Building Leadership in Communities of Color

Growing up in affordable housing, I never thought I would be working on the side that provides this critical service. Now six years into the profession, I have come to understand that affordable housing can be much more than merely providing a reasonably priced home to a low-income family. With adequate wrap-around services, affordable housing can provide the basis for developing thriving communities.

Unfortunately, the recent recession has forced many community development organizations to scale down or, in some cases, completely eliminate services and programs that allow families to more rapidly reach their full potential. Communities of color have have experienced some of the biggest setbacks. Recent research shows that Latinos and African Americans have experienced much higher unemployment rates during the recession than whites. Homeownership rates among Latinos and African Americans have also decreased substantially compared to whites.

Working as a community organizer in a community of color, it saddens me to see families that are one step away from transitioning out of rental housing have to put their dreams on hold because a program is no longer available. Or when I see aspiring first-generation students forced to leave school for work because one of their parents was laid off.

Community developers working in communities of color must continue to work hard to assure those we serve maximize their potential. More importantly, we need to invest in the emerging community developers of today and tomorrow. The added work and pressure the leaders of today’s community development organizations are presented with should not be an obstacle in building leadership. These difficult times provide a golden opportunity to involve and mentor emerging community developers in shaping our organizations and rebuilding our communities.

For community development organizations serving communities of color, investing in emerging leaders who reflect and closely understand the community they serve is a must. The leadership of community development organizations serving communities of color often does not reflect the population served. This gap frequently prevents organizations from creating effective partnerships with those served. As a result, many organizations have difficulties involving the community they serve in programs and activities that lead to self-sufficiency. The current economic crisis has only furthered this distance.

In these times of change, investing in and institutionalizing practices to develop emerging leaders will be critical for sustaining and expanding community development efforts. For organizations serving communities of color, we shouldn’t have to look very far to identify these emerging leaders. They are the individuals who are most active in our communities. They can be found in the families that have taken the next step toward self-sufficiency. Often times they are employees of the organizations who at one point benefited from the work itself.

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