Immigration and Community Development Corporations

How do CDCs transform—or not—along with the communities they serve?

Community development corporations (CDCs) emerged in the context of the 1960s War on Poverty. It was a time in which America’s cities were defined by “the urban crisis,” as it was then called, and issues of race and ethnicity were overwhelmingly about white-black racism, violence, discrimination, and segregation. The CDC was born into that struggle as a way to build power and economic control, mostly in black urban neighborhoods.

The country’s cities have changed dramatically in the 50 years since the birth of the CDC. And one of the primary ways in which they have changed is through the increasing numbers of immigrants that have come to call this country home. Immigrants are far from a homogenous population, but the immigrant population is disproportionately working class, with less education than the average person born in this country.

Immigrants often occupy the same urban neighborhoods as the native-born American poor and people of color. Accordingly, these neighborhoods often have a pre-existing collection of community organizations such as CDCs. New immigrant constituencies change the cultural and social makeup of communities, which in turn alters the kinds of resources residents demand from community organizations.

The definition of the CDC has expanded over the last 50 years. While almost all still engage in developing or managing affordable housing, many organizations have diversified their programming to meet the needs of low-income people and the demands of funders. As a society, we ask these organizations to provide a vast array of services, which is why it is important to catalogue what these place-based organizations are doing to best serve all of their local constituents.

Many of the needs and interests of immigrants are the same as those of their native-born working-class and poor peers: access to decent affordable housing, good schools for their children, safe streets, good parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces. But immigrants have additional needs and interests that are different from those of the native-born. These include citizenship and legal status issues, lack of access to many public benefits, a disproportionate share of violations of labor and employment laws, maintaining the cultural practices and beliefs of their place of origin, and being incorporated into American economic, political, social, and cultural life.

Immigrants are transforming the community of community development corporations. They are challenging the terms upon which these organizations were established. So how do CDCs respond when their communities change? What are the ways in which CDCs operate differently when presented with a shifting demographic? And what kinds of new programs and activities do they create to represent the changing characteristics of their constituency? To answer this question we surveyed CDCs in New York City and conducted interviews with CDC staff members, foundations, bank funders, intermediaries, and advocates. To allow for a frank discussion of what can be a contentious issue, we are maintaining the anonymity of our respondents.

We found that CDCs in New York City have responded to immigration in a variety of different ways. We are able to categorize them into four different types of responses:

  • Continue doing what they are doing as though nothing has changed.
  • Continue doing what they are doing, but build relationships with immigrant community based organizations (ICBOs).
  • Add new programs and activities, and then eventually spin those off into new ICBOs.
  • Add new programs, staff and activities — effectively altering the CDC, in terms of what it does, and it how it does things.

Continue As Though Nothing Has Changed

Many CDCs are unresponsive to demographic changes in their community. These groups merely continue delivering the programs and services that they have always provided. For instance, Central and West Harlem have seen significant numbers of immigrants arrive in the last 15 years: West Africans in Central Harlem and Latinos (Dominicans and Mexicans, mostly) in West Harlem. And yet multiple organizations in these neighborhoods have said that they do not have any particular programs or activities that are targeted or marketed to immigrants and/or their children.

The organizations in Harlem are not alone. Other organizations in different neighborhoods experiencing population shifts said the same thing. One large CDC, in an area with significant numbers of immigrants, responded to the survey’s questions about the presence of immigrants in the community with “not applicable.” Nor did this organization list any ICBOs among the organizations that it regularly works with. One CDC working in a neighborhood with an established but still growing Latino community has a full-time community organizer on staff, but the organizer does not speak Spanish and therefore struggles to connect with a population the organization described as a particularly needy segment of its constituents.

Build Relationships and Collaborations With Immigrant Organizations

The next way that CDCs have responded to the growth of immigration in their neighborhoods is through building relationships with organizations dedicated to immigrant needs, while retaining their basic programs and activities as a CDC. This can take many forms. For instance, some CDCs invite ICBOs to community resource fairs and other neighborhood events so as to connect their constituency with the organizations doing work around immigrant issues. We have also seen older CDCs doing capacity building work with ICBOs regarding housing issues (particularly in the context of the foreclosure and predatory equity crisis). And there is a case of a mostly Jewish CDC in Brooklyn that, shortly after 9/11, reached out to a South Asian Muslim organization nearby to coordinate services and build community in the post-9/11 context.

Significant collaborative work is taking place between CDCs and immigrant organizations on building coordinated community development and community service efforts. This is taking place in Highbridge in the Bronx and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. As one of our interviewees (who works for a funder) put it, “It tends to be a pretty collaborative city, and there are all kinds of partnerships between CDCs and immigrant organizations.”

Spin Off Programs Into New ICBOs

Some CDCs recognize the emerging issues for immigrants, and then act to respond to these issues by creating new programs that then take on a life of their own and gain financial and administrative independence from the original organization, effectively becoming new ICBOs. This involves a significant amount of resources and, importantly, a willingness to develop new leadership in the community independent of the organization. It is therefore pretty rare. In one notable case, a Brooklyn organization recognized the problems immigrants were facing regarding remittances and how much money was being siphoned off remittance dollars by carriers such as Western Union. This issue, along with a set of immigrant workplace issues, led the CDC to actively organize and mobilize the community. Such organizing eventually led to the spinning off of a new immigrant-worker organization, which, in turn, is collaborating with other CDCs and other community groups in the aforementioned effort in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Similarly, a CDC in Staten Island began organizing with day laborers in the borough, and this eventually was spun off into a new immigrant worker center (focusing mostly on day laborers) nearby. That CDC is now working to create a stand-alone “multicultural center” in Staten Island.

