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"Retooling Community-Building for Racial Equality,"

by Keith Lawrence November/December 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

“Community-building” ideas have been quite influential within community redevelopment and social justice circles in the U.S. over the past four decades. Generally speaking, community-building approaches emphasize popular participation, local leadership, social capital and networks, and the strengthening of local capacities as keys to fixing urban and rural communities mired in poverty and its attendant ills. Many promising strategies have been implemented in pursuit of these outcomes, the latest being the “comprehensive community initiatives” of the 1990s, designed to address the complex of factors that usually contribute to any single aspect of local disadvantage. But in the aggregate, community-building interventions have had a modest success record. Few, if any, of the chronically poor and disadvantaged places targeted by community- builders have been truly transformed. More frustratingly, although the field has accumulated a great deal of knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of discrete initiatives, it still has not come up with the definitive blueprints for place-based intervention that have long been sought by practitioners.

To be sure, community-building’s modest record of accomplishment reflects the enormous complexities of poverty and disadvantage far more than it suggests lack of practitioner wisdom or dedication. Inequality, after all, has always been a cornerstone of this nation’s political economy. Despite our egalitarian myths, inequality remains a basis of our public education, criminal justice, housing, employment and other wealth-generating institutions and systems. Indeed, when we contrast our democratic aspirations with the increasing depth of familiar inequalities, we may well ask whether the community-building sector ought to be prominent in our minds. It seems more logical that principal responsibility for addressing this contradiction should fall to public institutions expressly designed to promote equality. However, while this may be true, there are at least two reasons why community-builders might be well positioned to play an important catalytic role.

Community-building organizations are rare associational spaces where residents of chronically poor communities come together to express their values and preferences regarding local development. They also uniquely bring together leaders and stakeholders from the philanthropic, academic, business and government sectors for sustained attention to the problems of communities that, on their own, typically cannot engage local and state governance. In this way, they function as “mediating structures”: civil society formations that, as Theodore Kerrine puts it, “stand between the individual in his or her private life and the large institutions of modern society.” They provide spaces where ordinary citizens can discover what they believe and want in common, and where they might begin to find and sound their collective voice. Community-building organizations that genuinely help local residents participate in governance enhance what Richard Couto describes as “the democratic prospect of increased social and economic equality, and stronger communal bonds.”

Secondly, residents of our most distressed communities are disproportionately black and brown. Larger numbers of whites are poor, but poverty’s incidence is higher and more persistent for African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Poor racial minorities also tend to be spatially concentrated, thanks to well-known characteristics of the housing market. Community-builders are therefore in the midst of the nation’s deepest contradiction: the co-existence of white privilege in its marketplaces of opportunity with democratic ideals that all rest on an assumption of equal personhood regardless of race.

Structural racism is a principal source of inequality. The Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change defines structural racism as “the ways in which history, ideology, public policies, institutional practices, and culture interact to maintain a racial hierarchy that allows the privileges associated with whiteness, and the disadvantages associated with color, to endure and adapt over time.” It describes the infusion of a racial sensibility into the visible and invisible fabric of American life—one that sorts, ranks and stratifies Americans in sometimes obvious, but mostly subtle, ways. Fundamentally, it is the embeddedness of racist beliefs and assumptions in what we “know” about individuals and groups of color, and in principles and practices that we consider normal, race-neutral and fair. It is, at its root, a shared set of beliefs about race and social merit that still heavily influences how we allocate wealth, opportunity and privilege.

This shared “race knowledge” informs both public governance and private decision-making. Through the combined effect of institutional policies and practices shaped by this cognitive consensus on race, social resources are allocated in ways that keep on reinforcing white privilege and relegating Americans of color disproportionately to the margins. It is the hard-to-see but nonetheless real and powerful societal dimension of the “failures” and “dysfunctions” associated in the public mind with millions of Americans of color.

