Most people who are familiar with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, or LISC, are familiar with its work as a community development intermediary—syndicating Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, providing affordable housing financing, convening and supporting comprehensive community development programs in target cities, and similar initiatives.
But for 20-plus years, LISC has also had a “safety and justice” program that works with local communities, primarily through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice but also using private funds, to address questions of safety. Feeling safe in your home and in the public spaces surrounding it is, after all, one of the fundamental determinants of a healthy and vibrant neighborhood.
As a training and technical assistance provider for the U.S. Department of Justice Byrne Criminal Justice Innovations program and Comprehensive School-Based Approach to Youth Violence and Victimization, LISC supports a range of types of programs, responding to residents’ needs, including violence interrupters in Massachusetts; a basketball league that ended a gang war in Richmond, Virginia; targeting of a drug market catering to out-of-town buyers in Rochester, New York; and interventions to address vacant properties that are allowing criminal activity to flourish. The grantees for these programs are typically community organizations or local governments, and the applications must have a cross-sector team assembled to apply. LISC’s work with the DOJ has brought it into over 80 urban and rural areas, including many that fall outside of the footprint of the organization’s 35 local offices.
Safety, however, also means different things to different people, and the events of the past year have brought into sharp relief the fact that safety for many people is not only not provided by our law enforcement system, but is frequently actively endangered by it. Working on a project that has a requirement for a partnership with law enforcement, while working in communities that have suffered from over-policing and police violence, is difficult. Even LISC’s own staff have shared multiple stories about how policing did not align with safety for them.
Maurice Jones, then LISC’s CEO, and Mona Mangat, vice president of safety and justice initiatives at LISC, wrote in a message about the program last October that the organization invests in “helping community groups and residents build and repair the determinants of safety” including “healthy, affordable housing, quality educational and recreation opportunities, access to jobs that provide a living wage and room for advancement” and also “high-functioning partnerships between community members, community developers and community-serving law enforcement personnel to address local causes of crime and the flaws of the criminal justice system.” They called for the demilitarization of police forces, and systemic change in how they were run, but sought a middle ground between the status quo and calls to defund police forces.
Shelterforce spoke with Mangat about why she feels safety and justice work is crucial for the community development field, what that can look like on the ground, and navigating the fraught waters around criminal justice reform.
This interview has been edited for length and to provide additional context to some remarks.
Miriam Axel-Lute: Give us a little introduction to the work of your program.
Mona Mangat: The essence of our work is helping community-based organizations and local partners, which very often includes some form of law enforcement—mostly police departments, but very often sheriff’s offices, prosecutors, and, in certain places, working with judges and the court systems. We design collaborative/place-based strategies to address crime, to advance justice efforts, and to build not just safe communities, but vibrant, equitable communities.
Our focus is supporting problem-solving approaches to crime and criminal justice reform changes that are led by community-based organizations, and primarily community development organizations. Resident-led engagement is critical to this work.
Particularly in the summer of 2020, what we found is those communities that had deep partnerships with the police departments were able to navigate the protests and the uprising in a very different way, where they could still communicate with one another. We had a lot of examples of cities within our network that faced tough decisions.
What we found is partners chose to stick with those law enforcement partnerships. They chose to have boundaries, and they asked for systems change at the local level. But we didn’t see any of our locally based partnerships walk away from funding that required them to be at the table with law enforcement.
We also found that the work that we have been supporting resulted in an increased focus and expansion of programs like violence interrupters and street outreach workers. During COVID-19, it was remarkable to see the switch to how valuable they were, that those street outreach workers and trusted community ambassadors were needed for so much—guidelines for vaccines and connecting to resources, masks, trying to engage with the city on next steps, or working with youth that were no longer in school. We just found the model to be so valuable during the summer of crisis, both in response to the murder of George Floyd, and the pandemic. They were so resilient. Talking about safety and criminal justice work can often be so challenging at the community level, because there’s so many years of distrust, and the dialogues are just so real. They became really valuable partners for things outside of safety in a time of crisis.
