Community development was born from the energy and power of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America coincided with riots in Watts and other major cities, ushering in a national awakening as America opened its eyes to the depth of poverty and inequality in its cities and rural communities.
Investing in poor neighborhoods was a natural outgrowth of our desire for equal rights and social justice. In its attempts to remedy decades of disinvestment, government believed that growth and opportunity would lift families out of poverty and prove powerful in repairing a history of racism and discrimination.
Forty years later, our field is sobered by events in places such as Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Chicago. We see that racism and misogyny have not proven as susceptible to economic growth as we had expected, and focus on place-based investment has led at times to greater concentration of poverty. Investment in poor communities has improved many communities, but it has not undone the racism baked into laws and policies, cities’ zoning rules, the private sector’s investment priorities, or some social attitudes.
We have accomplished a great deal since the birth of community development. But there is still much more to do. After 40 years, I have come to believe that our way of working is too limited: we will not build or invest our way out of racism and injustice. There is much more for us to do – and it starts at the beginning, at the way we think about community development. We must put race, gender, and justice at the heart of everything we do. How we do this will be the next chapter in community development.
Laurels, but Not to Rest On
The community development field has a remarkable track record of success. In the 1970s, we aggressively pursued laws to reverse redlining. We fought for and won enactment of the Community Reinvestment Act, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the New Markets Tax Credit, the Housing Trust Fund, and the Capital Magnet Fund. We created community loan funds, starting with church endowments but ultimately spreading to the boardrooms of all major banks and philanthropies in the country. We fought for and won the Community Development Financial Institutions Act, expanding the idea of social investing into every state and county across the U.S. We enlisted the support of the private sector and, with carrots and sticks, drew them into our work. We learned how to finance and build affordable housing, driven by mission and heart, rather than profit.
We believed that racism, misogyny, and inequality would give way as we bent local economies toward providing opportunity for all. We celebrated the achievements of social justice organizations yet saw the work of investing in local economies as a distinct area of expertise, with distinct programs, goals, and techniques. We believed that we should do the best job possible in our lane, side by side with colleagues in the civil rights field and eventually, our two lanes would merge into a road headed toward justice and well-being for all.
Community development is a strong and robust field with a track record of success. But is the way we’ve conceptualized our mission the best it can possibly be? What have we learned in the past decades of practice? Certainly, events of the past few years have humbled us and taught us that, at a minimum, we need to integrate a social justice lens more deeply into our work. If people in the communities we serve wake up each morning uncertain that they can depend on the nation’s system of laws and justice, our investment is undone. We must put equity and social justice at the center of our work.
New Ways of Thinking and Working
What would it take to add a segregation-busting feature to the Low Income Tax Credit or the New Markets Tax Credit? What would happen if every CDFI agreed to deploy 10 percent of its annual surpluses to civil rights and social justice organizations? What would happen if we advocated for affordable housing within middle income communities, in addition to distressed places? What would happen if we committed to investing 20 percent of our assets in historically segregated places? Or 10 percent of our community loan fund portfolios in organizations led by people of color? What would it take for us to enter into partnerships with rights and justice organizations and offer them the chance to weigh in on our strategic priorities?
We should hold up a mirror and ask ourselves, how does this policy or program work against racism and misogyny? This will mean a new way of thinking and working. It means examining every policy and program we support and asking, “How can we make this segregation-busting?” Not everything we do must pass this test. But a great deal more should bear up under scrutiny than do today.
In years past, we imagined how to change the world. So, what would it take to change our field anew? It takes our imagination. It takes asking ourselves the right questions. It takes our belief and commitment—the fire in the belly that exists in every one of us in community development. It takes trial and error, and forming new relationships and new friendships. We already have what it takes to make this real. We have the tools, the skill, the professionalism and the power to change the world—and most importantly, to change ourselves.