Strategies for Community-Based Organizations
When residents and merchants in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood formed the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) in the late 1970s to “do something” about their increasingly rubble-strewn neighborhood, they focused first on housing and commercial redevelopment. Through an anti-redlining campaign, the group won a commitment from Aetna insurance company to finance 170 units of affordable housing and launch a supermarket. FAC helped form housing co-ops, developed housing, manages over 100 housing units, and helps over 20 tenant associations per year.
However, with an overall goal to preserve and strengthen the ethnic and economic diversity of their neighborhood, the committee has increasingly added jobs and economic opportunity to its agenda. Jobs, training and entrepreneurial opportunities, retaining existing businesses, and organizing for workers’ rights are all crucial to allowing people to stay in the neighborhood and shape their own future, in the committee’s view. Among their efforts: an environmentally sound Eco-mat dry-cleaning franchise; an auto repair training business, South Brooklyn CARS (Community Automotive Repair Services); youth and adult entrepreneurship programs leading to several business starts, including a painting business, a beverage vending firm, and a café; technical assistance for small housing contractors; and a workfare participants union now being organized to fix unsafe working conditions and continue pressure for permanent jobs.
FAC’s experience represents an important trend in community-based development. The landscape of community development is changing to include more than housing and physical redevelopment. On the one hand, community-based organizations are paying increasing attention to the social fabric of their communities – building and using informal social networks; incorporating child care, elder care, wellness, and drug abuse prevention strategies into redevelopment plans; bridging diversity and building trust among races, economic groups, and multiple institutions. On the other hand, they’re remembering that community development must pay attention to jobs and wealth generation: economic development that will truly improve people’s economic prospects through family-wage jobs and opportunities to build equity to enable ongoing economic growth and innovation.
The geographical dimensions of community-based development are also changing. While defined geographical neighborhoods are still an important basis for organizing constituencies and strategies, community-based groups are recognizing that “community” and “economy” are found both within and beyond neighborhoods. Neighborhood assets shouldn’t be overlooked, but neither should the ways in which people find and create meaningful community, and job and economic opportunity, outside their neighborhoods. And to have the greatest impact on people’s economic prospects, it’s important to improve their access to the regional and global economy – to markets and job opportunities beyond as well as within their neighborhoods.
Community activists face formidable obstacles in promoting job opportunities for people of low income and limited skills. Job growth is increasingly concentrated in low-wage occupations, and in suburban locations at a distance from the central-city neighborhoods where low-income people increasingly are concentrated. Jobs that pay enough to support a family require more specialized skills than in the past, and job requirements are evolving more quickly, making training programs more often obsolete.
At the same time, the logic of paying attention to job opportunity as part of community-based development is obvious. For example, successful housing development generates its own demand for property management, maintenance, and security – jobs that can be performed by local residents [see article on housing-led econ. dev.]. And residential stability, a cornerstone of healthy community, depends on people finding adequate economic opportunity close to home.
In a recent 18-month investigation into what works for helping people get jobs, keep them, and advance to better ones, Rainbow Research found several examples of projects and organizations making progress in this arena. The most impressive efforts seem to be pursuing some combination of four major paths, guided by four key principles.
- Develop Human Capital. Help people develop job skills, life skills, and entrepreneurial abilities so they can qualify for available jobs and contribute to the start-up and growth of firms. Reframe “schooling” and “education” for stronger school-to-work transitions. Center for Employment Training, which started in San Jose and works with numerous sites around the country, has demonstrated the effectiveness of approaches that supplement hands-on job skills training with basic skills training oriented to workplace vocabulary and tasks. The center also pays attention to child care, housing, substance abuse prevention, and life skills.
- Connect Workers and Employers. Help people who need better (or better-paying) jobs find the firms and fields that offer hiring and advancement opportunities. Help firms and institutions access prospective employees in lower-income communities.
The importance of strong connections to local employers cannot be overemphasized. The mediocrity of most employment and training programs is due largely to their disconnection from real employers and real jobs in the community. Workplace requirements are changing too fast, and, for livable wage jobs, are too demanding for any training or brokerage service to be effective without close and continuing contact with workplace supervisors and managers.
- Create Jobs. Support the formation or growth of enterprises likely to hire from your priority population. This involves getting acquainted with firms in your area that do most of the hiring. Analyzing the regional economy to identify sectors with strong growth or stability, as well as ventures that tap the strengths of inner-city locations, is also important. Finally, target assistance to those firms most likely to provide livable-wage opportunities to your constituency. Micro-enterprise and self-employment programs can fill niches, especially in rural areas, and can develop participants’ abilities and networks. But Tim Bates (author of Banking on Black Enterprise: The Potential of Emerging Firms for Revitalizing Urban Economies) and others argue persuasively that aid to mid-sized, minority-owned firms – especially those started by the mushrooming new generation of well-trained engineers and executives leaving mainstream corporations after bumping into glass ceilings – offers the best prospects for quality, larger-scale job creation and hiring for people of color.
