Organizational Efforts to Improve Representation and Inclusion in Low-Income Neighborhoods
Human service organizations (HSOs) and religious congregations are often thought to play an important representative role on behalf of low-income community residents, who are typically underrepresented in political processes. Prior research has shown that both HSOs and religious congregations can be important conduits for the empowerment and representation of marginalized individuals. However, we know little about the mechanisms and processes by which organizations actually seek to foster citizen engagement and how they conceptualize their representative role. Knowing more may allow us to improve participatory processes and address political inequality in vulnerable communities. We address this topic with two specific research questions: (1) How do organizational leaders conceptualize “good” representation and (2) To what degree do different types of organizations encourage resident participation in representational processes?
A census of nonresidential establishments was used to identify the population of HSOs and religious congregations in three low-income communities in the South Side of Chicago. From this population, we conducted 86 semi-structured, qualitative interviews with organizational leaders; the response rate was 60%. Site visits showed that non-responders are predominantly low capacity organizations with little probability of playing a representative role. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded. Thematic analysis was the primary analytic approach, using inductive and deductive coding techniques to address predetermined topics of interest and new insights.
Findings revealed that 92% of organizations interviewed were active in some form of political activities on behalf of residents. Two representation models emerged when respondents were asked about how they conceptualize “good” representation: a delegate model, where good representation was believed to be determined by the extent to which organizational staff engage in frequent bidirectional communication with residents about community needs and concerns, and a trustee model, where good representation was thought to result from knowledge of and experience in the community, regardless of interaction with residents. HSO leaders were more likely than religious leaders to subscribe to the delegate model and thus more apt to gather input from residents to inform their representative activities. They were also more likely to directly encourage community residents’ activity in political processes. Organizations subscribing to the trustee model assumed that their experience in the community gave them sufficient knowledge to understand community needs and did not find it necessary to engage residents further, or encourage their participation in political activities.
Our study confirms that organizational leaders have diverse beliefs about how communities should be represented and pursue representation efforts differently. Findings suggest that one cannot assume that nonprofit community representatives are in frequent communication with the residents they represent, or that high-profile organizations necessarily have sufficient knowledge of community needs. “Good” representation is sometimes conceptualized in ways that minimizes client input. If nonprofits’ representative activities are to empower residents or increase their voice in community decision-making, they must engage with residents or otherwise encourage their political development. By instituting outreach efforts to facilitate residents’ leadership roles in these processes, we can ensure that local governance efforts are not dominated by a few select organizational leaders.