The Role of Grass Roots Community Development Organizations within Community Development Initiatives

This entry was contributed by on August 11th, 2016 at 5:13 pm and is filed under , .
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We have witnessed and participated in the dialogue between community, politicians, government, nonprofits and other stakeholders when a well-meaning economic development initiative came to a community they care for.  Old East Durham is a community undergoing rapid transformation, with issues of displacement and gentrification widely acknowledged.  Economic benefits for the members of the community whose profiles in material poverty were used to justify the initiative very much remain an open question.

We are aware that the portrayal in this article of politicians, government officials and nonprofits is somewhat flattened and that these stakeholders, individually and collectively, have additional incentives, but the incentives we focus on exist, dominate, and are ignored at great peril to the community.

At the beginning of an economic development initiative, populations that are low-income, that are predominantly African-American and that have low home-ownership rates are referred to as the “community” and, at the end of an economic development initiative, populations that are higher-income, that are whiter and that have higher home-ownership rates also are referred to as the “community.”  This is not wrong ­per se, but the reality that many of the individuals living within the area of economic development at the beginning of the initiative have moved out and have been replaced with whiter, higher income residents, many of whom have driven up home-ownership rates is rarely acknowledged.

It is our proposition that it is the role of grass roots community organizations to ensure that the ambiguity caused by the good will, hospitality, grace and sense of inclusion inherent in the word “community” is used in a measured way and that there is minimum ability to use that ambiguity to mask state-subsidized displacement of low-income, African-American renters or to switch promised improvements in individual lives with improvements to amenities, especially in neighborhoods whose houses are already more firmly on the path to financial appreciation than their residents.

In order to play its role effectively, a community grass roots organization needs to know what incentives other stakeholders have, and make sure that the organization only confers credibility, legitimacy and respect on those stakeholders who try to direct economic development initiative benefits (financial rewards, by and large) to those members of the community whose economic profiles were used to sell the economic development initiative to politicians, other government officials, nonprofits, civic and religious institutions.


A community grass roots organization that is too quick to confer its credibility, legitimacy and respect on other stakeholders risks no only losing its credibility, legitimacy and respect, it also runs the risk of failing to protect politicians, other government officials, and nonprofits from accusations of bait and switch, mismanagement of metrics, and community exploitation. (Which isn’t to say that a community grass roots organization that confers its credibility, legitimacy and respect too slowly cannot be rendered irrelevant over time or be accused of trying to “extract” too much economic benefit for the people who are the intended beneficiaries of the economic development initiative.)

  • Politicians.  Politicians are going to politic (i.e., favor groups more likely to vote in their favor, especially in an organized and denser manner).  Here, the grass roots community group might be better positioned to offer guidance couched in political terms.  “We support the [insert politicians’ name or titles], and the vision of the economic development initiative as originally portrayed, especially in its ability to help low-income, predominantly African-American renters in this community.  No one likes to support politicians who can’t control their own initiatives.”
  • Government officials.  Government officials are there to seek favor from the politicians referred to above.  Here, the grass roots community organization may be most effective publicly reminding the government officials of the goals of the community development initiative – as proclaimed by the politicians – and warn the officials of the need to follow those directions.  No one likes a government official who uses power, subject matter expertise and position to advance agendas that are distinct from the public guidance offered by those we have elected.
  • Nonprofits.  Just as a politician must politic, nonprofits must raise money.  They use the statistical (and individual) profiles in material poverty of community members to raise money.  Before moving on to another community, the nonprofits will need to use the statistical (and, to a lesser degree, individual) profiles in material wealth or income improvement to show success so that the nonprofit can be entrusted to work in the next community.  Knowing this, a grass roots community organization can publicly encourage nonprofits to direct their benefits, programming jobs to the low-income, predominantly African-American renters in the community.

Conclusion.  Communities change.  It’s inherent in the word, “community,” but the pace, reasons, nature and process around that change are topics worthy of candid and, at times, hard discussion.

