The changing face of mainstream America in the 21st century

Clarkston, Georgia, an area located near metropolitan Atlanta, stands as a singular example of the changing face of mainstream America in the 21st century. A spirit of resilience, diversity, and entrepreneurial ingenuity is evident here, both in longtime Clarkston residents and its population of refugees and immigrants from around the world.

The Clarkston zip code of 30021 has a population close to 22,000 and includes the City of Clarkston and surrounding areas of unincorporated DeKalb County.   More than a third of Clarkston’s population is foreign-born and more than half of its population is African American, while white U.S. Americans constitute a significant minority at 13.6%. Clarkston has been called the most diverse square mile in the United States, and is the figurehead of a new, multicultural American South. The city is home to significant Burmese, Bhutanese, Nepali, Somali, Iraqi, Sudanese as well as other populations, and many languages are spoken by the diverse and worldly population here.

The early history of Clarkston, as recounted on the history page of the City’s website, owes a great debt to the Georgia Railroad, which ran through the center of town. According to the City website , Clarkston was originally called “New Siding,” but it was affectionately known by some as “Goatsville,” because of the prestige given to anyone who owned goats, particularly the high-quality Angoras variety. Often, residents’ goats had to be run out of a building before people could conduct their business there. To this day, Clarkston High School student sports teams are appropriately named after their mascot, the Angora Goats.

The Clarkston area was identified in the 1990s by refugee resettlement agencies as a recommended location for refugee resettlement. Many who resettle here have fled unspeakable episodes of violence, trauma, and war, while others have been displaced from their homes by natural disasters. Though immigrant and refugees in Clarkston face uniquely difficult circumstances, many of these new Americans in Clarkston are highly educated and bring unique skills and capacities. Every community member, provided the right support, can play an invaluable role in their new home.

This is not to understate the difficulties faced by the Clarkston community. The average per capita  income in Clarkston is $16,128, which is about $10,000 less than the Georgia and national averages, and the median household income is $31,741, which is almost $20,000 less than the median Georgia and national household incomes, according to American Community Survey data listed at  Cultural norms and limited access to basic services due to lack of transportation, communication barriers, and the continued need for child care make life for the resettled exceedingly difficult.

The chance to resettle in America is, for many, a light of hope and a chance to create a new and happy life and future for their children. It is an ideal location for community development work, where building connections and developing assets can help people overcome disadvantage and work together to build a bright future for themselves, their children, and the community.


Connect. Engage. Collaborate.

Relationships are at the heart of everything we do.  Our work follows a process of relationship-building that creates trust and supports vibrant community life in Clarkston.  Residents connect with each other, engage with other community members and organizations, then collaborate on transformative community projects.  
  • Strong relationships are the foundation of vibrant communities
  • Trust is essential to strong relationships
  • Shared experiences build trust
  • Large group settings and small group gatherings create opportunities for shared experience
  • Successful gatherings provide opportunity for individuals to share their gifts, talents, skills and experiences
Communities have existing resources that are frequently unconnected.  CDF works to connect community members to the resources they need both inside and outside of the community.


What is Community Engagement, anyway?

CDF views Community Engagement as a process by which individuals and organizations build ongoing relationships for the purpose of creating collective actions that benefit the community. There are many misconceptions about community engagement and development.  Our communities face great challenges, and it is often tempting to look for a quick fix solution.  Community development takes time.  CDF Board Member and Author, Doris Littrell has written about what Community Development is not:

What Community Engagement is NOT

  •  Top down
  • A quick fix
  • A way to intimidate others
  • Asking for a handout
  • Charity
  • Imposing solutions to problems
Community development is not teaching people to develop proposals or a list of grievances to be righted. It is not telling people what they need to make their lives better, nor giving them answers to their issues. It is not primarily about taking power away from an established order, though that sometimes happens. Community development is not passive. It is not about preparing a list of needs, petitioning government and waiting for a response. Community development is not developing dependency. We all want independence. We want to stand on our own. We work in community development so that the people we work with can become more independent; we don’t want them to be dependent on us.

-Doris Littrell


A community created from within is stronger and more viable for the future.

