What Might Young Professionals Want from Careers in Community Development?

[This post is by Rick Cohen from the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations (NACEDA). See the NACEDA blog here.]

Do we know what young people in community development want and need?  “I honestly don’t know of that many young people in the field here, you’ve made me stop and think,” one association director from the Southeast noted. “We are a graying field,” said the head of a Mid-Atlantic region state CDC association.

This blog reflects comments from a dozen young people from community development groups or associations in Georgia, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, and Washington DC. about what they want from a career in community development and how the nonprofit community development sector should accommodate and welcome—and try to retain—a new generation of people into the field.

Finding Their Way into Community Development

If CDCs are going to speak to the needs and interests of the new generation now trying to break into the sector, they will have to understand that the impetus of many young people in community development is more about building and strengthening community or, perhaps as Tawny Powell, the youth development coordinator ofResources for Residents and Communities (RRC), in Atlanta, Georgia, sees it, community building is basically tantamount to social justice:

I’m really passionate about social justice and bringing people together to realize commonalities they hold of which they may not have been aware. . . Building a sense of community creates a kind of reciprocity between community members, where everyone feels a greater need to look out for one another and to hold one another accountable; in my opinion this is really important for any real and long-lasting progress to take place in communities.

Working in the community development sector is about being part of a community, as Virginia Supportive Housing’s Allison Bogdanovic put it: “Community development allows me to collaborate with others to improve the communities where we live. It is more than a job; it is a set of values emphasizing opportunity and choice for every neighbor and community member.

Erika Hill, who is currently studying for a degree at Rutgers after community development work in New York City and Atlanta, sees part of the attraction of community development work as a matter of self-actualization:

I see the bigger picture and feel like it is my duty to “pay it forward,” because I have been afforded opportunities, experiences, and upbringing that many have not.

Switching into nonprofit community development from the for-profit sector, MeiLee Langley, of the Texas Association of Community Development Corporations, shares Bogdanovic’s and Hill’s very personal takes:

I eventually decided that I did not want to have years of my life spent simply settling for a job that paid well; I wanted to make a difference…

Staying in Community Development

While turnover at the top level of CDCs has been quite low, most observers in the field report a tremendous churning of staff below the executive director and deputy director levels. Given the personal passion that seems so characteristic of the motivation to enter community development, what might keep these young people on a community development career path?

RRC’s Powell is aware of the burden of paying for the cost of student loans: “As far as compensation and benefits—something comparable to the private sector would be nice, especially since I (and I know a lot of my peers are in the same position) have a significant amount of student loan debt from both undergrad and graduate school.” Bryan Robb (from Lansing, Michigan) agrees, calling for a “fast tracking of student loan forgiveness.”

On the other hand, although no one wants to work for poverty wages, money doesn’t seem to be a key motivation for staying in the field. What will keep some of these young people in community development is the prospect of advancement, a difficult proposition when the oldsters aren’t vacating the top slots. Hill’s description of a desirable position is one with “opportunity for growth and [that] promotes creativity. I am an individual who thrives in environments where I can take initiative and will lead something from start to finish.

Dreams of advancement notwithstanding, nearly all of the respondents mentioned the importance of a “work-life balance,” including increased vacation, shorter hours, and even a reduced workweek. The scenario of CDC directors working around the clock organizing City Hall and state capitol lobbying strategies while putting together financing packages for multi-subsidized affordable housing projects may soon become a signature community development behavior of the past.

Obstacles in the Field

Starry-eyed idealists? Even with relatively few years of experience under their belts, young community development staffers know that liking your work and loving your community doesn’t necessarily mean that a given job is sustainable. It is very hard to want to stay in a job when your supervisors devalue your input because you’re young, because they were there from the days of the anti-poverty program and the civil rights movement, they’ve seen it all, and they know what will work—or so they think. With several years under her belt at Charis Community Housing, in Atlanta, Christy Norwood noted:

I just wish those at the top would realize that while they once were on the ground (or if they’ve only gotten [to the top] through their studies) that things and times change and they shouldn’t assume they know it all. I think they make a big mistake by not taking the time to consult and listen to those of us who are [now] on the ground.

Lansing, Michigan’s Robb agreed, with a bit more edginess:

The community development coalitions that are built are sometimes very exclusive, and decisions are too often made to advance the interests of the few while touting the flag of the many. . . . It’s very hard to be critical of such issues without being taken for a wet blanket . . . People are averse to critique.

Certainly there is an aspect of these concerns that reflects the unwillingness of the existing leadership of CDCs to be open to the energies and ideas of young people. For example, Robb says that “I see baby boomers reluctant to concede their influence.” In what new directions might these young people want to see the sector move?

Robb would like to see “a greater emphasis on designing livable communities, but the community development field has been slow to respond. Perhaps this progression is limited by funding, talent availability, or organizational restraints; I really don’t know.” Young design-oriented professionals like Robb might be looking for CDCs to create neighborhoods where people want to live rather than have to live because of affordability constraints.

Norwood questions some CDCs’ commitment to one of the core tenets of the community development credo:

I think we fail to actually get the community involved. I hear folks in big community development projects in Atlanta patting themselves on the back about getting community response/involvement. It frustrates me to no end. They get people with money . . . but fail to use the established systems for getting word out to neighborhoods.

Jamie Schriner-Hooper, executive director of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan, expressed a similar concern about some CDCs emphasis on money: “I think we’re not necessarily always engaging the young people the way we should. CDCs have looked to older generations regarding who can give us money, but now few people can give money—now [we] have to look at who can give time and effort. . . . People aren’t less valuable because they can’t write a check.

Monique Johnson, from Richmond, Virginia, gives a perspective that reflects a dynamic operating beyond the small neighborhood parochialism of some traditional CDCs:

We need to focus on organizational issues, initiate mergers, dissolve organizations, re-align our strategic plans and accept that federal resources are not going to return to previous levels, [and] implement more systems to enhance efficiency….

While young people want to connect to their local communities through CDCs, they also want to see their CDCs connect to the broader world and break out of what some see as an archaic parochialism.

Housing Network of Rhode Island leaders Chris Hannifan and Elizabeth Debs are listening to what young people want from the nonprofit community development sector and have designed and implemented programs to respond.  The program has taught them a lot about young professionals in community development

 Young people have a different idea of what community development should be—they’re more visionary and idealistic . . . more than people who have been in the field for a long time. They have a “why not” attitude as opposed to [thinking] “we’ve always done it this way because the regulations require it,” and so forth. . . . Younger people are thinking about what’s possible, not about how things have always been done. For them, it’s incredibly personal.

The concerns of younger people in the field has led some young people in the sector to create an affinity group within the National Housing Conference. Young Leaders in Affordable Housing, as the group calls itself, is relatively informal, but unsurprisingly for an effort initiated and run by young people, the group has taken advantage of social media such as Facebook and is generating considerable attention about where and how the sector might better accommodate younger professionals in CDCs.

More needs to happen at the national level to establish or revive programs that not only bring young people into the field but also help create opportunities within CDCs for young people as well as alter organizational cultures that might be resistant to exhibitions of “thought leadership” voiced by graybeards. There is a need for nonprofit community development as a sector to create both leadership openings and a cultural willingness to encourage the different ideas of young people who began their careers after the civil rights movement. If community development ages and calcifies at the top levels, it could find itself weakened and left behind as funders and government agencies think ahead to a different, vibrant, more creative community development world.