Interview Moving Community Development Forward

Not Only Building Buildings: The Black Community Developers Group

A conversation with Leatrice Moore, executive director of Black Community Developers Group, about the need for BCDG and plans for the future.

Photo in public domain, via Nappy

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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.

For more than a decade, organizations have existed to serve the specific interests and challenges of AAPI and Latine community developers. But there has been nothing specifically for Black community developers—until recently. That gap has been filled, and we spoke with Leatrice Moore, the executive director of the Black Community Developers Group, about her group, the need for it, and plans for the future.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Let’s start off with the Black Community Developers Group. Why was it formed? Who formed it? What were the top needs of the member groups that caused this group to come together?

Leatrice Moore

Leatrice Moore: The Black Community Developers Group started as a really informal group of leaders within NeighborWorks. Every training institute that NeighborWorks held, [they] would talk about some of the needs that they all had as Black leaders. Over the years, they saw the field changing very quickly. There were less Black leaders, and they started seeing other leaders who weren’t of color come in. What was once the majority was beginning to become the minority. So they formed the African Diaspora Group.

Conversations started about 2010, and the African Diaspora Group informally started shortly after that. They realized we need to probably formalize, but with tons of presidents and CEOs and executive directors, it took more time than not. Then George Floyd was murdered, and the sense of urgency became more apparent.

Lori Gay, president and CEO of Neighborhood Housing Services of LA, [and] Donald Gilmore, executive director of the Community Housing Development Corporation in Richmond, California, came together and created in 2020 a [proposal] that was sent over to NeighborWorks America.

NeighborWorks America was primarily the target because a lot of the leaders were NeighborWorks affiliates.

The first fellow was hired in 2020 to run the Black Community Developers Group. The fellow worked about a year on some of the foundational things. The group met and began a strategic planning process. I came aboard in 2022 as the inaugural executive director.

Most of the members are NeighborWorks affiliates, some are not. Some are no longer affiliated with NeighborWorks, but they still remain a part of the original group and conversation. We are in urban and rural spaces.

Our main focus is on serving Black communities and empowering Black families. Although each organization doesn’t necessarily only focus on the Black community, that is our commonality: we want to advance the Black community as much as possible through our community development and housing-building efforts.

Could you give an example of one of the requests in that initial proposal to NeighborWorks? What sorts of things were in there?

Some of the requests were around equity: equity in lending, equity in the evaluation processes.

[We talked] about how Black leaders, when they’re failing according to the NeighborWorks evaluation system, instead of them being disaffiliated, [would NeighborWorks allow] us to help them through seasoned leadership to get things back on track: We don’t want you to just de-charter them and kick them out. We want to be able to provide that support and say, “Hey, these are ways that you can be successful.”

[We requested] support for one of our internal [programs], the Black Family Fund. A lot of our members struggle with pre-development funding and [this would] allow us to lend to our members low-interest rate or zero-interest rate loans so that they can get the projects off the ground and not have to go through a lot of the red tape that happens and we find tends to be backed by systemic racism.

What kinds of things are your members struggling with? What are the points where resources get allocated disparately?

The struggle across the board is always providing capacity, and we do that through several ways, [including] our internship program, our leadership succession program.

[One] of the struggles definitely is people being pressured into LIHTC [Low Income Housing Tax Credit] projects and not having enough financial backing to do certain projects without having to bring in developers who aren’t of color who end up taking a big chunk of the change. Then they end up with the short end of the stick.

Fair lending, fair interest rates, all of those are struggles that our leaders have seen across the board, and just equity in lending in general.

[Another challenge is] getting people [to] give directly to us and not through some of the larger organizations that typically don’t trickle down to the people on the ground doing the work.

That’s what we found a lot of. In my talks with people, they will say, “Oh, well, we funded this [intermediary] organization.” We’re like, “Well, that’s great, but that’s not an organization that gives directly to us,” or “We don’t get any of that trickle-down money.”

[RELATED STORY: CDFIs Led by People of Color Face Financial Disparities Too]

Many of the grantors are thinking, “Hey, you guys are getting this money,” but we’re not, and it’s not being filtered back into the community the way that it should be.

