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Community Development Is Crucial in This Moment

April 6, 2020


The pandemic is highlighting the crucial necessity of community developers’ work. Here’s what the field will need to play its part in the recovery. 

One month ago, when I began the first draft of this article, the world was drastically different. Well before we became part of this new reality, I felt an urgency to reflect and speak up about the future to make sure the value of our work doesn’t get lost. Now that urgency has grown. 

Throughout my life, I’ve been fortunate to work with practitioners and leaders who have always known that we have a shared responsibility to eradicate inequality. We fight hard for what we know to be right—equitable communities that have good schools, are free of crime and disinvestment, and that are affordable, accessible, healthy, and happy. On most days, our fight already feels like an uphill battle. 

Then, history puts a cherry on it. An unprecedented outbreak happens, and our fight is dwarfed by a public health emergency. Overnight, everyone’s priorities change, millions are out of work, and we all try to adjust to life and establish some semblance of a new normal. Yet while we do this the work refuses to wait. 

Right now, I, like many of you, don’t need to be CEO as much as I need to be Mom. 

But, the fact is that I am both—and I’m not taking any days off. The fight for equity still looms large, and COVID-19 is increasing its relevance. If we treat this crossroads like an opportunity, and not like an Armageddon, perhaps we can make advances in that fight as we make our way through the recovery. 

Laying Bare the Need for Equity 

The worst pandemic since the 1918 influenza outbreak has us having discussions and asking questions most of us have only read about or seen on movie screens. Phrases like “social distancing” (or the newer, more accurate “physical distancing”) and “shelter in place” are now part of our lexicon for the foreseeable future. These phrases ignite real, tangible fear for the majority of Americans who live close to the financial edge. When 12 percent of U.S. adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency and 28 percent are likely to revert to leveraging high-interest credit cards during this time, the crisis we face envelops much more than health alone.

When history looks back on COVID-19, it will see millions of Americans who worked without the benefit of sick pay, making a two-week self-quarantine without a paycheck inconceivable. It will note that 6.5 million Americans worked for companies that have more than 500 employees, which should have easily been able to provide sick time, but not only often didn’t, they weren’t required to by law even when others were. It will reflect on the 12 million small business workers that have no paid sick leave, and see the roughly 16 million self-employed workers of today’s gig economy who are often left out of discussions about help. It will see that many didn’t have the time to get or stay well without risking their livelihood.

The COVID-19 retrospective will also reveal that the act of “sheltering in place” is more of a privilege than a guarantee for the American family. History will see that in the early stages too many had to choose between securing space and securing their bodies, with more than 30 million people experiencing housing insecurity.

Will it also reveal that these facts enabled those who had already been fighting for equity, workers’ rights, and healthy homes and communities? Will it say that, through it, they gained new traction for their work and advanced proven solutions that move us toward a more just society? That depends on whether those organizations themselves survive the pandemic and are invited to the tables where we are crafting recovery.

What Community Development Needs from Our Funders 

The pandemic has amplified issues that community development organizations have been struggling with regarding the funding environment for our work for ages. To help realign America’s social contract, reimagine communities of opportunity, and endure this COVID-19-affected environment, we need our supporters to:

  • Fund community “responders” with more general operating dollars. Today’s needs are both critical and evolving. Our ability to respond will be limited in reach without budgets that ensure community development can stay afloat and assist.
  • Adapt existing grants to engage the unknown. The world has changed for all of us, especially those with restricted grant dollars earmarked for convenings and other fixed deliverables. As our needs are changing, consider converting those dollars into general operating dollars to help us effectively tackle the emerging needs on the horizon.
  • Respond. This virus is quickly changing our world. If we’re going to stay ahead, we need you to pick up the phone and be as expedient as possible with funding and grant amendments so our work can go on uninterrupted.
  • Create new latitude when it comes to reporting for the next year. Organizations need flexibility. If we spend our time filling out cumbersome applications and reports from a world that no longer exists, it’s going to negatively affect our impact. Together, let’s come up with faster and more efficient ways to communicate. Give us new opportunities to share and show our work and progress.
  • Check in. Nonprofit leaders, like all people, are going through a lot and have to be strong for ourselves, staff, and constituents with a smaller probability of a break. We need you to check on us; we need to talk to people who “get” the challenge of leadership. Your support matters more than ever in times like these.
  • Provide patient capital. The effects of this won’t be resolved in 12 months. We need your support for the long haul—beyond the headline moments, outside of narrow fiscal years, and with confidence that you are there for us in the ways that we are there for communities.
  • Don’t leave, but continue to lean into community development. In times like these, philanthropy may want to shift foundation resources to deal with immediate needs exclusively. While we understand the urgency, know that your funding commitments have made strides in affordable housing, land banking, generational wealth creation, and neighborhood stability. The way this crisis is highlighting the connection between health and housing points out that the work community development already does is not only a crucial part of the recovery, but of being better prepared for the next one. This is important work and it needs more funding opportunities for the hard road ahead.

I’m not alone in my thinking. Innovators in Chicago are saying and sharing the same through the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund efforts. In addition, the Council on Foundations and “Philanthropy’s Commitment During COVID-19” clearly shares a strong framework for what it will take to keep the sector strong and support our most vulnerable residents in our newly reshaped world.

If we want to emerge from this, we need funders to see us, hear us, and to respond in the ways we all know will lead to organizations that are ready to be responsive and innovate.

Seize the Policymaking Moment 

One of the most humane policies instituted recently is the suspension of evictions (many mortgage holders have implemented this including HUDFannie and Freddie Mac) and water utility cut-offs for the next 60 days. These are steps in the right direction and give many American workers the peace of mind they need to comply with national recommendations to stay put in their homes.

This policy response demonstrates what is possible when community development voices are heard. Organizations including Americans for Financial Reform, National Consumer Law Center, and the National Fair Housing Alliance have been fighting for these kinds of assistance for vulnerable families and communities of color for generations.

While eviction moratoriums and mortgage payment suspensions provide relief in the short-term, they are not sufficient answers to the long-standing, and now magnified, questions of housing access and affordability. If these moratoriums and suspensions are implemented without a stimulus to people and nonprofits, American communities will remain in danger. Community development voices should be heeded as longer-term policies are crafted as well.

What Does Life Look Like Outside of the Danger Zone? We Get to Decide 

Once we get through these trying times, the challenges to community development and revitalization won’t magically disappear. When events like COVID-19 happen, America’s inequities and inefficiencies become more pronounced. We can look to the Great Recession as evidence that recovery outcomes are skewed by race and class, and with this knowledge we can be prepared to work smarter in addressing this crisis.

Crises take us back to our foundation. They expose our true moral imperatives, highlight the cracks in America’s social contract, and force us to respond with serious change for the greater good. The legislative response to the Great Depression profoundly changed the way we thought about our shared prosperity as a nation. The opportunity of today is that we have the information, tools, and a more diverse leadership base now. We can create a different future. That difference can only be made if we commit to real long-term reforms that are centered on equity as our north star, both in funding and governing.

We don’t have to live in fear. For our children, for our neighbors, for our families, and for each place that people give purpose, we can make the change that decides how much better we will be when this crisis is over. This crisis has the power to show the best of us and what real collaboration looks like in the face of need. Policymakers, changemakers, parents, neighbors—let’s get it right this time.

Read the full text of this article and more from Dr. Akilah Watkins-Butler at 

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