Organizing Renaissance

When the executive director and board of the Twin Cities CDC (TCCDC) in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, decided to hire an organizer in 1997, they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. “When we started, I didn’t even know what community organizing was,” said board vice president Jim Holderby. TCCDC has learned quickly, as it has met the inevitable challenges faced by community-based groups that combine organizing and development.

The decision to hire a community organizer came after TCCDC changed its name from the Fitchburg CDC and expanded its successful housing and economic development programs from this small industrial city in central Massachusetts into the neighboring city of Leominster. With a one-year grant from the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, TCCDC hired an organizer to lead a discrete grassroots planning effort and build support for CDC programs in Leominster.

Stephanie Page, the organizer hired by TCCDC, began by going into the community and meeting one-to-one with residents to learn about their concerns. Page recruited approximately 30 neighborhood residents to help plan a “neighborhood gathering.” Much to everyone’s surprise, 500 residents attended the block party – more than five times as many residents as had ever participated in a TCCDC-sponsored event before. The food, music, games, and socializing at the neighborhood gathering helped create a sense of excitement and community, and the planning of the event allowed new leaders to emerge.

At the block party, resident leaders surveyed neighbors about their concerns. Based on the survey results, two neighborhood committees formed to deal with housing and youth issues. Page recounts, “We spent the first year developing democratic structures, where everyone had an opinion and a say in decisions. We spent a lot of time developing leaders – how to run a meeting, how to delegate, how to recruit, how to follow up with people. We had many discussions about the problems in the community and how to solve them.”

By the end of the first year, TCCDC staff and board members realized that organizing was different than they had anticipated. A relatively simple plan – to hire an organizer to work in a particular neighborhood on a grassroots planning project for one year – raised fundamental questions about the CDC’s relationship to the community.

One question that arose was to what degree a CDC is willing to let residents set the agenda, decide on strategy and tactics, and lead the organizing initiative. Holderby says the role of TCCDC in the organizing is “to provide a place and structure for residents to act on their agenda.”  Executive Director Emily Weitzman says: “We are mature enough to resist the temptation to try and do it all ourselves. It takes a hundred or a thousand voices to make change; the voice of a staff person alone cannot do it.”

However, TCCDC found that its organizing work could not stay separate from the rest of the process. TCCDC, like other CDCs that have set up resident-driven organizing projects, faced the question of whether the rest of its work would be resident-driven. For assistance, TCCDC staff and board turned to the Ricanne Hadrian Initiative for Community Organizing (RHICO) [See sidebar], a program recently begun by CDCs through the Massachusetts Association of CDCs and the Neighborhood Development Support Collaborative, to address issues that arise out of combining community organizing and development.

Toward a “Bottom Up” Approach

The culture and practice of an organization does not change overnight. Holderby explains, “It’s like turning a ship around. You are going in one direction, and you are accomplishing something important. But when you make a significant change in direction, you have to turn gradually. The hardest thing is to make sure everyone is on board.” For TCCDC, that means the board is reexamining its mission statement, written only a year and a half ago, to make sure everyone understands that resident involvement and empowerment are at the center of the organization. It means reexamining a successful program that hooks up residents with well-paying jobs in the plastics industry to see how to involve more residents in planning and running the program. It means recruiting new board members who are more rooted in the community and changing the attitudes of other board members and staff. “We are not completely there,” Holderby said, “but when we talk about making sure all CDC programs are resident-driven, heads nod. We are on the right road.”

This process of organizational change is not limited to its organizing work in Leominster. Before the Leominster organizing project, according to Holderby, economic and housing development programs were sometimes designed to meet funding opportunities. But since the Leominster organizing initiative, there has been a “very noticeable” change toward a “more bottom up approach….Now we find out what people want done, and look for a way to fund it.” For example, TCCDC has set up a residents’ council to give residents a voice in the management of its rental housing. TCCDC has also completely revised its annual meeting format to reflect its new approach. The program no longer consists of the executive director and board president talking to a passive audience about TCCDC’s programs. Instead, the upcoming annual meeting will highlight the accomplishments of residents and involve attendees in discussions and a celebration. The new format promotes residents as active participants in a collective process of community development.

Maintaining the new focus requires a commitment at all levels of the organization. In the process of hiring a new executive director last winter, the board asked the finalists four questions. One of the questions was “How would you integrate organizing into all aspects of the CDC?” Weitzman, who has led TCCDC in shifting to an organizing approach, sees the role of the executive director as “bringing together disparate models without making negative judgments,” while making sure that everyone is going in the same direction. She helps development staff understand organizing and incorporate it into their work, and she helps organizing staff appreciate development and how it fits in with organizing.

