#187 Summer 2017 — Racial Justice

Who Will Lead Community Development Corporations?

Community development corporations are surprisingly short on executives of color. Why? And how can the field do better?

Participants chat at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s State of Equity in Metro Boston event in 2014. The Mel King Institute, a co-sponsor of the event, encourages leaders and those trying to break into the field to attend events like this to diversify their networks. Photo © 2014 Marilyn Humphries

An African-American woman chats with another woman at at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s State of Equity in Metro Boston event in 2014.

Participants chat at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s State of Equity in Metro Boston event in 2014. The Mel King Institute, a co-sponsor of the event, encourages leaders and those trying to break into the field to attend events like this to diversify their networks. Photo © 2014 Marilyn Humphries

Shirronda Almeida hears the question from other colleagues of color often: “When I go to housing meetings why I am the only person of color?” As an African-American woman, Almeida—director of the Mel King Institute for Community Building in Boston, which runs training, leadership development, and mentoring programs for community developers—knows the feeling well. She says things haven’t changed on that front over her many years in community development as much as she would have hoped.

Her perception isn’t wrong. The community development world has a racial representation problem, especially in its top leadership.

Though there isn’t a complete census of community development corporations (CDCs), NeighborWorks America reports that among its network membership, out of 247 CEOs/executive directors, 197, or 80 percent, are white. Nathaniel Wright, a former city planner and assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University who studies CDC outcomes, got similar numbers. In 2016, he surveyed a random sample of 1,000 of the 2,895 organizations coded on the Guidestar database as doing housing development, construction and management, housing rehabilitation, housing support, community and neighborhood development, economic development, or urban and community economic development. Of the 350 that responded, 84 percent had executive directors who were white, 11 percent African American, 5 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Native American, and 1 percent Asian American.

While this is clearly disproportionate compared to the overall population, it is even more skewed when we consider the high percentage of CDCs that work in communities of color. And people in the field know it. When NeighborWorks recently launched its REDI (Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) initiative, for example, one of the first recommendations from participating groups was a need to diversify leadership in the network.

The community development world has a racial representation problem, especially in its top leadership.

It is possible that community development organizations led by people of color are somewhat underrepresented in these samples. The National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (CAPACD) has 100 members, 99 percent of them led by Asian Pacific Americans. Only four of the largest are NeighborWorks members. Many of them don’t identify as CDCs, focusing more on direct service and community organizing, and thus might not have shown up in the Guidestar search.

The National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB) also has about 100 members, including “affordable housing developers, micro-lenders, economic development corporations, and consumer counseling agencies,” which is also somewhat broader than Wright’s search. Only 11 are NeighborWorks members.

The state and regional community development associations that belong to the National Alliance for Community Economic Development count 3,545 nonprofit members in total, and that’s only in the 28 states with associations. In other words, the picture can look different depending on how you define community development. NeighborWorks is not currently accepting new members, but when it does, it requires a focus on housing production—which not all community development organizations prioritize—as well as certain standards around “financial health” and “analytical management” that might leave out smaller or newer groups.

Community-based organizations led by people of color serving communities of color often struggle to achieve recognition and large-scale funding, says Vu Le, who directs the Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit that supports organizations led by people of color in the Seattle area. The traditional nonprofit capacity-building model “doesn’t work for communities of color,” he says. “It’s rigid, top-down. It’s not taking into account diaspora, systemic injustice, homeland.”

For example, he notes that typical board of directors “best practices” may involve things like term limits, not recognizing that in some culturally based organizations, the board is composed of elders, which is a permanent role. More broadly, Le writes often on his blog Nonprofit AF of the structures and assumptions in philanthropy that keep smaller nonprofit organizations, often led by people of color, from getting the funding they need to go to scale, whether it’s restrictions on grant size or “overhead” percentages, or the need to rely on relationship building to get funding in the first place.

The community development world is certainly not exempt from these dynamics, and with recent emphases on “high-capacity” development nonprofits, these trends may even be exaggerated within the field. Nonetheless, CAPACD and NALCAB’s members still represent a small percentage of the overall field; we don’t know how many other community-based organizations led by people of color are being left out of an “industry” oriented definition of community development.

But even within the narrower definition of community development that includes housing and real estate development, CDCs are still primarily serving communities of color and seem to be largely white led. Why?

How Did We Get Here?

