This article was originally published as a chapter in the Community Development Reader by Susan Saegert and James DeFillipis, Routledge Publishing Inc., 2008.

In past decades, the emerging interest in community building at the local level has challenged community-based organizations such as community development corporations (CDCs) to broaden their efforts and reconnect with residents and to retool and reexamine their relationship with, and role within, the communities they serve. Practitioners, funders, and policy experts have explored a broader approach to community redevelopment that includes an aggressive effort to redevelop the civic and social infrastructure alongside the physical infrastructure.

But while the field has been engineered to build the physical things place-based communities need—the new homes, community centers, small businesses—and, increasingly, to engage residents in those efforts, we have not created the resources to build the infrastructure of relationships and conditions to reweave a strong community by connecting people to one another and removing the barriers to engagement in public life.

As powerful and effective as community development efforts have been in the past, we have not embraced the fact that our principal challenge now may be nothing short of creating newly functional civic environments and finding a way to entice people to step back into public life in a way that feels safe, fun, and productive. We need new thinking and practice that is based not in the traditions of community in the past but in the pace and flow of the new economy and the age of connectivity.

During the early 1990s, community building emerged as a a supply-side strategy, fostered by foundations and others frustrated with the pace of change represented by the brick-and-mortar CDC approach. The goal: to use the same system that delivered bricks and mortar to deliver “community building.” The idea was to reform supply-side institutions to become more responsive to residents.

Born from community organizing and driven by a local constituency, many of the early CDCs routinely packaged efforts like youth development, community organizing, and adult education within their real estate development work. For many years, however, biases among funders of community efforts, and among community development practitioners themselves, toward a housing production agenda made sustaining broad, activist approaches difficult. By the early 1980s, however, the CDC movement had become synonymous with affordable-housing development. At best, the major funders of CDCs viewed community-building work as ancillary to the real estate development work of CDCs. Alternatively, the few dollars available for community organizing flowed toward so-called pure organizing groups.

During the 1990s, attitudes shifted, and community-building practices became part of the mainstream CDC movement. Most major national foundations, and many regional and community foundations, sponsored their own versions of comprehensive community-building initiatives (CCIs), experiments in the fusion of community-building practice and community development. Many technical assistance organizations, consultants, and intermediary groups also got involved in this work in large numbers.
Driven by funding from powerful national and regional private foundations, the “CCI era” of the 1990s touched most of the country’s major metropolitan areas at one time or another. Though these initiatives differed in many ways, the essential premise was the same: to provide multiyear funding and technical support to existing community-based organizations (CBOs) to create comprehensive community change. These initiatives were somewhat successful in reforming CBOs to take on new work but also severely limited.

First, community-based groups remained preoccupied with a real estate development agenda, which is still viewed as these organizations’ bread and butter. The rules were changing and there were few organizations with the energy and capacity to take on the kind of organizational challenges which the community building work posed.

Second, a strong bias persisted, reflected in the labeling of real estate-related work as “hard” and non-real estate-related work as “soft,” in that the latter could not be effectively measured or managed. Third, the principal community-building tool of the CCI era was a weak derivative of the traditional Alinsky style of community organizing, sometimes referred to as “community organizing–lite.” Genuine Alinsky-legacy organizers don’t recognize this practice as “organizing” and were loath to consider the community builders of the CCI era as organizers at all. CDC organizers often complained of a lack of support, direction, and understanding of the work within CDCs, leading to disjointed work and high turnover among organizers in the field.

The limitations of grafting community building onto a complex and fast-moving CBO and the ineffectuality of community organizing–lite proved daunting and led to questions about whether the CCI-era impact was worth the investment. In such an environment, even the best organizer supported by the best CBO had trouble breaking through the disinterest, distrust, and disenfranchisement of many urban neighborhoods. Ultimately, these community builders practiced approaches developed at another time on behalf of community institutions that were ambivalent about the role and purpose of community building. And their efforts took place when cynicism and the habits of detachment had never been more entrenched.

An effective approach requires a clear view of the problem, and our principal failure as community builders over the past decade is that we have not fully come to terms with the depth and breadth of the problems faced in community building. Even those efforts that have recognized the importance of rebuilding civic infrastructure have launched strategies that assume a level of civic functioning that simply does not exist. Even community-organizing approaches, whose goal is to effect forms of collective action and representative democracy, depend on some functional level of community infrastructure that is hard to come by. That’s not to say that there aren’t motivated community members at work or functional institutions at the community level. Even if you can manage to marshal episodes of collective action and get “representative” voices on a board or task force, a disconnected array of individuals and institutions does not equal a functional community.

A major lesson of the CCI era is that whether or not it’s community organizing-lite, it’s probably not the right tool for the job of rebuilding community. Community organizing—at least the widespread Alinsky-legacy form—is a specific, tactical, and highly structured approach to building power and to confronting entrenched interests. It is fundamentally a political form designed to recruit and mobilize a small subset of the population to serve as a vanguard for change. This method of organizing was shaped by the ideological warfare of political parties and the labor movement in the beginning of the last century and further shaped by the cold war and, later, the civil-rights movement. Today, the best modern version of Alinsky-legacy organizing is entrenched in faith-based institutions, where “faith” serves as a proxy for weakened political and class-based ideology. But whether fueled by faith or ideology, the paradigm of “belonging” in these groups calls for levels of commitment, time, and belligerence for which many don’t have the disposition and that many view as foreign to their experience.

This inorganic quality of Alinsky-legacy organizing is not, as some claim, solely because of its call for confrontation, which is admittedly a difficult leap for many people and an extraordinary leap for most CDCs. More troublesome is that the processes and habits we are left with, even in a barely derivative organizing-lite approach, are structured and tactical. The practice winnows “leaders” from the pack, engaging these leaders in narrow and formal leadership roles and encasing them in rigid and ideological structures that are designed to give the institution legitimacy.

Data shows that over the past few decades, people of all classes and races are fleeing structured, high affiliation-level organizations, as evidenced by the difficulty in getting traditional modes of organizing to take hold. In their place, Internet-based, communities-of-connection-type movements have emerged. This twenty-first-century paradigm for “belonging” has market-based rather than political roots: ideology is replaced by value, and loyalty is trumped by choice. The new kind of community “member” wants to be connected but not obliged, to be part of many but owned by none, and to commit carefully dispensed resources. Low-level affiliation (more akin to “club” membership than to vanguard membership), flexibility, provisionality, and informality are the hallmarks of the new membership organization. In these groups, the evidence doesn’t suggest that people are less involved but that they are involved in a different way.

We need a new form of organizing that recognizes and capitalizes on the change in the nature of affiliation and that is designed to meet the challenges of building community infrastructure in place. This new community organizing approach has to aspire—not just to getting poor people represented in the supply side—or to yielding episodic moments of collective action, but to building a functional civic infrastructure that optimizes the aggregate contribution of all residents and stakeholders toward making that place work.

I would like to offer an alternative logic model for understanding place-based community building. At the cellular level, place-based community begins with a single relationship of trust and mutual benefit in which one resident or stakeholder shares with another. It is the aggregate of those relationships—along with the loose connections that bind a diversity of them together—that forms, not community, but the structural framework for community to exist.

It is the cumulative capacity for collective decision making, problem solving, collective action, information sharing, and most important, the creation and exchange of value (e.g., time, goods, and services)—which this infrastructure facilitates