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Lessons from Detroit: Joining Forces with Resident-Led Groups

It's been 14 years since the Community Development Advocates of Detroit opened its membership to resident-led groups. Here's a look at what they've learned about working together and navigating the transition.

Members of Community Development Advocates of Detroit dance at a block party for the organization's anniversary in 2023, celebrating "25 years of building neighborhood power." Photo courtesy of Madhavi Reddy

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.

In July 2013, Detroit filed for bankruptcy. Basic systems were crumbling, including public safety, city planning, and garbage pickup. Neighborhoods were losing residents every day. The residents who stayed—the unsung heroes of Detroit—worked diligently alongside community development organizations (CDOs) to preserve their communities.

The largely untold story of Detroit is that of these resident-led groups and their work to keep neighborhoods thriving. Neighborhood safety patrols worked to prevent crime and to make sure children got to school safely. Other groups were and continue to be regular stewards of vacant land. Across Detroit you can still find a network of community gardens, pocket parks, and green stormwater infrastructure that they developed—funded with small grants at the best of times, but often paid for by the residents themselves. Resident-led groups provided support when city services couldn’t, providing mutual aid to their neighbors, tending to vacant land, and boarding up vacant properties.

Three years before Detroit filed for bankruptcy, my organization, Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), opened our membership to these resident-led groups. Here’s what we’ve learned since.

Defining “Community Development”

CDAD was established in 1998 as a trade association for community development organizations (known as community development corporations outside of Detroit). The early work of CDAD was to create a powerful network of CDOs that could influence development decisions by putting pressure on local and state government to fund community development work, establish CDOs as key partners to government in the work of stabilizing neighborhoods, and help to build and sustain strong new CDOs that could support neighborhoods across the city.

As the years passed, a sectorwide conversation emerged about the nature of community development—was this work an industry or a movement? Many believed that it was an industry that was primarily about measurable economic development. Others believed it was a movement about improving the quality of life of residents, protecting the rights of communities, and advocating for policies that resulted in more equitable access to spaces, decision-making power, and economic opportunity. CDAD decided that the purpose of community development was to build neighborhood power, which requires the inclusion, amplification, and centering of the work of residents and the groups they develop to protect their interests.

[RELATED ARTICLE: In Detroit, the Fight for Community Benefits Begins Anew]

Amid this conversation, the foreclosure crisis hit Detroit. The work of CDOs changed. Many had real estate portfolios and were developing housing. The crisis forced many of them to pivot to different kinds of neighborhood work—including community planning, reclaiming vacant land, and providing basic services. Some of our member organizations did not make it through the foreclosure crisis and no longer exist today due to mergers or closing their doors altogether.

Today, Detroit’s CDOs combine any of the following in their work:

  • Convening local stakeholders to represent their neighborhoods
  • Building residents’ power for decision-making through organizing and engagement
  • Community planning and advocacy to sustain Detroit’s neighborhoods

Economic development through the creation of affordable housing, commercial corridor development, and attracting jobs

  • Neighborhood-based social services and entrepreneurial programs

Meanwhile, the work that residents were doing to keep their neighborhoods whole throughout the foreclosure crisis was becoming more apparent. As a result, in 2010, before Detroit filed for bankruptcy, CDAD’s board decided to open up CDAD membership to include a category for resident-led groups, including block clubs and neighborhood associations.

This decision was not made lightly. The rationale included:

  • A belief that this work could not and should not be done without the leadership of those most affected by development decisions. We created the new membership category to make necessary space for resident-led groups to shape the work.
  • The desire to acknowledge, support, and amplify the critical work resident-led groups were doing across the city to keep their neighborhoods whole.
  • Recognition of the need for civic infrastructure of resident-led groups and CDOs together to build strong working relationships in neighborhoods.
  • Understanding the need to create a powerful network representing the community development ecosystem that could advocate for better policies and better outcomes for neighborhoods across the city—a network that included resident-led groups.

This decision required CDAD to change from being a trade association for CDOs to a more equitable community development membership organization. This affected our general decision-making processes, public policy agenda, member services, and fundraising and program development strategies. Today the majority of CDAD members are block clubs. This has required a shift in how CDAD works to balance the needs of our newest members with the CDOs who established the organization 25 years ago.

How does this change work in practice?