The push for diversity, equity, inclusion is no longer as much of a priority as it once was. It’s like [funders are saying], “OK, we’ve poured into these big organizations that were supposed to do this stuff for Black communities and Black families. That didn’t necessarily translate, but we’ve done enough, and now we don’t really want to be a part of it.” That’s where many folks are now. If you didn’t get a piece of that big George Floyd money pie in the beginning, you weren’t going to get a slice at all. Unfortunately for the Black Community Developers Group, we formed slightly after, and a lot of that stuff was already deployed, so our members didn’t directly get lots of it.

We are of course, hopeful with this EPA [environmental justice] money because we joined coalitions and things that will hopefully be able to directly impact the community. We do the work. We can show how many houses, how many people were counseled, how many people were able to purchase homes, how many homes were renovated. Those are the things that really matter, but a lot of times it doesn’t translate to the folks who are getting the money out.

When you’re saying that, you’re talking about financial institutions, foundations, government, or all of the above?

Most times, government money’s a little different, but foundations and financial institutions and those intermediaries.

So far [Black Community Developers Group has] been invite-only, but I know you’re interested in expanding.

Yes, we are invitation only and the membership follows the person and not the organization. Our focus, to begin with, was strictly presidents, CEOs, and executive directors. We are looking this year to go through a major membership drive because there are so many folks who don’t know about us—and we don’t know about them—who could use the additional support.

One of the things we really pride ourselves on is being a safe space for Black leaders to have difficult conversations. That’s really imperative because some of the experiences don’t necessarily translate across the board and everyone isn’t understanding that systemic racism is real. These challenges are real and we live them every day. Having that safe space is something that we definitely enjoy offering to our members.

We’re looking to expand [to] C-suite level folks, and then to students, and then we’ll open it up to friends of the organization.

You’ve talked about the inequities that your members face as compared to similar white-led organizations. Some of that quantitative difference appeared in the NACEDA survey. I was wondering if you had any qualitative stories that show why this differential persists and how it manifests.

I’ll give the example of my board chair, Lori Gay. She recently closed on a LIHTC project and she owned the land, and in the end, she lost millions of dollars. She partnered with the white developer. Everything looked really good, but when it came down to the numbers and the books, it was not beneficial for the organization, and the organization lost lots of money including the land.

[It was] 189 units in the heart of South Los Angeles. They bought the land from a church, and the covenants on it say that you cannot sell this property to Black or Chinese people. That meant a lot to us, but to our partners who were not of color, it meant nothing. It was all a money game and everybody just kept adding to the bill, adding to the bill, and in the end, although NHS LA County owned the land and NHS LA County put lots of the blood, sweat, and tears into the project and held it for so long, they ended up with the short end of the stick.

How did you get your start in this field?

I was a political science major [and earned] a master’s degree in public administration. I worked for some major Black-led nonprofits here and in LA where I did some youth development work. Then I went into local government and I worked in community development, neighborhood services, and housing, and that’s where I got my footing.

Local government was a really tough pill for me. I did a lot of capacity building in terms of neighborhood structures and things. That was really difficult for me because I felt like I’m not being completely transparent: “‘You may get it, we hope you get it,’ but you really don’t.”

I learned that [in] community development, I could make more of an impact. I could keep more of those promises. I could build the houses and they could actually see it. That was so much more rewarding.

I did that for a few years and then started doing some strategic planning work, and then went back to youth development here in LA again.

I always believed in taking a holistic approach, and that led me to this role with the Black Community Developers Group, because not only could I help lead the charge of organizations actually building for Black families, but then go back and do some of that feel-good social work stuff with the families and ensure that they stay in the properties. This position helped me bring all of the skills that I learned over the years together.

What’s your definition of community development?

Most of our members build houses for low- to moderate-income families, but community development can really look like much more than that. You also have to invest in the human capital, the people who live in the communities. Community development to me is not only building buildings, but building people and building structures to build a thriving place for everybody to work, play, and live.

We referenced earlier the recent NACEDA survey on community-based development organizations. Were there surprises in [what they found]? Validation of what you believed?

Certainly validations, right? Things that we’ve been saying are there. You can see that the inequities were very clear. I would love to see another breakout, looking specifically at the Black leaders, because in the data, you could see who was most impacted.

