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4. Temporal Politics: Four Forms of Political Action

Through coproduction, black church-associated CDCs forge vertical links between society's institutions of power and the communities they serve. For example, they connect black citizens to city government and city government to black citizens (Owens in press). Specifically, these black-controlled conduits channel substantive resources (e.g., money and property) and symbolic resources (e.g., legitimacy and prestige) from the larger external community to the smaller internal communities of urban blacks (Hunter and Staggenborg 1988). Beyond the politics of coproduction, however, which is common to most CDCs, do black church-associated CDCs in New York City act politically? Do they foster political development? If so, what are their expressions of political participation that assist their communities to influence whom their public officials are and/or the decisions they make while in office?

There are four forms of political action black church-associated CDCs may practice to influence policymakers: electoral action, legislative-regulatory action, protest action, and civic action. Within each form are sets of activities that, when combined, can foster greater political development. What follows is an examination of the use of the four forms of political action by black church-associated CDCs in New York City. The general conclusion is that most of the nine CDCs are not active contestants on behalf of blacks in the political arena, but the actions of some suggest that they are far from apolitical. I conclude that political capacity and political will on the part of their leadership makes a difference in the types of political actions black church-associated CDCs practice and their overall use of political development as a strategy of community development.

Electoral Action

Few black church-associated CDCs directly engage their organizations in electoral politics like registering their clients to vote and mobilizing them on Election Day. Some wish to remain free of the influence of politicians. Others do not see electoral action as the proper role of their organizations. Many of them leave the work up to their chartering or sponsoring churches, which try to increase black electoral power and policy influence in New York City and nationally (Green and Wilson 1992; Owens 1997a; Wilson and Green 1988). Some of the CDCs disengage from politics in order to protect themselves. All understand the importance of electoral actions like voter registration on the types of communities they service. Collectively, however, black church-associated CDCs exert little effort to encourage voting and break down barriers to resident turnout on Election Day.

Black church-associated CDCs tend not step into the arena of electoral politics. Those that do, avoid stepping too far into it. Asked if they involve their CDCs in neighborhood and citywide electoral politics, 78 percent of directors answered that they do not. Part of the explanation for CDC avoidance of electoral politics is section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code. The code strictly prohibits partisan political action by charitable nonprofit organizations, which CDCs are. Nonprofits may not endorse candidates or suggest to voters they vote for a particular candidate. Another part of the reason why the CDCs may avoid electoral action is that they confuse or conflate "partisan" with "electoral." During their interviews, the directors often used the terms synonymously. There is, however, a difference between the terms. Partisan describes activities intended to promote the election of a particular candidate or party. Electoral refers to activities that are related to voters and voting. There are at least four nonpartisan electoral actions CDCs may take to influence elections. They include voter registration and mobilization, among others. Unfortunately, few black church-associated CDCs take them (see Table 5).

Table 5

Electoral Action by Nine Black Church-Associated Community Development Corporations in New York City



Percent of CDCs Reporting They Engage(d) in Action
Register Neighborhood Residents to Vote 33
"Get Out the Vote" on Election Day 11
Hold Candidate Forums 22
Publicize Public Officials' Voting Records 11
Distribute Voter Guides 100

Two electoral actions nonprofits may take are to publicize the voting records of incumbents and distribute voter guides. One CDC claims to have done the former, while all report that they do the latter. With the exception of the lone CDC that has done it "Oh, once or twice," black church-associated CDCs do not follow the voting records of their communities' representatives and circulate them throughout their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, all of the black church-associated, while they may not research candidates and their issues and produce their own guides, consistently pass along the voter guides of other organizations to their community residents. The CDCs often receive such guides from public agencies such as the New York City Voter Assistance Commission or public interest groups like the League of Women Voters or the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Registering voters is an uncommon electoral action of black church-associated CDCs in New York City. Six of the nine CDCs do not do it. The offices of black church-associated CDCs seldom stock voter registration forms. Few have placards inside or outside their offices extolling voting as either a civic duty or group necessity. Staff does not go into the community and register new voters. There are exceptions. Some CDCs recognize the important role they can play in increasing the size of the black electorate in a city where black policy influence is low, and they act on it. A director of a CDC that fosters voter registration explains:

We routinely encourage people to vote and collaborate with [other neighborhood organizations] to spur voter registration because that is a part of community activism. We teach people how you get change in a community yourself without relying on anybody, us or anybody else. We let the folk know that numbers and votes matter. They can change a neighborhood.