Seven people in red T-shirts bearing a logo for CDAD are smiling as they stand in a row on the grass at an outdoor event. They're either dancing or listening to music. Behind them are lots of other people talking, playing, making music. In the background is a large white pavilion tent and off to the left, trees in leaf.
Members of Community Development Advocates of Detroit dance at a block party for the organization’s anniversary in 2023, celebrating “25 years of building neighborhood power.” Photo courtesy of Madhavi Reddy

CDAD’s Board Composition

On CDAD’s 13-seat board, 10 seats are now open to CDOs and resident-led groups, with the remaining three seats reserved for citywide support organizations. CDAD’s board is 100 percent elected by the members.

General Decision-Making Process

When it was a CDO trade association, CDAD was able to make decisions more easily. Different groups have different priorities and goals, and the priorities of resident-led groups are often different than those of nonprofits. When membership opened to resident-led groups, a new decision-making process was needed. The staff works with committees composed of CDOs and block club members that make recommendations to the board, informed by robust member engagement processes. In cases where there are different opinions on issues from different membership categories an additional step of member engagement happens, including meetings and phone calls.

Comprehensive Public Policy Agenda

In its early years, CDAD’s public policy agenda advanced traditional community development policy issues, including better use of the CDBG and other policies related to affordable housing. Over time, as block club membership grew, the public policy agenda has become more comprehensive. CDAD members advocate for a number of policies that provide much-needed financial and resource supports for CDOs and resident-led groups, as well as policies that improve lives for Detroit residents, including right to counsel and property tax justice. Broadening our membership has made public policy agenda-setting more complex than in the past. If multiple member engagement efforts to do not result in a clear decision, CDAD will not take a formal position but will educate our members on those issues.

Building Neighborhood Power to Plan for the Future

From 2011 to 2016, CDAD conducted a block-level, participatory land use process. CDOs convened local stakeholders, including the resident-led groups, to create a long-term vision for the future. They reviewed the current condition of their neighborhoods and also worked with traditional planning experts to design a block-level blueprint for the future of their communities. A committee of residents and local organizations shaped and guided the process. Combining the expertise of residents and the expertise of traditional planners created a powerful tool for planning and advocacy in Detroit.

10 Lessons for the Field

Being a membership organization or a trade association is complicated work. It requires diplomacy, political acumen, networking and relationship-building skills, and unwavering commitment to building power at all levels. Fourteen years after opening up CDAD’s membership to resident-led groups, we offer some lessons for those contemplating a similar shift:

  1. This change will be most successful if you include existing members and resident-led groups that will become members in the design process. This will build the relationships and trust between and across those groups needed to make this membership expansion one that works for everyone.
  2. Know that this decision will change the entire nature of your organization. It is about far more than increasing your membership numbers or categories on a membership form.
  3. Success will depend on having a strategy to support resident-led groups, including having member services that address their needs while still supporting the original members.
  4. You will lose some members along the way, but they will likely make their way back to you. Having to divide attention and resources can be challenging and messy. Always keep the lines of communication open.
  5. This shift must be reflected in your fund development and program development strategies. If you take on new members you must provide services for them. It will be too much for existing staff and resources to manage with current resources.
  6. For this expansion to lead to the policy wins you are working toward, you will need to regularly convene, educate, advocate for, and build power through and across your membership. This must be done publicly and often in order to show the powers that be that you are an organized force for change.
  7. Make sure you have staff that are experienced in working with CDOs and resident-led groups. They must have the mix of skills and competencies that are required to support the needs of different groups, so that they can support any member category at any given time. Staff should have an ability to analyze the issues facing neighborhoods and CDOs, resident engagement and community organizing skills, convening and facilitation skills, and program design and development skills.
  8. Make sure your board represents the diversity of your membership. At a minimum, all membership categories should be represented. Ensure that resident-led groups on the board have the supports they need to participate fully.
  9. It is important to have a decision-making process that goes beyond majority rules. This can include holding lots of discussions to try to reach a consensus. This will help with making difficult decisions that may impact your membership categories differently.
  10. Be able to communicate how this shift is projected to support your mission, vision, and values over the long term.

Anyone at CDAD will shout from the rooftops that opening our membership categories was the best decision for our organization and for the ecosystem as a whole. This is not an exact science. We are still working on finding the right balance to satisfy our diverse membership. We may always be working on finding that balance. We are happy to talk to anyone thinking of embarking on this journey. We assure you it will be hard in the beginning but very worth it over the long-term.

In the words of Antoine Jackson, executive director of MACC Development:

“Resident-led groups and community development organizations working to build thriving communities together is a powerful testament to the spirit of the city of Detroit. All across this great city you will find nonprofit organizations, resident-led groups, and individual residents working side-by-side advocating for better policies, working on land use projects, and food security initiatives. Our work together has led to some enormous public policy wins.”

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