Comprehensive Community Initiatives: A Rural Perspective

Article excerpt

Over the past 20 years, comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs) have re-emerged as a development strategy for disadvantaged communities throughout the United States. The CCI strategy uses coalitions of public and private agencies, religious organizations, neighborhood groups, community leaders, and individuals in the community to work together on neighborhood councils, task forces, planning committees, and advisory boards to identify needs in the community and to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for multisystem change (Kurzman, 1985). Proponents of the CCI believe that it is the best approach to address the "compounding and interrelatedness of [social] problems" (Ewalt, 1997, p. 413).

Rather than using a single strategy targeting one "cause" of a social problem, CCIs offer a comprehensive systems approach that attacks complex problems on a variety of fronts using different kinds of community practice models simultaneously (Gamble & Well, 1995; Rothman & Zald, 1995). CCIs combine a number of strategies, including macro-level strategies such as establishing comprehensive social services, community building and economic development; meso-level strategies such as housing rehabilitation, neighborhood beautification, school reform, the provision of health and mental health care, and child and adult day care; and micro-level strategies such as job training, leadership development, and adult education programs (Ewalt, 1997; Kubisch, Weiss, Schorr, & Connell, 1995; Stagner & Duran, 1997).

The literature on the CCI describes it as an urban strategy. Most articles on CCIs assess the components and strategies used in urban examples, while elaborating on the problems they face and the solutions they use. A special issue of Social Work (Ewalt, 1997) dedicated to investigating CCIs, for example, focused only on interventions in urban "center city" neighborhoods. Large community initiatives in rural areas are not part of the professional discussion about CCIs. Instead, rural initiatives in the United States are seen as distinct from urban CCIs and are discussed in the area of community development.

The inclusion of U.S. rural CCIs in the international community development literature makes sense, as rural settings in industrialized and non-industrialized countries share some characteristics, such as a dispersed population, dependence on agriculture, lack of infrastructure, and poor economic development. Yet, comprehensive initiatives targeting communities in U.S. urban and rural areas operate under the same national laws, interact with the same government structures, are influenced by the same media, and share many elements of U.S. culture. Rural communities also have many of the problems identified in center-city urban areas. For example, rural residents have much in common with their urban counterparts, who Ewalt (1997) described as people "with low-incomes ... [who live in] deteriorated, unsafe housing ... [and who] lack access to basic resources ... that adequately prepare people for employment" (p. 413). I argue that nothing overtly precludes rural areas from using the CCI to structure their interventions, that at least one rural area is already undertaking a CCI, and that the exclusion of studies on comprehensive rural interventions from the general CCI literature is unfortunate.

This article provides a comparison of the characteristics and components of Warren Family Institute (WFI), a comprehensive initiative in rural North Carolina, with the framework for the urban CCI as established in the professional literature.

This article is based on a review of urban CCI literature and data from a case study of WFI. I collected data for the case study in interviews with planning participants and county residents, a review of planning and evaluation documents, and participant observation in Warren County between 1994 and 1998.

Definition of Rural

Defining the term "rural" has long been a problem for social researchers and practitioners. …