Still, it is rare for a black church-associated CDC to commit itself to fostering a larger black voting bloc citywide or bringing more nonvoters in their neighborhoods on to the voter registration rolls.

Along with voter registration, nonprofits may mobilize voters during election cycles. Mobilization activities may include encouraging residents to work for candidates that impress them, the provision of printed and electronic reminders to vote, free transportation to the polls, and the recruitment of poll monitors. Mobilization like registration, however, is an unusual electoral action of black church-associated CDCs. Only one of the nine CDCs reports it conducts voter mobilization during primaries and/or general elections. As a means of educating registered voters about candidates, and indirectly fostering voter turnout, nonprofits may sponsor candidate forums. The intent of such events is to present political incumbents and challengers to residents for public scrutiny. Two CDCs routinely hold forums that allow community residents to meet candidates, and to learn of and comment on their qualifications for office and political agendas. The general attitude the duo's directors expressed in their interviews is that "no one else in the community was doing it, so we did it." There is no indication that the forums will be a regular event for the CDCs during future election cycles.

Protest Action

The leadership, namely, the executive directors, of the CDCs claim not to be silent on pressing issues affecting their communities. In response to the question, do you express publicly your views on social and political issues, 67 percent answered affirmatively. They also generally contend that they would not limit their advocacy because they seek resources from government and other institutions, or that observers should construe their dependence and receipt of external resources as cooptation. The comments of a Queens-based CDC director is representative:

I don't think [the mayor or other public officials] should stop a person from speaking their conscience while doing development. The whole mission of CDCs, especially faith-based ones, should be that we are the ones who stand up for our communities. We should not be afraid of anything because, I mean, really, injustice is something we need more people to speak out against. But, when we are partners [with government], we are not being bought [by government]; we are being given what we deserve to have."

Yet, while CDC directors speak against injustice, their organizations do not protest against institutions of power.

Protest actions are unusual for black church-associated CDCs in New York City (see Table 6). For example, just three CDCs have confronted publicly the lending practices or absence of commercial lenders in their neighborhoods. Most of their directors contend they favor such action and do so themselves. However, they stipulate that they choose not to do it publicly. A Brooklyn-based CDC director put it this way: "We have raised the issue of redlining with some banks, but we did it behind the scenes so as not to embarrass them or ourselves if our advocacy failed to influence them." The same three black church-associated CDCs are the only ones to endorse publicly any political cause or events. In 1999, public demonstrations flared over the police killing of an innocent black West African immigrant. Two directors marched to support an investigation of the wrongful death and changes in the enforcement practices of the New York Police Department in black communities. None, however, used the resources of their organizations, namely, their collective voice and organizational skills, to organize independent protest demonstrations.

Table 6

Protest Action by Nine Black Church-Associated Community Development Corporations in New York City


Percent of CDCs Reporting They Engage(d) in Action
Challenge Publicly Bank Lending Patterns 33
Endorse Publicly Political Causes and Events (e.g., demonstrations/ boycotts) 33
Organize Political Protests 0

Why do black church-associated CDCs do little in the area of protest? Interviews with the pastors of the black churches that organized the nine CDCs did not reveal the need for protest organizations as cause for chartering black church-associated CDCs. We know that many CDCs in American cities, especially the oldest ones, began as protest organizations (Vidal 1992). Yet, while other CDCs may have grown out of conflict, black church-associated CDCs in New York City did not. Conflict has never been a chief means of these CDCs for reforming conditions in the city's black neighborhoods. It probably never will be. A limiting factor is that black elites in the city lack confidence in protest. Half of the pastors believe protest is the least effective means of bettering the conditions of poor black New Yorkers and their neighborhoods. Only 20 percent contend it is the most effective form of political participation. Black elected officials are less sanguine about protest than black pastors: 70 percent identified protest as ineffective political participation and social uplift. It is no surprise then that the black church-associated CDCs avoid conflict. Cooperation and collaboration are their standard operating practices. A Harlem-based CDC director is clear:

I don't think that we have ever taken a straight-up confrontational position with city officials. That's not to say they haven't taken confrontational positions with us . . . But ours was not confrontational back; it was just survival. How do we cooperate? We do whatever is necessary to cooperate.

As long as cooperation and collaboration continue to provide them with the resources they need and avoid reprisals from politicians, black church-associated CDCs will probably continue to avoid protest actions.

