Mamas, Don’t Let Your Organizers Grow Up To Be Developers

When a community-based developer of affordable housing incorporates community organizing into its programmatic repertoire, there is almost always added value—for the persons housed, for residents of the area served, for […]

When a community-based developer of affordable housing incorporates community organizing into its programmatic repertoire, there is almost always added value—for the persons housed, for residents of the area served, for the organization itself.

The reverse is less often true.

Community organizers rarely become better at cultivating collective power and agitating for social change when they leave the streets, exchanging ball caps for hard hats. Not only do they stop doing what they do best; they start doing something that takes everyone a terribly long time to do well.

Place-based activism is diminished by this one-way flow of talent. I lament it, although I would hesitate to pinch it off, since the entire field of community development is regularly replenished and reinvigorated by organizers becoming developers. Nor would I discourage grassroots activists from exploring whether a new community development corporation (CDC), community land trust, or the like might be needed.

While nonprofit start-ups should never be done lightly, there are neighborhoods and towns without any nonprofit development capacity. There are also many places where long-established community development organizations have lost touch with values and constituents to which they were once committed or have become increasingly adverse to attempting any development other than tax credit rental housing or plain vanilla homeownership.

In these cases, having people who have been building collective power turn their energies toward building housing or doing other sorts of development can be positive, despite the potential for competing with existing nonprofits for subsidies and sites that are already in short supply. Competition is not always a bad thing. Every field, including ours, needs irreverent young Turks periodically storming the gates of organizations that may have lost their edge, giving graybeards like me a run for our money.

That said, my heart sinks a little whenever I’m approached by a group that has been doing great advocacy organizing and now wants my advice about acquiring land, building houses, or doing some other sort of development.

The reality check I offer sometimes tempers their enthusiasm for plunging into the risky business of development, but I try to be encouraging. At the same time, I can’t help feeling a sense of loss. It leaves a hole in the political landscape every time another group of hard-riding cowboys (or kick-ass cowgirls) settles down after years of punching out politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, and speculators without having to worry about permits, grants, credits, loans, or donations being withheld from projects they are planning to build. With a whisper of apology to Willie Nelson, a silly ditty plays silently in my head:

Mamas don’t let your cowboys grow up to be builders

Don’t let em pluck spreadsheets and beg for old bucks

Make em play guitars, stage protests, and such

Okay, my feelings are definitely confused. If nonprofit developers become more accountable to the people and places they serve when they begin acting more like organizers—listening, engaging, recruiting, educating, advocating—perhaps community organizers become more strategic and effective when they begin casting their campaigns and framing their demands with an eye toward supporting development they plan to do.

I also appreciate the irony of cautioning organizers against becoming developers when so many of today’s most effective community development organizations were founded by people who started out as community organizers. These people didn’t suddenly set aside what they learned doing street-level organizing when they began staffing or governing organizations doing physical development.

That is no less true for the current generation of grassroots activists who are going to work for community-based developers, seeking new challenges and, perhaps, better pay. They bring with them a respect for process, a commitment to inclusion, and a passion for justice from their days doing community organizing. These virtues don’t instantly evaporate when they walk through the door of a new employer.

There is no doubt in my mind that community development organizations are made better by organizers becoming developers. My worry is that community organizing is made worse, which is why that cowboy ditty keeps playing in my head.

Very few community organizers who go to work for community-based developers continue to ply their trade after they are hired. That is because fewer nonprofit developers are actively engaged in community organizing. I don’t mean to suggest that Alinsky-inspired militancy is the only way to engage or to empower a place-based community. There are many different styles of organizing.

But much of what passes for community organizing these days among nonprofits doing community development involves raising funds, marketing homes, or managing public relations instead of helping residents develop the skills and power to advocate for policies and resources benefiting their communities.

The situation is hardly better outdoors. Notwithstanding the flare-up of the Occupy movement, the periodic canvassing of public interest research groups, and the persistence of place-based organizers affiliated with groups like Right to the City, there are fewer cities where organizing on behalf of lower-income communities and communities of color is an enduring feature of the political landscape.

Organizers taking jobs with community developers is not the primary cause, of course. Many other factors are at work. But the ranks of community organizers are thinned whenever experienced people who have cut their teeth in the streets are enticed away.

Do I want community development organizations to stop hiring organizers? Not at all. I want more of the organizers who are hired to be allowed to do the kinds of work that community organizers have always done. And I would like to see more of the organizations that are engaged in place-based development supporting citywide campaigns that put organizers on the street, develop grassroots leadership, and advocate for policies promoting equitable development.

On the other side, I would like to see organizers think twice before becoming developers themselves. I applaud their desire to revitalize an underserved area, to represent a neglected population, or to pioneer an innovation eschewed by older CDCs.

Before exchanging what they know for what they must learn, however, I would say to them: Keep doing what you do best. Act like an organizer. If your neighborhood is underserved, persuade a place-based developer from an adjoining neighborhood to expand its service area. If your local CDC is neglectful or unaccountable, give it a shake. If you find yourself in possession of lands or buildings because of a successful campaign, find a nonprofit ally to develop them or to manage them on your behalf. Bring pressure to bear or put a partnership in place that accomplishes your development goals without abandoning the organizing roles your constituents still need you to play.

Community development organizations are an important part of that constituency. They need people out in the streets doing what they cannot: advocating for political change; challenging the status quo; occasionally biting the hands that feed the affordable housing and essential services that nonprofits provide. They need babies that grow up to be organizers, not organizers that trade in their spurs to become developers. We’ve already got plenty of the latter.

What we lack is a critical mass of grassroots activists who are doing the harder work of winning popular support for policies that keep all those community-based developers from starving.

(Photo by Flickr user anyjazz65, CC BY.)

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