Moving beyond bricks and mortar, community development corporations are taking on more diverse and comprehensive roles in redeveloping their communities.
Are CDCs up to the challenge? Do they have the support from their communities, funders, or even their own organizations?
An important and positive shift is taking place in the community development movement, a shift that holds great promise for poor communities in America. This shift, known as "community building," has come to stand for a more comprehensive approach to community renewal than has been practiced in the past. It is based on an understanding that the best way to fight poverty and increase economic opportunity in poor neighborhoods is to invest in the kinds of social capital that comprise the "fabric" of community: mutual assistance networks, social and economic relationships, public safety, and education, to name a few. Today, the emergence of the community building movement is challenging community-based organizations such as CDCs to broaden their efforts and reconnect with residents. In the process these same organizations are retooling and reexamining their relationship with, and role within, the communities they serve. Practitioners, funders, and policy experts in our field now have an opportunity to practice a more direct and aggressive strategy of community renewal.
For years, however, biases among funders of community efforts, and among community development practitioners themselves, toward a housing production agenda have made sustaining these broad, activist approaches extremely difficult. The major funders of CDCs have viewed community building work as ancillary to the principal real estate development work of the CDC. The few dollars available for community organizing have flowed toward so-called "pure" organizing groups.
These attitudes are now shifting, and community building practices are emerging into the mainstream. Most of the major national foundations, and of late, many of the stronger regional and community foundations are sponsoring their own versions of comprehensive community building initiatives. In almost every case, funders are exercising a higher level of involvement than in the past in program design and implementation. Technical assistance organizations, consultants, and intermediary groups are getting involved in this work in large numbers. In addition, a number of national alliances have formed to support this work. Most notable are the National Community Building Network (NCBN), an alliance of funders of "locally driven urban initiatives" formed in 1993 to influence public policy and provide forums to discuss community building initiatives, and the Aspen Institute's Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Revitalization.
Yet the movement is young and, not surprisingly, has its share of growing pains.
CBOs are participating in these efforts for a wide variety of reasons. Many see it as a source of core operating support or "soft" program money that they can use as flexible revenue to fill gaps in staffing. Some CDCs, recognizing that the future holds fewer housing resources, are searching for another important role to play in the community. Others, recognizing the limitations of real estate based strategies, are trying to address the "human development" needs of their residents. Still others, who have gotten away from or never developed the ability to organize and mobilize their constituency, are feeling the need to develop more political clout in an age of dwindling resources.
Because many of the groups participating in community building initiatives principally work in real estate development, they sometimes have a difficult time adapting to community building approaches. Their real estate work tends to be structured, disciplined, and outcome oriented. Yet, curiously, this same level of discipline and structure often does not extend to the newer work. First, community-based groups remain preoccupied with a real estate development agenda, which is still viewed as the bread and butter of the organization. Second, a strong bias remains, reflected in the labeling of real estate related work as "hard" and nonreal estate related work as "soft." Soft work is viewed as work that is hard to define, can be accomplished in the margins, and that just about anyone can do. These efforts are often taken on with a lower level of expectations, a measure of ambivalence, and/or a lack of clarity by the organization's leadership.
The challenge in the future for CBOs will be to develop industry standards and measures so that a body of best practices can be developed. The challenge in the future for funders will be to select CBOs that are cognizant of, and interested in, making fundamental shifts in the way they do business. CBOs that understand and want the kinds of challenges and benefits that a community building approach can offer will fair far better than those that either don't understand it or are ambivalent, even if they appear to have more organizational capacity.
Almost without exception, existing or emerging CBOs engaged in community building efforts perform some type of community organizing. This work is difficult to do well and can be extremely challenging and even disruptive to many groups, particularly those that are not ready to open themselves up to a new level of participation and community scrutiny.
Community organizers often complain of a lack of support and direction from their boards or staff supervisors. When new organizers are brought into the organization, they rarely have the support and guidance they need to succeed. In many cases there is no culture of organizing in the CBO, and the executive director is not oriented enough to the work to provide adequate support to the organizer. Sometimes, because of past history, key staff or board members are skeptical or fearful of community organizing. Often the community organizing strategy is not sufficiently clear or well understood.
"We have learned that the community building effort needs a strategic plan to keep on track; otherwise the organizer may put out a lot of effort but not see tangible results," said Susan Alexander, community organizer for MANNA in Washington, DC. "The plan needs to have a significant amount of support from influential people in the organization. This doesn't happen right away. I have had to educate people in the organization about what I do and why this is important to MANNA."
