible, be sure that what you do serves the interests of every organization with which you work.
This is part of a series of Thumbnail Case Studies authored by the FASTEN research team and released by Baylor University School of Social Work as part of a 30-month research project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. This project is designed to identify the factors that contribute to the effectiveness of faith-based organizations (FBOs) in addressing problems of urban poverty. Baylor is leading this project with researchers from Baylor University’s business school, the schools of social work at the University of Pittsburgh and Virginia Commonwealth University, and the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.
A team of researchers from these four universities have interviewed various stakeholders from fifteen (15) promising faith-based programs in four United States cities. This ends the data collection portion of Phase I of a grounded theory research project in which participants, board members, administrators, program coordinators, and collaborators in these fifteen programs have been interviewed face-to-face.
The findings of this first phase will be the foundation for a quantitative national survey designed to determine the extent to which the grounded theory that emerges in the project’s first phase can be applied nationally across the diversity of faith-based social services in the United States. Sagamore Institute’s Faith in Communities program and the Center for Faith and Service of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), Baylor’s partners in this project, are disseminating the findings of this research through the creation of the Faith & Service Technical Education Network (FASTEN).
The piece was authored by James Thing (with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California) with the FASTEN Research Team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The name and location of the program have been omitted in order to protect its privacy as a participant in the FASTEN research project.