Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Earlier this month, a small group of roughly 50 people gathered in San Juan, Puerto Rico to discuss what a liberatory movement for community economic development might look like. For many, it was their first in-person conference since the COVID-19 pandemic. The convener? CEO Circle, an informal network of leaders of color of national community development organizations.

Founding members of the loose network are Akilah Watkins-Butler of the Center for Community Progress, Tony Pickett of Grounded Solutions Network, Maurice Jones, formerly of the Local Initiative Support Corporation or LISC(now at One Ten), Lisa Rice of the National Fair Housing Alliance, Marietta Rodriguez of NeighborWorks America, and Calvin Gladney of Smart Growth America. Since the network’s founding, three additional CEOs have joined: Lisa Mensah of the Opportunity Finance Network, Ismael Guerrero of Mercy Housing, and Deeohn Ferris of the Institute for Sustainable Communities.

The formation of this network marked a watershed for the field of community economic development. Today, most of the national organizations in the field are led by people of color. As recently as five years ago, that was decidedly not the case.

As one of the members explained, the network formed as a result of discussions “about how the field of community development was changing. We were seeing more people of color were assuming the helm.” The network began with a dinner among the new CEOs. Greater mutual trust was built through a series of informal conversations that followed. Over time, the network has spawned many forms of collaboration, including resource sharing (e.g., joint offices, joint conferences), joint fundraising proposals, and policy advocacy. The COVID-19 pandemic, a number of conference participants noted, accelerated the pace of collaboration.

Last fall, NPQ published a series of articles that lifted up the voices and visions of some of the leaders in this group. Members from that core group attended this month’s conference in San Juan, along with other leaders of color from national organizations, a few funders, a few local partners, and a few representatives from organizations based in the host community of Puerto Rico. The nature of many of the conversations was sensitive, and, for that reason, NPQ was asked not to cite speakers by name.

The theme of the conference was Community Development for Liberation. The group had gathered, noted one speaker, for three purposes:

  1. To provide a community of support for one another. As one participant noted, this was not because CEOs of national networks are special, but because they have in common “coming to leadership at national organizations known to be mainstream” and facing the need to “fundamentally shake up an institution that was not built for you to lead it.”
  2. To leverage tools and relationships for collective benefit for leaders of color in the broader sector.
  3. To develop dream space to envision what community development for liberation looks and feels like. More colorfully, the gathering was designed to provide space to imagine “big scary shit.” 


Recovering “Community” in Community Economic Development

It is scary sometimes. We also knew we had an incredible responsibility. We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. People sacrificed a lot for us to get where we are at. We had to get past our own fear and understand the bigger collective mission of our work.

                                                                                    CEO Circle member

For a long time, there has been a tension in the field of community economic development between its movement roots and the often highly technical nature of housing and business development work. A direct result of civil rights activism, community economic development is clearly a movement founded by BIPOC activists. For example, Charles Sherrod, who along with his wife Dr. Shirley Sherrod cofounded New Communities, the nation’s first community land trust, had previously served as the southwest Georgia Director of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee.

On the other hand, as the field became increasingly professional and technical in its orientation, it has gained more of the feel of an industry. For a long time, the field had become whiter as well. As one speaker put it, “A lot of us know the history of the field. It was filled by people of color. What has happened over time? It’s been whitewashed. We find ourselves in a technocracy of sorts. People are getting PhDs to do work that started in church basements and backyards—everywhere but the university.”

Indeed, as that speaker’s comment suggests, community economic development has long had an uneasy relationship with the academy. A recent webinar hosted by the National Conference on Citizenship—in which both John McKnight and Harold McDougall, two leading practitioner-scholars of the field, participated—delved into some of that history. McKnight, who spent more than a decade as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, was invited to head an urban research center at Northwestern in 1969 because of his on-the-ground experience. As he noted, he did not have a graduate degree, so when Northwestern hired him, he was made a “fake professor” (i.e., given the title of professor despite his lack of credentials).

McKnight said that when he arrived at Northwestern, there were two dozen scholars researching urban issues, but they were “looking at neighborhoods and especially lower income neighborhoods in terms of their problems, deficits, needs, and brokenness…their deficit approach did not see that the people who lived in the neighborhood had some agency, some ability, some capacity, because all of their work was to help institutions come in and fix us. And I just thought that was insulting.” The approach that McKnight, along with his colleague John (“Jody”) Kretzmann, ultimately developed—asset-based community development—which is centered on the mapping of community assets and relationships, has sought to remedy this.

At the CEO Circle conference, it was clear that this effort to move the field from a deficit focus to one centered on asset building and community capacity remains an ongoing struggle. As one conference goer remarked, “I think of community as the stories we tell each other. We can’t build just on what is negative. We have to build on the strengths…We can’t build community if we don’t bring out the strengths of the people.” Otherwise, the result is to “reinforce for our kids and for others that somehow we are deficits.”

McDougall’s work on civic infrastructure also spoke to a related tension at the conference. McDougall, a professor at Howard University and author of Black Baltimore, developed the concept of civic infrastructure, which for him refers to “a cooperative economic, political, and social system that grows out of the community itself.” In a thriving community, this civic infrastructure, in McDougall’s view, acts as a kind of “shadow government.”

