Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Community Action Center

 And the Path towards Community Empowerment

The Selection of the Site

Based on research conducted in the Old City it was determined that the location of the storefront advocacy community center would possess the following criteria:

  • The center should be at the core of a poor Palestinian community;
  • There should be a significant number of socially and economically disadvantaged people in the area;
  • The area must have a high population density level;7
  • There should be a high level of crime and disaffection;
  • The center should be physically accessible to every community member (i.e., such as those with disabilities and be in close proximity to public transportation);
  • The site should be in a psychologically accepted area, given the condition of occupation/annexation;
  • The center should be in a location where there is no duplication of services; and,
  • The center should be spacious, yet affordable per the budgetary limitations.

Several sites were visited in the search for an appropriate storefront location. The process was arduous due to accessibility; the disposition of the community in terms of acceptance and the feasibility of their participation as active clients; the price of rent; Arnona (property tax paid to the Israeli Municipality, deemed excessively high in the Old City by human rights organizations; and, the amount of renovation needed. Finally, a site was selected in the Muslim Quarter, near Damascus Gate. The building was owned by the Waqf Al-Islamia (Islamic organization which owns and manages property in the Old City) and could be rented through key money (i.e., a lease for a life-time without price increases) which secured the location’s sustainability. An added benefit of paying key money is that the Waqf would transfer a percentage to assist the community. The site was apt as the Muslim Quarter had been categorized as the most marginalized in the Old City. The presence of Palestinians, Israelis and Jewish settlers contributed to a high degree of tension in the area and the threat to Palestinian existence was relentless. Moreover, it was in close proximity to the Dome of the Rock mosque and therefore visible and accessible to numerous people that prayed in the mosque, as well as handicapped people. A large window and glass doors, added to greater transparency and connection between the center and the community. It should be noted that at the time, a furniture-maker had been leasing the property. His foremost concern and that of the community was that the new lease not be under Israeli or Jewish control due to the expropriation of property in the Old City. It was essential that Al-Quds University was renting the site (through CIDA funding) as it bestowed confidence throughout the community.

The center’s building was over a thousand years ago and historically served as a Saint Julian church. Due to the renovations required, Al-Quds University fellows submitted a proposal elaborating the mission of the center and the needed renovations to the Welfare Organization (i.e., an organization that focused on distinct aspects of Palestinian welfare, including renovation of property). The proposal was accepted and renovations were ended in 2001.

In the interim, the Director of the center was temporality stationed in Al-Quds University Jerusalem Study Center in the year 2000, which was located in Khan Tankiz, a few meters away from the site undergoing renovation.  A working space was set-up and minimal staff was recruited.

At this stage, the experience of Community Advocacy Israel was tapped into, particularly prior to conducting interviews with the community. In 1999, the future Director of the center in the Old City had attended a conference in Beer Sheva with the different MMEP partners. Community Advocacy Israel was contacted regarding the storefront processes and documentation. It was considered important to follow-up on their know-how, specifically regarding community interaction and to understand the evolution of the Rights Based Model, albeit in a different context. The interaction proved worthwhile, particularly regarding information-gathering as a Community Needs Assessment was pending.

Community Needs Assessment and Introduction of the Storefront Center

Published reports and studies highlighted the grievances of the poor and disadvantaged in the Old City, as well as the specific needs of women, refugees, the elderly, the disabled and children. Nonetheless, in order to establish a model of empowerment directed towards the conditions, an extensive Community Needs Assessment was conducted by Al-Quds University fellows, student interns and volunteers, as well as community volunteers, within the targeted area.

The Community Needs Assessment consisted of the following three components:

1) Mapping Services: Organizations providing services in the Old City were contacted. Priority was attributed to organizations located within the Old City; however organizations that were located outside the Old City were also contacted. In total, meetings took place with 25 organizations. Interviews were conducted with the directors of organizations guided by a Community Needs Assessment Questionnaire.

The questionnaire was divided into four parts with the following objectives:

  • To learn about the services provided by the organization;
  • To learn about the organization’s perspective regarding community needs;
  • To learn about the organization’s experience with the community, particularly in terms of obstacles; and,
  • To learn about the organization’s perspective regarding community participation and volunteerism as an approach.

The last inquiry was particularly relevant in terms of the development of a model based on community organization and the possible expectations from the particular community in the Old City based on experience of long-standing organizations. In general it was determined that there were numerous organizations in the Old City, however, cooperation was lacking. Organizations were delivering “direct services”. That is, clients were provided with financial support, child care services such as after school programs, summer camps or charitable services. These services dealt with immediate needs as opposed to empowerment and attaining people with the necessary tools to manage their lives in a decision-making capacity. Furthermore, there was general distrust of organizations by the community who did not readily participate in activities and perceived organizations as corrupt, money-making ventures.

2) Key Informants’ Interviews: The second component in the Community Needs

Assessment entailed gathering community information via individuals who had provided services to the community. These individuals may have worked in the capacity of teachers, social workers, professionals or community activists. To this end, a list of 25 individuals and professionals was created based on recommendations from the community, the organizations and the university. The list was specified to include a gender balance and target individuals who had successful impacts on the community. A questionnaire was developed including the following sample of inquiries with the intention of attaining a more in-depth perspective regarding the community:

  • What are the main dilemmas afflicting the community?
  • What is the general perception of the community regarding services?
  • What are the obstacles regarding existing services?
  • What is the general perspective regarding the establishment of a community based organization?
  • What kinds of bottlenecks may be expected?
  • What is your view of community participation within this context?
  • How do you evaluate volunteer participation?

