This article is the first in a new article series—Community Development: National Leaders’ Visions—that NPQ, in partnership with the CEO Circle, an informal network of BIPOC community economic development leaders, will publish in coming weeks. The series will focus on identifying what is required to address key transformational challenges and to help the field of community economic development better accomplish its twin missions of racial and economic justice.

Over the past few years, I’ve been delighted to see more people of color stepping into CEO roles at major national housing and community development organizations. It’s long overdue. As Miriam Axel-Lute observed just a little over four years ago in Shelterforce, “The community development world has a racial representation problem, especially in its top leadership.” The dearth of Black, Indigenous, and people of color in executive positions feels especially problematic in a field like community economic development, given that so many community development organizations work in communities of color.

That’s starting to change. Because it was such a rarity in the past, the appointment of growing numbers of BIPOC leaders has generated a lot of attention and optimism. But the field must do much more than just hire BIPOC CEOs. Community development groups need to recruit and retain people of color in the full array of positions and support them once they arrive. Associations can help build more robust pipelines of BIPOC professionals through career development services. Their partners—including neighborhood residents, community-based organizations, government agencies, private sector companies, and foundations—can also play key roles by cultivating trusting relationships with successive waves of emerging professionals.

One of the Surdna Foundation’s contributions to BIPOC leadership in the sector has been to join the Annie E. Casey Foundation in funding the CEO Circle, which provides opportunities for new national community development leaders of color to build relationships, support and learn from each other, and think creatively about challenges and opportunities. This Nonprofit Quarterly series features the perspectives of several of these prominent leaders.

As I’ve gotten to know these CEOs, my reasons to be optimistic have multiplied. To start with, they’re an exceptional cohort of seasoned leaders. They’re already demonstrating why racial representation matters so much in a field that largely seeks to improve opportunities for low-income people of color. Having community development professionals who can readily relate to the lived experiences of people of color is critical to making durable progress. Those shared experiences may include everything from horrific racism and the corrosive effects of extreme poverty to less visible struggles, such as navigating unfamiliar governmental systems. In this series, Tony Pickett of Grounded Solutions Network, which supports community land trust housing, emphasizes the importance of embracing and acting on “radical empathy” among and across people of different racial identities to achieve racial justice and prosperity in the US.

Racial representation is also an essential way to demonstrate that we—people of color—belong, in every community, every industry, and every occupation. It’s always hard to be the first—the first woman, the first person of color, the first person with a disability—to break through barriers and ceilings to attain that initial toehold of representation. Having an entire cohort of leaders of color is truly “next level” in terms of remaking perceptions of who makes decisions and who takes leadership within the community development field.

I’m optimistic because I believe that more diverse leadership will lead to more well-informed, creative, and effective problem solving. Working with a non-diverse array of people is risky and generates a heightened potential of succumbing to groupthink. In a more racially diverse community development field, I expect to see more unconventional creativity and innovation. Some of that is reflected in this series’ essays, in which CEOs urge us to tackle longstanding problems with fresh out-of-the-box thinking. In this series, for instance, you will get the chance to consider some of the compelling and timely ideas that Akilah Watkins of the Center for Community Progress has to offer about the importance of land bank authorities, while Calvin Gladney of Smart Growth America challenges us to reposition land use policies to better promote racial equity, climate resilience, and economic mobility. Meanwhile, Lisa Rice of the National Fair Housing Alliance helps readers think about how to employ fair housing approaches to not only as a legal compliance strategy to ensure greater access to opportunity but also as a means to ameliorate some of the harmful determinism of racially segregated places.

Finally, as I reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve come to appreciate yet another critical reason why racial representation is so important. Numerous observers have noted that Americans are losing trust in many of their societal institutions, including government, big business, the media, and health care. During the nation’s vaccination push, mistrust of medical institutions has proven to be particularly vexing but is understandable because systemic racism within health care has severely impacted generations of Black Americans. Thankfully, that’s starting to improve because growing numbers of public health agencies have hired Black staff to conduct outreach with residents in Black communities. A recent New York Times article described one effort as “[sending] familiar faces to knock on doors and dispel myths about the vaccines’ effectiveness.” It’s making a difference because of the trust that can be established through better racial representation, cultural competency, and empathy.

This is an important lesson for community economic development, which I also regard as an essential US institution. In decades past, investments in housing, transportation, and other infrastructure were typically led by white experts and public agencies, with policy choices and resource allocations made through top-down decision-making processes. The legacy of those decisions is decidedly mixed, including some tangible progress as well as notorious examples of starkly unjust displacement of people of color and the destruction of their communities. Today, achieving community economic development goals is an entirely different ball of wax. It is now both a moral imperative and an economic necessity for neighborhood residents to have a say in the decisions that affect their communities. As Marietta Rodriguez of NeighborWorks America reminds us in her essay, “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis(“nothing about us, without us”). She challenges us to empower residents to work with nonprofits, government agencies, companies, and other stakeholders to achieve a community-driven vision for development. How can we make that the norm?

I believe that the prerequisite is trust. To build trusting relationships, stakeholders must demonstrate credibility, a willingness to be accountable to community residents, and a commitment to transparency about each party’s motivations, the process for how decisions will be made, and desired outcomes. Whether working in communities of color or predominantly white suburbs, all stakeholder groups will benefit from having BIPOC staff in leadership positions.

In the coming decades, housing and community development organizations will be called upon and challenged in unprecedented ways. Multiple forms of inequality have become entrenched in our communities and our economy. Climate change will drive dramatic disruptions in our existing settlement patterns and the ways in which we build new ones. Our demographic makeup is rapidly changing while our built environment and infrastructure services have not kept pace. In the US and across the globe, our people will need community economic development to step up and show us how to create a more just, sustainable, and prosperous future. If we can cultivate a more inclusive field, I’m confident that this vision for our future will be within reach.