Unless the community grass roots organization uses its credibility, legitimacy and respect to keep everyone on task, the economic development initiative will succeed for everyone – except the members of the community whose profiles in material poverty were used to justify the initiative in the first place.


12 Responses to “The Role of Grass Roots Community Development Organizations within Community Development Initiatives”

  1. John Stephens

    Clarence and Philip: I think I understand your experience and argument that there needs to be authenticity in the “pitch” for community economic development initiatives and who benefits from the changes. My comment is that most changes which improve properties and/or the perception of safety and property values tends to squeeze low income residents (i.e., rents tend to increase).

    Are you saying that some change in this direction is inevitable, but grass roots community organizations should advocate consistently for replacement affordable housing in the same neighborhood?

    Secondly, is there an opportunity for shared action – consistent with the needs of low income community members – with new (higher income) community members? This idea was raised in Gentrification and Collaborative Engagement: What If?

    • John Stephens

      My apologies in this delay in adding replies from the authors.

      Hi John, Sorry for the delay in the response, but Clarence and I have only recently been able to get together. Community sometimes moves slowly, and our commitment to one another is to try and answer these questions together whenever possible.

      With regard to your statement about an authentic “pitch” for community economic development, the issue may be less about the authenticity of the initial pitch, than the integrity of the follow through. If, for example, you launch an anti-poverty initiative in a defined geographic area with the statement that “Our focus is people who live in poverty and for many, through no fault of their own, who have been in poverty for many years” the focus of the program should be on low-income people living in that area and no other metric or focus can be substituted with integrity and credibility.

      Broad-based progressive programs around affordable housing (not tied to area residents either in terms of ownership, rental or employment), Individual Development Accounts outside the financial wherewithal of the original low-income residents of the neighborhood, and infrastructure improvements that are at least as appealing to the non-target residents as to the target residents are not logically tied to the stated goals of the program. Moreover, if the low-income residents of the neighborhood are predominantly African-American and are the intended beneficiaries of the program, but the program components end up more beneficial to higher income, non-African-American groups, this is a Black Lives Matter matter.

      Absolutely, there is room for shared action:
      • Collecting, preserving and sharing of stories
      • Canvassing around community matters, more fully described in Kate Elander’s article
      • Community gathers around food
      • Music
      • Professional facilitators at community meetings
      However, essential elements of sharing include a degree of equality. If the economic development or anti-poverty program lifts one group above another, the line between creating common experiences and papering over cracks is at best uncomfortable for all involved.

  2. Benny Ubi

    I just started an initiative which is a community based organisation called, AFRICAN GRASSROOT ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE, i hope to get some tips on our and of year activity in our model community in southern Nigeria. we intend to host a community based economic summit, harnessing community based investments and improving the life’s of the rural people with youths and women in focus.

    • John Stephens

      Mr. Ubi – I hope you find something of value in our conversation. Our focus on the U.S. may not fit with your context, but I hope there are some ideas of value.

  3. John Stephens

    I heard this story August 17th on public radio, and it seems to touch on some of the points of the post, but also looks at upbringing, and the larger topic of gentrificaiton.
    Length: six minutes.
    I like that it brings three different views and voices, each with longer-term roots in the Durham community.
    – J. Stephens
    Storymakers: Durham’ Exploring Gentrification In Durham

    Summary from the above website:
    Is gentrification good or bad? It’s a topic in almost every American city, including those in the Triangle. Jamila Hunter, 39, is African-American and has lived most of her life in Durham. To explore her own doubts about the rapid development of her hometown, Hunter recorded conversations with two people she knows – both lifelong Durham residents, one white, and one black. The conversations didn’t go exactly as Hunter had expected. Hunter is one of the citizen storytellers in the Storymakers: Durham project.

