Anchoring “The Community” to the Community Building Movement

Community building has many definitions [Note: archived discussions in Shelterforce can be found here, here, and here] all of which capture an integrated approach to addressing poverty. For me, community […]

Community building has many definitions [Note: archived discussions in Shelterforce can be found here, here, and here] all of which capture an integrated approach to addressing poverty. For me, community building seeks to address the causes and effects of poverty, not in isolation from one another, but as part of a broader civic undertaking on the part of nonprofit, corporate, public, and philanthropic sectors–with community residents, to build healthy and sustainable communities. This partnership connects the priorities of residents with the power and structure of institutions in a way that holds the institutions more accountable; and community builders are explicit in their efforts to strengthen the connection between the agency of community residents and the functioning of the places in which they live and work.

The current surge of advocacy for market-based approaches to revitalizing distressed communities has sparked attention to anchoring lower-income residents to the economies of their communities. This anchoring is crucial, because failure to explicitly link residents to the prosperity of their neighborhoods via revitalization efforts can (and has) lead to gentrification and the subsequent destabilization of longstanding cultural and social ties. This should be a concern for all of us working to build community-based resilience.
Across a wide range of cases, a decentralized, market-driven environment requires citizens who can work together, identify their shared interests, and act collectively to achieve goals, but marginalized communities are struggling with high unemployment, public and private disinvestment, racial discrimination, and an influx of people new to the country. Tensions are then exacerbated when these communities begin to gentrify. They especially need institutions, social networks, and individual skills that can enable them to fully participate in the mainstream economy and government.

A new example of this can be found in the Cooperative Growth Ecosystem, an economic development framework which captures the recent wave of worker cooperative development as a timely and high-potential strategy for inclusive, place-based community economic empowerment. The Democracy at Work Institute, Citi Community Development, and the National Urban League, among others, are exploring ways to identify and engage prospective cooperative developers, provide business training and support, and develop market access opportunities for them. Part of this work will include collaborating with capital providers and funders who can deliver critical investments in supportive infrastructure, business advisory services, and patient capital.

Our work to address inequity in low-wealth communities across America has demonstrated that just as the causes and effects of poverty are multifaceted, the solutions designed by community leaders, residents, developers, funders, technical assistance intermediaries and policy makers must be equally complex. And just as important—stories of this work must find their way into the political discourse in what is gearing up to be a very contentious election year.

My hope is that the current debates about the economic life chances of the nation’s 99 percent become more granular and provocative by digging deep into the connection between asset/wealth development and ownership as an asset building strategy. To me, there can be no retreat from the stance that lower-income status cannot be a barrier to the participation of local residents in the economic advancement of their communities. And we must be clear about the need to link improvements in place to opportunities for the people who live there.

(Photo credit: Dan Buczynski, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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