Never Give Up on a Good Idea

In the 1960s, a small group of well-meaning government officials had a great notion: empower the poor to guide their own economic recovery by giving them financial resources and the authority to use those resources as they saw fit. It was a simple concept that soon became hopelessly enmeshed in politics and power plays. The programs of the War on Poverty never received the funding or support they needed to thrive and never came close to accomplishing their  goals.

But the idea wouldn’t go away. In the past three decades, we’ve seen the stunning growth of community development corporations (CDCs), which take on missions ranging from rehabilitating dilapidated buildings to revitalizing whole neighborhoods. We’ve also seen a number of government and foundation initiatives help disenfranchised communities try to change the “systems” keeping them down.

Have they? While the accomplishments of nonprofit organizations have been substantive (some might say miraculous), urban and child poverty remains, and many inner-cities’ services – education, safety, transportation – are as decayed as their housing infrastructure.

The reasons for this are legion, and Shelterforce has been writing about them for 23 years now. But the truth behind the concept that change follows community empowerment remains unchallenged.

As testament to their belief in this notion, foundations continue trying to change the rules of the game in poor neighborhoods, most recently through models of community empowerment known collectively as comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs). This approach to community development involves foundations selecting community groups to work together towards a common purpose of changing the way their local systems (housing, schools, welfare) work and the way community groups work within those systems.

With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), we’ve taken a close look at CCIs, particularly AECF’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative (RCI). Shelterforce received considerable access to the workings of RCI. The results of our investigation are reported by Associate Editor Winton Pitcoff in a two-part supplement beginning in this issue. We’ve tried to determine what lessons CCIs hold for the groups and foundations involved. We hope these lessons also help inform those organizations working for community revitalization outside of a major foundation supported initiative.

Clearly these CCIs are helping community groups grow and change the relationships they have with each other, with foundations, and with the power structure in their communities. So what’s still missing?

Now that there are thousands of CDCs in hundreds of cities around America – most of which are not part of a CCI – it’s time for community groups working on a variety of issues to join together and develop their own comprehensive and collaborative plans, their own “theory of change,” and then find the foundations willing to support them.

Your Opinion

Will community organizations be able to overcome the competitive nature inculcated by years of zero-sum  and categorical funding? Perhaps the insights gathered in these articles will help lead to answers. Certainly your experience, as part of a CCI or working independently, can help us find more and better answers. Beginning with this issue, we’ve launched an interactive forum on our web site where you can post your thoughts, questions, and stories about CCIs and other revitalization efforts. (editor’s note: this forum has since been discontinued.)

21st Century Banking

Also in this issue, we feature two CRA and banking related articles. In our Washington News and Views column, John Taylor, the president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, discusses the latest efforts to write new regulations for banks that form partnerships with nonbanking financial institutions such as mutual fund managers and insurance companies. Under the rubric of bank modernization, new federal laws being considered would allow these new financial conglomerates to avoid much of their current obligations to the low-income communities they now serve. With proper regulatory language, Taylor points out, these new entities can help turn marginal communities into growing neighborhoods.

On a related issue, Jerry Reynolds discusses plans to eliminate paper checks from the federal government by the year 1999. This will save the government half a billion dollars a year and bring millions of  “unbanked” – usually low-income – people into the financial mainstream. Depending on how the US Treasury Department writes its regulations, these plans could bring new resource to poor communities or result in windfall profits for a few banks and a new form of financial redlining.

Moving Up

On her third anniversary at Shelterforce, we’re pleased to announce that Karen Ceraso is now our senior editor. Thanks to her careful eye and deft hand, the quality of Shelterforce has steadily risen. We expect it to continue to improve even more under her guidance.

Regional Economic Development

Along with the second part of our CCI report, our next issue will feature a focus on regional economic development, guest edited by Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution. The section will discuss the policy, theory, and most importantly, the practical implications of regional economic development for nonprofit organizations. The issue will include articles by Mr. Katz, Myron Orfield, David Rusk, Jeremy Nowak, Manuel Pastor, and Robert Zdenek.

Series NavigationComprehensive Community Initiatives: Getting the Most from Independent Evaluations >>Electronic Funds Transfer: >>Oakland Campaign Puts Kids First >>Hiring a Development Director >>Guides for Tenants, Landlords, and Neighbors >>Financial Modernization – The Newest Threat To Neighborhood Vitality >>NHI Activities >>
Shelterforce is a nonprofit publication, published by the National Housing Institute. We are not beholden to a particular program, theory, approach, or constituency. We are dedicated to being useful to our readers and to fostering strong, vibrant, just, healthy places for everyone.

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