Practitioner Voice Moving Community Development Forward

What Do Residents Think of Community Development Organizations?

Research explores residents' experiences with and observations about community development organizations in four cities.

Photo by daveburke.com via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

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This article is part of the Under the Lens series

Moving Community Development Forward

In this series, we examine the state of the community development field, the challenges and tensions it faces, and some promising approaches to this work.
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When Kathy Yancey-Temple learned there was a bus tour of North Memphis that didn’t stop in Douglass, the historic Black neighborhood that has been her lifelong home, she was flabbergasted. “I don’t know how you can have a tour of North Memphis and don’t stop in the historic community of Douglass?’“ she said on a webinar hosted by ThirdSpace Action Lab and Community Opportunity Alliance (formerly NACEDA) on May 3. “So I invited myself on to the bus, OK.” And she insisted they detour to Douglass where she gave an impromptu history of the neighborhood. “I’m saying that to say that we have to not just change the narrative we have. We have to be the narrative,” she concluded. Also on that bus was Justin Merrick, director of the Center for Transforming Communities, a community development organization in North Memphis, Tennessee, with which Yancey-Temple, who also runs her own nonprofit, got connected. Yancey-Temple now works as a community connector with CTC.

Chasidy Harris, also a Douglass resident, got connected with CTC when she graduated from culinary school and was looking for a way to give back to her community without just opening a restaurant that her neighbors couldn’t afford. She connected with Yancey-Temple, and then Merrick, and after several years now runs Five Senses Farming, Agriculture and Culinary Arts, a farm to table program for kids connecting community gardening and cooking in North Memphis.

It takes time to build trust with a nonprofit community development organization said Harris in that same webinar. There’s a “lack of trust when it comes to programs or nonprofits  . . . because you have these nonprofits that come into these communities and they make all these different promises. We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna do that. And then the next project, in a better developed community comes along, they snatch that from us, and they take it elsewhere.” But as Harris came to trust CTC, they also supported her to grow her dream beyond Douglass, and see the issues there connected to larger dynamics going on throughout the city and beyond.

Resident leaders like Yancey-Temple and Harris and their relationships with and observations about their local community-based development organizations get the spotlight in the research project Storied Communities, Community Stories, released in 2023 by ThirdSpace Action Lab and Community Opportunity Alliance. For this research, ThirdSpace interviewed resident leaders who were past and present volunteers, staff, members, and formal project partners working with four community-based development organizations around the country. We also wanted to be sure to capture the perspectives of residents less involved with CBDO partners. To do this, local literary artists partnered with us to engage residents in a conversation about their local CBDOs and communities in general.

Across all interviews it was clear that, as important as CBDOs were to their communities, CBDOs could not function without residents. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two dating back to the origins of the sector. It was residents who formed the first CBDOs to organize around structural issues facing their communities, and this often remains true in place-based community development work. We found this original organizing spirit to be alive and well among residents and CBDOs, while both are navigating barriers that have been erected as the sector has formalized and become more reliant professionals with highly technical skill sets.

Roles

Resident leaders are aware that CBDOs are doing a great deal of work with and on behalf of their communities. Interestingly, many identified roles that extended far beyond what we might typically assume is visible outside the community development sector. Residents identified CBDO work falling into three general categories: direct services, systems and structural change, and root cause work.

The resident leaders we interviewed recognized the importance of the direct services CBDOs provide, for instance, in supporting the protection of physical space like housing or community spaces. They pointed to core community development functions like real estate and land development, community planning, and workforce development. (Interestingly, there was less direct emphasis on small business development than we expected.)

At the same time, the residents we interviewed placed even greater emphasis on how CBDOs provide entry points for residents to engage in systems change work (such as through policy reform efforts) and addressing root causes of community-related issues (such as through narrative strategy work). Resident leaders elevated priorities that are common focuses of CBDOs (including affordable housing, food access, safety, and public transit), but appeared to prioritize getting to the root causes of long-standing community issues, rather than addressing them solely through direct services or typical community development outputs like the number of units built. The core challenges they tended to elevate were less about lack of housing or small businesses per se, but rather the lack of community-led efforts, lack of substantive involvement of residents in community design, lack of direct resourcing of residents to develop and implement solutions to community development issues, and lack of sufficient resources going to CBDOs for them to fully focus on equitable development.

The resident leaders we interviewed had a keen interest in engaging around root causes of those community challenges. They valued CBDO emphasis on affordability, opportunities to own or co-own land and property, to learn about policies and give input, and to be directly involved in community planning . . . but not just for the sake of doing these things. They were clear that the most critical part of community change is organizing residents and working collectively with CBDOs, especially around shifting the often negative dominant narratives about their communities to ones of rich culture, traditions, assets, strong work ethic, and ability to understand issues and develop solutions.

