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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I am glad to introduce Clarence Terry and Philip Azar, who are friends, allies and leaders in Old East Durham (NC) Communities in Partnership (more about them at the end).

They write:

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.

= = = =

About Clarence Terry and Philip Azar

Hello, my name is Clarence Terry and here is a small bio about where I’m from and just a few of the organizations that I am involved with in Durham, NC. I came to Durham, NC from Washington, D.C., where in most part I resided all of my life. Born and raised there by two loving parents (Annette Holmes and Henry Hamilton).  I grew up as a child in a very low income area of D.C. known as Southeast, where just making it was the best you could do and to hope for.  Well enough about my childhood, now let’s move on to what I do now here in Durham, specifically Old East Durham. I am a community leader with the non-profit organization known as Old East Durham Communities in Partnership (usually called, “CIP”).  We formed five years ago and have been doing great work in our community since then. I am also a member of several other organizations such as F.A.D.E (Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement), OARNC (Organizing Against Racism, North Carolina).  I have received two awards since doing this work and they are, Community Organizer of the Year for Durham, N.C. by UE (Underground Equity), in 2012, and was also given the Neighborhood Heroes Award for 2015, by the InterNeighborhood Council, which is their highest award presented.

I’m Philip Azar.  I am a reformed attorney, on hiatus of indefinite length from corporate practice (for profit or nonprofit).  I’ve practiced law in Washington, D.C., Dubai, U.A.E., and Memphis, TN before moving to Durham, N.C. in 2005.   In Durham, whether working for the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate and Clean Energy Durham or participating in community and neighborhood groups such as the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham, Trinity Park Neighborhood Association, Old East Durham Communities in Partnership, Northeast Central Durham Leadership Council, and Southwest Central Quality of Life Project or making an unsuccessful run for city council, I’ve had excellent opportunities to witness communities and neighborhoods define and seek to achieve their ambitions.  Prior to coming to Durham and experiencing the privileges afforded here, my professional privileges included serving as general counsel to FedEx Supply Chain Services and being the Legal Advisor, Office of the Director General, The Economic Department, The Government of Dubai, where I provided legal advice for two large investments of the Government of Dubai. Son of Rose Theresa Connell and Henry Amin Azar, I’m a combination of Irish and Syrian/Lebanese/Armenian and try to apply at least some of my corporate skills to community work.

7 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?

  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.

  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.


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