Adapt the Organization

Finally, many of the CDCs in the city have identified changes in their constituency and adapted organizational programming and services to appropriately serve these new groups. Often this happens simply and quietly (or so it seems to those outside their communities), as organizations expand or adjust their current programs to attract and include immigrants. Examples of these programs include small business development, childcare services, first time homebuyer classes, asset development workshops, voter registration drives, tax preparation, foreclosure prevention and others. Effectively implementing these programs meant that organizations were forced to hire bilingual and culturally competent employees. It has also meant that organizations have to come to grips with a whole set of issues that face immigrants. For instance, how do you get access to public programs and services when access is legally denied to recent immigrants? This requires a thorough understanding of the eligibility criteria, and how to use “mixed-status” families in ways that allow for resources and services to be obtained. Or there is the question of how you adapt organizing strategies against a landlord when the tenants may be undocumented or are perceived to be undocumented. There aren’t clear answers to questions like these, but they are something that CDCs have to begin to think through.

Some CDCs we spoke to have taken a more aggressive approach to serving new immigrant groups. To these CDCs, it is not simply a function of shifting how they offer their programs or services to meet the particular needs of immigrants. These CDCs have created programs that cater specifically to immigrants such as ESOL classes, legal aid, immigrant issue advocacy, and worker’s rights campaigns.

The language capacity of CDC staff still primarily remains English and Spanish, despite the incredible diversity of immigrants in the city, and the concentration of many different kinds of immigrants in some CDCs’ service areas. Given the lack of resources for additional staff in most CDCs, many rely on volunteers and interns from the City University of New York’s colleges to fill the language gaps. Other organizations use parent organizations or translation services to communicate with immigrants. Fortunately, there are a growing number of CDCs with capacity to serve Asian and South Asian communities in New York City as well.

Why Such Different Responses?

Why is there such diversity among CDCs in their responses to immigration and changes in their communities. Particularly, why do some CDCs not do anything differently, even as their community changes around them?

First, the organizations may be small and simply not have the capacity to add new programs or staff. While this applies to some of the organizations that have done nothing or very little in response to the neighborhoods’ changing, it definitely does not apply to all of them.

Second, the CDC may be large enough to be part of the political machinery, and therefore be hesitant or reluctant to give up its political position. Immigrants tend to be underrepresented in the city’s formal politics (that is, City Council members, etc.), so if a CDC’s orientation is toward the government and the rest of the political machinery, then it is unlikely to want to change what it does or how it does it.

Third, there is the question of where a CDC gets its money. This issue plays out in some different ways. For instance, if CDCs are dependent upon government funding, that may lock them into their programs, not allow them the greater flexibility of foundation funds or other sources of private donations. This point was made explicitly by a local funder who referred to foundation money (in essence, her money) as “play money” that could allow for experimentation, dialogue between funder and CDC, and, potentially, a broadening of programmatic activities.

CDCs and immigrant organizations also get money from different sources, often in different “silos” within or among foundations and other funders of community work. Those who fund housing know which CDCs to contact when they are interested in developing affordable housing, and funders who give money to immigrant rights issues have relationships with ICBOs working on specific issues. Therefore, funders shape the capacity of groups to engage in new work, based on their own expectations of what groups can do. As one long-time CD-funder in a bank (now a consultant) told us, “When I was developing programs for issues that directly relate to immigration, I wouldn’t think of CDCs. And even if it was with CDC partners, I would almost insist that there would be an immigrant partner, like New York Immigration Coalition.”

Fourth, there is the question of ethnic identity itself, and the extent to which a CDC has long been, explicitly or implicitly, identified with a particular ethnic or racial group. One long-time advocate stated, “Well, let’s be honest, ethnic loyalties matter. If you’re used to organizing along ethnic lines, then there is the concern that failing to do that, you’ll have no one to represent your interests. Puerto Ricans, for instance, built what they have through struggle. They were housing organizers, and they faced discrimination and racism, and then they became CDCs. There’s nothing surprising that they would continue to work that way. But when the neighborhoods are changing, there is the practical question about whether they are missing an opportunity to fulfill their social justice objectives, and then there’s the question of whether they still have those objectives, or whether they’re just defensive because they are facing cutbacks.”

Finally, there is the question of how open and participatory or closed and inward looking an organization and its staff and leadership is. Simply put, the more open and participatory, the more likely a CDC is to change as its neighborhood changes around it. The more a CDC is closed to participation from outsiders in the community, the more likely it is to resist, or simply not see or be aware of, the change that’s happening around it.

The take away from this is that if CDCs want to continue their work over the long term, they must be open and accessible and accountable to their larger community. “Demography is destiny” is an old clichŽ, but one that holds enough truth that it should remind CDCs that they have to be open to transformations in their communities, and be willing to adapt and change with them.

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