As a program, how do you define safety for a neighborhood and for its residents?
Our process is really how the community defines safety. Many times what we find is perception of crime is often as bad as the areas where there are high crime rates, or high violent crime rates. When we look at the data, we’ll find that one area, whether it’s a commercial corridor or a vacant property, often has larger percentages of crime than another property that is much more concerning to residents.
We’re speaking to residents and making sure that we’re getting a sense of what to work on, how to identify that place, which is why we sometimes end up identifying projects that are vacant or abandoned properties or parks, because that is what is of concern to residents.
Sometimes for projects with the Department of Justice, where we are assigned to work in an area, they do identify a hot spot of crime. But even within those projects, when we have large boundaries, we still identify where to start in partnership, sometimes with researchers, when we have the ability or the funding, but most often it’s the CBOs [community-based organizations] that are bringing residents to the table to identify their greatest concerns.
If there’s a place where residents have a strong concern about one area, and there’s another area that actually has higher crime rates, you’ll go where the concern is, because that’s having the immediate effect for them?
It is. There’s a general assumption that there are high rates of crime, but there are also high rates of fear of crime, or of trauma related to prior incidents of crime. And in those areas we’re able to say “Let’s decide where we go jointly.” It really speaks to the need for private investment in this work.
As much as we in the community development field want to believe that our local organizations are always representative of everybody, they’re not. We have problems with a lot of white-led organizations in communities of color. People who come out to programs that are about crime and are about partnering with the police are likely to be people who are more afraid of crime than they are of police, as opposed to other populations. If you go to the neighborhood association, you get a very different view than if you go talk to the parents of teenagers of color in terms of how we should be interacting with the police department. How do you grapple with these differences when you approach questions around what is safety and whether and how law enforcement is involved?
It’s different for our different projects. Our growth and major expansion happened through our partnership with the Department of Justice. We’re now at 80 communities where we have supported this work.
In those cases, the areas—both rural and urban—have high levels of crime, and typically violent crime. And they’re in underinvested communities. Anywhere we’re going with DOJ work, there is clear information on the rates of crime, and we’re working in primarily neighborhoods of color. And mostly in partnership with organizations that are either Black-led or where Black residents have been heavily impacted by the crime, and there’s deep distrust with law enforcement.
What’s embedded in the Department of Justice work is that there is a commitment from law enforcement to partner. So, almost always for us, that’s been police, but there have been examples of community prosecution units and court systems being engaged.
We’re really fortunate to have LISC field offices. When we’re applying for funding, we’re really identifying and leading with the assumption that funding is going to go to organizations that have lived experience with this. So, a lot of the community-based organizations that we support are not just Black-led organizations, but they actually are led by people with, or have multiple staff that have, lived experience with the criminal justice system. Some of our strongest examples of our best work are organizations that are led by people who have been incarcerated, who have had negative experiences with police, gone through the court system. We have an example of a group in Richmond, Virginia, where the leaders were incarcerated for a combined 20-plus years.
So, for us, having them bring LISC to the table in these partnerships, we know that we’re really working with those impacted the most. But they also are trusted by the residents that we’re trying to reach. Designing re-entry programs with organizations that don’t have people that have lived through trying to return to their communities just doesn’t work. It’s not as effective.
For our private work, that’s the key. We identify the communities that do have high rates of crime, but have the right partners at the table that we want to work with. We’re able to select or identify our partners in a way that really matters to the work.
Did the events of last year change anything about how you approached these questions, these partnerships, and/or the larger conversation around the topic?
Yes. It really changed the work. For our team and for our partners, police brutality, over-policing, distrust of police, these were not new issues. But this steady interest and the sort of shock of watching the video of how George Floyd was killed, it woke more people up to how much this happens and how often it happens, and how wrong it is.
For us, it intensified our work in this space, and allowed LISC to understand, through rolling out Project 10X, how critical it is to have safety and justice be a part of that work. We always looked at the safety and justice work through the lens of racial equity. You can’t not do that when you look at the impacts of incarceration and police brutalities on Black Americans. For us, it’s always been something that we inherently are aware of and build into our model.
