People & Places: Part 4 (of 4)

CEDAM’s national partner NACEDA, along with several other organizations, hosted the People & Places Conference in Washington D.C. March 4-6 bringing together community-based organizations from every corner of the country to showcase the effectiveness, resolve and passion of those working daily to improve lives in America’s most challenged neighborhoods. This was an opportunity to share what’s working in your community, inspire one another and raise your voice on behalf of the community that you serve. Thanks to NACEDA, we were able to provide scholarship assistance to four CEDAM members to attend. Over the next few weeks, we will hear from each of those members about their experiences at the conference in this blog series.

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The third in the four part series is by Aaron Goodman, the Community Engagement Manager at CDAD. 

People & Places

by Aaron Goodman

Last month, with the generous support of CEDAM, I had the privilege to travel to Washington D.C. and attend a convening of community development practitioners from across the county, the People & Places Community Conference. The conference title was truly apt and set the stage for workshops and discussions emphasizing community development’s mandate to not only build healthy and vibrant places in underserved neighborhoods, but to do so in true partnership and collaboration with the people who live, work, and play in the community.

The conference was an amazing opportunity to discuss the big ideas and principles of community development, breaking down silos between sectors within the industry, and focusing on the truly transformational potential of our work.  The lofty ideals were grounded in great breakout sessions focused on learning from the successes and challenges of so many inspiring advocates and leaders engaged in the real world work of building opportunity and community assets and power.

While attending the conference, I actively shared the experience via CDAD’s twitter account. To get a taste of the presentations and conversations that took place, please view this Storify from my three days at People and Places.

Coming from CDAD, Detroit’s association of community development organizations, I was eager to learn from those engaged in new models of community development across the country and look forward to applying this experience to our work in Detroit. With tracks focusing on “Community Control”, “Capital Flow”, “Neighborhood Level Economies”, and “Thriving People”, the breadth and depth of topics covered did not disappoint. The following are three of the recurring themes and learnings that I found most compelling throughout the conference.

Racial Justice and Building a Diverse and Inclusive Community Development Movement

People and Places was brought about by a unique collaboration of the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations (NACEDA), the National Urban League, the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB), and the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD). In the opening plenary, NALCAB Director Noel Poyo stated that community development is “the next step in the civil rights movement” and the intentional leadership of these organizations focused the dialogue on racial justice both within the formal program and in informal conversations. Because so many community development organizations work and invest in communities of color that have faced decades of discrimination, segregation, red-lining, and disinvestment, our movement in inextricably bound with struggles for inclusion and justice both historical and present day. Community development has to walk the talk and working for racial justice does not just happen “out” in the community. Representation and inclusion of the communities we aim to serve must be ever-present in how our organizations operate internally as well. We often observe in Detroit and Michigan that community development organizations need to do a better job of hiring and developing leaders that reflect the communities they serve. The participants at People and Places demonstrated what the result of a concerted effort to recruit, hire, and develop talented community builders could be. It was truly inspiring to meet so many passionate and dedicated young leaders of color at the conference, who are doing the work to expand opportunities for decent housing, economic inclusion, and strong communities.

Transactions and Transforming Communities

The truth is that much of the day to day in the professional field of community development focuses on transactions: fulfilling program requirement to deliver community services, completing a real-estate deal to build affordable housing, seeking funding sources to keep the doors open. This was a recurring theme during the conference, as speakers and panels urged us to consider if such ‘transactions’ are serving the overall goal for creating transformation in our communities. Transactions are a necessary reality, but lose meaning if residents do not have access to participate and act as stakeholders in the process. At the heart of community development is the movement to put development decisions and future of neighborhoods in the hands of the residents. As a true community-led movement, we must re-emphasize organizing, community building, and engagement to ensure that the residents of the historically disinvested neighborhoods we work in are able to define their future and seize the opportunities to create more just and inclusive communities.

Community Development Response to Gentrification

Gentrification was a hot topic throughout the conference and was a particular focus of the ‘Community Control’ session track. There was robust discussion of the policy decisions that are driving rising housing costs in “hot market” cities such as D.C. and San Francisco and how community advocates and development organizations are working to preserve affordability and communities vulnerable to cultural and physical displacement. Examples such as negotiating for community benefits agreements (Sommerville , MA and soon in Detroit), establishing an affordable housing trust fund (funded for more than $100 million in D.C.), and creating Eco-Districts (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and coming to Detroit) were highlighted as community-based strategies to expand low and moderate-income housing options for those who are threatened by rising development pressures. The role of community planning and support for implementing these community identified priorities was emphasized as important for improving quality of life while also ensuring future inclusion as market conditions change. Community planning is a very important part of our work at CDAD and it was great to learn about the successes of Cornerstone West CDC in Wilmington, DE in creating the West Side Grows together Plan and then implementing the community’s vision. The nature of community change is certainly different in Detroit from other cities, and it is even a point of contention whether gentrification is happening in the city. However, it is clear that in target areas of intense investment such as Midtown and Downtown, housing costs are rising quickly and the threat of displacement for long-time residents is real. We are seeing the beginning stages of a process that has played out in the “hot market” cities. However, we also have a great opportunity in Detroit to proactively manage and plan for development differently and in a way that protects and includes existing low-income communities. It is the natural role for community development organizations to take this opening and to create inclusive communities of opportunity for all, and the time is now for Detroiters to take the lead.