Ice Cold Self-Determination

The most powerful models of community development involve a strong element of self-determination. When I say “self-determination”, I mean, the community leaders have a vision for the community, and know how to get there, utilizing people, their skills and assets that are internal to the community.

Sure, it stands to reason that if marginalized communities had everything they need they wouldn’t be marginalized. However, that does not mean indigenous leadership cannot haveĀ a vision for how to improve by leveraging investment from the outside. The key is leveraging internal assets with outside resources to drive change from the inside out.

One of the many stories that come to my mind is how my grandfather, with a third grade education, helped to rally the residents of a little town in LeFlore County, Mississippi to get a school built in the community so the children could have a better opportunity than he did. You don’t need a degree in rocket science to get this stuff done. You do need vision, and the ability to tap into the dreams and passion of the people around you.

Community leaders who utilize models of self-determination tend to tap into a groundswell of local grassroots leaders to carry on a community-driven vision, versus having funders and elected officials dictate from on high. After all, funders and elected officials come and go, but the citizenry remains and must live with the consequences of any action or lack thereof. In communties with self-determination, the funders and elected officials provide the resources to give planning and development processes momentum, versus driving the processes. In order for this to happen, rank and file citizens and community leaders must have a collective vision and confidence to know that they know what the community needs to move forward.

Too often, leaders in marginalized communities devalue their own processes and look to the outside for validation. The irony is the “outside forces” pay people to interview indigenous leaders and then go on roadshows to talk about the lessons they learned from marginalized communities, including the bake sales and barbecue dinners to raise funds for projects. They include this stuff in “asset-based community development” packages and sell them back to the community.

If marginalized communities wouldtake the temperature of their own ice every now and then, they may just be pleasantly surprised to learn that their own ice is just as cold—if not colder, in some instances–than anyone else’s.

About the Author

Valerie F. Leonard is an expert in community and organizational development with a mission of strengthening the capacity of organizations to make a positive impact on the communities they serve through technical assistance, specialized workshops, resource and organizational development and project management. She is also the host and producer of Nonprofit “U”, a weekly podcast featuring nonprofit thought leaders sharing lessons learned. Valerie is a member of the adjunct faculty of the UIC Certificate in Nonprofit Management program, teaching nonprofit operations. She has a bachelor of arts degree in economics from Spelman College and a master of management degree in finance and marketing from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

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