Focused Community Strategies: From Meeting Needs to Transforming Neighborhoods

“Do you know what I have to go through just to get groceries?!”

This exasperation was expressed to us by one of our neighbors, who, like over a half million other people in Atlanta, live in a food desert – a place where low-income families lack access to healthy and affordable food.

Some respond to food deserts by distributing free food. Focused Community Strategies (FCS) however, responded by building a grocery store – turning a food desert into a food oasis!

FCS did this because 40 years of urban community development has taught us a lot about creating wealth in communities experiencing poverty.

There are three common and ineffective approaches to addressing poverty: one, by giving away material goods; two, by working only with individuals or their families; three, with a single-cause approach (jobs, education, etc).

FCS has learned that the poverty needle is moved when we start focusing on whole neighborhoods, not just the felt needs of individuals. For the last thirteen years, we have been working with the residents of historic South Atlanta, a neighborhood of 520 homes just south of downtown. Our model for neighborhood transformation centers on three areas of impact:

  1. Economic Development – This means thinking about jobs and affordable access to the things that makes neighborhoods thrive, like our grocery store! It means looking at the assets and barriers that exist and finding holistic ways to address challenges. It means partnering with business owners, entrepreneurs and others with the know-how for creating wealth and opportunity.
  2. Community Development – We don’t focus on what is broken. We think about the abundant assets here. We look for leaders and partner with them. We do a lot of listening. We attend neighborhood association meetings. We advocate for our schools. Much of the power needed to transform a community is already within that community.
  3. Mixed-Income Housing – We create access to quality, affordable housing, we work toward home ownership and we find ways to make our community a mixed-income neighborhood. Just as most neighborhoods became distressed when families with resources moved out, we invite resourced people to move in as partners with families experiencing poverty so that we experience Shalom together.

By taking this approach, a neighbor recently raised his voice with a very different message: “Hey, those plums I bought yesterday…they were AMAZING! Best plums I’ve ever had!”



If you’d like to learn more about creating wealth in low-income contexts, we would encourage you to read Charity Detox, written by our Founder, Dr. Robert Lupton. You can also reach out to our Director of Training and Education and contributor of the post, Dr. Shawn Duncan:

Things I’ve Learned from the Poor | By Doug Seebeck

When I was 22 years old, I went off to Bangladesh as an Agri-missionary. On fire in my call to Christ, I was going to teach the farmers how to farm. They would be the grateful recipients of the God-given wisdom I had acquired at that ripe age and in short order they would feed their nation.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I ZambiaFarmer.DS.PovertyCureBlog(body2)understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

1 Corinthians 13:10

I quickly learned that the Bengali farmers were excellent farmers. They were able to survive even though they had no access to things we take for granted: the systems, resources, and models that bring about markets and flourishing economies.

I then did something I never expected to do: I asked those Bengali farmers what they needed to move from subsistence farming to the business of farming. And then I listened. My “know how” from a more developed farm environment partnered with their deep knowledge of their own land and culture fostered a deep and multi-generational transformation in their communities.

That was 37 years ago and Partners Worldwide now asks and listens to small-scale farmers and emerging businesspeople in 25 countries.  Here are a few things they’ve taught me along the way:

  1. They know how to fish! The oft-quoted Chinese proverb tells us that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day but if you teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. People at the margins know how to fish … but they don’t have access to the pond. They aren’t able to engage and participate in the economic systems, markets, relationships, networks of support and collaboration and cooperation, tools, and models many of us take for granted.
  2. They are more resourceful money managers than most people I know. You try living on $2 a day! Yet they pay multiples more for food, water, shelter, electricity, energy and transportation.
  3. They are smart business people. When we take time to understand the decisions they make, they are always the best, given their circumstances, and our partnership with them only magnifies a talent they had to begin with.
  4. They are innovators. Their capacity to “work-around” the obstacles they face reminds me that God created us in Genesis 1 as trusted stewards of the Garden, imbuing in us the knowledge and creative power to tend to Earth and bring forth its bounty.
  5. They are entrepreneurs, intuitively demonstrating the traits associated with successful start-ups: keen observers of behavior, slow to speak and long on listening.
  6. They are servant leaders, they humble themselves to serve, they truly served me, and I realize there is still so much for me to learn about how to best serve them.


Doug Seebeck serves as the President of Partners Worldwide