Real Communities Initiative a cutting-edge enterprise

Guest Columnist

Tom Connelly

Tom Connelly

Last month, in an effort to learn more about various initiatives the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) is involved with, I traveled to Louisville, Ky., to attend a conference on the Real Communities Initiative. The goal of this project is to construct inclusive neighborhoods. And, to my pleasant surprise, the state recognized as being at the very forefront of this was Georgia.

On Monday, GCDD will host a meeting for its Real Communities Initiative in the Good Life City. The event will take place at the Albany ARC Program facility, located at 3005 Old Dawson Road. It’ll run between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Real Communities is a cutting-edge enterprise started throughout the state in 2010 by GCDD. Through this initiative, the Council, as GCDD is commonly referred to, partners with local groups working to build more equitable communities. It is a thoughtful, learning way of doing things which equips community members with the skills to labor together in the pursuit of common goals to better their own community utilizing person-centered buttresses, community-centered connections, as well as continual and reflective learning.

Intentionally involving individuals both with and without developmental disabilities in collaborative efforts is central to the framework of Real Communities. The Council attempts to support communities that welcome and use the gifts of all their citizens, including those which have been historically marginalized, and create ways toward reciprocity, interdependence, and social change. Key to the Council’s method is the utilization of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) principles which utilize present community resources in a different and newly successful way.

According to ABCD:

  • When people realize what they have, they find power;
  • When people unite in new connections and relationships, they build power;
  • When people increase their productivity together, they exercise their power to address hardships and realize their dreams.

The Council actively assists communities in several ways, such as through technical assistance, training, popular education and sometimes through financial support. Projects are determined by each community, not the GCDD staff, and differ according to local needs and wishes. For instance, they could vary from community-based transportation to community gardens to cooperatives. By letting individual communities decide what they want to do and then leading by standing aside, GCDD supports Real Communities as they blossom and accomplish real and long-term community-based change.

Besides the capacities and gifts of the individuals in their communities, Real Communities initiatives utilize three sources of knowledge which give them a common language as well as a core of practices:

  • Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) controls the process of community building;
  • Person-Centered Support guides the discovery of individuals’ talents and defines the conditions needed so they can offer them to the Real Communities initiative;
  • Purposeful Learning offers an array of disciplines for the purpose of obtaining a more comprehensive understanding of the work.

To increase knowledge and skill in each of these areas, Real Communities provides supervision of community builders, consultation to local initiatives, and supports participation in workshops, leading journeys and retreats. Currently, GCDD has supported seven communities in its Real Communities initiative. In 2013, it is committed to bringing 3-5 new communities on board.

Two of the past ventures have included one in Savannah and one in Macon. In the former, the location of the initiative was the Forsyth Farmers Market. It was created to deal with food access issues, as well as to provide every person who shops there with a friendly and inclusive place to buy produce. As a GCDD Real Communities project, this market provides opportunities for connections and contributions for individuals with and without disabilities. It takes place every Saturday morning.

In Macon, the Real Communities Initiative has taken place at the Centenary United Methodist Church. Located downtown, it once was a vibrant congregation. With time, though, the congregation’s numbers shrank and it became apparent that if nothing was altered, both the church and the community would cease to exist. In 2005, the church started to make a conscious effort to reach out to and engage the local community. The community responded and brought the church back to life.

The congregation is currently significantly diverse and dedicated to addressing the issues of the neighborhood in more permanent and sustainable ways. Programs have been established which aid the neighborhood, such as a community garden and a bicycle program. Regarding the latter, both individuals with and without disabilities repair donated bicycles and then give them to those lacking transportation. Centenary has even shown interest in developing ways to welcome individuals with disabilities and their families to their congregation and provide opportunities so they can contribute.

To obtain more information on Real Communities, call Albany ARC at (229) 888-6852 or GCDD at (404) 657-2126.

Tom Connelly, MS, CRC, has lived in Albany for more than 20 years. He is a member of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities.