I’m in love. When you wake up every day knowing that what you do helps improve people’s lives and where they live, it’s one of the best feelings on earth. After witnessing years of hollow promises from political and business leaders who promised to “make communities better,” I get a deep satisfaction from being a part of this important work.
Daily, I’m reminded about both the fortune and the pressure. It’s never lost on me that I am part of the new wave of Community Development leaders, and rarity as a Black woman in this cohort. Regardless of race, across the spectrum we are all facing an enormous opportunity and urgent responsibility to get the notion of “community” right.
We don’t have the luxury of falling into the trap of iterative change or making mistakes that don’t move the field forward. Today’s stakes are just simply, too high.
Almost seventy years after the start of the Civil Rights movement, people are looking for positive results. They’re no longer satisfied to hear about “fairness” and “justice” when, for generations, Black and brown folks have suffered from poorly thought-out urban development strategies that left communities in worse shape.
Today, the field is being looked to for a new approach—new thinking, new funding, and new programs that grow healthier communities. And for us, the new guard, these pressures could easily make one’s head ache. And they would for me if it wasn’t for the new joy I find every day.
At the top of this decade, I feel an urgency to reflect and speak up about the future to make sure the value of our work doesn’t get lost. For a long time, we’ve been too quiet about what’s working and what’s fueling us. We’ve been so quiet that even the most essential causes are struggling to find resonance and affirmation in today’s society, sometimes entering meetings defending why they should exist.
Our field has major reasons to be proud; reasons you could miss in the cacophony of daily news. But there are real innovations and compelling work that our colleagues, partners, and the residents we serve can’t afford to miss.
We Have New Allies in the Fight
One of the inspiring forces is the creativity I’m seeing in our collaborations and who we’re bringing to the table. I know that I’m not the only CEO who has lost a little sleep over the continuing changes in our political, legal, and funding environments. When history looks back at this period, it will show the “dollars and sense” challenges we’ve faced and the new agility we’ve had to develop to keep our operations going.
Twenty years ago, we would have never thought of hospitals and universities as vital community building partners. Today, we’re engaging them, anchor institutions, and even media entities to drive progress that is just, scalable (read: well-funded), and engaging.
An example of this is how our conversations about financial institutions have evolved into more than just sales-like pitches of the newest widget. When I look at the National League of Cities’ (NLC) City Financial Inclusion Efforts overview, I see data and examples of how nationwide nonprofits, banks, and localities are collaborating to bring new options for communities in need and of color to life.
Innovative partnerships that include the Cities Endowment Fund’s collaboration with the Citi Foundation have created positive outcomes from growing the employment rate to helping thousands achieve homeownership. The design of classes, lending programs, and job programs are just some examples of how we are leveraging our influence to drive integral, expansive impact. And when I say “expansive,” I’m speaking of more than money, which is secondary to the real value I see: influence.
Our reality is that If we are serious about changing our world, we have to partner with those who have both the resources and influence on the power structures that we seek to change. Those include the media.
One inspiring example of galvanizing allies to change a narrative is last summer’s NLC’s #LoveMyCity public relations and social media campaign. Out front, we saw headlines nationwide highlighting positive stories from a diverse array of thousands of cities. Behind the scenes, we saw NLC partner with AARP, Acella, and communications giants like Clear Channel and the Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA) to expand its reach.
This viral, immersive campaign showed us what it really looks like when we get serious and build a bench of partners who can help us tell our story and win. Seeing this partnership was one of my top “love” moments that I’m hoping will inspire more narrative influence in the next generation.
The “Possible Generation” is Breaking Barriers in Equity Measurement
In 1998, I was a 20-something when Tupac’s “Changes” dropped and he said that we weren’t ready for a Black president. I was also one of those voters who showed up ten years later to make what seemed impossible possible.
In the same way that Black presidents, watches that track your heart rate, and doors that unlock with fingerprints seemed impossible in 1998, for decades, a concerted effort to center our work equity in seemed like a far-off dream.
