This paper is presented as part of the Working Papers series for COMM-ORG: The On-line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. Copyright is held by the author. To cite, use: [author] [date] [title], paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. A previous version of this article appeared as "Washington, D.C. Builds Community Through a Unique Neighborhood Planning Process" in HOPE VI Developments]

Community Building on Capitol Hill

Dixon Slingerland

The Beginning
The Community Advisory Committee
A New Kind of Planning
The Community Comes Together
Taking Stock
Residents Take Charge
The Working Groups
Resident Facilitators Hired
Best Practices
The Home Stretch

Author's Biography

"Above all, we need to understand that a true civil society in which citizens interact on a regular basis to grapple with common problems will not occur because of the arrival of a hero.  Rebuilding civil society requires people talking and listening to each other, not blindly following a hero. . . .The builders are those in localities across America who are constructing bridges of cooperation and dialogue in face to face meetings with their supporters and their adversaries."
(U.S. Senator Bill Bradley)

In December 1994, the Ellen Wilson community on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. received a $25 million HOPE VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The partners in the project were the Ellen Wilson CDC, Telesis Corporation, and the Youth Policy Institute. The objective of this HOPE VI grant was to revitalize and transform the Ellen Wilson public housing project, which had been closed down and abandoned in the 1980s. To ensure this transformation, $3 million was made available by the partners for social services in the larger community. Rather than simply allocating these funds, however, the partners gave neighborhood residents the responsibility and the authority to create a vision for their community.

The goal in doing this was simple: provide residents with the chance to shape the programs that will affect their families and their community. The only requirement was that there be a comprehensive neighborhood planning process. In the spirit of participatory democracy, this process was resident-led. In the spirit of common sense, participants had access to the wealth of experience that exists both locally and nationally on urban issues. Whether the topic is crime, child care or business development, there are successful programs operating nationwide, and there is extensive knowledge about what has worked and what has not. This "knowledge" was presented to residents in the form of best practices briefing papers (more later).

Eighteen months after it all began, the neighbors of the Ellen Wilson housing development created a plan that is far more than just an innovative strategy for addressing social problems. This plan represents the hard work of an entire neighborhood. It also represents the community's understanding of its own problems, strengths, and opportunities. The details of the plan were not developed by the D.C. government or a consultant. Every component of this investment strategy came from the residents. What follows is their story.


In February of 1995, the Ellen Wilson CDC and the Youth Policy Institute (YPI) began laying the groundwork for a neighborhood planning process. The Ellen Wilson CDC is a community-based group which was brought together for the sole purpose of dealing with the abandoned Ellen Wilson site. YPI is a national non-profit founded in 1979 with expertise in community building and particularly policy and programmatic research. By the summer of 1995, the CDC and YPI had formalized the planning approach. Residents, local service providers, and civic organizations would participate in the process. YPI, assisted by Georgetown University students and a core group of "resident facilitators," would provide the information and technical assistance to empower participants.

A new deliberative body was established by the Ellen Wilson partners to serve as the forum for community decision-making. In early summer, invitations were extended by the Ellen Wilson CDC to churches, service providers, and civic groups to designate representatives for the "Community Advisory Committee." Neighborhood residents from both sides of the freeway which splits the community physically, racially, and socioeconomically were also alerted to the formation of the Committee. On July 27, 1995, the Community Advisory Committee held its first meeting in the library of Brent Elementary School with thirty people in attendance.


From this first session, the value and potential of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) was clear. Sitting at the table were black public housing residents from the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg projects, predominantly white homeowners and church members from north of the Eisenhower Freeway, professionals in social work and the arts, and the leadership of local civic associations, including commissioners from the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions--D.C.'s neighborhood council system. These were people and even organizations who had not met publicly before. In fact, many residents were meeting each other for the first time.

The CAC became a neighborhood-level political process. Less than ten blocks from the U.S. Capitol, twenty-four official "representatives" had come together to shape the future of the Ellen Wilson community. Except these representatives were the residents of the community itself, rather than professional policymakers, and the future they were shaping was their own.

The CAC was not a typical advisory committee. Most importantly, the committee's members had full authority over the direction and outcome of the planning process. The CAC was not created to review the proposals of the project partners or the housing authority. Residents were not just providing their input, or approving the approach, or discussing common issues. They were creating a vision as well as a comprehensive plan from scratch. For the first time in this community or many others, residents were the decision-makers.


The Youth Policy Institute's role was to enable the community to accomplish this mission. The objective from the outset was to make this neighborhood planning process the first of its kind. YPI provided access to information. This included information on existing conditions and existing assets as part of "Taking Stock," and information on solutions nationwide as part of "Best Practices." In total, residents were able to ensure that their plan addressed real problems in the neighborhood and did not duplicate existing services. Furthermore, the CAC was able to build on local strengths while still considering models that had worked around the country.

The collection of information for both Taking Stock and Best Practices was tailored to the issues that residents identified. The product of the research was then facilitated. YPI staff led planning workshops to present information and to also help residents develop an understanding of what they were reading. Taking Stock and Best Practices were then used for real decision-making, and that was the basis for an informed planning process.