Organizing for Power

While the changes to TCCDC as an organization have been dramatic, it is too early to evaluate the results of this new organizing approach in the community. Other Massachusetts CDCs, however, have won significant improvements through organizing. Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA) was born in 1982 out of a fight to save the low-income, mostly Puerto Rican Acre neighborhood from the city of Lowell’s plan to demolish low-income housing and replace it with higher-priced housing and dorms. After winning its first battle to save the neighborhood, CBA organized a grassroots planning process that helped residents define their vision and plan for the redevelopment of their neighborhood. Over the last 15 years, CBA has mobilized hundreds of residents to develop 363 units of housing, create a program to train low-income Latina and Cambodian women to be home day care providers, spearhead an effort to get Lowell’s first Spanish language cable TV station, and oppose repressive changes to the state’s welfare system. CBA has won these victories through basic community organizing techniques – knocking on doors; meeting one-to-one to develop relationships; building coalitions with churches and other allies; training resident leaders; holding accountability sessions with public officials; and, when necessary, through direct action. CBA has been successful because it sees its mission not just as building buildings, but as building power.

Organizing campaigns to build power can lead to real neighborhood improvements, but they also complicate the development process, which depends on working relationships with planning departments, banks, and other elite groups that provide funding and permits. CBA views City Hall as a reluctant partner whose cooperation is necessary for the development of the neighborhood. CBA’s success in maintaining the relationship depends on two factors: the organization’s relative power and its ability to find ways to get what it wants while the city gets something too. Significantly, CBA has maintained an independent power base by supporting an organized group of residents who are willing and able to act to promote their own agenda:  For example, two years ago City Hall withheld funding and permits for an affordable rental housing development, the Triangle Rental Project, that was the result of a CBA organizing campaign. Residents mobilized to attend city council meetings and protested on the steps of City Hall. Their efforts succeeded in getting the stalled project moving again.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

CBA also makes sure that the city gets something out of its efforts: CBA gives the city credit for part of its accomplishments – even when the city is more of a hindrance than a help, as was the case with the Triangle Rental Project. In addition, CBA is willing to compromise on certain issues in order to get what it wants on other, more important issues. For example, CBA agreed to support a city proposal to build a hockey arena in return for traffic and parking measures and funding for affordable housing. Finally, CBA mobilizes its voting base in local elections, where its members can be the swing votes for several of the city councilors. City officials support CBA, not necessarily because they like the organization, but because it is in their interest to do so.

CBA relies on sophisticated strategies that allow for both relationship-building and confrontational tactics when necessary. The group chooses its battles carefully. Once the Triangle Rental Project was built, CBA began a planning process that involved residents, City Hall, and local banks. After a period of confrontation and polarization, CBA attempted to repair strained relationships with City Hall. But even when CDCs use sophisticated strategies, city officials will sometimes react strongly against organizing efforts that aim to change the balance of power. In the end, it is CBA’s ability to mobilize residents – who are also voters – that has allowed it to maintain city funding and influence city practices.

Though it has not yet begun a campaign that directly challenges City Hall, TCCDC is already dealing with this issue. Some CDC participants worry that it was TCCDC community organizing that led city officials to decide not to renew TCCDC’s CDBG funding. This loss of funding did not shake TCCDC’s commitment to community organizing. “I would happily jeopardize our CDBG funding,” Weitzman said, if that is what residents want to do. “I would rather replace it with money from other sources without strings attached.” Yet at the same time as residents are beginning to rock the boat, Weitzman works to keep communication open with city officials to maintain the good relations necessary for development. “In the beginning some officials supported our organizing initiative, because they thought it would help meet the city’s planning and development goals. When these officials realized they would not be able to control the organizing initiative, they continued to support it ‘because there are so many voters involved.'”

Like CBA, TCCDC has come to realize that organizing means organizing for power. Now that the two resident committees have defined their agendas and presented them to the community and city officials, resident-leaders are at a crossroads. According to Page, the residents can either “challenge City Hall and other institutions to use their resources to meet community needs, or people can set up their own limited programs without city assistance.” The latter approach avoids questions about who has the power to decide city policy and how city resources will be used. Page is trying to challenge residents’ “inclination to take action in ways that keep them powerless.” For example, rather than demanding that City Hall spend more on youth activities, residents held a dance to raise money and provide an activity for teens. Page hopes that current discussions will lead to organizing campaigns to convince City Hall to do more about youth and housing issues.

