The Seasoning of Community Development

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From my vantage point in the heart of Atlanta, the horizon is starting to brighten. With the advent of "smart growth," sprawl is beginning to slow and the advantages of city living are being rediscovered. The depressing years of out-migration and disinvestment seem to be coming to an end. An abandoned cotton mill in my neighborhood is being converted into loft apartments. Vacant warehouses are becoming avant-garde shops and restaurants. Deteriorating neighborhoods are starting to be reclaimed. All this signals new life for the city. I face the coming millennium with more optimism than I have known in 28 years of urban ministry. Poverty remains entrenched in the city, that is for sure. But some encouraging changes are taking place in poor communities as well. The difficult trial-and-error years have yielded important insights that form a more realistic foundation upon which to rebuild our urban neighborhoods. For example, we have finally awakened to the reality that externally funded programs seldom alleviate poverty. Moneys intended to benefit the needy have historically been channeled through organizations not based in communities of need, priorities have been set by people who do not live within communities being served, and commuting professionals are hired to run and staff the programs. Government, corporate and charitable funders alike have finally recognized that most of the billions spent to empower the poor actually serve to entrench poverty while building up a flourishing social service industry.

John McKnight of the University of Chicago, in researching this "poverty industry" phenomenon, uncovered the disturbing reality that social service agencies almost always over-state the severity of problems in order to demonstrate the need for their services. The considerable strength that does exist within poor communities is ignored while the deficits are magnified. In his insightful book Building Communities From The Inside Out, McKnight insists that in order for poor communities to become healthy, their assets must be affirmed and built upon. He calls it "asset-based community development."

Asset-based community development is gaining rapid popularity in cities across our land. Based on McKnight's findings, many policy makers and funders are reordering their grant criteria, giving priority to community-based organizations which represent the voice of neighborhood residents. After all, who knows better the strengths, deficits and practical solutions to local problems than the people who live every day of their lives in this environment? Consequently, there has been a recent and dramatic upsurge of new non-profit community development corporations (CDC's), each aspiring to capitalize on this new found favor. The good news is that residents of many urban communities have become energized to create an inspiring array of positive neighborhood initiatives. The challenge, of course, is that most CDC's have yet to develop the capacity required to implement strategies that will significantly impact their communities.

Though even the most neglected communities have internal strengths to build upon, most need the support of external partners to enable them to rebuild capacity and to attract new leadership. Having personally attempted to engineer a number of such partnerships, I have arrived at some hard-earned conclusions:

Leadership within a community is by far its greatest asset. However, committed leadership is not necessarily the same as competent leadership; inspirational leadership is not necessarily the same as practical leadership; intelligent leadership is not necessarily the same as wise leadership; strong leadership is not necessarily the same as secure leadership; outspoken leadership is not necessarily the same as constructive leadership.

Resourced partners are essential for the rebirth of decimated communities. However, success in business does not necessarily equate to success in partnering; a partner's good intentions do not necessarily produce trusting relationships; a partner's capacity does not necessarily equate to his/her ability to empower; efficiency is not necessarily the same as effectiveness; a good heart does not necessarily equate to good judgement.

From the inspiring success stories (as well as the frustrating failures) of neighborhoods struggling to revive, a growing body of fresh new community development literature is emerging. It tells us that the movement gaining momentum is maturing in important ways. Costly experience has taught us that unexamined indigenous leadership can prove more detrimental than external leadership, and that a failed partnership may set racial reconciliation back many precious years. Fewer now are the naive business leaders who, out of the fear of being branded "controlling" or "racist," suspend sound business judgement in support of an ill-conceived community enterprise. Urban communities, too, are beginning to recognize that the loudest voice among them may not always be the best voice to represent their interests. Funders are becoming less shy about examining the experience and competency of community leadership, often requiring additional training or outside alliances to bolster capacity. Corporate partners frequently offer volunteer executives to serve on CDC boards for the dual purposes of empowering the community and protecting their investments.

These are healthy signs. They offer the hope of building sturdy bridges of understanding that can support heavier traffic back and forth across the chasms of race and class. They signal the possibilities for enduring relationships among the diverse neighbors who call the city their home.

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