When Iris Mercado, a North Memphis resident who helps to lead the Binghampton Community Land Trust, which is supported by CTC, is asked about the CBDO and its strengths, she doesn’t first bring up the various programs and products that CTC offers, but rather the fact that it takes an asset-based community development approach, always focusing on the positive aspects of the neighborhood rather than its deficits. “The way that we approach issues and solutions based ideas tend to focus on what do we have available in the neighborhood and beyond?” she says “And what can we leverage with our community partners to fight back on deficit kind of language?”

Interviewees outlined three specific rationales for focusing beyond just direct service. First, in order to address issues in a more sustainable way beyond day-to-day triage, it’s important to engage those with the greatest lived experience and closest proximity to the problems. In a community development context, that is typically residents.

Second, residents already have power to address issues at a systemic or root cause level and often do so through their own activism and informal organizing. CBDOs don’t empower residents; rather, they support the process of residents rediscovering and activating their power They were grateful for day-to-day work helping residents fight eviction, involving residents in community design, and hosting community meetings, but they displayed particular appreciation for the role CBDOs play in preparing and equipping residents to advocate for themselves and control their own community outcomes.

Finally, they perceive a direct link between negative, dominant narratives, the services that CBDOs offer, and how much capacity CBDOs have to make those services effective and high-quality. For instance, a number of resident leaders we interviewed were able to name the direct link between the narrative that their communities are “high risk” and reduced financial investment. CBDOs are then left to address all kinds of market failures and to do so without adequate funding and financing. This makes it very difficult for CBDOs to remain primarily mission-focused or to provide robust services to the degree they wish to. Residents noted that it’s vital to invest time and resources into challenging and changing those narratives to bring increased investment in their communities.

Barriers

Residents have considerable sympathy for the position that CBDOs have been put in—to carry out a lot of different kinds of work, all urgent, all at once, and without adequate funding. In particular, resident leaders recognize that CBDOs of and serving communities of color are often subject to the same adverse impacts of dominant narratives as residents. The risk-aversion narrative, for example, which says that communities of color are inherently risky and that community development funding should avoid risk, stifles capital flow for residents and organizations. Or the narrative of problematizing residents not systems, which says that community members lack the technical capacities to do community development work leads to hyperprofessionalization, which creates staffing challenges for CBDOs and makes it difficult for residents to engage the field directly. Or the trickle-down narrative, which suggests that changes at a larger scale are the best way to reach local communities, limits the resources made available in communities. Findings indicate that barriers and challenges experienced by residents and CBDOs in under-resourced areas due to narratives like these are often similar to each other.

The people we interviewed noted two additional challenges that prevent resident leaders from actively partnering with CBDOs on systems change and root cause work. First, they noted that community development systems and infrastructure tend to be too rigid to allow for this kind of work. In a sector with very strict monitoring, compliance, funding restrictions, timelines, and performance measures, it can be difficult for CBDOs and residents to partner on more upstream forms of change.

Second, they noted that the hyperprofessionalized nature of community development can preclude deep resident partnership, at least in the absence of additional time and resources. This is something that factored prominently in ThirdSpace’s separate anti-racist community development research. The technical language, technical skill sets, and advanced degree and credential requirements for community development practitioners can significantly impede residents from taking leadership roles or delving into intricate issues like policy and finance.

assets

Even so, resident leaders expressed confidence that, if these barriers can be overcome, CBDOs and residents working together could make a real difference in systems change and root cause work. They noted that CBDO staff have a detailed understanding of overcoming barriers of rigid systems and hyperprofessionalization because they experience these challenges in their day-to-day work. Interviewees felt that CBDOs are particularly good at navigating policies, which could open a door for residents to engage in systems change work around things like public capital flow and equitable housing and land use regulations.

CBDOs often serve as translators of formal community development jargon for residents, giving them the tools to apply their power and engage in the community development ecosystem. This includes taking on speaking roles at council meetings, weighing in on proposed local policies, and sharing information and resources with fellow residents to increase resilience against forces like eviction and displacement.

Given the long history of community organizing in community development—particularly the origins of the sector in the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements—residents felt that this kind of collaborative organizing work between residents and CBDOs could be a stronger priority in the sector.

[RELATED ARTICLE: Which Way Community Development?]

Residents suggested that one way CBDOs help them realize their power is by hiring them on as staff or otherwise pooling financial resources in support of resident leadership. This is not mere workforce development or a passive result of simply being located within a community; rather, when done with intentionality, residents perceived this as defying status quo practices of seeking out credentials over lived experience and affirming the notion that those closest to the problem have the solutions. Providing resources directly to residents (whether through full-time or part-time positions, participation stipends, or microgrants to support their own community development efforts) enables them to experiment and test new ways of strengthening community conditions. Such investments can stimulate a neighborhood economy, but they also ensure that CBDOs stay values-aligned and provide resources to people who are close to fellow residents and their needs.

