What if the 'unusual suspects' suddenly became leaders in the community development field? - Generocity Philly


Sep. 17, 2018 11:39 am

What if the ‘unusual suspects’ suddenly became leaders in the community development field?

Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations' Pamela Bridgeforth on advancing racial equity and leadership development in local economic work.

A spring PACDC event.

(Photo via facebook.com/PhillyCDCs)

This essay originally appeared in the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations' (NACEDA) "Talking Values: Soulful Conversations within Community Economic Development" publication.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said … no, wait. They’ve heard and read that one before.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had this to say … no, too long. Besides, there are just enough reformed lawyers in community development to make this joke not funny. How about the poet, Maya Angelou? … no, no, no, too esoteric. Why is this so hard?

Oh wait, that’s right. The reason it’s so hard to talk about community development’s relationship to social justice and racial equity is that the very idea of it — the history and the effects of it — speaks to the sector’s creation as a radical and aggressive response to America’s social and racial justice fight.

We (the collective WE of resident volunteers, CDC staffers, funders and government officials) have been too close to the fight to see what is really around us and how what we are doing is nation building (wait, nation healing?) at its very essence. We are continuing the fight at the block, city park, community meeting and neighborhood levels.

The work of our member organizations is guerilla warfare and targeted drone deployment while also being neighborhood block party and kids’ magic show. For us and for our members, it’s more of the same — but it isn’t. Most particularly now, we need to see our work for what it is as we seek to build new voices (new weapons and battlegrounds?) for the future.

Have you ever noticed that the most vital and valued things in our lives are the places and people we ignore or forget about until they are under threat or are gone completely — like your old neighborhood and beloved granny, or the field of community development and maybe even democracy?


At the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC) Equitable Development Conference in 2017, the keynote speaker, noted psychologist and author, Mindy Fullilove, talked about the growing chasm of political and social ideology in our country. She said that if radical work wasn’t quickly attended to, we could see our country fall into a civil war.

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Wait, what? Doc, no, that seems too extreme. But is it? Given increasing incidents of one-off violence and organized fringe-right-wing and fringe-lite causes, I am not so sure now. How can our work better respond to this growing chasm?

We talk often about professionalizing our sector. But maybe we should return to our earlier roots and radicalize our work by opening more doors for unusual suspects to join in as paid staff and/or volunteers.

There are entire neighborhoods in Philly, Newark, Boston, Los Angeles, Houston and beyond where a significant percentage of the young adult population is returning from incarceration desperate to make a change in their lives and the lives of folks in their communities. There is also a growing cadre of experienced and savvy senior citizens and whip-smart high school youth looking to step up to the plate and make their communities stronger and more resilient.

Yet with such diverse talent — namely non-white, and without a graduate degree in urban planning — would a CDC or a CDC association consider hiring them (for money)? Hire convicted felons? Old people and kids?!! Put down the kombucha juice and kale salad for just a moment and consider that as creative as we are as a sector in finding money to build things, we can and must be equally creative in working to find ways to build communities with people — all kinds of people.


In late spring of this year, PACDC hosted a half-day training on community organizing for neighborhood leaders. The sessions included a retired mayor, a retired city councilman and smart, passionate high school students eager to learn about what they could do to stave off the violence and isolation in their communities. Did I mention in those sessions we had a rich mix of races and socio-economic statuses as well?

Can you imagine what our neighborhoods and country could look like if these unusual suspects suddenly became the leaders of our field?

Alright, alright, I know what you’re thinking. Nice words, but where did you find those folks and how exactly would we pay for this so-called radicalization of the field? You’re thinking it’s too hard to work on cultural shifts in our sector’s identity, funders won’t support this work, blah, blah, blah. Ahh, poor babies. Get over it.

Out of sheer necessity, we will have to rely on the unusual suspects to help carry the water for their communities in small ways as well as large.

Now hear this: If we don’t change who is doing the work, the work of the collective WE will no longer continue to exist. If our industry went away tomorrow, do you think our neighborhoods and the people that live and do business in them would all disappear, too? Would the problems go away if we don’t see them? Could we consider the possibility that our industry may and probably will shrink?

Out of sheer necessity, we will have to rely on the unusual suspects to help carry the water for their communities in small ways (block cleanups) as well as large (neighborhood planning and visioning).

If you have some time and you are in Philly, come visit with my friends at the Village of Arts and Humanities, which runs the People’s Paper Co-op. Or meet the folks at Quaker City Coffee. Both of these entities — one a nonprofit and the other a social enterprise — are working with a diverse and rich cross-section of folks reentering society to do some good in their communities.

The Village is also working with young people in a variety of ways to be the next wave of advocates and activists in their communities. If you stop by with some notice, we can share some food and chat with them. No kombucha or kale! But I bet you a bacon-egg-and-cheese that if you look, there are groups in your community doing similar work that you can learn from, too.


Now, let’s put on our big girl and boy pants and try to remember when our industry was just starting. (I hate that phrase “industry” — industries die but the fight for justice and just plain decency can never be killed or starved even when neglected.) Can we imagine when our sector’s early days started in the basements of houses of worship or in the living room of Ms. Myrtle? (You know you have a Ms. Myrtle in your community.)

Think how hard it must have been. Can we imagine the radical audacity, the daunting and intimidating task of helping people live with dignity and decency in a new home that doesn’t leak when it rains or let in the cold? Can we fathom the herculean task of transforming communities where most people were leaving into places where everyone is fighting to stay?

While it isn’t much easier now to do this work, it is better with broad networks of knowledge and experience to help smooth the path — a bit (thanks NACEDA!). To repay the debt that we owe those folks who came before us in basements and living rooms, we need to look back at our past as we shape our next steps.

We need to get more Ms. Myrtles, more young men and women coming out of prison, more teenagers and more documented and undocumented immigrants trained, supported and prepared to help us in our work — and to step in, should and when the battlegrounds get still more intense.

That is our work. It is the full embodiment of democracy’s promise to us and from us to it. Now, let us all get back to work and help continue to build our country by strengthening our neighborhoods.


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