This article introduces a new NPQ series, titled Building Power, Fighting Displacement: Stories from Asian Pacific America, coproduced with the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD). Authors in this series highlight stories of comprehensive community development in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the United States.

The Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (hereafter “AA and NHPI”) community is the nation’s fastest-growing racial group. Growing more than four times as rapidly as the total US population since the turn of the century, the AA and NHPI community’s numbers are expected to double again to nearly 36 million by 2060. 

In mainstream narratives, AA and NHPI communities are often lumped together as a monolithic group with a singular experience. But they are, in fact, incredibly diverse—representing many ethnicities, speaking hundreds of languages, identifying with various faiths, with very different migration stories. Some came to the United States in the mid-19th century, seeking work as farmers or laborers. Others arrived in the late 20th century to escape war and conflicts. Native Hawaiians arrived to the lands now known as Hawai’i many centuries before the establishment of the United States. Other AA and NHPI communities within this broad umbrella have only arrived in the last decade.

A History of Exclusion

In mainstream narratives, AA and NHPI communities are often lumped together as a monolithic group…But they are, in fact, incredibly diverse.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, when AA and NHPIs first arrived in the United States, they were often subject to exclusionary policies that forced them to live in segregated neighborhoods—today, these are often called Chinatowns, Manilatowns, Little Tokyos, and Little Mekongs. These cultural districts offered a network of support such as community centers, faith-based institutions, resources for those most vulnerable, and access to the small businesses that serve the unique needs of community members. Today, these cultural districts, located in some of the highest-cost cities in the country, are at risk of commercial and residential displacement due to speculative development and gentrification. 

Indeed, AA and NHPIs often live in communities with high housing costs. Back in 2016, the Washington Post reported that 73 percent of AA and NHPIs lived in areas with above-average housing costs, compared to 33 percent of Whites, 40 percent of Blacks, and 56 percent of Latinx Americans.

And the challenges go beyond housing. AAs and NHPIs own and operate businesses at a higher rate than the general US population. This is a considerable source of community pride and community wealth but comes with challenges. Because these small businesses are concentrated in expensive markets and have been highly impacted by 2020’s COVID lockdown, layered with pandemic-related anti-Asian sentiment and fearmongering, AA and NHPI entrepreneurs are at risk of commercial displacement. Community members face the possibility of losing the cultural anchors that these small businesses often represent for them.

But AA and NHPI communities are responding to this challenge—envisioning and advancing holistic, community-centered solutions. In this series, you’ll hear from AA and NHPI community leaders from across the country tell their stories of community building and resilience.

Stepping Up to Defend Our Communities

Despite the many challenges that low-income AA and NHPI communities have experienced today and in the past, they are often overlooked in national conversations about race and economic opportunity. Their lived realities are obscured by the broad-stroke narrative of the model minority myth, which assumes that AA and NHPI communities are a monolith that has “made it.” This myth insidiously diverts attention and resources away from low-income AA and NHPI communities. At its most noxious, it creates divisions between communities of color. 

AA and NHPI leaders have stepped up to fill the gap, in the current moment and historically, demonstrating boundless creativity and resourcefulness and operating with cultural specificity to meet community needs and respond to the threats of their day. 

Comprehensive community development is a diverse set of holistic strategies designed to embrace a community’s culture and assets.

The organization I lead, the National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans for Community Development (better known as National CAPACD) was founded in 2000 by people like Bob Santos and Gordon Chin—community leaders who had been galvanized by the civil rights movement and worked with other local leaders to organize their communities in Seattle and San Francisco against threats of displacement. These founders advocated for a comprehensive approach to community development, one that was centered on organizing impacted communities, developing their leadership, building community ownership, and advancing community-led visions to build and preserve cultural districts. The vision these founders set remains highly relevant today. 

What Is Comprehensive Community Development?

National CAPACD’s official definition of comprehensive community development is a diverse set of holistic strategies designed to embrace a community’s culture and assets as well as address the needs of historically divested and marginalized communities. It means development is led by community-based organizations working together to collectively address the interconnected facets of communities such as housing, safety, health, and access to economic opportunity by providing services, community planning, land acquisition or stewardship, and community organizing.

Simply put, comprehensive community development requires organizations to look at neighborhoods and the communities that live in them holistically rather than considering each of the building blocks of a neighborhood in isolation. For example, an organization will have limited success in advancing equity for a particular community if it only looks at affordable housing. It must also consider how access to services, open spaces, transit, arts, cultural or faith-based centers, and so on all help create and sustain places that allow communities and their diverse cultures to thrive. And because one organization cannot do everything for everyone, this approach requires that many organizations work in partnership. 

The community is at the heart of this approach; while organizations working together may have very different individual strategies to address the threat of displacement, all strategies and processes should be led by or centered on the community and their vision for their places. 

Comprehensive community development is a place-based approach because there is so much specificity in what processes might look like depending on the histories, policies, and cultures of the local context—including the backgrounds of local communities. In fact, AA and NHPI communities rarely live in isolation. Instead, they often live alongside other communities of color. Also, as noted above, AA and NHPI residents often themselves come from multiple countries of origin. Honoring diversity requires collaboration.

