[COMM-ORG] query: Community organizing vs. Community Development

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Thu Aug 26 17:48:08 CDT 2010

  [ed:  thanks to Larry and John for continuing the discussion.]

From: Larry Yates <lamaryates at igc.org>

I haven't been reading the thread consistently, so I may be repetitive. 
But just responding more or less to Richard Layman -- I certainly agree 
that practitioners of community development and to a lesser extent 
community organizing don't generate much meta-theory. And I agree this 
is somewhat out of the need for each entity to emphasize its uniqueness 
-- to funders in particular.

But I think there are a couple other major barriers. One is the 
anti-ideological bias of USAns in general. While this has many roots, a 
century plus of McCarthyism is certainly one of them. After all, the 
more meta-theoretical we become the more likely we are to propose ideas 
inconsistent with the corporate/capitalist/racist status quo (assuming, 
as I do, that the status quo does not stand up to examination as a 
rational system.)

It seems to me even fairly militant action is okay with USAns, as long 
as it is seen as a one-off response to a particular injustice. But going 
into a situation already having a (left) analysis is un-USAn, is the 
sign that Boris and Natasha are conspiring to pollute our Constitutional 
wellsprings, whether in Marxist or anarchist or Pan-African or social 
justice Christian guise. So in our ordinary conversations, describing 
the unique character of each situation we respond to is privileged above 
explaining its roots in systemic problems.

Even the very limited meta-theory that exists around the role of planner 
(as stated by the professional associations) is risky to practice. We 
probably all know of cases where someone has taken the ethical/policy 
role of planning too seriously, and tried to be more than just a 
mediator/technician, and gotten fired or at least reprimanded. I am 
thinking of an African-American woman here in Virginia who decided to at 
least enforce what was on the books on developers. That was not 
tolerated from her, and she was fired. CDC folks are not as much at risk 
as local government planners, but the same pressures exist, because the 
same major players generally call the shots. Thus, notoriously, CDCs 
usually measure success not in terms of changes in the overall condition 
of the community, but in structures built, jobs created, etc. -- even 
though those may make no substantive difference. Quite often, after all, 
the best measure of success for a community would be "Acme Manufacturing 
no longer controls all the major decisions in the community; real 
community involvement is now making a difference." Acme don't play that.

As a national organizer at the Center for Health, Environment and 
Justice a few years ago, I talked to hundreds of grassroots people, 
mostly with no organizing experience, about how to respond to local 
environmental abuses. I operated from a fairly simple paradigm of 
organizing, applying it to every community. In most cases, the folks 
first explained why that wouldn't work in their community, and then, 
lacking any other option, tried it anyway, and generally found that it 
did work. CHEJ did not have a complicated meta-theory, but it did have a 
meta-theory, shared with lots of other organizers. "Form a group, decide 
what you want, identify the target, develop a strategy to change the 
target's behavior, do it. Grassroots power, applied strategically, can 
win sometimes. Democracy is a 24/7 way of life."

So I guess I think organizers do have a meta-theory of sorts -- and I 
think this is because their organizations have more autonomy than CDCs, 
and certainly more than local government planners.

But perhaps the real problem is that we can't have a common meta-theory 
without having a common goal. Reading Richard's piece, I was struck by 
the absence of that. Are we trying to make neighborhoods nicer? What 
about gentrification? Are we trying to make transportation work better, 
and for who? If a substantial number of us cannot/are not allowed to 
construct (or adhere to) a meta-theory that rules out big box stores, or 
favors cooperatives, or identifies homelessness as a more serious 
systems failure than traffic congestion, why would we bother to be in 
the meta-theory business? Instead, we nod and wink to each other that we 
are all against the bad guys and on the side of good -- while often we 
each are operating on very different assumptions.

It seems to me all of this is unlikely to change until there is, once 
again, a visible left movement with mass support in the USA. From this 
old practitioner's point of view, theory, meta or not, generally follows 
practice, rather than guiding it.

Larry Yates
Winchester VA


 From John Atlas <jatlas4 at comcast.net>

You need do need investment  and a focus on rebuilding local economies 
at the
micro level, but don't forger two lessons of the ACORN story.  Politics, 
building a progressive movement  and  organizational scale, which means 
building the capacity to win victories,  nationally.