“There’s an old boys network,” says Felix Torres-Colon, executive director of the New Kensington CDC in Philadelphia, bluntly. “If you’re not in those networks it becomes much harder to break through. Once you’re in, it becomes much easier.”

Torres-Colon, who is Latinx, has been an executive director at three CDCs. He attributes his entry into the field to the luck of having had a landlord who was an urban planner and who put in a good word for him at an organization that “couldn’t afford to hire someone with direct experience.” He also says he’s pretty sure he would not have gotten his first executive director position, at what was then the Neighborhood Housing Services of Manchester, New Hampshire, if he hadn’t been part of the NeighborWorks team that started and supported the organization.

It may seem incongruous to think of an “old boys network” favoring white leaders in a field that emerged from the civil rights movement to fight back against the ways racist policies and practices harmed certain neighborhoods. And yet, Torres-Colon notes, that perception is part of the problem. “Most people in our business see themselves as progressive, as liberal. They don’t really think that they are racist, so when you are one of the good guys, so to speak, it doesn’t seem as bad that you aren’t representative of the community you are serving. I often hear ‘We owe it to the community to hire the best person available.’ The problem is the ‘best person available’ is defined as fitting in a particular box that often doesn’t fit for people of color—a planning degree at a prestigious school, experience doing [community development] activities. You’re about expertise and credentials, but not about actual skills.”

It’s not intentional, of course. “If you ask 100 [community development] organizations if they are rooted in the community, 100 will tell you that they are,” says Andre Jones, housing director for the Fenway CDC in Boston, who is African American. “And they believe they are.”

And yet, he says, “if you look at résumés in the field of senior managers, there starts to be a repetition of where they went to school and what path they took. That limits your ability to recruit diversity. I don’t think you need to go to Harvard School of Design to ‘get’ community development.” This focus on credentials (for staff and boards) is often justified by the increasingly complex and technical nature of the real estate work CDCs are trying to pull off.

A group of residents who live in Boston hold their coffees as they pose for a photograph.

Residents of Fenway CDC’s properties attend a coffee hour event. Photo courtesy of Fenway CDC

“What became the driving force of community development was money, projects, doing the deal, getting the best experts, greatest access to the dollars,” says Sydney Beane, a Native American adjunct professor in the Community Development Program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. “That became separate from people in neighborhoods who didn’t have those skills yet. The idea of leadership becomes institutionalized, replicates itself, but away from neighborhoods, away from new leadership.”

We can be “very wonky,” says Seema Agnani, director of CAPACD, who is Indian American. “[For] an organization that wants to pull off a development project, it’s easier to hire someone who comes in with all that information.” But she doesn’t feel that this is actually required, or a good trajectory in the long run. “[Community development] financing is represented as more complex than it is,” she argues. “Sometimes it feels like it’s intentionally meant to keep people out. Part of what strong leadership does is demystify community development.”

Low turnover at the top has also exacerbated these trends. “A lot of people like me went into this work as well-motivated white people who had the resources,” says Andy Mott, longtime director of the Center for Community Change, who founded the Community Learning Partnership, which has as a core mission to develop local community development and community organizing leadership. “A lot of ministers and priests who were white went into the work. Some people were very conscious early on to groom people of color to take their position, but the record was very spotty. The regular system again and again was not producing as many people of color in leadership positions as it should.”

Almeida notes that the definition of a good leader has been somewhat shaped by these early charismatic founders who were able to devote huge amounts of resources and time to their organization, limiting who was likely to step up to replace them. “A lot of the leadership roles we see now are based on the patriarchal white male leadership model,” she says. “And then people say ‘Oh, I don’t fit into that so I’m not going to be a leader.’”

And, of course, CDCs and their staff operate within American society, which is full of racism, racial distrust, and weak cultural competence. “If you had a white director, people thought of the organization as white dominated,” notes Mott. Plus, “some white directors might not be good mentors for people who had a very strong sense of ethnic/racial identity.”

Why Representation Matters

Does leadership that reflects the community matter? “I’ve heard people say that’s not important, what’s important is that they are skilled and know what they are doing,” says Torres-Colon. He disagrees. “We have to get agreement that having people who are representative is important.” The reasons sound awfully similar to many community developers’ own philosophies about community engagement and representation and local development decisions.

“When you talk to a long-term resident, people who are of the city connect differently than they do with an outsider,” says Jones. “It’s a credential that’s undervalued—being of the community. You have an ability to communicate with the people that you’re servicing, quickly. If you’re not representative of that community, it’s a little harder to glean what the community is asking for.”