Legislative-Regulatory Action

Voting and elections happen infrequently, every four years, every two years. Protest often depends on the presence of infrequent focusing events. CDCs could do much to promote political development in their neighborhoods in off election years and in the interim between social crises. CDCs can do things that supplement what electoral politics may provide. They can identify and acquire resources for development, but they can also monitor, recommend, and influence policy decisions by elected and appointed public officials. In short, beyond electoral and protest actions, CDCs may take a different set of political actions - legislative-regulatory actions. These acts involve efforts to influence the decisions of public officials in the policymaking process. According to a leader of a Queens-based black church-associated CDC, it does "no electoral activism, but political action is taken. For example, giving testimony, lobbying government officials, or participating in associations, oriented toward increasing benefits or reforming the development process or serving on public commissions." The legislative-regulatory actions Allen NPDC routinely engages in, Table 7 shows, are common to the other black church-associated CDCs.

Table 7

Legislative-Regulatory Action by Nine Black Church-Associated Community Development Corporations in New York City



Percent of CDCs Reporting They Engage(d) in Action
Testify at Legislative and Regulatory Hearings 89
Encourage Residents to Lobby Public Officials 56
"Educate" Public Officials on Legislation and Regulations 78
Member of Formal Policy Advocacy Coalition(s) 67
Independently Track and Monitor Legislation and Regulation 22

Just two black church-associated CDCs try to independently track and monitor potential and actual policy changes on the part of the city council or within the public bureaucracy. Generally, the CDCs lack the expertise or manpower to follow new legislation and rules through complex policymaking processes. Rather than remain ignorant of policies and processes, however, black church-associated CDCs have sought the assistance of others. Hence, a widely used legislative-regulatory action by black church-associated CDCs is to join a policy advocacy coalition. There is no citywide coalition of black church-associated CDCs in New York City, yet. Perhaps one will form as the number of black church-associated CDCs increase. This appears to be the case for CDCs generally (Goetz 1993). In the meantime, in order to affect policy issues, most (67 percent) black church-associated CDCs are members of existing, formal policy coalitions, namely, the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development (ANHD) and the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition of New York State (NPC). Both organizations advocate for progressive housing policies and greater involvement of nonprofit housing organizations in the administration of public affordable housing programs. They also provide technical assistance services to their membership. ANHD is a citywide nonprofit, membership organization of 83 community-based housing developers. As of 1999, five of the nine CDCs were active members of ANHD. NPC is a statewide, nonprofit, membership organization of 250 community-based organizations and housing advocates. One of the black church-associated CDCs, Allen NPDC, is a member. The participation of black church-associated CDCs in the collective actions of policy advocacy coalitions allows them to safely lobby for policy change and insinuate themselves in policy-making processes.

The leadership of black church-associated CDCs knows that understanding the policy process is important if they want to achieve their goals for their neighborhoods. Consider the thoughts of a CDC director in central Brooklyn:

I think public policy is major. I think that we are reeling and staggering as a community because we've not been diligent in the creation of policy proposals and the impact of public policy. It has really continuously put us in a position of [being reactive] and we remain in a position of being reactive and in crisis. The Black Church is one of the first or is at the front gate of the crisis. A family goes in crisis, whether or not they are a member the Church, they go to the Church. You're hungry, you to the Church. You need money, you go to the Church. You're family is sick you go the Church. You need advocacy, you go to the Church. But, then you go the Church and the Church has no idea how the policies that are affecting the community work. So, the food lines are longer and they can't raise the money to cover the needs anymore. They don't understand what 'charitable choice' is. They don't understand how everything that goes on in City Hall, the Council's meetings, and in Washington affects their lives. So, yes, I think [policy] is major. . . .That's where my head is. It is oriented toward policy and making changes in it.

Those CDCs with a politicized leadership do not waste opportunities to impact public policymaking when they arise. Independently or in cooperation their policy advocacy coalitions, when a chance avails itself to them, officers of the CDCs will make direct contact with political elites. Two actions common to nonprofits interested in affecting public policy are common to most black church-associated CDCs, as Table 7 reports.

First, the leadership, both board members and officers, give testimonies at public hearings and male other contacts with public officials. "We write letters, at least I do, on policy issues," a Brooklyn-based CDC director notes. "We want to do more of that," they continue, "for I think that advocacy is a key component to policy success. I don't believe, personally, that CDCs or other black groups do enough of it." The purpose of letter writing and testifying is often to affirm or dispute the potential benefits and costs of particular decisions by policymakers. They also may promote the need for policy changes or foster better oversight of the implementation of public policies.

Second, the leadership of black church-associated CDCs "educate" -- a euphemism for advocacy, even lobbying -- elected and appointed officials.

