Development and the Politics of Empowerment

(I wrote this post one year ago. Please see About East Saint Louis for more information.)

I just finished my first class through the International Institute of Sustainable Development called "Development and the Politics of Empowerment". Here's my final paper/reflections for it. The writing is pretty uninspired, but I'm impressed with myself that I got it done.

The prompt:
In order to complete the course, participants MUST produce a brief (1-2 page) reflection paper on the material presented. The paper will be broken into two parts, and can be very casual. The first will discuss how your development project already has a political focus/perspective and what perspective that is. The second part will focus on how and why politics should or should not be more greatly incorporated into your particular development project.

If you are not yet working in the field, please select a development organization and using their website and your knowledge of it, please discuss the organization's perception of development and how it may differ from other organizations. How is this organization implicitly taking a political stance? Additionally, include your views on development prior to this course and how they have changed, if at all.
The paper:

I am currently working for The Griffin Center in East Saint Louis, IL. The Griffin Center is a non-profit organization in East Saint Louis that provides after-school programming to youth to help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. I would consider this a “development organization” in that we are working to create better circumstances for future generations by focusing on the children of the community. Each of the three after-school centers that we run are located in different public housing developments throughout the city. We currently have about 400 children enrolled in our programs throughout the city.

The Griffin Center has partnerships with several organizations that each require political relationships to effectively work together.

  1. The Griffin Center and East Saint Louis Housing Authority: Each of our centers are located in the community center of the public housing offices. In exchange for providing free programming to the children of the residents of the public housing, The Griffin Center does not pay rent or utilities.
  2. The Griffin Center and
    1. Americorps
    2. AARP (American Association of Retired Peoples)
    3. SIUE (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)
    4. PITW (Put Illinois to Work) Each of the organizations listed above provides subsidized workers to The Griffin Center. More than half of The Griffin Center’s staff comes from one of these organizations. However, along with the “free” workers come hassles as each organization has separate rules on attendance, time cards, dress code, etc.
  3. The Griffin Center and East Saint Louis School District 189: One of the reasons that The Griffin Center is so vital is because not only are the children coming from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, the children also belong to a failing school district. Out of the 20 schools in the district, 12 of them are not meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress
  4. The Griffin Center and other non-profits/aide organizations that provide services to the residents of the housing developments: The Griffin Center focuses on the children in the housing developments. So much of the success of a child depends on the success of the parents and that is where The Griffin Center falls short. We rely on numerous organizations to help families with job placement assistance, nutrition, and access to health care.
To me, politics of development is all about creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. In order for The Griffin Center to succeed, we depend on each of the groups listed above and they depend on us as well. Frequent meetings take place for the purpose of maintaining these relationships.

The political relationship that I think could be most improved is working with the local school district. Unfortunately, corruption exists at all levels within the school district. I have an idealized version how government can and should work and I am saddened to find that even on this small scale the corruption is so rampant. I think the relationship with the school district could be improved by identifying school board members that desire positive change and linking them with concerned citizens that are not yet apathetic towards the possibility of change within East Saint Louis.

One way the politics in this community affects me personally is through race. I am white working a city that is 99% African American. In all that I do, I remind myself that I am viewing the city through very different lens. I’ve approached the issue of race by treading lightly with openness and a desire to learn while remembering the white privilege that I carry. “Life-long learning as an ally means…Choosing to keep confronting your own privilege. Understanding that the personal is political—meaning that all of our choices either work to support social justice or detract from it. Being conscious takes effort.” (http://www.colorado.edu/communitystudies/resources/ally.html)

Politics should absolutely be more incorporated in our organization. We cannot single-handily change the status quo, but instead must work together to build coalitions towards positive change.


  1. I love that phrase - "the personal is political". So true, and yet so hard to understand.

  2. Thanks! I've always liked that phrase too.