While the Tea Party’s manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling sucks up all the oxygen in Washington, the White House quietly released an important new report in July entitled Building Neighborhoods of Opportunity that outlines best practices in neighborhood revitalization around the country. The report highlights the work of CDCs, community based groups, schools and local governments and discusses how the federal government could more effectively support such efforts.
When I sat down to read it, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they identify five key elements to successful neighborhood improvement – and I agree with all of them (I don’t always agree with the White House these days!) Specifically, the White House report highlights these five things:
- Resident engagement and community leadership catalyzes and sustains comprehensive change efforts;
- Developing strategic and accountable partnerships leads to lasting change;
- Maintaining a results focus supported by data presents a strategy for achieving specific objectives, helps to focus multiple stakeholders on a common goal, and can lead to a common dataset to measure progress;
- Investing in and building organizational capacity helps organizations meet their objectives; and
- Aligning resources to a unified and target impact strategy builds a critical mass of efforts in a neighborhood to reduce neighborhood distress.
We can see each these elements in action today in the work that community developers are doing in Boston and around the country.
I was particularly pleased to see items #1 and #4, as much of the current momentum in our field is moving away from these two concepts. I worry that the drive toward regionalism, centralization, consolidation and organizational scale that permeates much of the national dialogue will inexorably weaken opportunities for meaningful resident engagement and community leadership - what I and others call “demand driven community development.” Don’t get me wrong – scale and efficiency are good things. But, I am glad that the White House report is reminding us about the importance of community engagement. I hope it will inspire policymakers, funders and practitioners to think about how we can create a system that is both more efficient and more genuinely community based.
The White House is also correct to underscore the importance of building the capacity of organizations to initiate, implement and sustain community improvement. I hope this serves to push back against what I perceive as a growing “capacity building fatigue” among some funders and policy makers who prefer to work only (or mainly) with well established (and usually large) groups that already have substantial capacity. Capacity building, like education, needs to be a permanent feature of a well organized, high performing and adaptive community development system.
While there was much to like in the report, it does not offer a strategy for supporting resident engagement and capacity building in a systemic way that gets us to serious scale. Most of the highlighted programs are models and pilots serving a few dozen neighborhoods. But the question that the White House and all of us need to ask is how we support this work in hundreds or even thousands of neighborhoods. For that, we need sustainable business models that support long term capacity building and resident engagement at the local level. MACDC’s proposed Community Development Partnership Act is a key part of our answer to that question. And we also need to make community development programs and projects profitable for community based non profits so they can earn the flexible funds they need to build and sustain their own capacity over time. Adjustments in federal rules and guidelines could help with that objective.
The White House report lays out some exciting ideas for generating sustainable economic development at the neighborhood level - something our country desperately needs. Let’s hope that the debt ceiling deal does not kill these efforts before they have a chance to bear fruit.