April 27, 2022 — For a long time, there has been a tension in the field of community economic development between its movement roots and the often highly technical nature of housing and business development work. A direct result of civil rights activism, community economic development is clearly a movement founded by BIPOC activists. For example, Charles Sherrod, who along with his wife Dr. Shirley Sherrod cofounded New Communities, the nation’s first community land trust, had previously served as the southwest Georgia Director of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee.
On the other hand, as the field became increasingly professional and technical in its orientation, it has gained more of the feel of an industry. For a long time, the field had become whiter as well. As one speaker put it, “A lot of us know the history of the field. It was filled by people of color. What has happened over time? It’s been whitewashed. We find ourselves in a technocracy of sorts. People are getting PhDs to do work that started in church basements and backyards—everywhere but the university.”
Indeed, as that speaker’s comment suggests, community economic development has long had an uneasy relationship with the academy. A recent webinar hosted by the National Conference of Citizenship—in which both John McKnight and Harold McDougall, two leading practitioner-scholars of the field, participated—delved into some of that history. McKnight, who spent more than a decade as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, was invited to head an urban research center at Northwestern in 1969 because of his on-the-ground experience. As he noted, he did not have a graduate degree, so when Northwestern hired him, he was made a “fake professor” (i.e., given the title of professor despite his lack of credentials).
McKnight said that when he arrived at Northwestern, there were two dozen scholars researching urban issues, but they were “looking at neighborhoods and especially lower income neighborhoods in terms of their problems, deficits, needs, and brokenness…their deficit approach did not see that the people who lived in the neighborhood had some agency, some ability, some capacity, because all of their work was to help institutions come in and fix us. And I just thought that was insulting.” The approach that McKnight, along with his colleague John (“Jody”) Kretzmann, ultimately developed—asset-based community development—which is centered on the mapping of community assets and relationships, has sought to remedy this.
At the CEO Circle conference, it was clear that this effort to move the field from a deficit focus to one centered on asset building and community capacity remains an ongoing struggle. As one conference goer remarked, “I think of community as the stories we tell each other. We can’t build just on what is negative. We have to build on the strengths…We can’t build community if we don’t bring out the strengths of the people.” Otherwise, the result is to “reinforce for our kids and for others that somehow we are deficits.”
McDougall’s work on civic infrastructure also spoke to a related tension at the conference. McDougall, a professor at Howard University and author of Black Baltimore, developed the concept of civic infrastructure, which for him refers to “a cooperative economic, political, and social system that grows out of the community itself.” In a thriving community, this civic infrastructure, in McDougall’s view, acts as a kind of “shadow government.”
McDougall elaborated that people are “living in two different worlds simultaneously,” which he labeled “client world” and “community world.” The client world is the world of institutions and politicians. The community world is the world of solidarity and community self-production. “Culture,” McDougall added, “isn’t just the way you sing and dance and the food you eat. It is the way you solve problems.”
Community economic development operates in the spaces between these two poles, seeking both to affect political and economic institutions and build local power apart from those institutions. As one conference attended noted, within the field there are two very different ways that the word “community” is used.
“Community with a big C,” this person explained, implies a “bond of relationship, trust, history with each other” and corresponds with the kind of solidarity and community self-production that McDougall, for example, has in mind. The same person noted that often, when people in the field discuss community, they are really talking about people who live in a “community with a small c that simply share a geography. They really mean people who share a geography or income strata or some data-based point, rather than a relationship or emotional connection.”
This disconnection from practiced community can often impede the implementation of community-based solutions. In a session on community wealth building, one speaker noted that there is constant pressure to focus on individual benefits and individual wealth building. This pressure can be stifling. “Can some things be focused on communal benefits, community value? We protect what we call community assets and make that something that benefits generations. How much better could it be if it benefitted more than one family?…That is community, and what it means to me.”
The Call for Liberation
Liberation, noted one speaker at the conference, “is a fancy word that people throw around.” But the speaker added that a sincere focus on liberation requires a different way of thinking that focuses on two key questions: “Who do you serve?” and “How do you build the institutions that will allow liberation to exist beyond my lifetime?” This requires “radical imagination,” which the field had largely neglected. Too many in the field, this speaker observed, “satisfice”—meaning they do well enough but fail to challenge the fundamental drivers of racial and economic inequality.
The message for the CEOs in attendance, in short, was to think as a movement and not simply as organizational leaders. “You are not going to achieve liberation because you’re brilliant and you have a brilliant organization. It is how we hold each other accountable for delivery for people.” The goal is nothing less than to “redesign the nation so it works for everyone. Change the nature of our institutions, so that they serve us, so they love us. That is the work.”
At a later session, another conference participant echoed these remarks, noting that “The movement for liberation and transformation in the communities that we need is not about saving communities of color but saving all of us. We are fighting against a spiritual crime. We must do what we can to undo that.”
This spirit animated many of the gathering’s breakout discussions. Participants offered many innovative ideas—from tuition waivers and lower home mortgage loan interest rates as mechanisms to begin implementing reparations, to assigning historically Black colleges and universities a leadership role in implementing a clean energy revolution.