Leadership Development Is Key to Long Beach Neighborhood Improvement

The City of Long Beach won the Award for Excellence in the Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics and Community Involvement category of the 2008 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

 The City of Long Beach is home to more than 100 distinct neighborhoods, ranging from lavish waterfront homes with private docks to older, overcrowded neighborhoods whose residents live in poverty. Long Beach is the most ethnically and culturally diverse large city in the United States with more than 17,000 Cambodian residents, the largest concentration outside Cambodia.

In the early 1990s, the city council adopted a new approach to assist neighborhoods troubled by serious social, economic and physical problems. Developing new leaders was critical to the success of this new strategy. Low-income neighborhoods with the greatest need were identified and became part of the new Neighborhood Improvement Strategy (NIS) Program: 10 areas were selected based on public safety, social indicators and property conditions. The NIS Program is based on three principles:

  1. Delivery of municipal services must be tailored to deal with specific problems of the target areas;
  2. Coordination among city departments that provide services to neighborhoods must be improved; and
  3. Active participation by neighborhood residents is necessary for any lasting improvements to be achieved.

City staff hosted monthly meetings in the community to bring together residents and city departments to address neighborhood concerns. Staff encountered a number of challenges in making meaningful and lasting improvements to the area. Communication among neighbors and between residents and city staff was often difficult because many in these neighborhoods speak little or no English; citywide, more than 24 percent of residents speak English less than “very well.”

Outreach to these residents was a labor-intensive challenge, and communication was clearly an obstacle that prevented marginalized neighborhood groups and residents from accessing city services. As many city departments did not offer their services in languages other than English, residents who spoke limited English were unable to communicate their concerns. Additionally, frustrated neighborhood leaders sought help with navigating the city bureaucracy to help address community problems and create public improvements.

The city needed to find a way to develop residents’ skills, confidence and competence and empower them to form neighborhood associations to address local concerns and improve their quality of life. The city also needed to provide opportunities for residents with limited English skills to have a voice in addressing neighborhood concerns.

Unique Approach Led to Widespread Success

In 1992, Long Beach’s Neighborhood Services Bureau created the Neighborhood Leadership Program (NLP), a free five-month trilingual course (English, Spanish and the Cambodian language Khmer) to help residents address neighborhood problems. The program was based on these assumptions:

  • Participants are already leaders, and participation in the program will enhance their knowledge and skills;
  • Participants may be working in isolation and unaware of city and community resources; and
  • Each person’s experiences are valuable and provide lessons and insight that benefit everyone.

The city partnered with residents and neighborhood organizations to recruit participants for the NLP. In the early years of the program, recruitment efforts focused primarily in neighborhoods where residents were underserved and most people were new immigrants who didn’t speak English. Due to the program’s popularity, recruitment efforts are now citywide, and participants come from all walks of life.

The NLP empowers residents to take leadership roles and make positive community change. Combining classroom education and experiential learning, it offers technical training, financial support and hands-on, real-life experience. The curriculum includes human relations, communication, conflict management, teambuilding, leadership principles and effective neighborhood organizing.

This innovative leadership program is taught in three languages simultaneously and is the only one of its kind nationwide. Unlike other leadership programs where limited-English-speaking residents are taught separately in one language, NLP translators provide simultaneous translation, and written materials are also translated. English-only speakers learn from the Spanish- and Khmer-speaking classmates and become aware of outreach challenges.

Participants work in teams to prepare grant proposals of up to $1,000 in matching funds from the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency and complete neighborhood improvement class projects. These projects provide transferable skills. Participants are able to create and implement additional neighborhood projects after graduation. Eight class projects completed in 2006 with less than $8,000 in program funding leveraged additional partnership assistance worth $40,000 through in-kind donations from the community.

Participants used skills learned in the NLP to establish a monthly, all-volunteer hot lunch program at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. “The leadership program gave me a better attitude and outlook on life,” says program founder Stella Davis, a graduate of the Class of 2000, “because I learned when some things get you down, look up. In the Neighborhood Leadership Program, I learned how to go into the community and draw people out. Now I feed 80 to 100 people each month.”

In response to alumni requests for further training, the Neighborhood Services Bureau created an annual citywide Neighborhood Leadership Conference with a resource fair, workshops and training and a motivational keynote speaker.

Resident Involvement Improves Quality of Life

Participants enhance their grant writing, project development and communication skills and gain confidence, and they retain those skills even 10 years after graduation. Long Beach neighborhoods have increased their capacity for civic participation as a result. Evaluations consistently reveal three common themes for graduates: increased participation in neighborhood groups, increased involvement in a community project or neighborhood program, and personal growth.

“The NLP actually encourages people to get involved not just in their neighborhood but in the entire city,” says City Council Member Val Lerch, a Class of 1998 graduate. “They learn that theirs is one of many neighborhoods, and they make a change — neighborhood by neighborhood and in the entire city.”

Class of 2005 graduate Ama Tupu is equally enthusiastic. “Throughout the NLP class, I had this feeling that I want to empower people,” says Tupu, program director for after-school programs at Leuzinger High School. “After a shooting at Jordan High School, I helped create and facilitate an open forum between Samoans and Tongans in North Long Beach to discuss the reasons why we feel we need to be violent with each other, and it all came down to stereotypes. It opened a dialogue between parents and students. Since then, the violence has diminished. Now four high schools are working with recent high-school grads to host Pacific Islander clubs on campus.” Tupu also volunteers with NLP as a weekend retreat camp counselor.

The program’s 383 graduates reflect the community. Graduates represent all city council districts. Women make up more than 69 percent of graduates, and more than 65 percent of program graduates live in areas eligible for Community Development Block Grants.

Making a Real Difference

The NLP has increased citizen participation in local government. Residents — especially those who may feel marginalized, including the disabled, seniors and new immigrants — are not afraid now to speak up when they wouldn’t otherwise have a place at the table. They believe their voices will be heard and that they can influence local government on decisions affecting their community. Program graduates, representative of Long Beach’s diverse population, have assumed leadership roles. Twelve serve on city boards and commissions, five are members of the city’s Redevelopment Agency Project Area committees, seven serve on community police center advisory boards and two have been elected to the city council.

Alumni are overwhelmingly supportive of the NLP and frequently refer friends and family: 53 attended the alumni reunion dinner to kick off recruitment efforts for the Class of 2008, 25 served on candidate interview panels and 23 volunteered at the 2007 conference. Community members believe the program makes a difference by bringing decision-making to the neighborhood level and helping to restore the public’s trust in city government.

“I learned about the courage it takes to get things done,” notes Martha Cota, a Class of 2001 graduate and active NLP volunteer. “I gained some great leadership skills and learned about the many resources that the City of Long Beach has available. I learned that the city needs its residents as much as the residents need the city. Long Beach believes in citizen involvement, and that has inspired me to bring other people into community organizing. I learned I have the power to make things happen and create change.”

Contact: Margaret Madden, neighborhood resource officer, Department of Community Development’s Neighborhood Services Bureau; phone: (562) 570-1010; e-mail: mamadde@longbeach.gov.

This article appears in the December 2008 issue of Western City
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