  4. Tara L Fikes

    As a long-time Durham resident, I consider gentrification as rampant in the city. Over the last two weeks I have had the need to travel the streets of Downtown Durham and the surrounding neighborhoods. When I left a church meeting recently rather than take the main street – Roxboro Street. I decided to ride through the revitalized south side area of town. I remember the community being a black community with a mix of owner occupied houses with neat lawns along with well-kept “shotgun” rental houses and rental duplexes during my youth, What I see now are nice, modern owner-occupied housing with no “apparent” new rental housing except the new rental complex at the corner of Lakewood and Roxboro Street that is price prohibitive to most families. Further, when I travel to church now, I see non-blacks walking the sidewalks that my church mothers and fathers walked to get to church 30, 40 years ago. So, gentrification has arrived in this neighborhood for sure. And, nearly every week, my friends and I talk in amazement about the pricey condos being built downtown.

    So, I am left with the question – where are those that were displaced? Who can afford to take their places? There is little affordable rental housing available and many of the previous residents do not earn enough to purchase a house. Can community based grassroots organizations help? Maybe, if you can find the community grass roots organization that has now been displaced in many areas of Durham.

    • John Stephens

      6/9/17 my apology in this late response from the authors – the responsibility is mine, John S.

      From Clarence/Philip:
      Probably people who are displaced in Durham are going further out into the county, as Jamila Hunter’s podcast says. We have also heard stories of people leaving the area altogether in favor of going where they have relatives in other cities, less expensive than Durham.
      Opinions differ, but community grass roots organizations seem to have three options: 1. Protest and fight neighborhood changes that are largely inevitable, which leads to irrelevance; 2. Find a balance between engaging with change and the people who are part of that change, but fight actions that accelerate displacement of traditional, largely lower income, African-American residents, and 3. Selling out. Regardless of which option is selected, a grass roots organization always needs to be focused on its community.
      Your point about communities changing so much that there is little reason for the community grass roots organization to stay in the same location makes painful sense. If low-income, African-Americans are moving away from urban neighborhoods out into the county, one would expect there to be changes in locations of grass roots organizations.

  5. Kevin Amirehsani

    I’ve always found it interesting that many of the higher-income neighborhoods of urban areas across the country have seemingly-“progressive” citizens who very vocally oppose housing development in their areas due to such varied reasons as height restrictions, preserving the historic nature of the community, and the congestion such development would cause. However, this level of engagement/NIMBY-ism isn’t as concerted in lower-income areas. Where does the housing end up? We all know the answer. Whatever the solution is, it has to approach the problem from both sides – making low-income housing a priority, even, at times, in opposition to prominent neighborhood groups, while also trying to increase residents’ voice in those parts of town which aren’t as well-organized.

    • John Stephens

      Kevin – nice thought on the “both sides” approach. How the various voices and needs are engaged seems the toughest part. Will traditional sources of power on land use decisions buy into the need, and distribution, of affordable housing? If not, is the engagement different – not a matter of “how do we reason together” but more one of coalition building to move forward in the face of opposition – as you note, “even, at times, in opposition to prominent neighborhood groups.” But those kinds of clashes have their risks and costs, too.

    • John Stephens

      From Clarence/Philip (responding to Kevin’s comment:
      You’re right. There is a crazy tension when seemingly progressive citizens oppose virtually all housing development so vocally that few if any other voices are heard.
      We may be making a mistake when we talk about affordable housing and gentrification as the same issue or think that affordable housing is always a solution to gentrification. Gentrification involves the displacement of long-term, low-income, typically African-American, residents. New affordable housing may be occupied by people who move in from outside the neighborhood, who are non-minority, or who are of a higher income, albeit sufficiently “low-income” to qualify for affordable housing. When this happens, affordable housing, while much needed, isn’t really a solution to gentrification.
      For affordable housing to answer the issues of gentrification, the new owner or renter of the affordable housing must come from the neighborhood, or the construction of the affordable housing must include hiring of people under pressure for displacement. Repairs programs for existing residents is another area where affordable housing programs can address displacement.

  6. annie sykes

    Looking to build a better relationship with my community here in Rocky Mount and found this and interesting read especially surrounding all the face book post regarding Durham lately.

    • John Stephens

      Ms. Sykes: thanks for your comment. We would be glad to hear more about your focus and activities for better relationships with communities in Rocky Mount.


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