“If you don’t have the lived experience, you don’t have the knowledge and experience to make the right decisions,” says Le. “A lot of negative things happen because of people who thought they could speak on behalf of other people.”

For example, he recalls a taskforce he sat on in Seattle in which people were deciding what to do with funding from the city to address education inequity. They were “well-meaning, smart people,” he recalls, and one person kept talking about the crucial importance of early learning and how they should put all the money into that. It didn’t occur to her that many refugee kids arrive after the age at which they could benefit from the early learning.

In the Twin Cities area, says Beane, “community development organizations are very large. A lot of the leadership has been there for years. People who are running these larger organizations have had success in terms of the model in which they started.” However, he says, “that model is being challenged by changing demographics. The leadership is primarily white and [is] quickly losing touch with what’s happening in the neighborhoods.”

“You have to look like the community you serve, and in an authentic way, not just racially,” says Agnani, meaning “you need people on your staff who understand the community and can build trust. That’s when the magic happens, because you have real relationships and room for more creativity, more innovation once you have that shared trust with the community. The community development industry has been criticized for not keeping up with changes happening in the world. This is a big part of that. We can’t be a top-down industry if we’re going to be effective. It has to be motivated out of local residents. That’s why you get into this work in the first place.”

What Do We Do?

Changing staff demographics, representation, and inclusion will not be a quick endeavor—nor should it be. There’s an incredible amount of skill, knowledge, commitment, and in many cases hard-won community trust embodied in the current community development leadership that needs to be passed on deliberately and intentionally. In fact, intentionality and a long view were the universal recommendations of everyone interviewed for this article.

“First you have to make [increasing diversity] a priority, and really understand why that is,” says Torres-Colon. “I don’t think there’s agreement on that.”

Once you have agreement, says NeighborWorks’ executive vice president and COO Tom Chabolla, who is Mexican American, then you need to develop intentionality. NeighborWorks is working with cohorts of its members to get to a place where, for example, “when they recruit a board member or staff, it becomes a more explicit screen: ‘How does [our choice] reflect the communities [we] are serving?’”

Being able to explicitly discuss race and racism, and understand concepts like implicit bias is an initial step that will affect all facets of an organizing, including hiring. “People have to examine their own motivations for why they think one candidate is superior to another,” says Torres-Colon. “It usually ends up being subjective. You just like one better. Those things really seriously need to be examined, before you have a hiring process.”

Wright recommends formalizing and publicizing a diversity statement as a way to set the intention. While he recommends cultural competence training, he notes that “you can go to as many workshops as you want to,” but the organization has to take the step of committing to making leadership diversity part of its “value statement and strategic plan.” Setting an intention, however, will not be effective without changes in the structures and patterns and networks that are replicating the situation. CDCs can diversify their leadership and improve their rootedness in their communities with less focus on prior technical experience or credentials, and more on commitment to mission, cultural competency, and leadership skills, several people argued.

“It’s a little too easy to pick the most ‘qualified’ candidate,” says Agnani, even though they “might be more uniform. Some of the most talented people I’ve hired didn’t come in with the top qualifications, but came in with talents and interests, and wanted to do the work.” Agnani formerly worked at Chhaya CDC in Queens, New York, where, she recalls, the ability to serve their diverse population in their own languages was of paramount importance. “At some point we realized we were just going to have to train people from scratch,” she says. “We just built that into our organizational model. We prioritized hiring people who reflected the community over those who came in with [specific community development] skills. We did a lot of internal promoting. A lot of people who ended up being managers—for example one airline stewardess, one journalist with the Bangladeshi press—came in with zero experience, but became our more loyal and longtime staff.”

This takes time she notes, as that was a process of seven to eight years.

“One question in our interviews that I hold as very important is ‘give several examples of your cultural competency,’” says Jeff Washburne, director of the City of Lakes Community Land Trust (CLCLT), who is white. “That’s a far greater indicator of success in the work that we do versus past experience. I don’t give a ton of credence to formal education. Life teaches you a lot. Street smarts, being able to interact with the communities is far more important to us.”

As an added bonus, people who know they have things to learn don’t expect things to be perfect from the get go, says Agnani. “When you give people an opportunity, then they work hard.”