- Continue Local Organizing. Build the power that can hold institutions and policy-makers accountable, and the informal networks through which people learn of job openings, adjust to new workplaces, and cope with child care and transportation demands. With affirmative action under attack, NAFTA and GATT tempting corporations and banks to ignore local community responsibilities, and devolution shrinking the federal role in community economic development, strong citizen advocacy is more important than ever. And internal organizing is crucial when crime is increasing fear and when families, schools, religious institutions, and other traditional connective tissues are eroding. Too often local organizing has been jettisoned as groups move into economic development. It is important to see organizing as a means of increasing the effectiveness of economic development efforts, as well as a means of increasing accountability.
The Fifth Avenue Committee draws from all four of these paths as it creates training businesses, places apprentices with existing businesses, supports entrepreneurial efforts by women and youth, and continues its tenant and community organizing.
How communities and organizations put these elements together depends largely on local circumstances. The many impressive examples around the country, such as Jane Addams Resource Center in Chicago, Project Quest in San Antonio [see Organize! column], Esperanza Unida in Milwaukee and Valley Care Cooperative in Waterbury, CT, have grown organically from local ambitions, worries, talents and barriers – informed by examples from other places, but rooted in local contexts.
These locally distinctive strategies and combinations, however, are undergirded by some common principles:
- Focus. The most effective projects don’t try to be all things to all people. They are clear about who they serve – which job-seekers, which employers. Young African-American men face different challenges and have different resources than do displaced homemakers. Hospitals have different job requirements and industry pressures than do microchip makers or auto repair shops. Effective job creation and placement depends on accurate understanding of real job and industry requirements and opportunities. This is why some of the most exciting jobs projects take a sectoral approach – focusing on a specific, regionally-strong industry where they can build expertise about the particular business and labor-force issues relevant there.
- Flexibility. Smart projects and coalitions are innovative and adjust their tactics as resources and opportunities change, even as their focus stays clear. On-the-job technology is changing rapidly; so must job training. If local firms are no longer hiring fork-lift operators, it’s time to discontinue the fork-lift operator training program. If the real constraint to job creation is a lack of expansion capital for area firms, the program should work on policy change and financial institutional innovation to increase that capital flow. If jobs are available but don’t pay enough to lift a family out of poverty, broad-based organizing to change the regional economic development framework may be required.
- Cross boundaries. One of the most formidable barriers to creating job opportunities is people’s tendency to stay within their own little worlds and the boxes they create. All too often, economic development officials don’t talk to poor people; community organizations don’t understand businesses; community colleges aren’t in regular communication with grassroots leaders or business operators. Yet the most effective jobs initiatives break out of these boxes and build strong working relationships across at least some of these divides. Their leadership circulates continuously in diverse networks – staying informed, seeking openings to be useful, following up to avoid losing earlier gains. Such initiatives also cross boundaries conceptually: they offer life-skills training and job-skills training, and help folks build both their social support networks and career networks. Or they work with neighborhood businesses on safety and crime issues as well as hiring and management concerns.
The key boundary to cross is the one dividing employers from other community actors. It’s tough to do much on job opportunities unless employers are in the picture early enough to help design the plan.
- Build relationships. Because job-centered economic development is a multi-dimensional challenge, it’s crucial to work with others whose strengths complement yours. And because different players typically have diverse perspectives, it’s important to be intentional about building relationships that, over time, help those concerned understand each other and work together more productively. Trust must be earned, by demonstrating practical usefulness, and by communicating honestly and following through on commitments. But ultimately it’s the information flow and ingenuity that results from mutual respect and an ongoing appreciation for what each party brings to the table that will make the difference between real gains and frustrated hopes.
Fifth Avenue Committee’s Brad Lander observes that the jobs arena is more open-ended and complex than housing development. And many community-based organizations are so turf-focused and loyal to their own neighborhood that they resist thinking regionally, even if that’s where economic opportunities will be found.
Nonetheless, FAC recognizes that livable wage jobs and the opportunity to generate and retain wealth are key elements of the vision South Brooklyn residents hold. Their work illustrates the value of forming strategic alliances and diverse partnerships to accomplish goals: the committee has partnered with Valvoline Oil and Bronx Community College in its auto repair training business; in youth apprenticeships, FAC brokers placements between youth agencies and area employers; and the committee is working with two other community organizations in New York City to organize the workfare union.
As a community-based organization, FAC sees its role as a bridge that helps local residents pursue these dreams, along with the more-concrete concerns of adequate housing and services. Through its evolving mix of enterprise development, training and entrepreneurship, business relations and organizing, the committee is finding ways to connect need to opportunity, assets to markets, and economy to community. As such, it is among the growing number of activists and groups across the country building bridges to better job opportunity for low and moderate income people.