Structural racism is a pollutant that threatens the community development ecosystem. How can we confront and defeat this dangerous pollutant?

This blog post is part of the series “Closing the Racial Gaps: Together We Can,” which highlights efforts across the United States that show promise for closing racial opportunity gaps and creating a more equitable future.


“Too many Community Development Corporations have abandoned their roots and don’t empower local residents,” said one Community Development Corporation (CDC) leader, noting that the professionals on staff were driving the agenda, not residents. “That’s unfair” said another, who added, “we have to attract investments from banks and work with City Hall to get things done.” This was the summer of 1993, at my very first MACDC board meeting. This particular debate–and various versions of it–has animated community development for the past 25 years. As our movement’s founding father, Mel King, often asks: “in whose interest” are we working? Having just graduated from law school and starting a career in community development, I wondered what precisely I had walked into.

The debate manifests itself around three related but distinct tensions faced by CDCs across the country:

  • Should we focus our efforts on places or on people?
  • Should we adopt a comprehensive approach or specialize in a single area to achieve greater scale and impact?
  • How do we balance power between professional community developers and resident leaders?

At the core of these tensions is structural and institutional racism. Historical and persistent racism has resulted in a professional class that is much whiter than the residents in our neighborhoods. The places where we work are highly segregated by race and income. People-based strategies, then, must overcome centuries of intentional and institutionalized disadvantage.

These tensions have become even more difficult to navigate over time as community development work has become increasingly complex, as private developers and new non-profits enter the space, as neighborhood demographics have changed (and sometimes changed again), and as new immigrants add even more layers to the dynamics of race, class, culture and language.

While these tensions are challenging, they can also push us to develop more creative and durable approaches. At MACDC, we have rejected the notion that any of these questions can be answered. Rather, we live with the tensions and recognize that different answers can and must co-exist–and that they can change over time and in different places. We do this by thinking of our field as an ecosystem of connected organizations and people, rather than a collection of individual organizations. This allows some organizations to focus on place, others on people and still others on both. It means we need some organizations taking a comprehensive view, while others specialize in highly complex disciplines. We need organizations that are truly resident-led to hold accountable those that are governed largely by professionals. We need a variety of iterations and permutations that combine these elements in different ways.

Like healthy ecosystems in the natural world, the community development ecosystem needs diversity, redundancy, symbiosis. And while the different elements of the system must work together and support each other, they cannot and should not be centrally controlled. Efforts to create a highly efficient “delivery system” are doomed to fail. Instead, interactions and collaboration should be organic. Competition is good too. And some organizations must die so that others can live and the system can flourish. Evolution and adaptation are essential and inevitable. And finally, we must always remember that local ecosystems are heavily impacted by global trends, whether they be climate change or world financial markets.

Like healthy ecosystems in the natural world, the community development ecosystem needs diversity, redundancy, symbiosis.

In my mind, structural racism is a pollutant that threatens the community development ecosystem. I wish I could say it is an invasive species brought in from another place, but sadly it has been here for centuries. Because of its longevity, the pollutant has become symbiotic with the system itself—it has become engrained in and inured to everything we do.

So how can our ecosystem confront and defeat this dangerous pollutant?

I certainly don’t presume to have the answer to this challenging question, but over the past many years, we have been working in Massachusetts to find some answers.

First, the community development field must unapologetically affirm our core values and remain true to them. For MACDC, we define these values as: (1) lifting community voice and power; (2) fighting for racial equity; and (3) standing for economic justice.

Second, the field must have the capacity to meaningfully engage local residents to ensure that they are driving the agenda. This means that community residents are the subject of the sentence–not the object–and that “demand-driven” community development balances out the supply side approach. In my view, this can only happen if the community development ecosystem includes high-functioning, local, resident-led organizations–what we typically call community development corporations. We also need many other types of high functioning groups–government agencies at all levels, large non-profits, anchor institutions, foundations, private businesses, schools, health centers, lawyers, architects, social workers and others. CDCs need to be part of the system. And while CDCs should see their role as providing a vehicle for community voice, it is important that community-controlled institutions actually own some of the community assets we create.

Third, all the players in the system need to be experts at collaboration. As Paul Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation, often says, community developers need to have collaboration in their DNA. Collaboration is discussed so often that it can sound trite, but all of us know organizations that do it well and organizations that don’t.

Fourth, our field must explicitly confront racism both in the community and in our field. We need to diversify the professional and volunteer leadership in our field; we need to join with other racial justice organizations to challenge racial inequities; we need to speak out against local voices that promote exclusion; and we need to directly confront the challenges of working in multi-ethnic and multi-lingual places.

At MACDC, we have launched several efforts over the past ten years that seek to strengthen our ecosystem:

  • Alliance: Changing the Face of Community Development by Confronting Racism seeks to promote more people of color in our field through mentoring, education, and dialogue about racism.
  • The Mel King Institute for Community Building provides high quality, local training to professional and volunteer community developers in four areas–real estate development, economic development, community organizing and planning and community governance. The Institutes seeks to ensure that local CDCs and other players in our system have the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.
  • A formal, state certification system for CDCs, modeled after the federal CDFI program, which creates standards for community accountability and enhances the credibility of the field.
  • Community Investment Tax Credit (CITC) as a tool to drive private philanthropy to high performing CDCs. The CITC provides a 50% donation tax credit to individuals, foundations, businesses and others who donate to CDCs. In 2014, it generated $4.7 million in flexible private funding for CDCs and in 2015, it generated $8.3 million. Long-term, we expect it to generate $12 million per year to support resident-led, comprehensive community development.

These programs are gaining traction in Massachusetts and could be replicated in different states.

However, we know that these program and our current efforts are insufficient. We need to continue looking for new tools, programs, initiatives and policies. The definition of community development has evolved over time, growing larger and more inclusive. It has gone beyond housing, blight removal and business development. We are tackling issues such as youth development, arts and culture, health, transportation and others. I worry sometimes it is growing too big and too unwieldy. At the same time, we need to ask: what is the role of community development in addressing our nation’s structural racism? What’s our role in dealing with police-community relations? Criminal justice reform? Education? Fair housing? Gentrification?

I don’t presume to know how to answer these questions. And those answers will likely vary around the country. But now is the time to mobilize the community development ecosystem in search of answers.

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