Sustaining Resident Involvement

One issue that TCCDC has not yet faced is the difficulty of sustaining resident involvement in development over the long haul. CBA involved hundreds of residents in a campaign to win control of ten abandoned apartment buildings from the quasi-government Resolution Trust Corporation. But according to CBA assistant director Nancy Turner, “the greatest challenge was in maintaining meaningful resident involvement through the long and complicated development process.” Initial resident enthusiasm often fades when faced with the multi-year process of developing designs, adjusting financial projections, winning necessary funding and permits, and overseeing the actual construction.

Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) in Boston has done a particularly good job balancing the needs of the development process – a product-oriented, long-term effort that has fixed deadlines – with the needs of the organizing process – a process-oriented effort that requires both long-term patience and short-term victories. Every three to five years, the organization conducts an extensive strategic planning process that includes door-knocking throughout the entire neighborhood. When priority areas for development have been identified, JPNDC focuses its doorknocking on that area and holds a community meeting to discuss potential development options. A project advisory committee is formed by interested residents, usually about 10 to 20 people. JPNDC staff members educate the committee members about the development process, translating jargon into understandable English and Spanish terms. Residents decide whether housing should be for elders or families and whether it should be rental apartments, single family homes, or cooperatives. JPNDC staff break down the design of new housing into a series of simpler decisions: how big should the kitchen be; whether there should be a porch; whether to build single-family homes or multi-family dwellings; which color the building should be painted. Residents learn about the constraints of the development process (e.g., money spent on a porch cannot be spent on something else), so they can make informed decisions about how the CDC should proceed. Every three months, the Project Advisory committee brings its plans to a community meeting with fifty or sixty residents, who then discuss whether these plans are in the community’s interest. Once the specific project developed by the committee is completed, the process begins again.

JPNDC has tied its affordable housing development projects into a “Campaign of Conscience” to combat gentrification and displacement. This campaign, conducted in partnership with City Life/Vida Urbana, has long-term goals, like the development of more affordable housing; medium-term goals, including getting city and state governments to devote more resources to affordable housing; and short-term goals, such as preventing the sale of a particular building to speculators. The campaign combines legislative lobbying, direct action against slumlords and speculators, public education about how to be a responsible landlord, and housing development. More than 150 residents have been involved in the campaign so far, and the varied nature of the campaign is more likely to keep them involved than a campaign whose only aim is housing development.

The experience of these and other Massachusetts CDCs suggests community organizing and development can successfully be combined. But the inherent tensions between organizing and development context must be acknowledged, discussed, and managed. As the staff and board of Twin Cities CDC have learned, successful CDC organizing requires transformation. Little changes toward resident involvement and empowerment raise fundamental questions. If these questions are honestly addressed, they lead to new advances in organizing that in turn raise further questions. A virtuous circle is created.


Contacts:

  • Emily Weitzman, Executive Director; Stephanie Page, Organizer;  Twin Cities Community Development Corporation, One Oak Hill Road, Fitchburg, MA 01420; 978-342-9561, fax 978-345-7905.
  • Nancy Turner, Assistant Director; Coalition for a Better Acre; 450 Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA 01854; 978-452-7523, fax 978-452-4923.
  • Harry Smith, Organizing Director; Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, 31 Germania Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-2424, fax 617-524-3596.

Hadrian Initiative Funds Organizing

MACDC and the Neighborhood Development Support Collaborative are jointly running a new initiative based on a central premise: significant community development cannot happen by technical means alone – it also requires building power and strengthening leadership among low-income residents and people of color.

Named after the late organizer and project manager who was the driving force behind its creation, the Ricanne Hadrian Initiative for Community Organizing (RHICO) provides 10 CDCs with $75,000 over the course of three years to partially fund an organizing position. These ten groups, plus five additional CDCs, attend centralized training workshops and receive customized, on-site technical assistance. The training and technical assistance is not directed solely at organizers, but at organizations as a whole, including board members and non-organizing staff.

RHICO helps CDCs reexamine their organization and create more opportunities for residents to play leadership roles. The initiative helps CDCs identify issues, build organizing campaigns, analyze the power structures of their communities, develop and implement effective organizing strategies, and influence government, banks, and employers. By participating in RHICO, CDCs aim to increase their statewide power through joint efforts to influence state policy that affects low-income communities.

RHICO helps CDCs meet the unique challenges of combining organizing and development. It provides outside support and assistance to CDC community organizing work, much as intermediaries and lenders provide feedback and support to CDC development work. The result is an infusion of energy into CDCs to strengthen both organizing and development.

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