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Institute Gets Marching Orders at D.C. Inaugural

When 150 experts gathered in Washington, D.C. on April 20 to launch the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, more than one asked whether the world needed yet another organization promising to do good things.

In this case, the answer was ‘Yes.’

Over six hours of panel discussions, speeches and hallway conversations, the participants – from communities, government agencies and think tanks around the country – expressed broad support for the Institute’s mission of advancing the field through training, peer-to-peer learning, research and communication.

Valerie Jarrett

Valerie Jarrett: "We want to make sure the White House and all the different agencies of the Federal government . . . are working closely with you.

Gordon Walek

The keynote speaker carried that message from a former community organizer out of Chicago, President Barack Obama.

“What a perfect partner for us to have at the national level,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to Obama. “We couldn’t be more committed to this effort.”

Jarrett and four others from the Obama administration vowed to “break down silos” within the Federal bureaucracy to support comprehensive efforts, including the administration’s own programs such as Promise Neighborhoods, Sustainable Communities Initiative and Choice Neighborhoods. Jarrett welcomed the Institute’s plan to become “a laboratory where we can highlight best practices and actually teach and focus on the skills of community development.” View short or long versions of Valerie Jarrett's keynote.

A maturing industry

The Institute was formed in early 2010 by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) as “a product of lessons learned over many decades,” said LISC President Michael Rubinger. His own experience goes back to 1970 at the Ford Foundation, when the work was “idiosyncratic, very risky, woefully undercapitalized and inefficient.”

“In those days each project had to be painfully cobbled together,” said Rubinger. “The result was a stand-alone project that . . . was likely too small to have any real impact on the surrounding neighborhood, and too customized to be replicated at any feasible cost or significant scale.”

Today is different. Not only have thousands of community initiatives attracted billions of dollars of investment, but the field has evolved from a project-by-project, housing-centric approach to a comprehensive playbook. Today’s practitioners do many things at once, tapping extensive partnerships in neighborhoods to build healthier families, better schools, safer streets and stronger economies.

Adolfo Carrión, Jr.

Adolfo Carrión, Jr.: "To be successful, we must embrace the concepts of integrated, comprehensive development."

Gordon Walek

Adolfo Carrión, Jr., Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, spent 10 months traveling the country to find “fresh ideas and creative solutions” that can contribute to the comprehensive approach. “There is a treasure trove of creativity and innovation out there,” he said.

Even so, comprehensive initiatives have shown mixed results and produced a few high-profile failures. One challenge has been finding a balance between top-down programs and bottom-up organizing. Another is the difficulty of sustaining positive change over time – and showing the measurable results that attract more funding.

Much of today’s work is modeled after a 1990s effort in the Bronx called the Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program (CCRP). It used a local “lead agency” to organize a neighborhood planning process and to forge the partnerships necessary for implementation. LISC/Chicago adapted the method in 1998 for a three-neighborhood pilot, and in 2001, it partnered with the MacArthur Foundation to launch a 16-neighborhood effort called the New Communities Program.

MacArthur committed $50 million over 10 years, which leveraged $50 million more in direct funding and a half-billion-dollars in related activity. It showed enough promise that LISC is now rolling out the method nationally under the banner of “Sustainable Communities.”

Problems to solve

Inaugural participants painted a challenging road ahead, both at the neighborhood level and in the realms of policy and practice.

“Street gangs are extremely well organized, well capitalized and well armed,” said Hipolito “Paul” Roldan of Hispanic Housing Development Corporation in Chicago, where seven people were killed and 15 wounded during a single weekend in April 2010. “We have to take our neighborhoods back from these businesses and cartels. When children can’t cross streets from one neighborhood to another to get to their school, there is not a lot of learning in that school.”

Racial segregation, poverty and immigration issues further complicate the challenges, participants said. Local solutions often aren’t enough in the face of a recessionary economy, foreclosures, high mobility among the poor and broken educational systems. And there is a continuing tension between metropolitan-wide approaches and “place-based” neighborhood efforts. (Read what participants said.)

Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution said some policies and institutions aren’t keeping pace with shifting realities, such as the growing poverty in American suburbs. Between 2000 and 2008, poor populations in the suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas grew almost five times faster than in the central cities, Liu said, at a 25 percent rate.

Converging forces

The Institute was formed to confront just these types of issues, said its Managing Director, Andrew Mooney, who is also Executive Director of LISC/Chicago. The Institute’s Board of Advisors wants provocative thinking, Mooney said, and honest, unflinching analysis of what’s working and what isn’t.

The Institute concept was conjured up by veteran practitioner Jim Capraro in Chicago with long-time colleagues Mooney and Joel Bookman. Capraro and Bookman had cut their teeth in the 1980s by methodically rebuilding worn-out neighborhoods. Mooney ran the Chicago Housing Authority and other organizations before becoming program director at LISC/Chicago in 1996, when the community development field’s bricks-and-mortar approach was proving inadequate to reverse neighborhood decline.

Rubinger and others

LISC President Michael Rubinger (left) talks with Bob Weissbourd of RW Ventures and Xavier Briggs of the Office of Management and Budget.

Gordon Walek

The Institute idea gained traction last year as the recession pounded neighborhoods and as the Obama administration began shaping its own comprehensive programs. These new inter-agency efforts are “unlike any that we have seen in a very long time at the federal level,” said Julia Stasch, a vice president at the MacArthur Foundation. And they are well matched at the community level, she said, where organizations, funders, government agencies and businesses are building “platforms” that can quickly and efficiently respond to opportunities, such as the possibility of attracting a new grocery store.

Marching orders

Many participants at the inaugural endorsed the Institute’s plan to offer trainings, build capacity and document what is working or not around the country. Discussions returned repeatedly to three themes:

  1. Cities and neighborhoods are embracing the comprehensive approach and want to build more capacity and effectiveness;
  2.  The Federal government also supports comprehensive methods but it must break down silos within its own agencies to fully implement them; and
  3. Community development practitioners recognize weaknesses and gaps that the Institute can address through trainings, communication and policy work.

Anne Kubisch of the Aspen Institute, who has studied the field for more than 20 years, urged a two-track effort to move things forward. “Sometimes we have this theory that if we just do really high-quality work at the local level, it will bubble up and be reproduced and achieve scale,” she said. “But communities are not the best place for doing the system-reform work. After 25 or 50 years of underinvestment in these communities, and given how racially organized their power structures are, there needs to be a parallel track that allows us to build supportive systems (related to policy).”

Better training is also needed, said Xavier Briggs, who worked on the pioneering CCRP effort in the Bronx and is now Associate Director for General Government Programs for the Office of Management and Budget. “We have a ways to go to make it more teachable and learnable,” he said, to make the work of community development “a craft and not an alchemy (performed) by the mystical priesthood.”

View the slideshow below to see speakers and participants. Photos by Gordon Walek.

Keywords: challenges, federal government, inaugural, issues, Jarrett, Obama

Posted in Leading

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