Where do we go from here? Community participation and empowerment in the empowerment zone : Atlanta, 1994-2002

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Southern New Hampshire University
The concepts of community participation and community empowerment have been the focus of several federal programs, such as the Empowerment Zone (EZ), that were designed to alleviate some of the causes of poverty found in urban areas. This research examines what impact those concepts had on conditions within targeted communities from the perspective of community representatives whose voice is not often heard. The study analyzes the impact the EZ program had on strengthening the community’s ability to take control of and/or influence decisions affecting its quality of life. The research proposes a conceptual framework of community participation as empowerment and demonstrates the need for a more holistic approach to comprehensive planning initiatives. The framework identifies the factors that are needed to make participation meaningful or effective – exercise of power; access to resources; and identification of results or benefits for the community. This dissertation uses a case study research design and qualitative data collection methods to examine four neighborhoods of the Atlanta Empowerment Zone (AEZ) that were also part of the Model Cities Program in the 1970’s. Although there was strong emphasis on the importance of community participation and community empowerment as key components of the strategy, no clear definition or guidance was provided as to how the participation requirement would be implemented. Likewise, it was unclear what was intended by empowerment. The research findings show the community representatives encountered significant barriers to their participation in the decision-making processes. Among these were the absolute control exercised by the mayor’s office thwarting community recommendations; and the lack of adequate resources to support independent actions by the community. The research identifies that the real issue is about power: Who has power? How can a more equitable distribution of power be attained? The overall findings also demonstrate that even where the factor of race is not an overt driving force, the institutionalization of the historic effects of racism, which is directly tied to the conditions of persistent poverty and the lack of power, must be addressed; or there will be no significant change in the conditions of communities affected by poverty. (Author abstract)