Community Development and #BlackLivesMatter: What’s Our Role?

There is a lot to be processed and mourned, celebrated and condemned about what has happened in Baltimore recently, starting with the death of Freddie Gray (although, of course, that is many ways an arbitrary breaking point in a long line of injustices), proceeding through the protests, and today the announcement of charges against the officers.

The violent history of segregation in Baltimore is an important and often overlooked factor in conditions there, enabled and enforced all along by police violence. People from the protestor who chastised Geraldo Rivera for not covering the stories that mattered to his neighborhood before now—to the Economic Policy Institute—have been stepping up to try to raise these crucial points of context. Shelterforce contributor Dr. Mindy Fullilove was quoted by the Washington Post's Emily Badger in her article about the “long, painful, repetitive” history of policies like redlining and urban renewal that led to this point:

Yes, the outright racism that motivated many of these historic policies has eroded with time. “But we have to understand,” Fullilove says, “the machine can work without the operator.”

The protesters in Baltimore, she says, are expressing their rage against that machine, which is a thing much larger than the death of one man, or even the singular issue of police-community relations. To call the unrest this week a “riot,” the people behind it “thugs”—as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did this week—misses all of these interrelated pieces that Baltimore gives us a chance to reconsider.

I think this does raise the question of how community development—a field that is often described as having originated in response to urban rebellions/“riots” in the 1960s (or later)—relates to what's happening in Baltimore right now (and Ferguson and basically everywhere).

Right to the City, a coalition of housing justice organizations, wrote (before the Baltimore uprising), in a piece called “>We Can't Win a Right to the City Unless Black Lives Matter,

Working to win a right to the city for all puts us in direct opposition with the process of urban restructuring (popularly known as gentrification) that the free market enforces on our communities. It’s a process that is heavily reliant on the policing of working class, black and brown communities to impose destabilization and displacement. Police violence—and the threat of it—is an intimate part of our daily lives.

This question came up a few times at the People & Places conference in March. Many of the answers I heard tended to hover somewhere around “we should help put these problems of police violence in the context of the larger structural issues around investment and disinvestment patterns, the racial wealth gap, etc.”

Especially given the historically decontextualized way so many people are viewing what's going on, that that is crucially important.

But is it enough?

Does the community development field also have an obligation to (1) directly and actively support those protesting for justice against a law enforcement system that victimizes them with impunity and (2) face the tricky ways in which policing and “neighborhood improvement” intersect? (See also “Austerity's Billy Club.”)

What does it mean that many young people involved in these movements have told me that they look upon community developers with suspicion, as likely to be agents of displacement and control and “personal responsbility” as they are to be on the side of justice?

Is our mission as a field/movement to clean things up and calm things down, or is our mission community ownership, equity, and justice? And if it's the latter, what does that mean in practice in explosive times like these—and in the times that build up to them?

(Photo credit: 'Minneapolis rally to support the people of Baltimore,' by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue, CC BY 2.0)

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. The “tell” comes near the bottom of this piece.
    It’s in the stupefying reveal that “young people involved in these movements…” “look upon community developers with suspicion, as likely to be agents of displacement and control and “personal responsibility…”“
    “Personal responsibility?”
    So… personal responsibility is somehow a BAD thing?
    Heaven forbid anyone advocate personal responsibility to them.
    Well, that tells us EVERYTHING we need to know about these particular “young people.”
    And EVERYTHING we need to know about “these movements.”

  2. Ah, Chris, you are predictable at least.

    But in this case beneath your own biases you have pointed out a sloppiness in my writing, which was to assume that putting scare quotes around “personal responsibility” was sufficient to communicate a very complex set of implications–in other words, that while personal responsibility is of course a very high value, that there are a large range of policies and practices promoted in the name of “personal responsibility” that instead are entirely designed to keep some people in their place no matter how much personal responsibility they exercise by denying any effects on success of starting conditions or systemic discrimination. See, for example, the attempts in Wisconsin to micro-manage the shopping choices of people receiving food stamps. Or the various redlining and fair housing violations that have left Baltimore in the segregated shape it’s in. Or the constant letting off the hook of the banks that devastated Baltimore neighborhoods worse than any individual through their illegal, irresponsible actions in the foreclosure crisis. Etc.

    I don’t expect to convince you, but thank for the opportunity to clarify my point for anyone else who might have been confused.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.