We have a good working relationship with all of our elected officials. Depending on what we are doing determines how closely we work with. But, they are apprised of our projects. We have a great relationship where we can turn to them if we need any legislation or rules pushed through or there are instances where we need liens waived on houses in order to make a project work. We are able to get them top help us when we need things done.

Black church-associated CDCs may recruit academic researchers who serve on their boards of directors or researchers not affiliated with the CDCs to conduct economic or impact analyses and share the results with city council members or agency commissioners. The leadership of the CDCs also may try to call in debts political elites owe them or work ask their public or private sector allies to contact high-ranking or influential government officials on their behalf.

Another legislative-regulatory action of black church-associated CDCs in New York City is to encourage residents to lobby public officials. More than half of the CDCs mentions that they ask community residents to contact local officials. Often the requests the CDCs make of residents, primarily those in CDC-developed housing, is to urge their representatives to support the requests of the CDCs for public resources. Other times the CDCs ask their residents to encourage public officials to consider particular policy alternatives or pass a specific piece of legislation or a rule that could improve neighborhood conditions or address pressing public problems.

Civic Action

Civic action or community organizing encourages the formation of social consciousness and promotes a public spirit among citizens disengaged from trying to solve local problems or restricted from influencing public policymaking. The organizing acts of CDCs and other neighborhood-based institutions tend to include publishing community newsletters, owning and managing rental buildings, developing sustainable leadership among youth, and sponsoring community-wide events that mix social recreation with social activism, among other activities. All of these civic actions promote face-to-face interactions among citizens and/or provide them with important problem-solving information. In its various forms, civic action allows institutions like nonprofit organizations to identify and publicize the political values and needs of citizens. It also may enable them to politicize citizens who will then act independently or collectively to redistribute authority and control over public decisions affecting their communities. Collectively and over time, civic action can make a difference in the socioeconomic conditions and political characters of urban neighborhoods. Encouragement and maintenance of face-to-face participation and education of citizens, when channeled into community-based political actions, may change the balance of power in neighborhoods and influence the policy decisions at the city level (Berry, Portney, and Thomson 1993, 286).

A minority (33 percent) of the directors of the black church-associated CDCs in New York City reports their organizations "organize community stakeholders." Although most of the CDCs say they do not do organizing, much of what some of them do is civic action. For a few, it is a stated goal. A brochure of one CDC claims that a fundamental goal of the institution is as follows:

To develop, among the population we serve, an empowered citizenry, capable of constructively organizing and governing themselves, and requiring that institutions vested with the public trust (i.e., city agencies, community boards, school boards, landlords, etc.), fulfill their legal and moral obligations to the community.

Table 8 identifies nine civic acts that black church-associated CDCs, or other CDCs, may undertake to yield greater social consciousness and deepen the public spirit among the residents and other stakeholders of their target areas. Some of them are more common to the black church-associated CDCs than other actions, with a majority of the CDCs engaged in four civic actions consistently.


Table 8

Civic Action by Nine Black Church-Associated Community Development Corporations in New York City


Action Percent of CDCs Reporting They Engage(d) in Action
Hold Community-wide Policy Forums 56
Foster Neighborhood Associations 67
Provide Political Organizations Free Meeting Space 67
Maintain Web Site w/ Political/Policy Information 0
Publish Newspaper Highlighting Policy Issues 44
Poll Residents re: Community Problems 11
Poll Residents re: CDC Activities and Programs 0
Hire Community Organizers 22
Contact Media to Publicize Opinions or Events 50

 Chief among the civic actions of the black church-associated CDCs is the creation of block groups and resident and neighborhood associations. Some organize only the residents of their housing. For example, a Harlem-based black church-associated CDC has been organizing welfare recipients in its rental buildings around welfare reform and the U.S. census of population and housing. One of its activities has been the publication and circulation of quarterly welfare reform alerts. Others cooperate with groups like the Citizens Committee of New York to organize a critical mass of residents, local entrepreneurs, and property owners to train stakeholders in consensus organizing and collaborative problem neighborhood solving. Issues they have worked on include reclaiming community playgrounds from the drug dealers and the demimonde to fostering small business development and introducing franchises in their neighborhood. Two of the CDCs involved in building resident-led organizations rely on paid, professional, full-time community organizers.(12) These CDCs devote time and other resources to the mission of organizing neighborhood residents. Their activities include: forming tenant patrols to assist the police department in enforcing laws; sponsoring workshops on resident enforcement of the city's building code, training residents in mediation and conflict resolution; and organizing meetings of property owners to discuss problems with abandoned and litter-strewn buildings; and hosting social gatherings to bring residents together to form friendships and promote collective concern and action on future neighborhood problems. A director describes their CDC's civic work:

Well, we have a whole unit dedicated facilitating that type of involvement. We have fifteen block associations that we work with and primarily to get them to be participants in the redevelopment of their areas. So that is the primary way we do that, encourage resident participation and education.