“It’s tough for CDCs to recruit and retain project managers,” says Jones. “A lot of them, after a certain level of experience, they go private, or they get burned out. If I was looking for somebody, almost more important than specific training, would be aligning the missions. I’m here because of the mission. I don’t want to go back to private. It just wouldn’t be the same. You want somebody who aligns [with] the mission. How better than to recruit from the community you serve because they are living it every day?”

“Our first lens is that of looking to hire internally,” says Washburne. This includes not only promoting existing staff, but looking first to CLCLT’s homeowners and families it has served for new hires. Hiring this way works best with a lot of internal promoting, and active commitment to building field-wide pipelines and networks. Community development leaders—new and established—need to constantly build a more diverse network, Almeida says. Instead of starting from “Urgent! We have this position; we really want a person of color,” she says, link this intention to every aspect of your work. “Who is providing that testimony at that event? Who is presenting that case study?” she asks. “Are you willing to say ‘We cannot do this event with no person of color. Not happening!’”

“It’s a lens we’re going to run everything through,” says Washburne. “A new phone system, consultants, who we partner with, vendors, events in the community. We need to make sure inclusivity and racial equity is the primary lens we use.”

“It’s almost an alumni network that’s missing,” says Agnani. CAPACD’s membership does have almost entirely Asian-American leaders, but “the leadership of our groups don’t necessarily have those connections” with the broader field. Agnani says one thing the organization is doing to try to shift the old boys network is nominating leaders from its groups to serve on various boards and advisory committees, such as the community advisory committees for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Reserve.

The networks of boards matter too, notes Wright. “The board of directors are the ones that hire the executive directors. How diverse are these boards?” If a board is 80 to 90 percent white, he notes, even if they are well intentioned, their networks might not contain as many people of color.

Torres-Colon agrees. “If people of color are underrepresented on your board, that is your first sign that this is an issue you need to address,” he says. “If you’re in a Black neighborhood and you don’t have any Black folk on your board, that’s a problem.”

Relationship building “might feel like an extra. It shouldn’t feel like an extra,” Almeida says. “That’s part of the problem. It’s hard to break into our circle. Make the time to have one-on-one conversations. I’ve found from that, people land and become part of our community.”


Due to the frustration over hiring being too focused on technical skills, there’s something of a divide over “training” as a solution to the problem. “I’m not a big supporter of training programs,” especially technical skills trainings, says Torres-Colon. “That approach tries to fit you into that existing box. If you don’t challenge that box, it really doesn’t help. It only helps the limited people who can get the training.”

Race to Lead, a report that focuses on the nonprofit sector as a whole, is based on a survey of 4,055 nonprofit employees. That study found no differences in training, preparation, or skill sets between whites and people of color, and stronger aspiration to lead among people of color. However, it did find that nonprofit professionals of color who aspired to top leadership roles (which remain about 80 percent white) were more likely to feel they would need more training to succeed.

“In other words, aspiring leaders of color with the same skill level as whites are seeking extra credentials just to prove that they should be seriously considered for top-level jobs,” says the report. Respondents of color reported “perceived inability to lead, a lack of human resources support, and/or an exclusion from important social networks” as well as “negative experiences with others ranging from microaggressions to tokenizing to managing white colleagues’ guilt/emotions about race.”

Race to Lead concludes forcefully that “nonprofits have to transfer the responsibility for the racial leadership gap from those who are targeted by it (aspiring leaders of color) to governing organizations.” On the other hand, post-hire training in specific skill sets is part of what makes the recommendation of not hiring based on technical skills and experience feasible, so it’s partially a matter of how training is perceived and used. Across the community development field there are a variety of training, leadership development, internship, and mentoring programs that are not primarily intended to remedy a “skills gap,” but instead are building a pipeline for both entry-level and leadership positions by serving as introductions to the field, making up for disparities in networking and connections, and creating support systems for leaders of color (one of the Race to Lead suggestions).

The Mel King Institute, for example, runs a mentoring program that is not limited to people of color, but actively recruits them. Applicants are matched with experienced mentors based on their interests and needs. Over the nine-month program, pairs meet monthly, and the cohort meets every other month for learning and networking events. Along with relationships, the program offers insight into what jobs in the field actually require. Jones, for example, had come from the private sector with no housing experience and was on Fenway CDC’s board when he took part in in the mentoring program. Then a housing management position opened up.

