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The following is an article that Bill Traynor wrote on the pressing need for a "new paradigm" for community development that having witnessed the state of community development in south Florida I wholeheartedly endorse. The very best reading of the industry in a long time.

A New Paradigm in Community Development

A quarter of a century has passed since the origins of the community development movement. In that time over 5,000 new community-based organizations have sprung up in every comer of the urban landscape, billions of public and private dollars have been spent, and the productive energies of tens of thousands of neighborhood residents, community leaders, professional activists, academics, policy makers and government bureaucrats have been expended-all in the name of community based development.

The track record of community development organizations (CDOs) struggling against all odds is well documented and indeed a testament to the persistence and commitment of many people. However, while significant numbers of housing units, jobs, and new businesses can indeed be attributed to these efforts, one undeniable and maddening fact remains: inner city neighborhoods-even those boasting the most successful and productive CDOs-are deteriorating faster than ever before and the residents of these neighborhoods remain as isolated and disenfranchised as they have ever been.

If the primary success story of the last twenty-five years has been the development of a legitimate, skilled, non-profit development sector with the proven capacity to create and preserve housing, jobs and businesses, the major failure has been the proliferation and dominance of a narrowly focused- technical-production related model of community development which is estranged from strong neighborhood control or direction, and which does not impact the range of issues which effect poor neighborhoods.

This model is recreating the same dependent, service delivery/client relationship which has donated the lives of poor inner city residents for over two generations-a model which acts often times as little more than a delivery system for projects which have a marginal impact on neighborhoods and which are defined by funders and lenders rather than by community residents. It is a model which has confused the building of power with the building of structures.

A fundamental change is needed in the community development movement-a paradigm shift from this technical/production/service delivery model to one which views neighborhood residents as producers, consumers and leaders who, with access to information, training, and support can shape, steer and influence the future of their neighborhoods-producers who have the capacity to create value; consumers whose collective economic power can be -organized and directed toward the kind of change they and their families need; and leaders who will fight to ensure that change takes place. Housing, jobs, enterprise development, and the other products of the movement are critical to the economic wellbeing of the neighborhood and its people-but they must be the products which people themselves define and demand and they must be the result of a process which is fundamentally empowering.

The Dominant Paradigm: Single Focused Production

From the origins of the first community development corporations in the mid-sixties, it was clear that the community development movement was resting on two fundamentally different but seemingly complementary objectives:
  • to empower poor people, individual and collectively, to plan and implement their vision of neighborhood, and
  • to develop the technical capacity in the local community to deliver housing, jobs, new businesses and capital.

The first objective relies heavily on the mass participation of neighborhood residents in establishing an agenda-a course of action-and sustained resident leadership to guide the process. This objective relates to the need to build the collective political capacity to attract resources and to shape and guide the development of the neighborhood.

The second objective depends on the ability to learn or find the expertise needed to assemble those projects which would best address the economic needs of its people. This objective addresses the need to build the technical capacity to dose and implement complex real estate or business transactions.

Before the movement became an industry, the distinction between these dual objectives remained somewhat blurred. Much of the initial community development project work was in fact the result of urban renewal organizing struggles or similar issue-related efforts which had a significant level of resident participation and direction and involved some measure of resident-driven planning.

But as the movement grew and as organizations increasingly became enveloped in the roles of real estate developer, property manager, and construction manager, the tension between these dual objectives magnified. The movement attracted more professional deal makers and became more and more focused on becoming a locally controlled delivery system for existing housing and economic development programs, while community residents became more and more estranged from the organizations and the process of neighborhood revitalization.

In the late 70s, as the community development movement became hopelessly entwined with the movement for affordable housing, debates raged among advocates on both the production and empowerment sides. But while these debates may have resembled a struggle over the heart and mind of the movement, in fact the struggle had long been decided. A dominant paradigm had taken hold which had been instrumental in (1) shaping public policy, (2) determining the allocation of resources in the field, and (3) establishing the principal model of local activity that would take place in the inner city.