The Community Advisory Committee spent much of the first three months laying the groundwork for a productive dialogue between its members. On average, the CAC met every other week. The total attendance at CAC sessions, including project staff and visitors, ranged from fifteen to thirty, with ten to twenty voting members of the committee. Co-Chairpersons were elected: one from north of the freeway and one from the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg communities south of the freeway.

It is important to note that prior to the planning process the Ellen Wilson neighborhood was fragmented to the point of non-existence. The freeway effectively served as the boundary between an inner-city and a suburban population. More than 80% of the population north of the freeway is white, while 97% of the population south of the freeway is African-American. Similarly, the median income north is $45,000, and south it is $6,000. The vast majority of residents south of the freeway live in either the Arthur Capper or Carrollsburg public housing projects. North of the freeway, the poverty rate is 6%. In the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg area, 54% live below the poverty line.

It took time for the CAC members from both of these populations to find common ground. And it took time to realize that their goals for the community were in many respects the same. The CAC recognized from the first meeting forward, however, that the planning had to be inclusive of both sides of the freeway or the result would have little sustainability.

Significantly, the early sessions of the CAC also exposed a deep-seated skepticism on the part of all the participants. Neighborhood residents simply did not believe that they had the power to shape the social services planning. People had heard the same lines about community input too many times. It became clear that the first challenge to citizen participation was reversing thirty years of neglect and distrust. Despite all the truisms, there were very few people, black or white, rich or poor, who were accustomed to having a real decision-making stake in their own community.


The ice finally broke in late October when YPI presented the first draft of the Taking Stock report. The work on Taking Stock had begun in the summer. The Youth Policy Institute had recruited a group of nine Georgetown University and four University of the District of Columbia students as summer CORPS* members (*Comprehensive Objective Research on Policy Solutions - a YPI service learning initiative). The students were trained to collect demographics and analyze social service programs in an 'action research' methodology. The purpose was to develop a comprehensive portrait of the Ellen Wilson neighborhood.

The principle behind Taking Stock was that residents could not create a plan for the future until they understood the present. The demographics helped depict the problems of the community, while the analysis of service providers detailed the assets and strengths. The students walked the streets of the community, met with and interviewed program staff, and talked with residents of public housing and middle-class homeowners.

The Georgetown Volunteer and Public Service Center believed that this type of activity was the right direction for their service-learning efforts, and so Georgetown continued its involvement in the fall. Eleven students, both undergraduate and graduate, assisted with the completion of the first draft of Taking Stock research. YPI then coalesced the information and presented the Taking Stock report to the CAC.


The CAC now had something concrete to focus on, and it was a document describing their neighborhood and their organizations. Suddenly, the CAC came together. As one member said at the time, royalty always admire the artistry of painters until they are presented with their own portrait. For the first time, in an intense meeting at the board room of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, members began making demands of the staff and students. They wanted additions, corrections, explanations. In short, the residents had taken ownership of the process.

This momentum carried over into two critical sessions in November. On the 9th, again at the Capitol Hill Restoration Society on Pennsylvania Avenue, the CAC began identifying its priorities. First, members agreed on a framework for discussion; namely, what it would take to support families in crisis, families in need, and healthy families. The priorities established that night guided the CAC for the rest of the planning process.

The top two priorities came out immediately: health care and public safety. For the public housing community, access to health care was essential. The closing of the public health clinic at Arthur Capper had left hundreds of households without convenient or adequate health services. For the rest of the CAC, the issues of public safety and crime were paramount. Ever since the Ellen Wilson Dwellings were vacated, the rates of crime and the public perception of crime had escalated. Ironically, in a display of just how tight-knit the CAC would become, it was the public housing residents who took eventual leadership of the public safety issue and residents from north of the freeway who shaped the health care recommendations.

Other priorities included drug abuse treatment, child care, senior care, recreation for youth, tutoring and mentoring, cultural activities, employment training and placement, entrepreneurial training, small business development, and home-ownership counseling.


On November 30th, the CAC formally organized itself into four working groups. The working groups were created around the priority areas and each was composed of at least five CAC members as well as other interested residents. The health and public safety working groups were straightforward. The quality of life group was set up to address all the issues which affect healthy families, from child care to recreation to tutoring and mentoring. The economic development working group concentrated on job training, business development, and home-ownership. This CAC session marked the beginning of the camaraderie which would prevail over the next eight months. The meeting closed with a flurry of community announcements, invitations to Christmas parties, and a sense that the first stage of planning was complete.

The Community Advisory Committee hosted a town meeting in December to inform the wider community of its progress. CAC members made a conscious decision to broaden their representation and invited residents who had not been involved to join the planning process. The working groups then began meeting regularly in mid-January. The full CAC started meeting less often, and served more as a forum for working group reports and related discussion. Each of the four groups appointed a chairperson or co-chairs, and was assigned with developing a plan for their area of services. The membership of the working groups ranged from 7-10 each, with original CAC members and new resident participantshaving an equal say in the deliberations.

