Can Organizing Resuscitate Community Development?

There has been a lot written about the uncertain future of community development and the way forward for community development to survive—about capital flows, about the need for scale, for quarterbacking, for economic development, for consolidation, for diversification, about neighborhoods, about regions—and there has been a lot of good thinking, good ideas embedded in all these pieces.  But I keep circling back to one thought. 

Community development is dying for lack of community organizing. Community development is dying for lack of an active base.

I don’t mean this in a causal sense. Community development is struggling because, in our current economic and political environment, all funding for anything having to do with poor and low-income people has been systematically slashed. This has been a trend for years and has been accelerated in the current sequestration/debt limit crisis.  The cuts have not been about community development or community organizing per se, but about a larger moral austerity.

In addition to this larger narrative about our country turning its back to people in need, there might be a sub-argument about how community development, more so than other programs that serve people in need, is at risk of collapse because of the current cuts in funding. 

Community development, more so than other parts of the social safety net, is dependent upon a healthy pipeline of real estate development projects. The complexity of projects and the layers of financing require armies of attorneys, financial consultants, architects, and other expensive technical specialists who can navigate the tangle of private, local, state, and federal regulatory schema that come with each project’s mix of funding. The ecosystem of public and private technical experts that supports and is supported by community development requires a certain scale of activity.

Without enough capital funding for community development projects, without a large and consistent and predictable enough pipeline of projects, technical expertise to do deals could become too scarce/expensive and transaction costs would become too much in comparison to other ways in which public resources could deliver equivalent social benefits.

That is, if the total investment in community development is not large enough, the entire industry is threatened. Here again, this dynamic is not about community organizing in a direct way.

But I keep coming back to the fractured relationship between community organizing and community development. I keep thinking that a renewed commitment to community organizing is just the kick in the pants that community development needs.

In this series of posts, I'll discuss how community organizing matters for relevance, reach, and results. 

Community development has always been a fuzzy, adaptive field. It is hard to pigeonhole. It has something to do with low-income people connected to a place.  But, the specific mix of programs that fall under the model change with organization, change over time, and change in response to funding trends. Community development programming has included affordable housing development, other real estate development projects, organizing, job training, job creation, small business assistance, business district promotion, small business lending, childcare and child development, educational support, basic social services, citizenship classes, immigrant integration, healthcare, charter schools, community planning, neighborhood beautification, housing counseling, down payment assistance, IDAs, social enterprise development, income tax assistance,  health services, youth programming, senior services, cultural programming, etc.  

When community development  was ascendant, this flexibility was a strength, allowing it to incorporate a variety of programs, diversify its funding base, and come closer to comprehensive coverage within a place.  But now, with community development threatened and with its unofficial unifying program (affordable housing development) at risk, the lack of programmatic focus is a weakness. Diversified funding sources don’t matter because everything is being cut. And the absence of a more cohesive vision of community development, a more pervasive and clearly articulated theory of change, leaves community development without a central narrative to rally around and without a clear identity to assert and protect.  It makes community development seem diffuse and irrelevant.

So, as community development practitioners and  advocates, we need to reassert a case for community development around an articulated common purpose.

I'll start with the example of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development and its president, Joe Kreisberg. He's a great writer and thinker about community development and has good things to say about community development and its unifying purpose

MACDCs’ webpage about the CDC Theory of Change says  “CDCs are a critical component of lasting and durable community change founded upon the principal that a community's residents can come together to effect change and to help transform their own neighborhood together.”  This is an excellent statement. In a generous and optimistic way, it summarizes where community development is and gives a small nudge towards where it should be.

But here and now, I’m wanting  to push it just a tad farther and be more prescriptive.  Using the MACDC statement as a template, I want to say that the defining purpose of community development should/ought to be about low-income community residents coming together to effect change and transform their own neighborhood. Community development should more fundamentally and explicitly be about power, community control, and community self-transformation.   

This is where community development came from. Awash in affordable housing capital, it lost some of its way, lost some of its clarity of purpose over the past two to three decades, becoming more technocratic. But, as a matter of defining values, as a matter of self-preservation, community development needs to revitalize its relationship to community organizing/community engagement and empowerment.  

All of the tools in the community development toolbox (including real estate development) should be subservient to this central purpose. And, in this context, the primary, most unifying/defining tool should be place-based community organizing. 

I am not saying that regional/super-regional affordable housing developers need to start up and staff up their own community organizing departments—not everybody needs to do everything and there is still room for specialization within the ecosystem. But the field/industry as a whole needs to better acknowledge and resource the necessary role of community organizing.

Click here for Part 2 and Part 3

Josh Ishimatsu is deputy director of capacity building and research for National CAPACD.


  1. The premise for this article is well intended. However, we should not support any myth which separates community development from community organizing. The planning process must incorporate both areas, otherwise each are done in a vacuum with competeting interests.

    The goal is not just to help residents transform the neighborhood, but to establish economic sustainability where gentrification threatens displacement.

    Local public agencies are key stakeholders to capable of setting funding and development parameters for the process.


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