Adults Only

[This post is by Frank Woodruff from the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations (NACEDA) in response to an earlier blog “What Might Young Professionals Want from Careers in Community Development?” See the NACEDA blog here.]

At 28 years old, I consider myself a young person in community development. Of course that’s relative. If I were working in politics and campaigns, I would be considered a veteran. If I were an NFL quarterback, I would be in my prime. I’m too old to be drafted into the military, and too young to run for US Senate.

I am Generation Y, a Millennial. To Generation X, I am entitled, needy, and high maintenance. My desire is not for money, but for group reinforcement and positive peer feedback. In his book Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, author Bruce Tulgan suggests I am part of “the most high maintenance workforce in history.” And you know what? He’s probably right! I expect a lot from my employer. Our need to feel valued is so engrained, we will go to such lengths as to whine, pout, tweet and write blog posts about those needs.

I have two things I want to say. First, I would like to remind Gen X that you created us, and therefore, you share the responsibility.

But second, simply placing a label on me fails to address the challenges community development is facing. Born in 1982, I am among the first (and therefore oldest) of this generation. There is a 15 year-long wave behind me that community development leaders today will have to learn, nurture, and empower. And one day when someone asks, “Who’s got the keys to the Community Development Jeep?” It will be us revving the engine (a reference only a Millennial would understand).

A recent Daring to Lead report released by the Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint presents “Calls to Action” for non-profits to mitigate the problem of aging and high-turnover leadership, recommending non-profits have plans in place for financial sustainability, executive transition, professional development for current leaders, and board development. This advice is sound.

However, the “Calls to Action” not once uses the word “young.” In fact the word “young” is not used in the entire 20 page report. It didn’t even happen to be someone’s last name. This omission is symptomatic of a problem in the non-profit world that is specifically relevant to community development.

Independent writer and NACEDA blogger Rick Cohen points this out in great detail in his recent post:What Might Young Professionals Want from Careers in Community Development? Cohen has several community development leaders on record recognizing the industry’s deficiencies in future leadership cultivation. In fact, Rick’s piece was the impetus for this piece.

How can the solutions to problems presented by leadership aging and turning-over not include the industry’s youth? I see four possible answers: 1) There are low numbers of young people in the industry 2) The young people in the industry lack the necessary skills 3) Young people are being ignored as part of the solution or 4) The sector is too caught up in the present to worry about the future.

I think the true answer is a little bit of everything.

Demographically, the low numbers of young people relative to our aging population is a macro problem the United States economy is beginning to grapple with; European countries have been going through this for a half century or more. Fast developing economies (like present-day India and Brazil) have high fertility rates and proportionally high numbers of young people.

This is nothing new. America has typically not been the most fertile nation, but our economy has more than compensated for the lack of a young native born workforce with our ability to accept and attract hard-working, entrepreneurial immigrants. In this way, we are truly unique; no one else does it better. And it’s allowed us to stay ahead.

However, community development has not capitalized on America’s secret economic weapon as well as other sectors. New immigrants, because they are new, do not have the vested interest in their local community in the same way a life-long resident would. The recognition of a local, placed-based community can take a generation or more to develop. As a result, the truly unique and powerful energy of the American immigrant is lost on community development.

However, even if a new immigrant did want to work for his or her local CDC or non-profit, they probably would lack the necessary education to do so at a high level. A lack of adequate education for community development professionals is not unique to immigrants but young people as well.

Increasing levels of specialization and education required to do community development is a Catch-22 for the industry. Of course, a more educated workforce is a good thing. But non-profit salary levels make paying for that education difficult.

More than that, an up-and-comer with a bachelor’s degree working in a non-profit may love what they do, but they are not naïve. They’ve seen the balance sheet. They know that even with an investment in their education, the money for them to get a significant raise just is not there.

Furthermore, leadership turnover in community development is rare. There are a lot of old-hands, or “graybeards” as Cohen points out in his piece, leaving a young person with little opportunity for advancement or promotion. Even if they do wait for that opportunity, they have forgone the education necessary to do the job.

Some may leave the sector because there just is no tangible reward, no incentive to stay, no pay and no promotion. What’s left is a complacent and not quite educated enough, do-gooder workforce.

The old hands of community development are an intelligent, dedicated and self-determined group. These are strong traits to have in this business, but for some they can be seen as dismissive of us Millenials. They will talk about how they have never received a high salary. They were never part of a promotional or organizational chart. They did it all on their own. They didn’t need to compete with the for-profit sector. Why do we?

This dynamic, paired with the built-in deficiencies of a Millennial, are contributing to a growing generational gap in the field. Millennials would probably characterize this gap as significant, but it’s important not to over-react. We just need to understand each other better. The graybeards didn’t need the worldly rewards for their work. They had other motivations.

Community development grew as a response to the excesses of urban renewal and a call for social justice. The civic battles of the 60’s and 70’s left behind a narrative, a shared history that ignited those who experienced it; it was David vs. Goliath, Good vs. Evil. The little guy stands up to the powers-that-be and defends his home. From that narrative came a sense of ownership, a sense of responsibility and pride. A community developer is born. It’s a POWERFUL narrative.

But fast-forward 40 years and it’s a narrative that defines community development by where it has been, not where it is going. Young people have not been thwapped with that motivation. We simply cannot relate. We will need to create our own narrative.

Enter Gen Y, the Millenials.

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.

Likewise, in the future the answers to the above questions are directly informed by how we see the future of social justice and community building. We try to imagine communities of the future being served with new and different tools. And the production of these tools will depend on those definitions.

And herein lies the hope.

As Cohen correctly points out, our narrative will evolve, but likely will be less about social inequality and be more about building and strengthening every community. His collections of thoughts are evidence that young people are charting a new path in community development. It is a motivational path about building the future as opposed to serving up justice for the past.

I am part of a generation not motivated by money; that’s good, because there is none. We prefer group interaction and feedback. This is ideal for a non-profit sector filled with small shops and flat management structures. More than anything, we simply want to leave our mark. The world of community development, too often defined by its past, is welcoming a generation with no motivation other than to chart the future. It almost sounds too good to be true. There must be a catch.

There is. We’re gonna want a trophy.