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Local thoughts on the big picture

Eileen Figel

In a twenty-first century world, how do we define “community” and what role should it play in our work?

Can strategies that concentrate on narrowly defined places create broadly shared economic prosperity?

If connectivity is key and systems need to be changed at a city or regional level, what is the role for traditional community development practitioners?

Can an industry largely built on real estate transactions pivot to be influential in approaches where those transactions are important but insufficient?

Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, poses these questions in Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, a collection of essays recently published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund.

The collection, available for download at the website, takes a good look at what community development has (and has not) accomplished to date, the pressing need for and demanding challenges of this work in today’s environment, and, most importantly, opportunities for advancing and sustaining the work in the future.

The book is filled with thoughtful essays by policymakers, scholars, intermediaries and others engaged in the field of community development, and I urge our partners across the Institute’s network to read these ideas and consider their impact on our work.

"Some voices were almost entirely absent, those of practitioners in the communities themselves."

Discussing the book with colleagues, however, we also noticed that some voices were almost entirely absent, those of practitioners in the communities themselves.

This special section on the Institute’s site was created in part to address that absence. A conversation of what works in America’s communities and what comes next is incomplete without including the experiences, programs, triumphs and setbacks of the people who are actually working in our neighborhoods.

To begin this discussion, we asked five community developers from within and outside the LISC network to share their perspective about a particular essay in the collection.

  • Jennifer Rodriguez discusses how her organization, Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha, invests in both people and place to ensure that the low-income residents of her Philadelphia neighborhood benefit from its revitalization: "Mixed and matched"
  • Micah Gursky, drawing upon his efforts to revitalize Tamaqua, a small town in Eastern Pennsylvania, argues that community development in rural communities shouldn’t be seen as different than urban development—with one crucial difference: "More alike than different"
  • Jackie Samuel writes about how her CDC is mobilizing community residents to fight a rash of violence in South Chicago with the framework that reducing crime has to be a collaborative, community-based effort: "Public safety in numbers"
  • John Niederman explains how his town of Huntington, Indiana is addressing one of its toughest challenges: the loss of young people who leave the community and do not return: "Planning for rural development"
  • Jenifer Wagley gives insight into creating “deep democracy” in Houston’s Northside community and the tools and mindset it takes to foster local engagement and power at the neighborhood level: "Community democracy"

From my perspective, as I read through the 29 essays, it was encouraging to see strong agreement about how to revitalize low-income communities that matches the fundamental principles of the Institute and the LISC Building Sustainable Communities program: a comprehensive and integrated approach that focuses on both place and people, collaboration across a wide range of sectors, and the deep engagement of residents to develop a vision for their future and identify strategies to achieve that vision.

For example, “The Past, Present and Future of Community Development in the United States,” is an excellent history of community development by Harvard professor Alexander von Hoffman. In a remarkably tight 45 pages, he describes how, over many decades, community developers learned to “combine a passion for social justice with viable management and business practices” to improve the quality of life within low-income communities.

In “America's Tomorrow: Race, Place, and the Equity Agenda,” Angela Glover Blackwell makes a compelling argument that “just and fair inclusion in a society in which all can participate and prosper is not only a moral issues but also an economic imperative.”

I also especially recommend Ellen Seidman’s “Integration and Innovation in a Time of Stress: Doing the Best for People and Place,” which argues that the field must get better at connecting low-income communities to the broader regional economy.

When we surveyed practitioners last year, their number one concern was the ability of CDCs and other community-based partners to sustain this work in the future. For anyone who feels the same, the book contains several intriguing ideas.

"All community developers should give serious consideration to the questions raised in Investing in What Works for America’s Communities."

“Routinizing the Extraordinary,” for example, suggests that, due to health care reform, there will be fewer uninsured patients in low-income communities, freeing up community benefit dollars from nonprofit hospitals, which are required to spend a certain amount of their revenue (estimated at $12 billion per year) on the community to maintain their nonprofit status. The authors argue that these funds could support the work of community based organizations leading place-based, comprehensive community development.

All community developers should give serious consideration to the questions raised in Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, because the answers to these questions will determine the future of our work.


For more: Read Institute board member Joe Kriesberg's blog post on Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, which gives his take and what works in the book--and what does not.


Posted in Thinking Out Loud

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