On 8/22/2010 1:54 PM, Discussion list for COMM-ORG wrote:
> --------
> This is a COMM-ORG 'colist' message.
> All replies to this message come to COMM-ORG only.
> --------
>    [ed:  thanks to Richard for continuing the discussion.]
> From:
> Richard Layman<rlaymandc at yahoo.com>
> Date:
> Sat, 21 Aug 2010 10:43:46 -0700 (PDT)
> To:
> colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
> I have been interested in this thread and thought about replying.  Most
> of the cited books I haven't read but I hope to get a chance to
> someday...  As a practitioner with a keen interest in theory and
> academia and a desire to get a PhD (something I probably won't do), and
> an interest in building and extending successful practice, I work to use
> and apply academic work, and generate theories (although not quite to
> the tune of the academic definition, they are more like hypotheses)
> about how to approach urban revitalization and transportation planning,
> the areas that I work in.
> But John Atlas' comments motivate me to write because I have similar
> issues with "the profession."
> I usually get frustrated at conferences with queries to practitioners up
> on the dais about "how did you do X, create the program," etc. because
> my experience is that practitioners aren't very good at generating
> meta-theory.
> I tried to get a job at the Nat. Main Street Center and in my cover
> letter, I said that most of what we are doing and talking about is at
> the case study level, that we are not generating theory, and figuring
> out what our successes are and why they succeed (and why programs fail),
> and then using that knowledge to (1) indicate -- figure out and explain
> what we did (or didn't) do successfully; (2) duplicate -- prove that we
> figured it out by applying the learning in another place and getting
> roughly the same results, but more quickly, because we had the advantage
> of working with a robust framework; (3) push -- disseminate the
> information across the network of commercial district revitalization
> programs; and (4) replicate -- generate positive results across the
> network through the capture of knowledge, the development of learning
> and practice frameworks, and the application of the techniques,
> approaches, and frameworks.
> I didn't even get the courtesy of an interview...
> In this kind of work, everyone gets hung up on the uniqueness of their
> place and what they do, and how best practices from elsewhere are
> irrelevant.  (My response to that is the Positive Deviance Model:
> http://www.sph.uth.tmc.edu/uploadedFiles/Centers/TPRC/HBRarticle%20_May05.pdf).
> My response is that while all places are unique, they are not
> exceptional, that the systems and processes of how neighborhoods or
> commercial districts work similarly, that places can be compared even if
> they are seemingly disparate, and learnings from one place can be
> applied to another.
> I was really influenced by a keynote presentation by the practitioner
> Charles Buki, at the Urban Forum in Philadelphia in 2003, and I went up
> to him afterwards and asked him about resources, what influenced him.
> His website used to mention an article in the NYT Sunday Magazine from
> the early 1890s by Nicholas Von Hoffman about the failure of community
> development corporations -- I am in fact blowback because of trying to
> figure out why after spending maybe $100 million in urban renewal
> monies, my neighborhood still sucked (this was 2000) and the local cdc
> was disconnected from the community and not helping.  (Yes, I think
> Randy's piece on cdc's explains the problems very well.)
> He mentioned the work of Rolf Goetze, particularly the book _Building
> Neighborhood Confidence_.  _Understanding Neighborhood Change_
> references the taxonomy of neighborhoods created for HUD in the 1970s.
> Many cities use this idea.  E.g., DC has a four rung model (healthy,
> transitioning, emerging, distressed); the original model has 7 rungs.
> Where I made some breakthroughs with the taxonomy concept are with these
> insights:
> - that you should measure, simultaneously and separately, the commercial
> district and the residential sections of neighborhoods
> - that you can also do this block by block
> - that you should develop proscriptions for policies and practice based
> where you are in the typology, focused on moving the neighborhood up the
> ladder
> An example of practice based on the taxonomy would be to not put street
> furniture (benches, etc.) in places that are distressed and emerging,
> and only in high transitioning stages, because it would be likely to be
> caught in the crossfire of vagrancy, crime etc., furthering problems
> (and costing money).
> So I rely on the work of Jane Jacobs and other with regard to urban
> design; Goetze on neighborhood taxonomy and the role of public
> investment and program development; Mihalio Temali's four pivot points
> laid out in _Community Economic Development Handbook_; the work of the
> kind of people on this list about community organizing and engagement;
> the Main Street Approach with regard to commercial district
> revitalization (although the approach hasn't been properly updated with
> regard to the Design and Economic Restructuring Points); ideas about
> civic engagement and empowered participation come from the ABCD approach
> (John McKnight), Wright and Fung (Deepening Democracy, Empowered
> Participation), Friedmann (Planning in the Public Domain) among others,
> and ideas for neighborhood residential improvement come from Mallach's
> _Bringing Buildings Back_, Goetze, the field of historic preservation,
> and resident attraction programs such as the Live Baltimore program.
> With regard to transit and mobility, my ideas are expessed in this
> presentation:
> http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2010/07/metropolitan-mass-transit-planning.html,
> which I gave to the urban studies and transportation center departments
> at the U of Delaware in March. It outlines a hierarchical approach to
> transit networks across the globe and within a metropolitan area, and
> focuses mode shed on what I call the levels of the transit shed and
> mobility shed.
> My experiences in DC led me to shift my interest and efforts to
> transportation planning, because my experience is that $ for $, the
> public investment with the greatest return on investment and positive
> impact on neighborhood revitalization is in transit, which helps
> reposition neighborhoods for success.  Not to mention that there is more
> money in transpo planning than revitalization planning and I am tired of
> scrambling, and because most entities don't seem all that interested in
> taking on a more structured approach to center city and neighborhood
> revitalization planning, especially the method that I espouse.
> I suppose I need to write a paper linking all the concepts and the
> approach that I've worked to develop over time.  Some day I hope to get
> to it.  Meanwhile I scramble to make a living and to do interesting work.
> Note that I am self-trained, I don't have an advanced degree in
> planning.  Although it is a misnomer to say I am self trained as every
> conference, meeting, experience, interaction, email, paper/report/book
> that I read, etc., has trained me.  I merely synthesized it, applied it,
> sometimes in new ways, and went on my way.
> (I have produced commercial district revitalization framework plans for
> Brunswick, GA and Cambridge, MD, and a pedestrian and bicycle access
> plan for Western Baltimore County.)
> In conclusion, you can't have "community" development without the
> community, and that's where community organizing comes in.  But
> community development, as traditionally defined -- what I sometimes
> derisively refer to as building better housing for poor people -- isn't
> enough in and of itself to rebuild disinvested communities.  You need
> investment for that, and a focus on rebuilding local economies at the
> micro level.  (Again, that's where Temali's book comes in.)
> Pulling this all together, especially in what I refer to as
> "hetereogeneous" communities -- where people differ in terms of age,
> race, SES, educational attainment, and duration of the period they've
> lived in the community -- is very very very very very contentious and
> difficult.
> Richard Layman
> Washington DC
> a practitioner too much interested in theory to be fully happy in
> academia, and too much interested in practice to likely be able to fit
> in academia
> most recently bicycle and pedestrian planner, Baltimore County, Maryland
> currently working in a start up business in the private sector focused
> on the development, integration, and sales of bicycle facilities and systems
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