When I first became involved in the community development world, I immersed myself in the literature to learn as much as I could about the field and its players. I scoured journals, reports, studies and articles to get up to speed. I noticed right away that some organizations, individuals, and some neighborhoods are held up as models, icons even, for the field.
Manna Community Development Corporation is one of those organizations. Through its work in Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood, Manna CDC has placed community organizing and leadership development at the forefront of its community development work. Inspired by its leadership, staff and community residents, Manna CDC puts community development squarely in the realm of broader justice movements, returning to the field’s anti-poverty roots of activism and equity.
Manna CDC is a subsidiary of Manna Inc. – a nonprofit developer of affordable homeownership housing that had been based in the Shaw neighborhood since 1982. While Manna, Inc. was successful at providing high quality, affordable homes to low-income buyers, it recognized that more needed to be done to develop the community’s ability to withstand the effects of rapid development and gentrification. In 1997 it created Manna CDC with a new commitment to community organizing as a way to better serve the Shaw neighborhood.
The Manna Inc. board of directors identified Dominic Moulden, a Manna, Inc. employee who grew up doing community organizing in Baltimore, as the person to head the new CDC. Moulden took some time before making the decision, mainly to ensure that organizing would be a more recognized and central aspect of the Manna CDC’s work than it was at Manna, Inc. According to Moulden, “You can’t be afraid of organizing… because when you’re face to face with poverty and injustice, you can’t romanticize it just because you’ve built 500 units of housing.” Organizing is instrumental in educating and motivating community residents to gain the understanding and the tools to fight for change. “Organizing stimulates change,” he says. With encouragement and reassurances from Manna board members, notably longtime DC housing advocate Madeline McCullough, Moulden agreed to lead Manna’s new CDC.
Manna CDC is devoted to true community engagement and ownership. Its organizing goes beyond mobilizing residents for issues selected and defined by Manna CDC staff. Built on traditions of popular education and organizing from the Highlander Center, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other progressive movements in the U.S. and abroad, Manna CDC invests heavily in identifying and training community leaders. Shaw Education for Action – or SEA – was one of the CDC’s first programs. SEA helps community residents identify the root causes of the issues that affect their families and teaches them to develop strategies for long-term systemic change. SEA members learn, among other things, to build coalitions and grassroots membership, to speak directly to decision makers and hold them accountable and to connect the individual issues they work on to larger themes of justice. Though this work is difficult and time consuming, the dedication of the Manna CDC staff is exceptional, but not surprising.
In the ten years he’s led Manna CDC, Moulden has intentionally assembled and grown a staff with knowledge of and dedication to organizing and justice. Additionally, he stresses training and development to ensure that staff members and community residents continue to gain skills and commitment to the work. By encouraging and supporting the leadership of residents and staff, Moulden intentionally deflects the focus from his role as executive director. He will never take sole credit for Manna CDC’s success, which he applauds as being a product of the staff’s collective effort and the extraordinary efforts of community residents. He refuses to be singled out for recognition and insists on pointing out the work and accomplishments of those around him.
Why did Moulden choose community development? “Because it’s about eradicating poverty,” he says. And because the work gives him the opportunity to prove that “poor people aren’t dumb, stupid or lazy,” but that there are systems in play that strip people of their opportunities to find stability and a meaningful life. Community development is a path towards helping residents in the Shaw neighborhood liberate themselves from these systems and redefine their communities.
Creating vehicles for residents to liberate themselves is what Moulden has always done. He started in his own East Baltimore community when he was a teenager, helping children with reading and writing, and by providing arts, crafts, drama and sports activities for them. His mission is to liberate through education, because “education gives people power.”
Running a CDC with this type of focus is not without its challenges. And for Moulden and the Manna CDC staff, who focus so much on the people, it’s the issues related to community residents that pose the greatest challenges. It is a constant struggle to build a core membership of engaged residents while continuously keeping a larger number of residents informed and on the path towards active leadership. This is especially true in communities where residents have been taught that they have nothing to offer and no power to change the things that affect them. “For democracy to be most effective, it requires full participation,” Moulden observes. But in communities like Shaw, full participation is not guaranteed, especially when development projects and public policy decisions impose unforgiving timetables. “We have a strong organizational commitment to the full participation of every person in the community, but sometimes we just have to go with what we’ve got.”
Moulden also says that, from a management standpoint in a field that has become dominated by technical development skills and hard numbers, “It’s challenging to construct new or lesser-used models for community development, and to bring new and fresh ideas to the table.” And he questions how to measure effectiveness in numbers and dollars when the core of your work is about people.
However, in its short history under Moulden’s direction, the Manna CDC has managed to achieve amazing things not just with people, but also with results. Finding inspiration from organizations like the Dudley Street Initiative in Boston that achieve concrete development while enforcing community control over decisions, Manna CDC has helped residents in Shaw protect over 200 units of subsidized rental housing by training leaders and strengthening tenant associations. The CDC’s Equitable Development Initiative is focused on enforcing community benefits like affordable housing and living wage job creation in the development of public land. And the CDC has helped to start both a worker-owned temporary employment company and a youth-run bicycle shop.
To continue to build on this success, Moulden would like to give the voices of Shaw a larger platform – partially through print. Moulden wants to see more documentation on the efforts of community residents. “It lets you tell the stories of the people,” he says. Last summer Manna CDC published The Changing Face of Shaw: Stories from the Frontline, which highlighted the people who make up the community, and the effects of gentrification and displacement on area housing and businesses. [www.mannadc.org/mannacdc/shawstudy_2003.pdf.] He thinks documentation like this can be a kind of measurement tool, because numbers and dollars don’t always tell the whole story.
In my time interviewing the people at Manna CDC, I learned some valuable lessons. Staff members are focused as much on helping residents understand why oppressive conditions exist as they are on helping them uncover how to change these conditions. This process of determining why certain circumstances exist (i.e., poor education, lack of jobs, substandard housing) is an important step in aligning the work of an organization with its values.
Two values that Moulden upholds are that “eliminating poverty should always be the root of any community development strategic plan and a strategic plan must engage the community if it is to be effective.”
But the greatest lesson is that money does not solve everything, not even poverty, “because money is only a resource, not a solution. Effective resident leadership is the answer.”
P O Box 26049
Washington, DC 20001