The Work of Community-Builders

Community-builders already imagine themselves to be serving democratic and equality ideals. “Movement,” “equity,” “empowerment” and other progressive terms are familiar parts of the community-building rhetoric. But this language is not really reflected in its dominant operational paradigm. For the most part, the community-building culture is pragmatic, functionalist and averse to political engagement. Such a posture becomes less and less effective as economic and racial structural forces not only harden the racial cast of poverty and disadvantage, but also steadily reduce prospects for the upward social mobility promised by American liberalism. Indeed, the May 13, 2005 Wall Street Journal made this page-one observation about class mobility:

    As the gap between the rich and poor has widened since 1970, the odds that a child born in poverty will climb to wealth—or that a rich child will fall into the middle class—remain stuck. Despite the spread of affirmative action, the expansion of community colleges and the other social changes designed to give people of all classes a shot at success, Americans are no more or less likely to rise above, or fall below, their parents’ economic class than they were 35 years ago.

Structural barriers make persistent local disadvantage less amenable to the capacity-building solutions currently favored by community-building leaders. Thus, it seems that now, more than ever, there is need for intentional work to shift the community-building paradigm. Along with its traditional outcome goals, the field could also be reconfigured to develop the collective civic capacities of residents and institutional stakeholders for two purposes: identification and coherent articulation of the policies and practices important for equity and justice, and direct engagement of governance in pursuit of those goals.

None of this is likely to materialize without an ideological transformation within community-building itself commensurate with the challenge of structural racism. The likelihood of such transformation might depend on the willingness of community-building elites to articulate and promote core beliefs, principles and practices that are consistent with a vision of racial equity and democratic empowerment. New images of progress, practical tools, funding parameters and knowledge agendas would have to be constructed. Community-builders would need to team up with others toiling for social justice. This work would require building a critical mass within and beyond the field around a common vision and shared agenda that is focused on racial equity.

Community-building can aspire to counter structural racism by becoming an unequivocal facilitator of civic engagement for its clientele. It can take this course secure in the conviction that personal responsibility and individualism only consistently bear fruit when people can count on certain basic resource and opportunity thresholds in their local settings. The field can dispel the myth that beefed-up, non-political, individual and organizational capacities alone could compensate for the broader society’s under-provision of resources and opportunities in some settings. Moreover, it can debunk popular bootstrap, social capital and other self-determination myths by acknowledging that these only really serve advancement goals when communities already have a foundation of decent jobs, safety and stability, positive place identity and civic consciousness.

Armed with this outlook, and with a structural analysis of how race and class converge to undermine civic capacities, community-builders might take concrete steps toward empowering constituents for engagement of regressive public policies and institutional practices. Local inequity in any domain is almost always traceable to a particular convergence of business, government, bureaucratic and civic powerbrokers standing beyond the political reach of those who are denied their fair share. Drawing on the resources of local and national allies, the field could mobilize the competencies, leadership and collective voice required to inject the preferences of underserved communities into the governance process.

The Challenges

Several challenges loom large for the change in direction recommended here, the first being that of initiating ideological change within community- building. On this “how” question, the good news is that history shows that dominant political, cultural and organizational paradigms do shift—sometimes quite fundamentally. And wherever we look back at what we later recognize to be fundamental shifts, we see critical moments, actors and social contexts.

Very generally speaking, the key change ingredients and process seem to be as follows: Highly motivated advocates, researchers, critics and other opinion leaders frame something as an issue and attempt to socialize a reform vision among a larger public or audience. They adopt it because it appeals to them on some basic level. The likelihood of such “mass” adoption—the scale essential for real cultural/political transformation—increases when elite reframing and mobilizing efforts coincide with critical events or background contexts that focus attention on that issue area. Adoption is also more likely when the message is uncomplicated, has strong common sense appeal and offers perceptible rewards for change.

For community-building, the “for what?” question will have to be met with convincing explanations of what is to be gained by a shift in emphasis toward race, equity, power and democracy. Pragmatists will particularly want to know how such values can be made operational and translated into concrete outcomes. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that the recipe for transforming community-building institutions and culture would be any different to what appears to work elsewhere: elite leadership and timely exploitation of opportune moments to mobilize stakeholders around a transformational vision.

Keith Lawrence is a Research Associate at the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, where he is a principal contributor to its efforts to reframe approaches to race within the community-building field.

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