Timeline: A History of Community Development Policy in America

Timeline: A History of Community Development Policy in America, from Development Training Institute. 2001. 90 minutes. $39.95 410-338-2512; info@dtinational.org.

Capturing the dynamism and influence of the community development movement on film presents distinct challenges. The field is comprised of spirited, complex efforts that defy neat visual packaging. Although the historic events that inspired these myriad community-based initiatives can be easily documented in compelling ways, conveying the legislative responses to these political, economic and social eruptions is harder. Well-intentioned films attempting to reveal the connective tissue between policy and practice have often delivered mind-numbing results.

So I approached the Development Training Institute’s (DTI) “Timeline: A History of Community Development Policy in America” with some skepticism. Even though DTI is a veteran “knowledge and skills intermediary,” recognized as one of the foremost trainers of community development leaders, tracing the evolution of community development during the past century in a 90-minute “timeline video” seemed at first glance both overly ambitious and too academic to appeal to a wide audience.

I was pleasantly surprised. “Timeline” proved to be an engaging, highly substantive, user-friendly account of the growth of the community development field that should resonate with an array of stakeholders, including students, practitioners, funders and public officials. It focuses on the interplay between the various forces that shaped community development policy, trying to explain the impact of ground-level work on the creation of federal policy and show how those federal policies led to others and further defined the field.

Joseph McNeely, founder and President of DTI and director of HUD’s Office of Neighborhood Development during the Carter administration, narrates, lecture-style. McNeely is an animated and ingratiating instructor who lucidly synthesizes historic events, distilling key themes of poverty, race and justice that gave rise to the community development movement.

McNeely’s crisp, thoughtful presentations are buttressed by a well-crafted timeline that highlights key components of community building (human services, housing, civil rights, organizing) and delineates the corresponding federal programs and policies that emerged from them. This dense, but accessible, graphic provides a snapshot of the scaffolding that girds community development. As a backdrop to the video’s narrative, it’s an effective teaching tool.

Historical Framework
McNeely carefully and frequently reminds his audience to become attuned to unintended consequences of pivotal events. This more nuanced picture of how social change happens helps us to make connections between seemingly uncoordinated developments – like the relationship between the settlement house movement, the emergence of housing codes and federal welfare programs – and helps us to better glean “hard lessons” from ambitious endeavors like the War on Poverty. Even bleaker unintended consequences come out in McNeely’s candid analysis of the advent and decline of public housing.

Along with legislation, the DTI narrative focuses on the ways a “framework of institutions” has given shape to the community development movement. This includes descriptions of how philanthropy spurred innovation by government (Head Start, VISTA, and Neighborhood Development Programs), the rise of intermediaries, and why and how comprehensive community building initiatives are rooted in grassroots campaigns spearheaded by faith-based and labor organizations. McNeely’s account of redlining and the Community Reinvestment Act are especially compelling, and his cautionary notes on the challenges of public/private collaborations are well-founded and pragmatic.

“Timeline” avoids a common mistake of many “urban-centric” surveys of community development by underscoring the impact of early rural development programs, such as the college extension services, on shaping new thinking about government reinforcing private sector initiatives. Although it ends in 1998, it touches on the emerging themes of regionalism, social and venture capital and welfare reform, which are now having a greater impact on community development.

A Discussion Starter
“Timeline” is designed for group viewing and discussion. It is divided into three 30-minute parts – pre-1960, 1960-1972, and post-1972 – each braced by a series of questions to stimulate discussion and test viewers’ grasp of key issues and trends. The accompanying viewer’s guide outlines the video and includes a summary of significant federal legislation and administrative actions, a bibliography on the history of community development, and game-playing exercises for provoking discussion. These exercises cover some topics that are not in the video, reminding us that “Timeline” is a synopsis of complicated events, intended to stimulate deeper analysis and exploration.

While each part of “Timeline” could function as a stand-alone piece, the three sections together form a tightly woven, cohesive whole, so viewing the entire series in one sitting is not too onerous. The video could be sharper if it relied less on repeat still images and incorporated more “voices from the field,” particularly those of leading community development practitioners. Nonetheless, it is a perceptive overview and welcome training aid that helps to “unpack” and connect the complicated influences that have shaped community development in America.


Deborah Visser is principal of Visser and Associates, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits and philanthropies working in the field of community development and a member of National Housing Institute’s board of directors.


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