Does the Community Development Field Suffer from a Generational Gap?

July 16th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg


In recent years there has been a growing discussion about the coming generational change in the leadership of the community development field. As the founders of our field move toward retirement, a new generation of community developers are eager to make their own mark on the field. Of course, this transition is not without challenges as some fear it is happening too fast without sufficient preparation, and others are frustrated that it is happening too slowly as they are forced to wait and wait for their turn.

Two recent articles on this subject are worth reading. Rick Cohen, a long-time community developer and writer started the discussion with an interesting blog post on NACEDA’s website. Rick interviewed several younger people in the field who expressed their frustrations with how they feel treated by those with more experience. This prompted NACEDA staffer, Frank Woodruff to share his own thoughts as a 28-year old working in the field. As someone who sits squarely between the baby boomer generation and the Millenials I have always found this conversation to be challenging. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing vigorously with voices from both camps. (Born in 1963, I am technically a baby boomer, but I can assure you that I don’t feel like one!)  For many years after starting at MACDC in 1993, I was almost always the youngest person in the room as “real” baby boomers (those born in the late 1940s or 1950s) dominated the field. Now, finally, that is no longer the case and I am thrilled -- well, maybe not thrilled to be getting older, but thrilled to see new leadership, new ideas, new skills and new faces at the table.

Rick's article highlights the desire among younger community developers to seek collaborative and comprehensive solutions to today's challenges. I agree!  They also want to find a better work/life balance and better pay. I think I agree with that too, although my kids might say that I don't adhere to this philosophy.  But I found many of the comments in Rick’s piece troubling. While each person voiced understandable frustrations, the collective weight of their comments struck me as whining. While ageism certainly exists in the field (in both directions, no doubt) I firmly believe that the community development field offers many opportunities for talented people to prove themselves. Should older practitioners be more supportive and welcoming of younger ones? Of course!  But don’t wait for an invitation to lead – just do it. 

On the other hand, Frank’s article really resonated for me – despite the 19 years between us. Frank’s brilliant piece is both funny and insightful. Perhaps my favorite segment from Frank is as follows:

"State by state, community development boards and staffs are fighting tooth-and-nail for programs like HOME, LIHTC, Section 4 and other tools of previous decades. Being supportive, Millennials begrudgingly submit to the acronyms and jargon while secretly hoping our careers in community development are not spent budget-cycle after budget-cycle clinging to the accomplishments of our predecessors.

We quietly ask ourselves, “What if those programs went away? How would we replace CDBG? Or would we want to? What would a modern-day ‘CRA’ look like? Or is CRA necessary? Can financial institutions be compelled by opportunity instead of regulation?” These programs were created at a singular point and time with a certain definition of social justice.:

It is precisely this openness to change and new ideas that younger leaders can bring to our field and that our field desperately needs.  We don’t want to ignore the hard lessons learned over the past 40 years, but neither can we allow long-standing traditions to become rigid orthodoxies that can’t be challenged and changed.  And many of us have tired from hearing about the Glory Days in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Community Development movement is destined for major change. Much of this change will be driven by outside forces as our economy and our communities evolve and change. But much will be driven from the inside as new leaders take the helm and lead us to a future that may not be fully defined, but will, I believe, be brighter and better not just for our field, but for our communities as well.

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