This paradigm-the technical/production paradigm-has resulted in a movement that (1) is product and production oriented, (2) relies on highly skilled technical/professional expertise, (3) is narrowly focused, and (4) is largely disempowering for community residents.

It is a paradigm concerned almost solely with the second of the movement's initial objectives: the development of the technical capacity to deliver goods and services in the local community. Moreover, it is a paradigm which:
  • sees neighborhood residents as the passive recipients of products and services that are to be funded by benevolent or enlightened public and private agencies and delivered by professional deal makers.
  • views development as a technical process of deal making, and values the skills and contributions of technically trained professionals over the participation and leadership of neighborhood residents.
  • holds as its Principal measures of performance, units created, on-line or in progress.
  • emphasizes financial and technical support that is tied to products and production rather than to organizations, resident leadership development, or base building.
  • views project selection and implementation as largely a creature of opportunity and feasibility, rather than need or importance to the community. Projects are selected and implemented because they conform to a narrow formula of technical or financial feasibility. The question of what can be done (financially-given existing resources, and technically-given zoning law, property law, government policy etc.) supersedes and precedes the question of what should be done. When viewed as a technical process which calls for technical solutions, feasibility issues take on a sacrosanct character-like the laws of nature. While these laws can be understood in greater and greater detail by well paid professionals, they cannot be changed.
  • creates products which, rather than challenging or pushing against the margins of what is possible, conform to those narrow margins.
Finally, it is a paradigm that has proven to have dramatic opportunity costs for inner city neighborhoods and their people. This narrow, production-related activity has been funded and supported to the exclusion of nearly all other types of neighborhood revitalization efforts, such as community planning, community organizing, and advocacy. A generation of talented leaders and professional activists and organizers has been drawn increasingly to production-oriented work and organizations, as funding for most other activities has all but disappeared. Most importantly, this perspective has prevented the movement from effectively addressing a broader range of issues-crime, substance abuse, cultural development, health, and education-which have a direct bearing on the economic and social health of the community

Today, despite the investment in bricks and mortar, our neighborhood organizations are weak and getting weaker. The chasm between the professionally run and managed CDO and neighborhood residents is dangerously wide and deep. Low-income neighborhoods have been carved up into dozens of separate and isolated constituencies, and experienced activists are burnt out and overwhelmed by the challenges which loom on every street corner. Every day, more on the outside and the inside are abandoning hope for the inner city

A new paradigm is needed which effectively utilizes the technical capacity we have developed as a movement-but also emphasizes the building of power over the building of structures, the rehabilitation of home rather than house, and a broader view of the role of residents in defining and implementing change.

A New Paradigm: CDOs as Tools of Organized Communities

A CDO is most effective as a tool of an organized community-a community of residents that has organized its collective political and economic power and can articulate its agenda and priorities. The problem is not that CDOs exist or that they exist in great numbers. That is good news. The problem is that they very often exist in unorganized communities-in a vacuum of power, context, planning and neighborhood activism. They fill one very important but narrow gap in the range of capacities needed in a community to successfully attack the economic currents that undercut its viability.

It is time to shift the paradigm to one that views community development as a broad, resident-led effort to direct, shape and influence the future direction of their neighborhoods. One that views neighborhood residents not as clients but as producers of value, consumers of products and services, and as potential leaders in the transformation of their neighborhoods. It is also a paradigm that identifies political power-not technical know how-as the driving force behind positive change at the neighborhood level.

In this new paradigm-the empowerment/consumer planning paradigm-the fundamental activity is residential organizing and planning to create a comprehensive neighborhood agenda, and a broad based constituency and leadership group that will advocate for that agenda. This kind of agenda represents the neighborhood's collective consumer demand-for housing, jobs, services, new enterprises, health care, education and training, and recreation-based on what is needed and desired, rather than on what appears to be possible. This kind of agenda also explicitly builds on the neighborhood's strengths and abilities-its capacity to produce value.

