Do One Thing and Do It Well

This country has undergone dramatic shifts in culture, attitudes, technology, politics, and business since community development burgeoned in the late 1960s. Devastated urban centers have witnessed mass revitalization and others the proliferation of lending, leading to a new period of abandonment. Demographic shifts have dramatically changed cities with influxes of young professionals seeking lattés and trendy bars and immigrants often forced into overcrowded apartments.

Throughout this period, community development in many ways became synonymous with economic development. CDCs began providing social services, education, job training, and affordable housing in blighted neighborhoods. These groups invested billions of dollars in stabilizing and revitalizing once abandoned neighborhoods. Still, the model for providing services has changed very little compared to other sectors. Health care, finance, manufacturing and retail have changed their business models dramatically over the past 40 years. However, CDCs still attempt to “do everything” in their communities — social service provision, job training, ESL classes, counseling, affordable housing, health services, community real estate, and neighborhood planning. More often than not, our economy has found this approach more costly to operate. Health care provides a good example. The days of going to the hospital for every emergency have faded away. Now, surgical centers, emergency medical offices, lab testing centers and specialty practices exist for every ailment. These businesses may use the same provider for administrative and IT support, but operate independently.

For community development to succeed, the field will likely need to adopt a similar approach. This change requires a shift in mindset and new ways of collaborating. In my experience, the turf wars and reluctance to partner with other organizations occurs too often. The CDC attitude is often “We can do it ourselves. It takes 10 times as long, costs 10 times more and is completed less effectively, but at the end of the day, we got the job done!” Unfortunately, this premise is supported by funders who see a CDC doing a good job providing social services and push them to build apartments.

Still, the field is undergoing change and it will only intensify over the next 36 years. The growth of community development graduate programs is one reason the landscape is shifting. Recent graduates from these programs see specialties within community development and are starting businesses and consulting firms that cater to those niche markets. College and university programs are also making students think more about measuring outcomes and focusing on practices that produce concrete results. Second, new leaders often lack the revolution mentality that once was needed. Working within structures and cooperating with for-profits is normal and encouraged. Lastly, today’s practitioners appear more open to collaboration and partnership, likely due to all the barriers that are now removed.

Changes create new challenges, but they reflect a real and needed shift. The groundwork laid by the founders forced the United States to wake up to poverty, injustice, and racism. Changes in policy, economics, and needs force the community development field to move forward to meet today’s challenges. Hopefully, today’s young practitioners can build on the outstanding work of the field’s architects and foster even more vibrant communities.

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