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What shifted was that we intensified it, and we’re now mindful about the way that we’re talking about this work. And there’s finally an urgency to something that we’ve been saying for over 20 years, which is communities need resident-led approaches to safety. We need alternatives to incarceration, and we need to have solutions that can impact that pre-entry point, right at that first touch of a police interaction. What can be different to not result in that sort of anger and approach with each other that leads to incarceration?
There’s a real responsibility on our end to talk about this work through the lens of racial equity and really start showing data and numbers around the injustice and the inequality sitting with Black people and how much it impacts them.
A lot of the shift for us is really leaning into the data around it and bringing attention to how Black Americans are just so disproportionately affected by gun violence, crime and violence, interactions with police, all of the things related to our work.
You said you’re being very careful about how you’re talking about racial equity and how you embed that focus into these projects. Can you give me an example?
A lot of it is our forward-looking priorities and what we’re looking to fund. One of the things that we’re keen on is lifting up the voices of the next generation, the people who are going to shape this movement. We know who the change-making justice reformers are in the community, and we really make sure that we give a platform to people with lived experience—Black residents, Black-led organizations, grassroots leaders that are coming up with the solutions around alternatives to incarceration. Amplifying the voice and replicating the work of these leaders. We’re very intentional about making sure that we’re funding people who are really going to make the change and have been the most impacted.
Also, looking at the example of the vacant properties and over-policing of vacant properties, these properties disproportionately occur in Black and underinvested communities. We want to make sure that if we are to provide resources, [it’s] in communities with higher populations of Black residents that have had those run-ins with police. The data is guiding where we invest, and that data is available to us through all these police departments that we connect with nationally and through our networks. We want to make sure that we look at that before we make any financial investments, any training or technical assistance investments, that we’re being more targeted at what we do and where we look.
You’ve mentioned alternatives to incarceration a couple times. What I hear a lot in this past year is a call for alternatives to policing. Have you taken that step?
Absolutely. To begin with, LISC has just entered into a partnership with the Los Angeles County Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) Initiative which aims to divert an estimated 10,000 individuals from incarceration each year, helping them avoid the negative consequences of criminal legal system involvement. As part of this program, LISC will also lead the launch the ATI Incubation Academy to identify and build the capacity of up to 100 additional local nonprofit organizations to provide services to the county through ATI.
We still see a role for law enforcement for some of our partnerships, where residents or community welcome that. But we also have long advocated for violence interrupters and street outreach workers. And what we find, in the cities where those approaches are going really well, is there actually is still an ability to partner with police. These programs are part of such respected organizations that the police are typically completely on board with the fact that they should be the first, or the most visible when responding to the scene of a crime, or calls for service, even.
Street outreach work is something that many of our partnerships around the country are embedding into their programming. The idea is that these are people from the communities. They are often residents who have been justice-involved in some way, have returned from incarceration, have been gang-involved. And they are responding to crisis situations either jointly with police or prior to the police getting there, because they often are there even before a 911 call is made. Or often, in many of our communities, they wouldn’t think to call 911, so they are the people that respond. That’s one model.
Another really big one is known as co-response. For many years, we’ve been supporting work in Providence, Rhode Island, and we’re trying to create a peer network around the country, to have mental health workers and social workers ride along with police, responding to calls for service. That is something that is critical, this co-response model. But it really needs to be expanded. There are so many cities that are doing it, but they’re not necessarily speaking to each other. They’re doing different versions because there’s not research or best practices on how to scale the work. Co-response is jointly done with police, but we see opportunities to make that much more community led.