In this new paradigm, residents:
  • receive the training, support, skills and information that they need to define the needs and opportunities that exist in their neighborhood;
  • set priorities for action in each of the areas that impact their lives or the collective life of the Community;
  • advocate for the resources that critical neighborhood organizations need in order to carry out priority work in the neighborhood;
  • identify and create opportunities through anticipatory leadership, rather than wait for opportunities to reveal themselves;
  • apply their collective political power to remove the technical and financial constraints that have narrowed the field of vision in the past;
  • utilize the professionals and the professional organizations they will need to carry out a range of project activities.
...Efforts need to be made to bring these types of initiatives into the mainstream of the community development movement. But for this to happen, major changes must take place in the field.

First, neighborhood leaders, through local organizations and coalitions, must begin to build a broad-based constituency and agenda for change in their neighborhoods. There is no substitute for genuine organizing efforts which put residents in a position to define and direct the revitalization effort. The more intensive and effective this work, the more resident leaders will be in a position to pressure public officials, funders, and their own "community-based" organizations to expand and redefine the kinds of support and services they are willing to provide for the neighborhood. Neighborhood organizations need to be a delivery system which responds to neighborhood needs-not only for externally packaged programs and products.

Second, community development organizations (CDOS) must begin to retool their organizations and retrain staff and board members so that they can play a broader, more effective, and more accountable role in the community As long as CDOs continue to capture the lion's share of revitalization resources coming into poor neighborhoods, they must be willing to take more of a leadership role in helping residents define the revitalization agenda. They must also be willing to be held accountable to their constituency and to that agenda. At a minimum, they must get better at involving residents in planning and decision-making. Moreover, in unorganized or poorly organized neighborhoods, they must be prepared to perform a wider range of functions, including the constituency building, leadership development, community organizing and mobilization activities needed to build a powerful agenda.

Third, CDOs and other neighborhood organizations should be proactive in identifying non-production related standards and performance measures which they feel capture the essence of their revitalization effort, and to which they are willing to be held accountable by funders and supporters. As a sector, community development professionals should work toward establishing industry expectations, standards and norms that help to demonstrate a viable and genuine community base and a significant level of resident control and involvement. These expectations should include a) the need to demonstrate a broad community base, b) an organizational commitment to and some level of competence in democratic decision-making, and c) the existence of a genuine plan of action that has had the benefit of a high level of resident leadership-as distinguished from resident involvement. Many public and private funders are interested in these issues, but are hard pressed to distinguish the truly "community-based" organizations from those that have little following or legitimacy.

A Heightened Role for Funders, Supporters

For their part, funders, intermediaries and supporters of inner city revitalization efforts must provide the kind of intensive, minimally restrictive funding and technical assistance needed to support neighborhood residents who are willing to take risks to save their communities.
  • Flexible multiyear funding is needed to allow for legitimate, resident-driven initiatives and planning processes to take shape. Moreover, more funding initiatives are needed which view potential, newly formed or existing residents' groups as the agents of change in the community.
  • A greater focus on professional-level training and technical assistance targeted toward resident leaders is essential, so that motivated and interested residents will have the tools and information necessary to lead these efforts,
  • Alternative urban planning models should be encouraged and supported, particularly those which demystify the planning process and which are, in large part, designed and led by residents themselves.
  • More sophisticated community organizing techniques and strategies should be developed and supported, particularly those that focus less on issue-based mobilization and more on community education, leadership development and institutional relationships.
  • Most importantly, funders, must challenge their own institutions to get beyond their anachronistic fear of, or antagonism toward "community organizing." They must begin to recognize organizing as a critical set of relationship building, planning and self empowerment activities that are essential to change in poor neighborhoods.
Community organizations, foundations, local governments and residents in every comer of urban America are sensing that the struggle to reclaim inner city neighborhoods has never been more important. Increasingly we are all looking for alternatives to the approaches of the past, alternatives that will attack the process of deterioration in our neighborhoods with the kind of intensity needed to shift the tide.