The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.
By Andrea Stover
The term “sustainability” has become a catch phrase for business, government, and non-profits to improve brand image, acquire funding, and pursue ambitious projects. Yet “sustainability initiatives” often neglect to include the public in designing proposals and implementing projects. When organizations apply top-down client based solutions, they fail to advance social justice or empower citizens to be part of the community building process. This greatly undermines the “sustainability” of the effort and does not lead to equitable development.
PolicyLink is an action and research institute that helps reverse this trend by promoting equitable development through a variety of mechanisms. Their mission is to “lift up what works” so that community residents can experience tangible benefits as the neighborhood is revitalized. Numerous publications and an online toolkit offer insightful ways to pursue truly equitable development paths. One tool that stands out is “community mapping” because it cannot be used properly without massive citizen participation, ensuring more equity in the resulting policy campaign or redevelopment plan. Sarah Treuhaft, Associate Director at PolicyLink, has worked directly on community mapping and highlights a number of case studies across the United States that have been supported by PolicyLink research. Unfortunately, despite PolicyLink communication strategies, adoption of community mapping and other tools that demonstrate “equity” are not always integrated into development projects that claim to follow “sustainable” guidelines.
How “Community Mapping” Reveals “Equity” of PolicyLink Recommendations
The PolicyLink website includes a number of publications that illustrate practical uses for “community mapping” as nonprofits apply for grants, advocate policy, establish partnerships, and implement community-building projects. One such report provides step-by-step instructions: “to help the applicant consortium, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and community advocates submit competitive, equity-focused proposals with the goal of transforming low-income neighborhoods into communities of opportunity, rich with resources for all. (PolicyLink, 2010). “Community mapping” is suggested as a tool to fulfill one of the grant’s rating factors and to illustrate the disparity of access to regional opportunities among different neighborhoods. According to Treuhaft, community mapping works best when used to communicate a specific point. (Treuhaft, 2011) In this case, it can visualize data and present evidence to help secure the grant.
At first glance “Community Mapping” may seem harmless or superficial, but in actuality it represents an alternative to the gentrification of urban centers, the expansion of sterile energy intensive suburbs, and the spread of highly mechanized ghost towns in rural areas. As PolicyLink authors state: “Participatory mapping can capture precise, meaningful, and powerful data, while fostering community engagement in the process. Community residents, by virtue of their everyday presence in their neighborhoods, possess vital information for understanding neighborhood-level phenomena.” (Josh Kirschenbaum, 2002) . It is a bottom-up method of understanding a specific locality, prioritizing development opportunities, and empowering locals that usually stay out of public affairs. The promotion of this tool by PolicyLink emphasizes their commitment to “equity” defined as: “just and fair inclusion.”
It is important to note the depth and quality of research provided by PolicyLink. Reports identify limitations and challenges with different tools and methods recommended by the institute. For instance, the application of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) has increased transparency, complexity, and the visibility of community agendas. However, GIS technology cannot completely substitute for the traditional mapping process that directly engages residents. In Community Mapping for Health Equity Advocacy, Treuhaft outlines these GIS mapping challenges to include: “data access and quality, measuring disparities and access, and proving causality.” (Treuhaft, 2009). In addition, PolicyLink authors argue GIS technology should not overshadow the forming of local public/private/nonprofit partnerships that are often essential for completing a community mapping process.
How PolicyLink Communicates with Nonprofits
A 2007 PolicyLink report argues that non-profits are the foundation of civil society and the cornerstone for truly sustainable community building in a time of increasing social inequality. (Treuhaft, 2007) PolicyLink therefore focuses much of their research on useful tools for non-profits working to revitalize communities. The official PolicyLink website features a comprehensive and free toolkit of 27 tools that are organized into four major tool groups: affordable housing, economic opportunity, land use and environment, health and place, as well as a set of tools focused on advocacy. More specifically, these tools include: “brownfields,” “healthy food retailing,” and “inclusionary zoning.” Promotion of the “community mapping” tool especially exemplifies PolicyLink commitment to equity, sustainability, and bottom-up power in community building efforts. As it stands, however, not nearly enough nonprofits are engaged in community mapping or have realized the potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology. (Treuhaft, 2007)
PolicyLink uses a number of different information management tools to publicize their research. Sarah Treuhaft, Associate Director at PolicyLink confirms the “action” portion of the description relates to PolicyLink role in policy campaigns, technical assistance, and training programs. (Treuhaft, 2011) Nonprofits often request PolicyLink support at the initial planning stage, for technical assistance and expertise, or as a consultant to help identify a solution. PolicyLink has an entire communications office responsible for a steady flow of twitter feeds (daily), vimeo (monthly), newsletters (monthly), email blasts, brochures, reports, segments, public speakers, keynotes, interviews, and postcards. These communication mechanisms help PolicyLink accomplish their mission by reaching out to organizations that need this information.
How to Bring “Community Mapping” to a Larger Audience
In Bridging the Innovation Divide, PolicyLink authors claim: “Most nonprofit practitioners sense that new and relevant technologies exist, but they lack the knowledge needed to choose among the increasing number of products as well as the technical know-how required to apply new technology tools to their particular organizational goals or problems. Consequently, the vast potential for new ICTs to strengthen the sector remains unrealized.” (Treuhaft, 2007) Coincidently, PolicyLink is just the resource nonprofits need to reverse “green washing”, pick up new technologies, and form truly sustainable plans that include the essential component of “equity.”
Perhaps PolicyLink should consider a 28th tool on social marketing that advises nonprofits to post a link to the PolicyLink toolkit on the webpage of their community building success story. This way PolicyLink would have greater exposure to a variety of nonprofits across horizontal planes of communication. This would build a stronger network of support for equitable development policy campaigns and community building projects. In addition, it would provide feedback mechanisms to help PolicyLink evaluate their support of non-profits and measure the expanse of their impact.
Josh Kirschenbaum, L. R. (2002). Community Mapping : Using Geographic Data for Neighborhood Revitalization . PolicyLink. PolicyLink.
PolicyLink. (n.d.). All Tools. Retrieved 5 12, 2011, from PolicyLink: Lifting Up What Works: http://www.policylink.org/site/c.lkIXLbMNJrE/b.5136725/k.EE25/All_Tools.htm
PolicyLink. (2010). The Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Guide How to Link Equity to Each Rating Factor . PolicyLink.
Sarah Treuhaft, A. C. (2007). Bridging the Innovation Divide: An Agenda for Disseminating Technology Innovations within the Nonprofit Sector. PolicyLink & BCT Partners.
Treuhaft, S. (2011, 5 12). Associate Director, PolicyLink. (A. Stover, Interviewer)
Treuhaft, S. (2009). Community Mapping for Health Equity Advocacy. PolicyLink.