“My mentor said, ‘This is what the job is about. Yes, there’s numbers, but the position is very entrepreneurial,’” recalls Jones. His mentor, another African-American man who had been in the industry for decades, told Jones that the personality and experience to make deals was more important than knowing a pro forma. “If I had gone on the CDC market, would I have gotten hired? Maybe not,” says Jones. “But my mentor gave me confidence—‘You have exactly what you need.’” (Jones did later take some classes to get himself up to speed on the technical aspects.)

“‘Imposter syndrome’ is a big struggle of professionals of color,” says Almeida, who sees one of the values of the mentoring program being the feedback that “Yes, you should be here. . . This whole part around being the ‘only’ and standing out and feeling different can be really empowering, but also intimidating,” she adds, echoing another Race to Lead conclusion.

As part of its equity initiative, NeighborWorks has developed the REDI Leadership Program “to develop a diverse cohort that could move into leadership in their organization or other organizations,” says Chabolla. Among other offerings, he says it includes content that examines “the unique challenges and obstacles” leaders of color might face and how to “develop a cohort of support around them that can help them navigate internally in the organization and externally in the community as they may encounter instances of inequity or racism.”

The Community Leadership Partnership (CLP) sets up community development certificate programs in community colleges. Inspired by an associate’s degree in community planning started by the Community Development Technology Center, which helped residents of South Central Los Angeles find a career path working in their own neighborhood, CLP aims to introduce the idea that this is a field you can work in. The coursework mixes understanding of the local region and the history of efforts to change things with discussions of structural racism, internalized oppression, and trauma and development of practical organizing skills, all leading to an internship at a local organization. The program “really enriches the backgrounds of people doing this work, rather than the normal showing up at an organization with no context,” says Mott.

Beane defends the role of formal education and degrees in community development and community organizing. “A degree is critical,” he says. “It’s a process. Action, reaction, reflection. This is one of the major principles of organizing.”

CLP’s model of setting up a degree program at a community college allows this kind of training to happen with a local focus without placing the responsibility of sustaining the program on already strapped nonprofits, he argues.

“I wouldn’t be at a manager level if I hadn’t had an entry-level point into the field,” says Shelia Balque, who works for CD Tech in Los Angeles as the program and student affairs manager for the Public Allies Los Angeles Americorps program and is also program coordinator for the Community Planning and Economic Development Program at LA Tech-Trade Community College. The latter was inspiration for the Community Learning Partnership network. To have [diverse] executive level leadership, she points out, you need a critical mass of diverse staff and leaders in the field to begin with.

“For me, or most folks, when they think of organizing, or community planning, people don’t consider it a career pathway that you can sustain yourself in,” says Balque, who is African American. “[You have to] connect community development ideas with the ability to earn a living for their families.”

What is still desperately needed to keep CLP’s coursework-and-internships model afloat is money to pay stipends for internships, notes Mott. As Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, pointed out in a New York Times op-ed on July 5, 2016, the expectation that unpaid internships are necessary gateways to professional careers replicates income inequality, as only some folks can afford to take them. If the community development field wants to use internships to introduce new people to the field and start building a more varied pipeline of indigenous leaders, it needs to figure out how to make more of those internships paying positions.

“We need a really aggressive leadership and career pathway initiative,” says Cy Richardson, senior vice president at the National Urban League. “Not just how to identify talent at an early age, but mid-career folks. There are other folks in other vocations who are unfulfilled. At the end of the day it’s going to be about compensation and career pathways.”

Create Inclusive Organizations

Finally, commitment to increasing representative organizations also includes attention to making organizations at which people of color feel comfortable working. This isn’t always the case. “There are organizations I know that people of color will not apply to because it hasn’t worked out well for others and why take that chance,” says Torres-Colon. There’s no magic bullet to doing this. It can entail reviewing policies looking for places to create more equity in the organization. It can encompass organizational culture.

“Create an organizational culture where people can bring their whole selves into the workplace,” suggests Almeida. “The more you can bring your full beautiful selves into the work place, the more you are able to think creatively. It’s limiting when you have to think ‘This is only my work self.’ Not having to leave the cultural part of yourselves packed up at home [helps].”

Equity and inclusion are subjects of conversation throughout the field right now. They may take a while to bear fruit in terms of top leadership. And yet, as there is a wave of baby boomer retirements already underway, there’s no time to waste. “Everything we do is racial justice work,” says Agnani, “but we don’t talk about it in that way. We need to.”


[Correction: An earlier version of this article identified a Chhaya employee as having been a journalist with the Hmong press. It was actually the Bangladeshi press.]