Community Economic Development

July 8, 12:00 pm   [a blog post for school]

In summer of 2008, I sat down with a Caribbean community leader and CEO of Pineland Creative Workshop, Rodney Grant. I was interning in Barbados at the time in his socio-economic-culture based organization and was responsible for supporting the management and rebranding of a low and middle income housing project for first time home owners (many of whom were mothers). On one particular day, as we were preparing for a meeting on youth employment with USAID and brainstorming a drafted proposal for UNIFAM, we sat down to talk about issues in the community. We were in the office I was temporarily using, had large pieces of flip chart paper in front of us and with huge markers we drew a circle. This, he said to me, represents the issues we are dealing with. There are no points on a circle and unless it is completely ruptured from any location, it will always continue. We charted evidences that we could visibly see in the community as signs of challenges. We wrote things like children misbehaving in the classroom, absent fathers, unhealthy diets, low employment rates, no land ownership, drugs, violence etc etc. We were looking for places a community organization could intersect. We literally drew lines to break the circle and wrote down ideas.  Something that always stood out as common theme amongst all others was quality education and access to employment/entrepreneurship.  

Education births ideas, creativity and even without direct intentions, can liberate and revolutionize –I believe it has always been necessary to empower oneself and is the quintessential piece in any form of ‘community development’.  Coupled with education, healthy (ie. Non-exploitive/oppressive/mindless) socio-economic opportunities, is a stepping-stone towards self-determination as folks can divorce themselves from government handouts and funding dependency cycles.

I don’t want to think about socio-economic activities as only money trading.  I want to think of it as a total form of survival, inclusive of arts and spirituality. This quote by John Muir encapsulates my thoughts, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to the body and soul.” This is something I’m exploring in my research but have found that most organizations engage in more traditional methods of socio-econ development.

Tunnel Farming. Another Seeland project
Tunnel Farming. Another Seeland project
Sheep Farming A Seeland Project
Sheep Farming A Seeland Project

Education and employment/entrepreneurship, I believe go hand in hand in using the skills, assets, ideas and competencies of people enabling them to design, advocate for and make strides towards creating the future they want. This, in simplest terms is what CED, Community Economic Development is, and its why I find it super interesting. The issue, of course is that its simply not that easy. And what is scary is that despite the steps taken by well meaning folks there is still a system in place, one often left unchallenged, that strives on the socio-economic stratification of people, and exits only through the creation and maintenance of class. Therefore according to this structure some people are only ever entitled to material poverty.

Working here at Seeland, an organization focused on the same aforementioned principals, and living in a neighboring township, Im learning, first hand of the on the ground challenges of CED, particularly so in a post-Apartheid context. Truly its been amazing to be living in South Africa right now working for an organization with the similar beliefs, allowing me to delve further into this idea.

Seeland, as I mentioned in another blog post, works on a large plot of land that was purchased collectively by 200+ community members who received government subsidies to put land into hands of non-white South Africans (these 200 collective land owners are called ‘Seeland members’ or just members). Seeland uses this land to create job opportunities and provide space for members to develop their own enterprises. The challenge is members are not getting involved on a continuous basis. While there is direct ownership from the community, there are still issues with bettering the socio-economic status if people simply are not participating. So then we have to return to the drawing boards and try to understand what isn’t working, what was missed, how can we improve, what have we learned. Its a process that requires going back and forward between the members and the organization, researching what was done in other places around the world and spending time brainstorming and exploring different options.

For sake of charting my learnings and sharing with others of similar interests, here are some of the challenges identified within this specific context under this model of community economic development. Keep in mind also that there are tons of other models of CED, some of which resonate more with me than an agricultural-market based model (sector wise im more interested in film or fashion and job function wise im more interested in communications). Also please note that I have only been here for two months and the challenges listed below are my observations in tandem with what I’ve been told and researched since arriving. There are endless socio-cultural, political and historical factors that come into place for every single challenge.

Culture of Work: Are the employment opportunities offered culturally sensitive to the environment?
 For example, Seeland has provided amazing business ventures for community members to work in and space for others to create their own businesses. The land owned however is on a farm and the community of St. Helenas is a fishing community, where many people are employed. This creates a challenge in changing the culture of work away from fisheries to agriculture and livestock a process which takes time and perhaps might only come about if their was a crisis with the fishing stock.

Political History:  What is the relationship of the people, to the government, to the resources you’re working with?

Mission Drift: When it comes to innovation and opportunity there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Organizations, particularly ones seeking stability through business while also serving community, by nature of their operations have to be creative in developing triple bottom line business models. By trying to be innovative and take advantage of new opportunities organizations can easily stray away from their initial ideas.

Values vs. Sponsorship: Do the values of sponsors or partners align with that of your organization?

Entrepreneurship vs. employment. Here at Seeland we are creating opportunities for folks to become entrepreneurs through developing their own co-ops. In addition we are also working on developing manufacturing operations to employ community members. We have found many people are drawn to work as employees instead of owning their own venture. Is their a culture of entrepreneurship?

Capital Costs: Its difficult for a small community based organization to acquire capital funds especially when its long term objectives are to be become an income earning entity. New business models need to be employed but ones which are recognized by the government in order to be taxed and receive certain benefits

 

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