The philosophical approach behind the activities of this particular CDC is characteristic of other neighborhood-based organizations, especially those affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation:

Organizing has been, as [we] see it in the past, where community groups says what is good for the people and then organizes them to support their position. Ours is more to give people the tools with which to make their voice heard and to support them in doing so, but not to be their voice.

An officer of another black church-associated CDC that organizes stakeholders reflects on community organizing in light of its mission and in relation to general community building efforts:

Our mission around organizing? It goes back to how do we describe what we do in terms of getting the people in the community active, not only what we're doing in their building, but just in their own lives. That's clearly what [the organizer] is doing. Having people to think more responsively about taking care of themselves or in, say, 'organizing' a building. I always shy away from that because it's not so much for us to say 'We've decided what's good for you. Okay. We want all of you to rally around it and get this done.' It's is more 'You gotta take an active role in determining what your building looks like.' Organizing has been 'Okay, let's get together to fight the landlord' or things like that.' But, to say 'What we want you to do is to realize that there are landlord responsibilities and tenant responsibilities. If you go around and you're trashing the hall, then to say that it wasn't clean is not the only solution to it. That you have some responsibility for living in a building that you call your home.' So, some of that is that we're trying to really define that and have that be, you know, to use an over-used word 'empowerment', but just to get people prepared more and more is as well a part of what we do in terms of, you know, uh -- Community building is to have the people in the community be a part of that.

An additional civic action most of black church-associated CDCs take in their communities is holding community-wide policy forums to identify neighborhood problems and policies/programs that may be effective at solving or at least managing them. The director of a black church-associated CDC in Bedford-Stuyvesant remarks that the purpose of such forums is to "keep public issues in the forefront of residents' minds." Sometimes the black church-associated CDCs sponsor their own forums. Their leadership, however, recognize the value of connecting political elites to their grassroots citizens and the need of citizens to feel their representatives are cooperative and accountable. Consequently, the CDCs will often collaborate with elected officials to sponsor a community forum.

There is a supplemental civic action most black church-associated CDCs practice that provides a key resource for civic action by other groups - meeting space. Various advocacy and nonpartisan political organizations receive free meeting space for conducting strategy meetings, organizing political events, and bringing together their membership for informational and training sessions. Examples of groups that black church-associated CDCs have subsidized with space range from local chapters of the National Association for Colored People to the Working Families Party.

Media organs can be useful in civic action, especially when oriented toward minority groups (Herbst 1994). Some black church-associated CDC directors understand this. Half have either written letters to the editors of mainstream newspapers or called television or radio stations to voice their opinions or advertise an event. Yet, most black church-associated CDCs do not publish community newspapers or newsletters. Those that do try to include policy and political coverage. An issue of Phoenix, the quarterly newspaper the Abyssinian Development Corporation publishes, covered the influence of the decennial census on political representation and the distribution of public resources, the effects of block and tenant associations on their participants, and the policy impact of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. It also included a full-page directory of public and nongovernmental resources available to the community's residents who need assistance. Another medium for transmitting information to the residents of a neighborhood is the Internet. Three black church-associated CDCs have web sites. Neither, however, takes advantage of the Internet to promote political development. They do not use their web sites to educate residents regarding policy and nonpartisan political matters. They do not encourage residents to practice other forms of political action such as electoral or legislative-regulatory action. Instead, their web sites are promotional tools for advertising the physical, economic, and human development programs and accomplishments of the CDCs.

The CDC is supposed to be "a democratic firm designed to be accountable to all residents of the community" (Bruyn 1987, 16). A way a CDC may remain accountable is to know and act on the expressed concerns and aspirations of their communities. According to convention, CDCs, generally, actively identify the interests, needs, and opinions of residents in their service areas. This is not true of the black church-associated CDCs in New York City. Just one CDC has surveyed a sample of residents in their service area to learn residents' perceptions of pressing problems. More striking, not a single black church-associated CDC has polled their communities to gauge resident support for CDC programs and activities or to learn how residents believe CDC activities could be enhanced to provide a better mix of neighborhood-based services.

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