The following community development values inform CDF's work. They are from CDF Board Member Doris Littrell's book Practicing Community Development (page 25). The basic dignity of all people.
  • If we are to honor this value, all people are respected, held in regard and have worth.  Answering the question “who should participate in shaping the future of our community?”  is our guide as community development people. The answer is - Anyone who wants to.  This means that community development people must work to help community people understand the insidious consequences of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, religionism and other such forms of discrimination and work to banish the practice and enforcement of such formal and informal social policies.
People have the right to participate in decisions that impact their current and future well-being.
  • People do have the right to participate in decision formation, implementation and enforcement which have an effect on them.  To participate means that people’s voices are heard, taken into account, given honest consideration.  People and organizations speak from many different points of view, values and beliefs and interests. 
  • There is a major difference between citizen participation in the traditional public debate model and the public dialogue model.  The model is based on “I am right and you are wrong and my job is to change your mind, or win”.  The dialogue model is based on “let’s learn to understand what’s important to both or all of us and see if we can discover common ground from which to work and take action.”
  Participatory democracy is the superior method of conducting the civic business of communities.
  • People tend to support what they have helped create.
  • The concept of participatory democracy does not mean that all the people will or must participate in all the issues all the time.  What is does mean is that community systems are open or can be opened to citizen participation for those people to choose to take part.
  • Democratic participation is a process rather than a product.  It is through this process that community people can work and learn together to form a vision of the future that they desire.
People have the right to strive to create an environment that they desire.
  • People have this right even at times when they are outside the mainstream.   The ethical issues start when people, private business, agencies or organizations want to impose their desired state of being upon communities or people who have a different vision or view of what is desirable.
  • Community people have the right to give direction to their own environment whether they are rural or urban.  This means that people can come together and work to create community over time.
  • The right to participate does not equal doing or implementing.  For people to implement the environment they desire, careful thought and attention must be given to such issues as the political or civic will to govern, the creation of networks to produce effective networks of resources, plus the basic awareness that citizens can be governors.
  • What is at stake here is the degree of control people can develop concerning the future of their own community.
  Implied within a process of purposeful interaction is the ever-widening concept of “community.”
  • Community can be thought of from many different perspectives such as a geographic place, or as an interest group or from a relationship point of view.
  • When working within a given neighborhood or community it is important to understand that while political boundaries may be somewhat fixed, relationship boundaries are not.  It is well known that people living and working within communities have a variety of internal and external relationships.
  • What is not as common is to think of these relationships as resources, especially from a collective point of view.  By asking the question who do you know or can contact, who has information, knowledge, influence, interest, decision making ability in regard to resources as it relates to given community concerns, issues or projects one can start a process of mapping a community’s or neighborhood’s collective internal and external relationships that have a possible connection to a variety of potential resources.
  • Communities and neighborhoods have been exporting and importing a variety of people over the years, and they all have contacts somewhere else.  How to take advantage of these contacts becomes the critical question for communities to ask and answer.


CDF uses a number of Community Development methodologies for our work.

CDF utilizes the model of Asset Based Community Development and uses a number of Community Development methodologies to work with the Clarkston community. Below are key terms and methodologies.

Asset Based Community Development - First, ABCD is an approach to discover local community assets. Mapping is mostly what people do in the name of ABCD. Second and more importantly ABCD is "practices and principles" for mobilizing a local community to move into action with residents at the center... not outsiders. The community is the principal actor not the client. ABCD is a path to "organize an organization" or community partnership of local people and their stakeholder groups to find, connect, and make productive a growing circle of local assets working for the common good.[1] Read More

Participatory Action Research - "When people are the masters of inquiry -- the owners of the questions under study – their research becomes a means of taking risks, of expelling visible and invisible oppressors, and of producing actions for transformation.[2]

Participatory Democracy - Participatory democracy tends to advocate more involved forms of citizen participation than traditional representative democracy. Participatory democracy strives to create opportunities for all members of a population to make meaningful contributions to decision making, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to such opportunities. [3]

Social Capital - "Refers to those stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems. Networks of civic engagement, such as neighborhood associations, sports clubs, and cooperatives, are an essential form of social capital, and the denser these networks, the more likely that members of a community will cooperate for mutual benefit. [4]

Freire Methodology - This methodology is based on actively listening to strong feelings of individuals and communities. The methodology sees problems as opportunities for change. It follows a process in which individuals identify and analyze problems and their root causes and find solutions. It is about recognizing that actions come from emotions, and creating space for people to listen and share their individual realities. Individuals raise their own consciousness of their emotions, and of realities related to social injustice and systemic and structural violence. Through this process they discover their full potential and determine the actions they want to take.


Capacity Building

We believe in the power of people.

We believe in people and in the power of their skills and experiences. We host formal training sessions that focus on enabling residents to use their skills and talents along with other community members as they create a vibrant and resilient community.   Our Trainings Include:
  • Community Transformation Course - Based on Paulo Freire’s methodology, this 5-day course provides an opportunity for community members to listen to emotions and come together to make community change
  • Community Academy - An interactive 5-day community development course that offers participants a variety of practical tools for community development work.  It is hosted in collaboration with the University of Missouri’s Community Development Program Division of Applied Social Sciences, College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources.