Community Development Field

Engagement Before Efficiency

I recently stepped down from my role as the executive director of a community development corporation and I'm in the process of transitioning from a single-organization focus, as I've spent […]

I recently stepped down from my role as the executive director of a community development corporation and I'm in the process of transitioning from a single-organization focus, as I've spent the past 15+ years, to working with multiple organizations in a range of sectors: health equity, food justice, environmental sustainability, arts, libraries, and technology for civic engagement, for instance.

My personal transition marks the reawakening of a passion to fight for a future for community development that lives on as movement not just an industry, to bring change to many community development organizations, and to bring community development practices and principles to the many other sectors that are, or should be, our natural allies in building healthy, vibrant and just neighborhoods for all communities. I hope to make my exploration of this personal transition a way of documenting the transformation of community development. 

It is more important today for community development to figure out how to embrace the strengths of our past as a movement, even more so than becoming more established as an industry. Why? Because movements are about engagement, industries are about efficiency. As the world changes drastically in so many different ways, the community development field needs engagement before efficiency; engagement helps sort out the “what” and the “who;” efficiency is for the “how.”

This past May couldn't have been a more interesting time for a traveler around the U.S. seeking out a vision for a community development for the future. In four weeks in four regions, folks mostly outside of our sector gathered in four totally different types of settings to engage in what I would call community development discussions, but with hardly any community development folks in the room. In many ways the different locales, settings and sectors represent the diversity of what the future of community development must embrace: contemporary art in Chicago; foundation investments in Seattle; the good food movement in Asheville, NC; and civic technology in Cambridge, Mass.

In this and the next three posts, I'll share my thoughts about each of these gatherings and the implications and opportunities for community development.

It all starts with hospitality. As builders of homes and neighborhoods for lower-income families, shouldn't community development corporations fundamentally practice hospitality? The University of Chicago Smart Museum of Art's Symposium: Of Hospitality that took place as part of a retrospective Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art gathered artists, museum administrators, educators, chefs and food people, and even a few community development folks to discuss the practice of hospitality in our respective institutions and organizations. Two stand out organizations that bridge art, hospitality, and community development:

Rebuild Foundation, founded by urban planner and artist Theaster Gates. Their website states:

“Rebuild Foundation is a not-for-profit, creative engine focusing on cultural and economic redevelopment and affordable space initiatives in under-resourced communities. We currently manage projects in Detroit, Omaha, Saint Louis, and Chicago, each city enlisting a team of artists, architects, developers, educators, and community activists, who work together to integrate the arts and alternative entrepreneurship into a community-driven process of place making and neighborhood transformation…Rebuild engages an artistic practice which uses as its medium the urban fabric of under-resourced districts, bridging the creation of art with renovation and adaptive reuse, recycling of building materials, and community-driven initiatives for neighborhood revitalization.”


Sunday Soup Chicago, a project of inCUBATE (Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and The Everyday). The folks of inCUBATE describe the Sunday Soup model:

The Soup Grant is a grassroots model for funding small to medium sized creative projects through community meals. The basic formula is that a group of people come together to share a meal and that meal is sold for an affordable price. All the income from that meal is given as a grant to support a creative project…everyone who purchases the meal gets one vote to determine who receives the grant. The grants are completely unrestricted and will be awarded at the discretion of the customers. Granting projects affiliated with Sunday Soup in different cities operate based on their own needs and context…With Soup, community participation in the grant funding and selection process is key. Applying for a grant is intentionally simple and un-bureaucratic in order to encourage broad participation. This enables us to stimulate and promote experimental, critical and imaginative practices that may not be eligible for formal funding. The Soup grant, while raising money, also serves as a way to build a network of support and community that reaches beyond purely monetary assistance. We like to think of it as an open platform to discuss ongoing projects with new audiences, meet new collaborators, and share ways of working. We encourage others to organize their own alternative funding program. We see this project as adaptable and user-friendly to all sorts of different contexts. Any of the elements may be modified to fit your particular situation.

 Both are relatively new organizations, yet have had notable successes: Rebuild operates in four cities: Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Omaha; Sunday Soup Chicago has sparked sister projects in over 60 cities around the world. How many new and emergent community development corporations have this level of impact?

Rebuild operates in a dynamic model with different teams in each city, responsive to local needs and cultural and neighborhood contexts; Sunday Soup is organized around an open source model of replication that adapts to the interests of local organizers. How many community development corporations operate as flexibly and openly generous as these two have?

Both are tapping into exciting changes in the world. Crowdfunding, enabled by technology but sparked by projects like Sunday Soup and The Awesome Foundation, has burst onto the scene as noted by the statistic that in 2011 Kickstarter provide more funding to art projects than the National Endowment for the Arts; the power of democratic participation in the United States has always been our foundational strength, and now it is a force in the rarefied world of philanthropy. The creative economy, a term originally developed by the New England Foundation for the Arts and concept popularized by Richard Florida but practiced by Rebuild Foundation, is one of the leading edges of what it means for the U.S. to transition from an industrial and manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy.

The community development field should be energized and challenged to embrace these new ways of working and incorporating them into our guiding frameworks. This will not be easy but it will continue to be important for our field to question itself, to ask itself what we want to create for our communities, to ask ourselves how to best achieve that vision for the future. We must be prepared to put aside past industrial practices and perhaps embrace emergence and people once again.

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