Red brick 3 story building with green awning, Capitol Hill Books, with green book Urban Community Development overlaid on edge

What They Learned in the 1970s

I recently found myself in a used bookstore in Denver. Checking the shelf labeled Urban Planning, I found a slim green paperback from 1978 called Urban Community Development: Case Studies in Neighborhood Survival. It was published by the Community Development Society of America and the University of Wisconsin–Extension, Center for Urban Community Development.

I bought it because it contains a case study about my own neighborhood back in St. Paul.

But it turns out the thing that’s most interesting is the opening chapter, called “The Right Combination,” by Glen C. Pulver. He was then a professor of agricultural economics at UW-Madison and Extension, and past president of the organization sponsoring the publication. The chapter is an edited version of a speech he gave to the Midwest Conference on People, Neighborhoods and Appropriate Technology in Milwaukee in December 1977. (Pulver died unexpectedly in 2000 at age 71.)

Pulver’s “right combination” consists of nine guidelines for organizations trying to make change in cities and neighborhoods, almost all of which immediately made me think of problems with community organizations I have worked with or known about in the past few decades.

  1. Plain language. Avoid academic language, jargon and legalese. And don’t say yes when it’s really no. (That could be called Minnesota Nice.)
  2. Honest involvement of people. Pulver quickly lists off the failings of public hearings, leaders of community organizations and elected officials in thinking they fully speak for all people (though the electeds come the closest, in his opinion):

Nothing is quite so annoying as the self-appointed spokesperson for the people—the person who claims that the government doesn’t speak for the people, that community organizations don’t speak for the people, but that they do…. The truth of the matter is only the people speak for themselves. There is no way of involving all of the people in community programs…. Instead, a structure of institutions and organizations best represents the people. The key, then, is to provide as much involvement of as many diverse groups and individuals as possible and understand the limitations of our efforts—in short, to be honest about it (p. 3).

  1. Recognize and support allies. In Pulver’s words:

One of the biggest problems associated with social action groups in our cities is the quick willingness of some to condemn everyone else’s program as irrelevant and ineffective, while claiming theirs is the only one which will work…. The problems are tough enough without creating enemies (page 3).

  1. Know how things really work. Share that knowledge among people, even though you will have experts on particular topics among your groups. “It is usually the combination of knowledge and involvement of people which is most effective in breaking down the walls of resistance to change” (page 4). He calls this working in the “Land of Real.”
  2. Take advantage of opportunities. If people from the community get appointed to boards or commissions, be sure they can attend, and realize there will be a learning curve. It’s better to say no and mean it than yes and not follow through.
  3. Know what should be done. Develop a specific plan and work to enact it. Prioritize around it. This starts from a clear definition of the problem you face.
  4. Work in manageable packages. Break it down. (This follows from number 6.)
  5. Look for weaknesses in yourself that you most complain about in others. A piece of personal advice.
  6. Humanness. Emotion is what moves things forward — because people care about something. “Anyone who writes rules and regulations or an evaluative report which tries to remove emotion is attempting to take the very heart out of the program” (page 6). Humanness is also about warmth and kindness in interactions and maintaining dignity.

It’s both a bit depressing to see that little has changed about how things work (and don’t work) through the decades and reassuring to know that people are people; systems are systems. The song remains the same.

But I thought it was helpful to bring his advice out of the pages of this probably forgotten little book for a few minutes once again.

Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the Climate Committee.