Comprehensive Community Development in Practice

The stories in this series are a set of case studies that show both the diversity of AA and NHPI communities and the diversity of community responses to the very real challenges that the nation’s AA and NHPI communities face. In San Francisco, the Chinatown Community Development Center has combined strong connections with grassroots groups with substantial community development technical knowledge to take control of city planning processes and ensure the long-term preservation of their community. In Southern California, Long Beach (near Los Angeles) is home to the nation’s largest Cambodian refugee community; there, the United Cambodian Community, originally formed to provide trauma support for refugees who had survived the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s and early 1980s, seeks to echo the success of San Francisco’s Chinatown district through supporting local markets and engaging in community planning.   

Of course, the struggle against gentrification and displacement is ongoing and never completely “won.” Two stories in this series speak directly to this challenge. In Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood with a large Vietnamese population, the Asian American Resource Workshop, an avowedly Pan-Asian organization, is working in coalition with other communities of color to support community ownership of land through a community land trust while also seeking to develop community planning policy changes that might constrain ongoing city-backed gentrification efforts. The campaign goes by the moniker Dorchester Not for Sale. 

Meanwhile, in White Center, a suburb near Seattle, the White Center Community Development Association is based in a community that, in addition to being home to many Vietnamese immigrants, has many Native, Latinx, and Somali residents. A major focus for this group in the COVID-era has been to support Vietnamese American shopkeepers, too many of whom have lost their storefronts due to vandalism and fires that have often stemmed from anti-Asian violence.

Challenges in Community Work

Comprehensive community development, on paper, seems straightforward and almost obvious. In practice, however, life challenges often get in the way, as I’ve seen not just at National CAPACD but in my own community-based work.

  1. Our communities often operate in survival mode, diverting attention from community planning or visioning. 
    Many of the personal lessons that I have learned come from my time as the former Executive Director of Chhaya CDC, a community-based organization in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, which serves low-income South Asians throughout New York City and which forms part of the National CAPACD network. In 2011, we were organizing tenants in Astoria and Flushing. After 9/11, the organizing came to a halt—all of those tenants had to operate in survival mode, and our role shifted to rapid response to meet the community’s needs.
    It is difficult to ask the community to invest time and effort in the long-term visioning of their neighborhoods in the face of real threats to their lives and livelihoods. Since then, our communities have had to shoulder countless challenges—from the foreclosure crisis to natural disasters to the pandemic. And yet, the relationships built during times of crisis can facilitate long-lasting partnerships between organizations and, in doing so, create systems of support that can mitigate the impacts of future crises.
  2. Comprehensive community development takes time and requires strategy.
    During my time at Chhaya, we brought various stakeholders representing different interests and organizations into a room for a community visioning process. Everyone in the room was in alignment that we wanted a community center in Jackson Heights. But we could not move much further in that process at that time because we had not yet organized ourselves and built the collective community power. A lesson learned in this experience is that rushing things through does not pay off. Had we developed a comprehensive strategy first, obtaining the community center we desired would have been easily achievable. 
  3. Comprehensive community development assumes harmony, but sometimes organizations are at odds.
    It’s time to address the elephant in the room—historically, traditional community development corporations and organizing groups have been at odds in their response to encroaching development. In his upcoming article for this series on Chinatown CDC in San Francisco, Malcolm Yeung addresses this conundrum head on. As Yeung astutely puts it, “Empowering grassroots leadership is not always an easy path. While grassroots demands are rightfully aspirational, community development corporations naturally veer toward the pragmatic.” While in San Francisco the grassroots tenant organization and the community development corporation were able to find common ground and advance both of their missions, this work is never easy.

The question of “who” is the community is never far from the surface.

Building Beyond the Challenges

To say the obvious, relationships of trust are critical for comprehensive community development—and indeed community development and community organizing of any kind. The question of “who” is the community is never far from the surface. Community, if it is to mean something more than geographic proximity, must be constructed through developing relationships among people who live near each other. 

We must have difficult conversations about our strategies, goals, and values to address tensions that arise in forging this shared sense of community and try to answer the hard questions. Do we fight against development altogether, or do we try to find ways for development to benefit residents and advance community ownership? 

While strategies may differ, goals should not be at odds if organizations are centering communities, and, indeed, if the organizations that purport to represent the community are actually accountable to their constituents. When a proposed development threatens to displace a community, organizations fighting with one another can far too easily advance outside developer interests by diverting time, attention, and resources away from the shared goal of preserving places of belonging for our communities.

At a time when so much is at stake, particularly in this time when we know increasing development is coming down the pike, it is important to face these challenges squarely. Fortunately, as the authors throughout this series detail, there are a number of leaders and organizations engaging in these conversations and building the coalitions necessary to organize community voice and direct it toward improved quality of life for all local residents. 

By boosting voice, by developing joint community visions, and by using tools like community land trusts to advance community ownership, the organizations featured in this series offer vital stories about how groups can come together to achieve more just outcomes and realized shared community goals.