Review #119 Sep/Oct 2001 — Evaluation

Building Communities, Building Careers

A Guide to Careers in Community Development, by Paul C. Brophy and Alice Shabecoff. Island Press, 2001. 309 pp. $17.05. I come to this book as a veteran of the […]

A Guide to Careers in Community Development, by Paul C. Brophy and Alice Shabecoff. Island Press, 2001. 309 pp. $17.05.

I come to this book as a veteran of the housing wars. I have been involved in community development for more than 30 years. In 1970, I was a tenant organizer in the City of Berkeley; today I am a vice president with ICF Consulting, a private consulting firm offering services in housing and community economic development to city government and nonprofits around the country. In those 30-plus years, I worked for local and county government redevelopment agencies, was the executive director of a community-based nonprofit housing development group in San Francisco and managed a housing counseling agency for an Urban League affiliate.

Despite my many years doing this work, I still find it hard to explain to my relatives what I actually do and why it is so fulfilling, especially now that I no longer work in a community-based nonprofit or directly build housing. Similarly, I find it hard to explain to young people why they might be interested in community development and what the many possibilities are within the field. I often hear, for example, that community organizing is something you do when you are young, and then you get a “real” job. If there is to be a next generation of community development professionals, we must find better ways to describe to young people – and everyone else – what we actually do and the career choices that are available.

A Guide to Careers in Community Development does just that. It displays the variety of options in the field and points out opportunities and career paths along the way, impressively managing to tie it all together into a coherent whole.

The book’s chapters focus on key decision points. Chapter One describes the field, and contains one of the more useful discussions in the book, on identifying the core beliefs that will drive your career. Chapters Two and Three begin to lay out a map of possible jobs and show you how to assess your interest in and skills for a job in community development. There is even a “Self-Assessment Quiz” that allows you to evaluate how your skills and personality match various possibilities within the field. A chart entitled “Where the Community Development Jobs Are” lists a variety of possible job categories in the field alongside the kinds of organizations in which those jobs are most likely to exist. The book goes on to explore practical tips for entering the field and thinking about a career path within it.

In order to make sense of all this, Brophy and Shabecoff had to present the complexity of the field and show its many possible permutations. Amazingly, they do. They cover both the role community development professionals have played in transforming banking policy through the Community Reinvestment Act and the efforts of tenant organizers still working at the grassroots level. They even mention my job – housing consultant. Not only that, they tie these individual elements together into a continuum, a profession that over time has made and continues to make a difference. Interspersed throughout are stories of communities that have been transformed by neighborhood organizing, new affordable housing development, job training programs, small business development, and other community building efforts.

Brophy and Shabecoff also provide helpful hints to mid-career professionals who want to stay in the field but are looking for something different. Appendix A provides sample job descriptions and salary levels, showing the breadth of the field at all levels. I particularly enjoyed reading the vignettes written by people in the field whose career paths were as interesting and complex as mine has been.

To see how the book worked for someone more representative of its target audience than I was, I asked a more junior member of my staff for her reaction. Kristen Shuart is my research assistant, a recent college graduate with a degree in anthropology. Six months ago, she didn’t have a clue about what community development was, or where this job might take her. The book seems to have served her well.

“A Guide to Careers in Community Development allowed me to brainstorm and think more critically about my current job and future career goals,” she told me. “I found the community development industry by chance. I had no idea what it was, but from what I could understand, I would be doing something for the good of the people. Slowly but surely I am beginning to understand all the different players that make up the industry.

“This book made me realize, yet again, that what I am doing is helping someone, somewhere. It also helped me realize that I have all the options in the world to do what I want with my community development career. I could not feel any more empowered.”

I do have one quibble with this fine book. If it was intended to make the field of community development accessible and exciting, the message seems not to have gotten to the book’s designer, who produced an odd-sized textbook-like volume with type that is too small to invite the reader in.

My generation of community development professionals were pioneers, finding career paths by accident and laying out a foundation of possible choices for future generations of people of all ages who want to work to make their communities better places. I can recommend this book to those interested in following in our footsteps, as well as to the seasoned professional looking for a fresh perspective. It is an important contribution to this field.


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