And then, in Richmond, Virginia, we had two formerly incarcerated residents who launched a basketball league between two warring public housing complexes. And that resulted in a significant drop in crime, to the point where the police chief said, “The police department has to find money for this league, because when the league stops, the shooting starts.” It was a really clear example of a resident-led alternative that not just reduced crime, but reduced the need for police to be in that neighborhood. And it wasn’t just playing basketball. It was workshops related to the league, and brokering peace agreements, and anger management, and so many different components. It worked because the founders were so respected that, when these two gentlemen spoke, it was pin-drop silence because people were so interested in hearing their story.
Our work looks different from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city because the whole idea is what is going to work in a particular place. Sometimes it’s vacant property reclamation. Sometimes it’s a basketball league or a pop-up market. Often, it’s another idea, like housing, community courts in a health center, or shifting the location of a probation office, that has resulted in really significant reductions in crime, but, most importantly, avoiding community-police interaction altogether.
The examples we have are diverse, because they’re resident- and community-led. It’s not one size fits all. The police are not the dominant role in any of this.
Do you ever feel like the requirement to have police involvement hampers what you’re doing in some areas, or your ability to reach some populations?
When we are embarking on a problem-solving process to address crime and safety, there’s an assumption that law enforcement is going to lead that, and that is really never the case in our work.
The assumption is we are partnering with community-minded law enforcement because these are community-led initiatives, so they are brought to the table as a resource for the community. But yes, when we launched work in Greenville, Mississippi, there was not an interest from those organizations to be partnering with the police department. It definitely takes time, and you have to carve out what we need from law enforcement. That sometimes is just data, or sometimes it’s to not be engaged. Sometimes the request to law enforcement is this is a community-led alternative, and they want to be the lead. Often, it’s communicating with the community beat officer to let the community be in the lead.
But the distrust of police is always, always a challenge. For the groups that have been doing this work for so many years, they do have an ability to partner, but they’re also really respected community organizations that can bring police to the table and not turn off half the neighborhood because they are so respected.
Is there ever a moment when what a community needs is something political? We are hearing a lot of calls to divert some of the police budget entirely to something else, or launch civilian review boards that have the power to remove problematic officers from the force. Those seem like things that are needed but would be harder to partner on than a project that is focusing on reducing non-police crime.
Yes. Violence interrupters and street outreach workers, are often, for now, city-funded programs or funded as part of broader DOJ efforts. They’re sometimes fighting the police department in a way for those budgets. Those are cases where, yes, they’re sort of going after the same money, which should not be the case. In cases like that, we need to have police advocates who are saying that money is shared across law enforcement and community.
We have had community organizations who have advocated successfully for the budget to shift to invest in the community around violence interrupters and street outreach as opposed to policing programs on that particular budget. That’s where it can be more challenging. For our work, though, the dollars and the support we’re giving are to the community-based organizations. When law enforcement is brought to the table, it’s project-specific; we’re not sharing or competing for dollars.
The biggest barrier for us was last summer, when you’ve had some partnerships that have been going for years, and then, suddenly, it was a danger for a CBO to align themselves with a chief, or to align themselves with the police department or the prosecutor. Those were really difficult times. A lot of our street outreach workers and program coordinators were trying to calm the protests, not necessarily advocating for police in any way, but trying to not have their organizations be taken down because they were associated with partnership. That was the biggest challenge. They became more focused on the need for community- and resident-led alternatives, as opposed to just saying we’re completely not aligning ourselves with police.
We ran a piece recently about how community development can be more anti-racist, and one of the requests was stand up and speak out about particular issues. It reminded me of how struck I was that on June 5, 2020, Western New York LISC put out a solidarity message that talked generally about the Black Lives Matter protests in general, and spoke about the office’s work in Buffalo, but did not acknowledge or call out the 57 officers in the Buffalo Police Department who had just resigned from the emergency response unit en masse because two officers who knocked over an elderly guy at a protest might face some accountability. LISC had a partnership with that police department, and a large number of its officers had just done something heinous, and there was no mention of it at all. I realize funding ties can make speaking on such things difficult, but is there an internal struggle about whether and how to address things like that?