As the working groups delved into their specialties, the community service activities also adjusted. Georgetown University provided nearly twenty students for the spring semester, and these students broke into teams around the working groups. The first order of business for the students was working with YPI staff on the final Taking Stock report. In addition to meeting the requests for information which had been generated by the CAC and working groups, the final Taking Stock was organized into sections on health, public safety, economic development, and quality of life. Now each of the working groups was able to examine demographics and service providers specific to their area of concern.


In January, a core group of five neighborhood residents were hired by the project partners to serve as resident facilitators. The idea of the resident facilitators had been developed at the beginning of the process by the Ellen Wilson CDC and YPI. Three of the facilitators, including the lead facilitator, came from the public housing community. The other two were selected from applicants north of the freeway. The resident facilitators began working out of a new neighborhood planning office on Pennsylvania Avenue, less than a mile from the U.S. Capitol. This office also served as the meeting place for the four working groups.

The goal of the resident facilitator position was to engage residents in hands-on leadership training as part of the planning process. Each of the facilitators was assigned to a working group, with the lead facilitator handling the administration of the office and coordination with the CAC leadership. The task of the facilitators was to provide any assistance that the working groups needed, from scheduling meetings, to taking the minutes, to inviting guest speakers. Even though the facilitators came from different backgrounds and had different skills, they were able to work together in tight quarters and keep their groups moving forward.

The working groups spent most of January and February refining their priorities and meeting with local service providers. In light of the plan which the CAC finally developed, these meetings with existing providers were critical. Residents gained a sophisticated understanding of local problems and the wealth of services already available. As well, the CAC hosted another town meeting at the end of February, this time in the public housing community with fifty people in attendance.


Once the final Taking Stock was out, the planning process shifted into the Best Practices phase. The YPI staff, assisted by Georgetown students, took the priority issues of the working groups and initiated the Best Practices research. On topics as diverse as community policing, apprenticeship, and child care, the Best Practices "decision trees" and reports pulled together information on solutions nationwide. Residents were able to access the best thinking of practitioners and policymakers around the country, and look at models which had worked in similar communities. In addition, a number of the working groups had the opportunity to meet with national experts in the areas they were examining.

For example, the economic development working group recognized early on that there were critical ties between education, job training, and eventual employment, and that the transition from school to work was a paramount issue for family self-sufficiency. By looking at the Taking Stock and Best Practices reports, residents came to see that there was a basic lack of communication between these sectors. Educators train students in fixed curricula regardless of the state of the labor market, job training programs often provide skills with no direct link to employment, and employers demand trained employees without meaningful participation in apprenticeship or training programs.

With this understanding, the members of the economic development group examined the options for a successful transition from education to employment. These options included the model of career education, which had been implemented by the federal government in the 1970s; the components of the school-to-work opportunities system, which was being debated in Congress at the very same time; and the integrated approach of the Industry-Educator Council. Significantly, the residents of the Ellen Wilson community were considering solutions beyond even the scope of Congressional hearings.


The last six weeks of the planning process saw the working groups engaging in this kind of decision-making while costing out their individual plans. The full CAC reviewed and commented on these plans. In an incredible investment of time and energy, the working groups and the full CAC all met weekly during this period. For some members, this meant up to six hours of evening meetings each week.

In addition to the individual working group decisions, the overall CAC had reached two important conclusions by mid-June. First, they decided that the existing services in the neighborhood were substantial and did not need to be duplicated or marginalized by creating new providers. Second, they decided that the CAC, the neighborhood planning process, and the funding itself should be maintained in perpetuity. The institutionalization of the Community Advisory Committee ensured that there will always be a forum for democratic decision-making, and that residents will have the opportunity to adjust their plan as services are evaluated and new needs arise.

After 26 meetings of the full Committee and 63 sessions of the working groups, the CAC members realized that they had created a true political process, with a very real stake for residents and organizations alike. A political process does not end when decisions are made. It is continuous, and hopefully represents the collective interests of the individuals and families that will be affected by it. The Ellen Wilson neighborhood planning process has kept faith with its pledge to empower residents to chart a sensible course for the revitalization of their community.


 Author's Biography

Dixon Slingerland is a graduate of Stanford University. He began working with the Youth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. in 1991. He established the Los Angeles office of the Youth Policy Institute in 1996. He has been a consultant and manager for community-based organizing and revitalization efforts in D.C., L.A., and Miami. He is also currently involved with projects in Albuquerque, St. Petersburg, and San Francisco.

The Youth Policy Institute (YPI) was founded in the early 1980s by David Hackett, a close aide and friend to Robert Kennedy and the director of the Kennedy administration committee which laid the groundwork for the Community Action Program and the War on Poverty. Most recently, YPI has been focused on integrating community organizing with welfare-to-work, and is part of a three-year effort to involve institutions of higher education in community-based planning and problem-solving.