Community Development – Is There a Right Way?

Fight City Hall and win. That’s what housing advocates did in Bloomington, Indiana, after gentrification and development made low-income housing dangerously unavailable. In the best tradition of confrontational, issue-oriented organizing, coalitions were formed, troops rallied, battles fought, defeats examined, and victory (the winning of a housing trust fund) celebrated. An empowered army is now ready for the next battle.

In this same tradition, more than two decades ago a group of New York City’s Chinatown residents formed Asian Americans for Equality to fight racial discrimination in employment. Today, AAFE is still organizing, but now they’re also building and managing homes and providing community services.

AAFE may be a shining example of what a community based organization can be, but it may also be an exception among the many groups active in community building. Many “bricks and mortar” organizations began as neighborhood groups organized against something, like the Coalition of Low-Income and Homeless Citizens in Bloomington. Over the years, however, their agendas changed. As groups became increasingly involved in the physical rebuilding of their communities, they abandoned confrontational strategies in favor of negotiation and partnering, often with the very people they once protested against. Among development groups that want to return to or begin organizing, the resulting departmental tensions may turn self-defeating.

Sandy O’Donnell and Ellen Schumer offer an alternative model for community organizing, one that relies on the assets and leadership skills of neighborhood residents. Their approach is informed, in part, by O’Donnell’s recent experience evaluating the Woods Fund of Chicago’s grantmaking for organizing program. The lessons learned from that evaluation should be of special interest to those trying to combine organizing and development for long-term change.

Creating such change may be impossible for any neighborhood group – no matter what its structure – to accomplish alone. The solutions may require collaborative efforts such as those found in Comprehensive Community Initiatives (CCIs). A team from the Aspen Institute examined a handful of these young collaboratives. Team leader Anne Kubisch describes how CCIs work, and the inherent problems community organizations face when they decide, or are called upon, to join a CCI.

Issue-focused organizing, collaboratives, bricks & mortar development – all offer challenges and opportunities. Is there a best way? You tell us.

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Harold Simon is the former executive director of the National Housing Institute and former publisher of Shelterforce.

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