I think that’s the piece that makes a lot of folks uncomfortable—when you say, not BIPOC, but the Black community. A lot of times we get left off of the “BIPOC.” I do believe it’s important to advocate for everyone, because you never know when that issue may hit you, but a lot of times we do a lot of the advocating and then we don’t get a lot of the benefits of it in the end.

Your call to action specifically mentions that when we talk just about low- and moderate-income communities—as community development also often does—that Black families often get overlooked. Can you talk about what that looks like?

I’ll give an example with the new CRA rulings that came out. We were very explicit that we are interested in serving Black communities and [the new rules need] to say, this amount of money goes to Black communities and not just low- to moderate-income families. Because there are tons of people who may be low- to moderate-income that [aren’t] necessarily Black families or Black communities.

I think we have to be honest with ourselves and go back to the basis of why all of this is even relevant: because of the mistreatment of Black people, in terms of purchasing homes and getting lending and all of those things.

I think for us, the biggest thing in our call to action [is] we won’t be apologetic about why we’re here. We won’t be apologetic about who we serve and I’m very intentional in always saying “Black families, Black community,” and it’s not to discredit anyone else, because we work with other organizations that serve other people.

We work with NALCAB [National Latino Community Asset Builders], we work with NACEDA, we work with Oweesta [a Native CDFI intermediary], but we have to advocate for ourselves, and [it’s important that] other organizations not sweep it under the rug when difficult conversations happen.

I have been to conferences where people have said very disparaging things, [like] “We need to stop having these conversations. Non-color people are tired of hearing it,” and we’re now offending them and it’s reverse racism! It’s like, are you serious? You can’t tell someone “just get over it” because other people feel uncomfortable. We feel uncomfortable that we have to endure it.

Although people oftentimes say that they’re allies and they’re friends, when people say disparaging things like that, and no one says anything, that sends a very clear message that if we don’t do it for us, no one will.

When you’re talking about a community development organization on the ground, let’s say working in a majority Black community, how does the work look different in terms of building the housing or other things if you take an income lens or you take a race-specific lens?

The work that a community developer or community development housing organization has to do to get a Black buyer ready is very different than a white buyer. There’s a lot more work and investment and education that people don’t take into account. The process of preparing is very different.

Then let’s say you have an organization that’s trying to maybe also support minority carpenters or electricians or architects. That’s a whole other challenge there. Because in every field, we’re consistently hitting barriers.

It sounds like we need different and clear definitions of success and extra support for the extra steps required.

Absolutely. In one of NeighborWorks’ evaluation processes, it does not take [that extra preparation] into account. It could appear through that process that a Black-led organization primarily serving Black families is not as successful as one that may be in the middle of, let’s say, Maine or New Hampshire, that doesn’t have to go through those challenges. Then it becomes an equity issue.

You’ve joined a collective that’s pushing for equity in [the EPA funds] distribution. Can you talk about that and other partnerships that you have with sister organizations?

We are a part of the Justice Climate Fund, that is pushed by the Community Builders Coalition of Color, that I think was formed by the African American Alliance of CDFIs. We joined forces with them because we know that the likelihood of being awarded would probably be a lot stronger with us all coming together.

We have a partnership with African American Alliance of CDFIs, the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, also the National Black Caucus [of State Legislators].

Then [Community Opportunity Alliance], NALCAB, Oweesta. NALCAB is not official. National CAPACD is one that we work closely with, and some others. We have a decent amount of folks that we have built strategic partnerships with over the last year or so and we’re looking to continue to [work with] anyone whose mission is closely aligned with ours [with] a strong interest in serving the Black community. We are looking to host late this summer a summit to have these conversations as strategic partners.

Let’s talk about building leadership pipelines and mentorship. What works, what hasn’t been working? How do we build up the leadership of the field?

I think what works is pairing folks who are experienced with people who aren’t [so they’re] able to ask questions and not feel like they should already know. I think that certainly works, having the ability to tap into people that have experienced many of the things that you’ve experienced or have some of the same things that keep you up late at night. I think that’s priceless.

Our internship program has been only two cohorts, but I will say very successful. Our members are really interested in hiring the young people that are interested in being a part of serving communities. What we’ve learned is that you happen to fall into community development. You don’t know that that’s something that you want to do, or you don’t really know more about the field, but you know that you care, you know that you want to make a difference. You know you want to close the racial wealth gap. You know that community is important to you, and then people find themselves here.

Thank you.

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