It’s always been separate, even within LISC, to be honest. This is sort of a moment for our program and the fact that we are a CDFI with a safety and justice focus, but it’s a little bit siloed. Our work dovetails so perfectly with LISC’s racial equity initiative Project 10X. The impact on Black Americans of safety and justice issues is clear, but I don’t know that that has filtered through community development, or even entirely through LISC; safety and justice has always been a program, an initiative.
When you think about revitalization, you can’t even think about not doing corridor work, or housing work, or economic development. But you almost need to force the safety and justice work in.
It actually had nothing to do with “We can’t talk about it because it’s a DOJ grant.” It’s that a LISC office can do comprehensive work for years, most community development organizations can, and they don’t think about safety and justice. So, even in a crisis situation, when you’re talking about this movement that was sparked by a murder by police, there’s still a disconnect of how safety and justice fits into community development work in general.
But there’s a real moment here for community development as a whole to think about how we incorporate this work. LISC internally, and community development as well.
When a local CDC is approached by someone who has a concern that there’s crime, they may say, “Well, there should be more police presence there,” or “We should invite the police to co-host our neighborhood picnic” if they haven’t thought through over-policing and those ripple effects on the community.
That’s true. There’s so much power in the Coffee with Cops, the National Night Out, and Police Athletic Leagues, but there is such deep, deep distrust, and so many ongoing issues.
We’re about to launch work in Jacksonville and Philadelphia, in neighborhoods where there’s such a long history of over-policing that you’re bound to have police over-enforcement or a potential police misconduct issue while you’re in an active grant. And of course it’s going to set you back, because our partners are walking away from the table.
For us, so much of the work is rooted in having those honest conversations and really picking the organizations that have the ability to have those honest conversations, the ability to be credible when things get wild, because it happens in so many of our communities. Community policing resources were poured into Minneapolis from the federal level, but as far as I know there was no sustainable neighborhood-based partnership, led by community, with funding to the community, at the ground level. It’s not just about a five-year federal grant that gets poured in, but how are we really investing in the organizations and the residents to be able to identify what their safety concerns are and come up with community-led alternatives.
Even within our own offices, it’s hard to prioritize this work because it’s hard to fund. It’s politically risky. And it takes a long time to build those relationships, and the relationships are critical to success.
Many people would say framing this as a question of building trust is the wrong approach, because it’s a systemic problem. Relationships are necessary to get a partnership off the ground, but relationships won’t fix the fact that we’ve poured too much money into policing. We’ve put the incentives in the wrong place. We’ve prioritized order and property over people. We’ve allowed police departments to be filled with white supremacists. Under such conditions, don’t calls for trust-building ring hollow?
Yes; it’s absolutely so true. It’s not just where we invest, who we invest in, and what organizations we choose to lead this work, but it’s leading with the systems change that’s needed. For us it’s always been about the neighborhood-level systems change. But there are inequities in every point of contact along the criminal justice continuum—pre-entry, within incarceration, re-entry. The whole system is so flawed.
And now there’s this rush to say, “Well, now we’ll have mental health workers respond.” We’re assuming that that system is also not flawed. And when you do that, you’re still going to have the same issues. Which social workers are deployed to these same under-invested Black communities, and which social workers are deployed to the more affluent white communities? There’s this assumption that we’ve come up with a solution. Less police, more mental health.
The health system is also flawed. Where you can be equitable and where you can see change is if we say we need to invest in the community-based organizations. There are models out there, from co-response to violence interrupters to street outreach to problem-solving to investing in vacant properties that, if we just had the ability to scale them and launch them simultaneously in 20 places, we could get so much traction.
There’s so much out there that we’ve seen work, but it’s so dependent on two years of funding, three years of a federal grant, and you have all these requirements of who has to be at the table.
Right now, the responses and the dialogue around what replaces police is really concerning. It’s not just policing. You can fix policing, and the courts are still going to be an issue, and the prosecutors are still going to be an issue.
You’ve got to close the racial/health/wealth/opportunity gap—the mantra of 10X—through community-based investment. It’s the same for safety and justice, but it feels so hard to prioritize that.