Today, as a part of what I’ll call the “possible” generation, the innovations we’re working on that amaze me aren’t flying cars, they are the creativity I see in centering on our commitment to truly equitable development.
When we get this year’s census, the fields on race will look a lot different. They will let you offer deeper background on how you define origin and your background. These differences are the result of the boldness of partners like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and PolicyLink whose work culminated with 2018’s Counting a Diverse Nation: Disaggregating Data on Race and Ethnicity to Advance a Culture of Health.
Their work, which started in 2015, was a massive effort to demand and realize more data disaggregation which, through the Census, will make it possible to fight disparities in our communities with better intelligence.
This is real progress in measuring equity in a way that carries meaning for generations to come.
I’m also seeing equity baked into our work with invaluable research and tools like The Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity (CARE). CARE offers private and public sector organizations tools for quantifying the value of racial equity for organizations and businesses – something previous generations wouldn’t believe.
The CARE work adds validity to the fundamental idea that “opportunities to create shared value by promoting racial equity occur at every point along a company’s value chain.” For the first time in generations, these tools are helping operationalize the reparative healing work we need, attaching undebatable value to its importance, and establishing it as our new normal.
This new normal is making room for people of color at important tables, and not just to sit at. We’re now realizing our opportunity to lead – whether as grant makers, consultants, CEOs, or vendor-entrepreneurs. Yes, there is a lot of road ahead, but in more places than ever, we, the possible generation, are more active in leading the change we seek – partly because we’re growing how we track and share equity’s value.
The Pipeline from the Block Has New Support
I was onboarding a new hire last year who is newer to our work, and casually uttered a phrase that stuck. It was one of those, “do you hear yourself?” moments I had to make note of.
I said, “I believe the future of community development looks like its foundation—when we started, we weren’t an institution. We were just ordinary people working on behalf of folks in our neighborhoods.” Before there were 86 credentials and a litany of letters adding “validity” to our roles, there was Dorothy Mae Richardson, an inspiration for the creation of NeighborWorks America, who knew it would take partners and money to change her Philadelphia street.
Today, we’d call her a “grassroots” leader, not a pillar of the field or architect of an influential government agency. But the fact is the foundation of our work and the progress we stand on is built on the contributions of “grassroots” leaders who ultimately began trying to create positive change on their block, or road, or town. And that fact isn’t just our foundation—it’s our future.
When I met Devin Hall from Gary, Indiana last year, she was excited to join our Community Revitalization Fellowship and learn how other communities were fighting vacancy. Less than 12 months later, she was an active voice for underrepresented residents in Gary, contributing to community meetings and an early-stage effort to help youth in need.
Her peer-to-peer contributions at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference in 2019 was what I like to call a real-life instance of Sankofa, a West African principle that means going back to the past and fetching what you need for the future. Witnessing Hall share her experience reminded me of a time when residents weren’t just engaged, but could always be found leading the work. It affirmed my belief that these resident–peer learning experiences are essential to nurturing our next leaders and turning resident engagement into innovation that scales.
The Biggest Reason I’m in Love: People Still Come First
When I envision the next ten years, I see these innovations growing. If this past decade is an indicator, we will make history. In all of the progress we’ve achieved, putting people first is what makes me love the work today. Whether through better, more detailed data or fellowship programs that make it so the next generations have a pathway to future leadership seats.
All of our work, from creativity with funding, leveraging new partners, or tracking our equity commitment, is going to help us carry that proverbial torch forward and will make it shine even brighter.
I see us championing policy reform that closes the loopholes that have caused displacement and disinvestment. I see us taking risks and catalyzing new thoughts, not just to be disrupters for disruption’s sake. I see us bringing to life the sustainable, healthy, just communities our children need. I see an army of change agents that includes you, whose innovations can’t all fit into one article; but continue to fill our ecosystem with bold actions and ideas.
For this vision and this hope, thank you to my friends in this space. Your wins are our wins and there’s more progress on the way. You are keeping my heart full.
Read the full text of this article and more from Dr. Akilah Watkins-Butler at Shelterforce.org.