Foreword – The Soul of Community Development 

By Joe McNeely

Joe McNeelyOver almost 50 years, I've come to think of our field, less as a uniform body of organizations, and more as a parade in which diverse organizations with different agendas, practices, and origins march behind the same banner, a banner, often in a common public policy demand for public investment. We are, mostly, place-based organizations focused on housing and other real estate as a platform for family resilience and economically-sustainable community revitalization. We who march pursue a variety of social, grant-funded programs, but at the core of our organizations is work that uses private-sector techniques and attracts private investors to places the market economy would otherwise refuse to put resources. 

For some of us, community economic development is an extension of the long struggle for racial justice, or another method of community empowerment whereby residents learn by action and reflection and become more capable of driving social change. For many of us, community economic development is a process by which residents direct revitalization in a manner that benefits the residents of that community, particularly the most challenged.

This parade of organizational diversity defies neat delineation. We are more like a field of practice, like medicine, that flourishes in many different institutions and expressions.

The issues presented in these essays are not new — nor are they simple questions with clear answers. Rather, these are enduring conflicts that require us to continuously re-balance the values of the field. This necessary and dynamic process gives creativity and juice to our work. Each generation has, and will need to, determine their own reflections to these questions.

How can we be “a field of practice,” if we are so diverse in origin, structure and operation; so diffuse in our programming i.e., comprehensive; so universal in our presence, urban, suburban, and rural? What do we all truly have in common? How do you tell your mother what you do?

How can we use private-sector techniques and recruit private investment without, for the sake of feasibility, falling into the inequities inherent in a capitalistic economy? How can we be bedfellows with those institutions responsible for the very disinvestment at the heart of what we struggle against?

How can we be about racial equity and yet keep the relationships that benefit our communities with conventional institutions that harbor structural racism? How can we be about empowerment, organizing the disenfranchised for power, yet be known best for producing real estate projects with highly-leveraged private financing?

How can we be grassroots enough to be accessible and accountable to all community residents, yet be professional and sophisticated enough to change the intractable conditions that confine those we seek to involve and benefit?

How can we be an industry, and yet a movement? How can we be real estate professionals. yet have the soul of a reformer?

How can we change the world without losing our soul?

These are, at the core, soulful questions. They are less about the mechanisms we use, or the work we do, than about the motivation and rationale for why we do it. They are less about production and outcome-oriented funding, than they are about the values and vision of a future that gets us out of bed in the morning.

Five authors attempted to challenge our soulful reflection on who we are and what we are about. Indeed, what we most have in common across this big parade is what motivates us. These authors, many from "the next generation" and deliberately diverse, ask us how we define and describe ourselves.

If I had one admonition from the past to the future, it would be this: keep these values, especially empowerment, social change and racial justice, ever in the forefront of your mind and let them infuse and modify every element of your practice. My generation has, at times, let this slip.

Do not allow these values to be shelved into a strategic plan that gets revisited once a year — or written about in a once-in-a-decade publication. Do not let them become siloed into a “program” apart from other programs of your organization. Let them influence the very means by which you do every part of your organization’s work. Challenge racist institutions while doing project development. As part of participation in planning, teach people who are not technicians to understand real estate feasibility so that they support for your project and have better insight into the economic realities that confine their families and cause disinvestment. Yes, employ young people in your construction projects. But take time to show them how real estate development works and who really makes the money.

Be the best at the programmatic techniques of your work, but also be the visionary, the reformer. Because in this parade, the beat is not set by national leaders, program officers, or politicians banging a drum. The beat is set by soulful practitioners.

Joe McNeely served as executive director of a CDC in Baltimore that was generated by a community organization and funded by the Ford Foundation’s original CDC program. Joe then served as director of President Carter as director of HUD’s Office of Neighborhoods which funded the further expansion of neighborhood revitalization organizations into community economic development, sometimes call “the second wave of CDCs.” From 1982 to 2004, during a period of the field’s rapid growth, diversification and professionalization, Joe led the Development Training Institute (DTI), identified as "the country's most successful CDC leadership program.” Joe subsequently served as executive director of the highly regarded Central Baltimore Partnership, and has served on NACEDA’s board of directors since the organization’s founding. He is author, most recently, of Community Economic Development for Social Workers, a textbook published by Columbia University Press.



This publication was made possible by the generous support of PNC Bank

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