Over time, the organizer's work becomes more and more disjointed. The organizer becomes seen as a kind of utility outreach/event specialist whose job is to service the other "line staff" in the organization. This situation can be extremely frustrating for the organizer. In one Chicago-based organization participating in a community building effort, three different community organizers were hired and left over a one-year period. Minimally, the new organizer is under-utilized and the community building effort suffers.
Organizing in the community building context calls for a more mature and sophisticated brand of community organizer. The Consensus Organizing Institute (COI) is a national training and technical assistance organization founded in 1994 to further the type of "consensus" organizing approaches described above. COI recruits and teaches new organizers the set of skills and strategies needed in this environment. According to COI President Mike Eichler, "organizers need the ability to listen, to think strategically, to sort out agendas, to build confidence and encourage participation in a wide range of groups. Mostly the organizer needs the ability to build trust in a process or an initiative. All of these are difficult tasks in an age of cynicism and distrust."
Traditional planning processes have proven to be too limited for this work. Newer, hybrid models that combine community organizing strategies and more creative planning techniques are emerging. These are proving effective in identifying community strengths and assets, and solutions that are more organic to the community's values, culture, and situation.
The Dudley St. Neighborhood Initiative has developed a style of long-term neighborhood planning that is integrated with shorter term community organizing "signature campaigns" short, winnable issue-based efforts that feed people energy and substance to the longer-term, slower-paced planning work. This strategy has proven successful in moving a comprehensive community renewal effort forward. Also, the "asset-based planning" style being taught by John McKnight, Jody Kretzmann, and others is much more conducive to community building work because it focuses on building hope, linkages, and leadership, and teaching people about the inner workings of their communities.
"In a democracy, the science of associations is the mother science, the progress of all the rest depends on the progress it has made."Community building is challenging all of us to look harder at this science of associations, the forms of community connections that we are building at the local level. As government, political party apparatus, and other local institutions lose influence, CBOs are assuming a larger and larger role as what LISC refers to as the "mediating" organizations. In addition, the community building movement has placed a heavier emphasis on increased resident involvement and institutional collaboration. Community building calls for CBOs or their collaboratives to take a more active role as a new local planning and decision-making apparatus.
- Alexis de Tocqueville
At a recent training session with participants of LISC's Community Building Initiative, a major national effort involving dozens of CDCs, we assembled teams from each of five participating CDCs in a major eastern city. These teams included the executive directors, the community organizers in charge of the "community building" work, and residents who served as members of the CDCs' boards or as community volunteers. At one point in the session, we separated the group into clusters according to roles the executive directors, the community organizers, and the neighborhood residents. We asked each group to reflect on their role in the team and the kinds of things they needed from their partners. An important dynamic emerged. The executive directors saw the CDCs as the community and wanted to be trusted. The neighborhood residents (residents who are involved with and friendly to the CDC) clearly saw the community and the CDC as very different. They saw the CDC as another institution within the community. They wanted to make sure that the CDCs' staffs understood that they were accountable to the community. And they wanted assurance that the initiative would be "a community building effort, not a CDC building effort."
As long as a CBO sees itself as the community, it cannot work effectively to improve its representation of the community. Once you remove that assumption, you must then look at the specific or relative degrees of representation, and reconcile yourself to the necessity of working toward better representation. These tough realizations are essential to strengthening the field.
The promise of community building will not fully reveal itself in three years, seven years, or even 10 years. It may require at least a generation of sustained support, dialogue, and major investment in evaluation and peer learning in order to mine from this work the new paradigms that will guide the progress of American community life in the next century.
William Traynor is the principal and founder of Neighborhood Partners (1950 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140. 617-876-7882, firstname.lastname@example.org), a training and technical assistance provider. He was the executive director of Coalition for a Better Acre and director of community development for the Community Training and Assistance Center in Boston. He is the acting chairperson of the New American Community Forum.
Organizations mentioned in this article include:
Coalition for a Better Acre
450 Merrimack St.
Lowell, MA 01852
130 Seventh Street, 8th Fl.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
The Conservation Company
310 Madison Ave.
New York , NY 10017
P.O. Box 26049
Washington, DC 20001
National Community Building Network
1624 Franklin Street, Suite 1000
Oakland, CA 94612
LISC Community Building Initiative
501 Seventh Ave
New York, New York 10018
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