McDougall elaborated that people are “living in two different worlds simultaneously,” which he labeled “client world” and “community world.” The client world is the world of institutions and politicians. The community world is the world of solidarity and community self-production. “Culture,” McDougall added, “isn’t just the way you sing and dance and the food you eat. It is the way you solve problems.”

Community economic development operates in the spaces between these two poles, seeking both to affect political and economic institutions and build local power apart from those institutions. As one conference attended noted, within the field there are two very different ways that the word “community” is used.

“Community with a big C,” this person explained, implies a “bond of relationship, trust, history with each other” and corresponds with the kind of solidarity and community self-production that McDougall, for example, has in mind. The same person noted that often, when people in the field discuss community, they are really talking about people who live in a “community with a small c that simply share a geography. They really mean people who share a geography or income strata or some data-based point, rather than a relationship or emotional connection.”

This disconnection from practiced community can often impede the implementation of community-based solutions. In a session on community wealth building, one speaker noted that there is constant pressure to focus on individual benefits and individual wealth building. This pressure can be stifling. “Can some things be focused on communal benefits, community value? We protect what we call community assets and make that something that benefits generations. How much better could it be if it benefitted more than one family?…That is community, and what it means to me.”


The Call for Liberation

Liberation, noted one speaker at the conference, “is a fancy word that people throw around.” But the speaker added that a sincere focus on liberation requires a different way of thinking that focuses on two key questions: “Who do you serve?” and “How do you build the institutions that will allow liberation to exist beyond my lifetime?” This requires “radical imagination,” which the field had largely neglected. Too many in the field, this speaker observed, “satisfice”—meaning they do well enough but fail to challenge the fundamental drivers of racial and economic inequality.

The message for the CEOs in attendance, in short, was to think as a movement and not simply as organizational leaders. “You are not going to achieve liberation because you’re brilliant and you have a brilliant organization. It is how we hold each other accountable for delivery for people.” The goal is nothing less than to “redesign the nation so it works for everyone. Change the nature of our institutions, so that they serve us, so they love us. That is the work.”

At a later session, another conference participant echoed these remarks, noting that “The movement for liberation and transformation in the communities that we need is not about saving communities of color but saving all of us. We are fighting against a spiritual crime. We must do what we can to undo that.”

This spirit animated many of the gathering’s breakout discussions. Participants offered many innovative ideas—from tuition waivers and lower home mortgage loan interest rates as mechanisms to begin implementing reparations, to assigning historically Black colleges and universities a leadership role in implementing a clean energy revolution.


Redesigning Organizations

While the call for liberation is a call for movement thinking, the CEO Circle is a group of organizational leaders, and as organizational leaders, they have made a number of operational changes. Some of the ones cited were the following:

  • CEO-worker pay ratio: One organization noted that they had adopted a policy to ensure that: a) all employees earn living wages and b) no full-time employee can earn less than one fifth of what the CEO earns.
  • Increasing health benefits: One organization decided to commit to full coverage (no copays) of benefits and increased mental health services for staff.
  • Pay equity: One organization hired a third party to conduct a top-to-bottom salary analysis of all positions within the organization to make sure all staff were compensated fairly. The organization made upward adjustments in salaries for staff found to be undercompensated.
  • Racial equity in personnel policies: One organization did a racial equity analysis of its personnel documents, including employee handbooks, bylaws, and job descriptions.
  • Vendors: One organization committed to track all its vendors encourage more procurement from BIPOC-owned firms.
  • Investment portfolio: One organization did a racial equity analysis of where it was investing its funds.
  • Hiring: One organization changed its postings to indicate salary ranges since, “We realize that people of color want to see the salary.” This organization also changed its interview protocols to make sure candidates were not asked about past earnings, since that practice reinforces existing salary inequities.
  • Scheduled time off: One organization established a calendar that set up one-week office shutdowns three times a year.

It was also acknowledged that there were limits to organizational flexibility. “We can stretch what an organization is, but there are certainly rules that we all have to adhere to,” one person noted, adding that it can be “very challenging for people to understand there is still a leadership structure in place.”


Moving Forward

In the closing session, the results of a survey on “Championing Leaders of Color” was discussed. The survey, organized by four CEO Circle member organizations—Grounded Solutions Network, NeighborWorks America, the National Fair Housing Alliance, and the Center for Community Progress—received 134 responses from organizations based in 30 states.

The report offered four core recommendations:

  1. Amplify community development as an opportunity for young people.
  2. Confront bias in organizational culture.
  3. Build meaningful pathways for advancement within organizations.
  4. Cultivate and nurture networks of support at all levels.

During the session, participants divided into small groups to discuss the findings. Among the responses that came out of the discussion were the notions that “We have to redefine leadership” and “redefine what community development is.”

What do these changes in the field require?

One participant offered this response: “I was reflecting on how we are getting to liberation and what this circle is proposing…We want to have not only a shared agenda, vision, and results, but we want to do it together.” This conference attendee added that, “We have been incentivized to compete with each other and not collaborate with each other. That is why trust is so central. Being in community with trust means I trust you to take the home run here, rather than seek credit myself. That’s the only way we can get to liberation.”