Gettin’ down in Chicago
She wasn’t billed as the conference keynoter, but Monique Howard may have nailed it best.
Eric Young Smith
“Come down just a little bit!” implored Howard, the executive director of Houston’s Ryon Neighborhood Civic Association.
Speaking to a filled-to-capacity main ballroom in Chicago’s Sheraton Hotel, Howard made a compelling case for getting down with “the plain folk” and “planting some seeds that will flower over time.”
In effect, she was reminding her peers of Organizer’s Rule No.1: that for all the theories of community development, for all the government programs and nonprofit initiatives, change happens when people engage one to one.
She ought to know. Howard said her life was turned around at age 15 when a kindly baseball coach—Mr. Earl—not only made her the only girl on the team, later he made her its first assistant coach.
“I grew up thinking I was nothing,” Howard said. “Then suddenly I’m coach. That’s how it works. We’ve got to remember we’re not just building housing. We’re building lives.”
Big picture, too
That’s not to say that the speakers forgot about painting the big picture or drawing up smart strategies for the more than 800 community development professionals from more than 80 cities at Monday’s sessions of “Getting It Done II: Building Strong Communities in a Changing World.”
The March 5-6 conference, sponsored by LISC and The Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, delivered expert after expert with insights into how the community development landscape is changing following the Great Recession and today’s economic semi-recovery.
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“We come together with a sense of urgency because our neighborhoods continue to struggle with layoffs, foreclosures and disinvestment,” said Institute Managing Director Joel Bookman in his welcoming remarks.
“But we’re also here to confirm to one another that what we do is working! That we’ve developed a vast array of time-tested tactics. That we’ve become the glue. That we’re re-weaving the social fabric of our neighborhoods,” Bookman said.
Michael Rubinger, president of LISC and co-chair of the Institute, recalled that four years ago, at the initial “Getting It Done” conference in Chicago, LISC vowed to take national the “Chicago model” of comprehensive community development embodied by the New Communities Program (NCP) here.
“I’m more convinced today that this is the right strategy at the right time,” Rubinger said, despite economic headwinds that have made the work harder.
What it takes at the federal level
Rubinger introduced keynote speaker Erika Poethig, deputy assistant secretary of policy development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Poethig, a Chicago-trained disciple of the comprehensive approach, helped launch LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program as a member of the Futures Forum from the Commercial Club of Chicago and in her role as a community development specialist with NCP’s principal funder, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
In Washington she has promoted the comprehensive approach, and its spirit is much-evident in the Obama Administration’s signature “Choice Neighborhoods” program, which requires that cities show plans that encompass grassroots planning efforts—a core strategy of Chicago’s NCP.
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But the hyper-partisan political atmosphere in Congress, Poethig said, “has made it very tough” to obtain the resources needed to expand the model to scale.
She said one House committee’s early version of this year’s HUD appropriation explicitly forbade us from using funds for “capacity building” or “inter-agency cooperation.”
“Has it really come to this?” Poethig said, though never mentioning the words “Republican” or “Democrat.”
“We need you,” she said to the big audience of community development professionals. “We need your help to help us shape policy. Your stories are important parts. Your evidence also matters.”
Poethig conceded that practitioners sometimes consider measurement and evaluation more of a bother than a necessity. But she advised them not to “walk away” from measurement because it’s needed to justify allocation of resources.
Poethig closed by quoting President Barack Obama:
“Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world. But there's always been another thread running throughout our history—a belief that we're all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.”
Down the block and across the world
Jaime Alvarado of East San Jose’s Samos Mayfair organization earned a laugh in his speech by reminding his peers that its people, not monetary resources, that ultimately bring about neighborhood change.
“The revolution,” he said, paraphrasing the late jazzman Gil Scott Heron, “will not be funded.”
One way to galvanize a neighborhood to action, Alvarado said, is to aim for change within three years, not 10. But galvanizing collective action is a must, he continued, “because shared power is the only power capable of building the neighborhoods of our dreams.”
Another winning strategy is getting early results, even if only modest improvements. Frank Shea of the Olneyville (R.I.) Housing Corporation said his group won broad community support by convincing the city to repave some of the worst pot-holed streets.
“You would have thought they were repaved with gold,” he said of the community’s reaction.
Alvarado also advised that informal partnerships, say between the city, church groups and local businesses, can get more done sooner—and for less—“without writing a grant application.”
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Attendees were summoned to the opening luncheon by the thunder of a dozen drums played by Stampede, a Chicago drummers' group that often appears at Chicago Bulls basketball games.
Isela Gracian of the East Los Angeles Community Corp., and Jim Stark of the Fayette County Community Action Corp. called out the names of each cities’ delegation for roll call. Each responded with a “whoop!” … and the whoops got louder as the informal competition intensified.
After lunch, attendees broke into nine workshop groups, each with a panel of experts in a certain field of community development, ranging from Organizing to Evaluating, from Staying Safe to Communicating.
At the Going Global session, for instance, moderators Jim Capraro introduced CD experts from Italy, Germany and Canada.
“No matter where you go,” said Capraro, who now consults worldwide on community development after decades of organizing on Chicago’s Southwest Side, “the ingredients are always the same …but the recipe is always different.”
Global attendees were especially intrigued by the experience of European organizers, who operate in societies where there is little private philanthropy and the national government is relied upon by the poor for life’s necessities.
Milan’s Francesca Santaniello said that means the looming prospect of less government spending on social programs might actually ignite more community-based action and work towards self-sustainability.
Monday’s plenary session (another is scheduled for Day Two) featured a panel on connecting disadvantaged neighborhoods to their mainstream metropolitan economies.
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Moderator Julia Stasch, senior vice president for domestic programs at the MacArthur Foundation, said that her work convinces her that neighborhoods will succeed only insofar as they manage to connect with regional economies—regional economies that are emerging as the major players in global economic competition.
That view was seconded by Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, who suggested the U.S. needs a “new growth model” based on: 1) innovation, especially in manufacturing; 2) low-carbon technologies; and 3) exports.
Berube added, though, that “place still matters” and that neighborhoods need to take advantage of their region’s strengths, be they transportation or higher education or medicine or whatever has worked historically.
At day’s end, many conference attendees adjourned at a reception celebrating the 10th anniversary of LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program and all that’s been accomplished in 16 neighborhoods here.
Susana Vasquez gave large credit for NCP’s success to MacArthur’s Julia Stasch and to Andrew Mooney, her predecessor as executive director of LISC Chicago, who now serves as Chicago’s commissioner of development and housing.
Posted in Notes from the Field