The interviews and surveys entailed a two-tiered process. Firstly, they served to introduce the center and secondly, to gain expertise, first-hand experience and local perspectives. These were valuable elements regarding information-gathering and entry into a hard-pressed community.

3) Family Outreach: Fifty families were interviewed in order to gain direct knowledge about the community from the community. This component was rendered the most important in the Community Needs Assessment as it targeted the population residing in the Muslim Quarter where the center would be located. Families were selected through door to door canvassing and outreach. Volunteers from the local community were recruited to ease introductions and participate in the process. Al-Quds University volunteers from the Social Work Program also participated. Both community and student volunteers had received a training course in 1999 entailing models of community organization; community participation; community needs assessment; communication; and, conducting interviews. The individuals who participated in the key informants’ interviews were valuable in contacting or recommending volunteers for further assistance with the assessment and future processes.

A questionnaire for the home visits was developed with inquiries regarding the following:

Basic information regarding the family;

  • Income levels;
  • Education levels;
  • The types of problems confronted in order of priority;
  • The relationship between the community and services; and,
  • The relationship between the community and organizations (i.e., the level of trust and confidence in organizations).

The center and its overarching mission were also introduced during the interviews. Families were approached about their thoughts and aspirations regarding the establishment of a center within their community. Specifically, inquiries were put forth regarding the types of needs that were prevalent at the household level, focusing on women, adolescents and children.

Gender Roles and the Decision-making Process

Previous university research conducted by the Director of CAC regarding women was ascertained through the Community Needs Assessment. That is, the control of resources and public decision-making was usually assumed by men. Early marriage was common as were low levels of education and lack of support services for women. These factors combined, severely impaired women’s knowledge of their entitlements and hindered their ability to participate as equals in decision-making processes. Furthermore, social norms contributed to shielding the family and family issues from public scrutiny and possible assistance, increasing the alienation of women and stifling their expression in terms of needs. Such limitations served to inhibit the articulation of women in the realm of community development as well as within public policy processes. Subsequently, it was pivotal to provide women with socially accepted opportunities directed towards empowerment, seeking their participation in the decision-making process and facilitating a sense of control over their lives. Initial progress towards cultural gender mainstreaming (in the absence of corresponding institutions) would be to address women’s practical needs without infringing on cultural sensitivities.

A Mandate Rooted on Real Needs

Following the analysis of the Community Assessment data, the storefront advocacy center, bestowed the Community Action Center (CAC), would introduce a new model of civil society organization that was university-linked, volunteer-based, and community-owned.

In order to possess the ability to address the lack of service delivery to clients, it was necessary that CAC gain expertise regarding the intricacies of the bureaucratic municipal system. To this end, experts such as insurance specialists; professionals in the health and education sectors; advocates engaged in cases related to Arnona and municipality services; as well as, professionals related to welfare services were incorporated to provide in-depth training sessions to CAC staff. Professors specializing in law were also summoned in order to understand the nuances of the legal system.

Adapted to the local context, CAC strived to establish a storefront program akin to that in the Genesis Program in Montreal, incorporating the latter’s success with its legal clinic. It strived to facilitate an open walk-in environment where people were provided with necessary information regarding accessing services. CAC also deferred to the experiences of Community Advocacy Israel in terms of the methodology that was implemented in assisting people. Additionally, CAC met with staff concentrating on socio-economic rights from the Orient House (the Orient House served as a reference point for Palestinians in Jerusalem prior to the second Intifada or Palestinian Uprising) due to their vast experience. All of the aforementioned was imperative in attaining clients with information regarding their rights and dealing with social services.

It was determined that difficulties would arise with the municipality due to the bureaucratic nature and the intention to delay or if possible not deliver services to the Palestinian population. Discrimination by the municipality was two-fold, encompassing the provision of services as well as the poor services rendered. CAC intended to fill the gap between public interest organizations which often lack the recourses to affect policy change directly or via their clients, and the community. The gap was specifically dire in the Old City where the poor stagnated in the service policy void between the government of Israel and the PNA.

Discriminatory policies manifested themselves throughout all sectors as well as in the most basic forms such as Hebrew correspondence directed to an Arabic speaking public. Empowerment in this case would entail people’s familiarity with the law and the bureaucratic structure. The service delivery mandate of CAC therefore, included assisting clients with their basic needs including housing, financial support and utilities while providing them with the knowledge and expertise to advocate for themselves. One of the main objectives of service delivery would be aimed at demystifying the public service bureaucracy, understanding the roles and limitations of public and para-public employees as well as problem identification and resolutions based on concrete results. Community members would be accompanied by volunteers and staff to seek entitlements from government offices and para-public institutions. 

The conceptual and practical model used would be founded on a Rights Based Approach, molded to address the realities of the Old City. Practical problems would provide the basis for an empowerment process which would reach full fruition when communities’ met individual and/or collective needs at the policy level, thereby increasing community participation and leadership in community development.

The Quiet Deportation, Revocation of Residency of East Jerusalem Palestinians. A Joint Report, HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual and B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. April 1997