#083 Sep/Oct 1995

The Future of American Communities

The call for community-based organizations (CBOs) to perform extensive community rebuilding is connected to larger changes in national attitudes. These changes include an increased frustration with the erosion of community, […]

The call for community-based organizations (CBOs) to perform extensive community rebuilding is connected to larger changes in national attitudes. These changes include an increased frustration with the erosion of community, fear about the disintegration of the family as a dominant institution in the lives of children, an emphasis on localizing government and human service delivery, and an overall sense that the policies and approaches of the past several decades are not working.

The right has capitalized on these attitudes to wield a sledgehammer at the symbols of big-government spending and the welfare state. They have laid claim to being the party of community and the family, and have successfully used the “politics of exclusion” to define the “solution” as the mythological homogeneous small town community of the 1920s.

But many of these attitudes cross political and ideological lines. The community development movement has long been based on a set of values and beliefs that have never fit neatly into any political or ideological camp. In fact, the work if not the rhetoric of CBOs over the past 25 to 30 years reflects a wide range of traditional and progressive American values. This is one of the reasons why the movement has become so widespread and has proven to be so resilient. The community development movement’s unique brand of self-determination, local democratic process, emphasis on collective action and individual responsibility, as well as its view of government as a partner with the community and the marketplace, places it squarely at the center of many of the emerging populist sentiments taking hold in America today.

This movement remains one of the few efforts to make the American community work at the grassroots level. Practitioners of community development and more recent community-building strategies have been learning invaluable lessons about both the promise and the limitations of local, non-governmental democratic organization, racial and ethnic relations, and community sustainability. And they are doing this in neighborhoods that reflect the future direction, rather than the mythical past, of the American community. In the process they are practicing, not just preaching, a new formula for individual responsibility, the kinds of supports needed to keep families intact, the role of government and the local community, and the pragmatic challenges of race relations.

Yet, the experiences and lessons of the movement are not audible in the raging debate over the future of our country. This is because there has been no single, dominant message to emanate. The very diversity of approaches and attitudes that makes our movement resilient has made it difficult to glean from our work a resonant clear message.

As a result, few of the values and lessons embedded in the work of some 3,000 CBOs and tens of thousands of community activists have emerged to help define the parameters of the national debate. This is ironic because, as a movement we have the potential to make a tremendous contribution, perhaps even to play a leadership role in many of the public policy debates that rage in America today.

Beginning the Dialogue

“When old words die out on the tongue.. new melodies break forth from the heart. Where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.”
-Rabindranath Tagore

“Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.”

While community building offers the nation some of the best examples of how to build the American communities of tomorrow, it also provides us with a pragmatic glimpse of the struggles involved in this work. How do we build local, sustainable democratic institutions? How much time and energy can residents really be expected to spend managing community life? How do we make multi-ethnic, multi-racial organizations work? What is the appropriate relationship between local government and the CBO? Should our housing and economic development strategies reflect or challenge free-market values?

[RELATED ARTICLE: Community Building: Hope and Caution]

An honest dialogue that addresses these struggles and reveals and coalesces the lessons of the CBO experience is essential in shaping a more humane and pragmatic national policy agenda.

We also need to involve and listen to two important under-represented constituencies: community residents and young people. The community activists, board leaders and volunteers, the residents of low-income communities, and particularly the thousands of young people who are taking on the burden of building their communities all should have a significant place at the table. A consortium of practitioners, both paid professionals and non-paid community activists, needs to form in order to advance a broad, honest, on-going dialogue in the field.

But there are some significant barriers to this type of dialogue. First, there is general cynicism about the potential for finding higher, common ground. Many Americans are so discouraged that they have moved to the sidelines. Young people, people of color, immigrants, and many others have a degree of cynicism about the process that will be difficult to overcome.

Second, there is an acute absence of “psychological safety” to ensure an honest exchange, particularly on the left. A large part of this dialogue has to involve the freedom to critique standard liberal and progressive dogma. Unfortunately, there is a mindset of defensiveness on the left that makes a vigorous, soul-searching critique of our movement’s track record very difficult. We too are caught up in the culture of intolerance that dominates America.

Third, the dominance of professionalism in our field can prohibit frank exchange. Most discussions in the field are “professional discussions.” They take place in formal settings, among paid professionals in the field. These discussions tend to emphasize successes over failures and are not designed to mine the pragmatic lessons of the work or to challenge movement-wide conventions. When paid practitioners are mixed with funders, the dialogue is even more stilted. In these discussions, much of the important thinking that needs to be done tends to get glossed over by rhetoric.

Our ability to bring a thoughtful, cogent argument to the national agenda is essential. As impressive as the accomplishments of our movement have been, we must be clear about one lesson: without public policies that unequivocally value our renewal efforts, are supportive of poor communities, and prize the role of non-governmental, resident-driven initiatives, our efforts will never come close to meeting the needs of poor communities.

The lessons and values of our efforts are still buried in the details of the work. We need to uncover them, challenge ourselves, and debate our issues until we have greater clarity. Only then can we and our ideas have a place in the national dialogue.



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