Changes Over Time

Across the board, residents did not note changes in the direct services of the CBDOs they interact with. That is not to say, however, that residents thought CBDOs weren’t changing—they were changing outside of their core direct service work in ways that still felt very material to interviewees. These changes include less direct CBDO involvement in political processes and policy work, either increases or decreases in CBDOs’ community engagement, less visibility in community, and added or updated focus areas. For example, interviewees noted that one CBDO continues to provide community design expertise but has significantly pulled back its community engagement and thus is now less visible than it was 10 years ago. Residents know that it still does the work, but they don’t see it or engage with it.

The residents we spoke with put forward three main theories for why the CBDOs they work with have shifted: longevity, funding, and leadership. While three of our four CBDO partners incorporated within the past 15 years, interviewees suspected that an organization’s political involvement tended to decline with age, perhaps as its funding diversified; in particular, increased government funding was perceived to create potential conflicts for CBDOs. As CBDOs became more established, their direct, public political engagement seemed to decline, while they increased efforts to stay values-aligned by indirectly informing and influencing policy. One example given was a CBDO partnering with artists external to staff, who may have more latitude to make bold political statements and offer critique.

Resident leaders also perceived that funding levels play a key role in what work CBDOs do more of and what they do less. For instance, they suggested that decreases in funding might lead CBDO staff to refocus resources away from community engagement and toward activities like land acquisition, affordable housing design and construction, and implementation of routine services. Funding decreases reduced overall staff size and also led to long-time staff departing and new staff coming in. This was perceived to lead to a loss of institutional memory and staff being spread more thinly across CBDOs’ services. Meanwhile, when CBDOs were able to secure increased funding and other supports, resident leaders perceived that they were able to engage residents frequently and equitably, update programming to reflect resident-named needs, provide resources for residents to implement their own neighborhood programs, and hire residents as staff members, connecting the CBDO more directly to community.

Even beyond funding-driven staffing changes, however, the resident leaders we talked to believed that who occupied CBDO seats mattered a great deal to what organizations focused on and how they approached their work. Even when focusing on relatively young CBDOs, residents perceived significant staffing changes over the past 10 years. The loss of dynamic, passionate, and mission-oriented staff could significantly reduce connections with community members and break down relationships that may have taken years to build. The arrival of new leadership could potentially rebuild relationships and bring creative new energy to work, or it could result in a more technocratic, production-oriented, and community-removed approach, depending on the orientation of the leader and the history and culture of the CBDO.

While we did not see sizable differences between the resident leaders and less involved resident interviewees, some did seem worth noting:

Residents who were less engaged with CBDOs generally named that they were interested in what the CBDOs do but were either not aware of them, did not feel the services were for them, did not feel that they were a target audience for the CBDO, or that residents of their racial demographic had not been made aware of the available or significance of a CBDO’s offerings.

Those who were less engaged with CBDOs were generally more skeptical that the CBDO’s current level of community engagement (or its current engagement goals and approaches) were sufficient for achieving meaningful community impact.

Residents who were less engaged with CBDOs were generally more explicit about the need to support people’s daily life needs so they have the space and knowledge to make informed decisions or play more direct roles in systems change and narrative work. They were also more likely to recommend challenging or undoing existing systems, rather than changing them or adapting to them.

Equity

One of the key takeaways from ThirdSpace’s separate anti-racist community development research was that equitable community development is not a single “thing” but rather an overall framework and series of decisions that impact everything a CBDO does, from bylaws to hiring and onboarding,  real estate disposition, and resident roles in governance.

Resident leaders offered a similar sentiment. Rather than thinking about equity practices as only affecting one area of CBDO practice or policy, they pointed to numerous concrete examples of what they perceived equitable community development looks like (or could look like, if adequately resourced). While these varied across interviews, residents consistently offered up that equitable CBDO approaches include: authentically and sustainably involving residents and other stakeholders across community development processes, developing and refining programs and services to ensure they are reflective of community needs, hiring or otherwise securing financial support for residents in order to inform processes and programs, and setting intentional guardrails against inequitable or harmful practices, including in interaction with funding sources.

Generally, residents suggested that CBDOs were at their strongest when they consistently considered and planned their work in two directions—increasing positive impact of equitable approaches (largely but not exclusively from the CBDO itself) and minimizing negative impact of inequitable approaches (largely but not exclusively external to the CBDO). Increasing positive impact could look like centering residents in services and processes and lifting up accurate, asset-based narratives of the community. Minimizing negative impact could look like increased organizing against harmful practices by private market and government actors and being intentional about not accepting funds from organizations that engage in activities that are damaging to the community, especially for residents of color and residents living on low incomes.

In both cases, interviewees seemed to be echoing their broader emphasis on systems change and root cause work—pushing back against notions that neighborhood challenges are a result of neighborhood-level or household-level decision-making. Instead they say that neighborhood challenges likely result from severe systemic issues caused by a constellation of actors and market forces that exist well outside neighborhood boundaries.

For more on the research, including the full-length report, recommendations for the future, methodologies, a conversation guide, and information on the organizations involved, visit ThirdSpace Action Lab.

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