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5. Reflection, Inference, and Conclusion

There are opportunities for black church-associated CDCs to formulate and implement political development projects. Few take advantage of them. For example, black church-associated CDCs do not effectively publicize policy issues and identify community interests for their organizers to agitate people. Black church-associated CDCs also are not as involved in registering and mobilizing voters as they could. Reflection offers a few plausible explanations for the limited use of political action by black church-associated CDCs in New York City.

First, the leadership of black church-associated CDCs accepts and follows a narrow definition of political action, which proscribes their political behaviors. Asked if their organizations are political institutions, in contrast to electoral institutions, most (67 percent) of the directors of black church-associated CDCs stated that they were not.

By default -- being initiated by the church, our association with the church, puts us in the line of fire, politically. But, no, we are not a political institution. I think on our own what we do is not particularly political. I mean I don't see any of the roles that we have that are [political]; we are affected by politics. But in and of itself we are not a political institution. As I define political. I would say a organization whose goal it is to have people elected or change the system of electoral politics. And I don't think the advocacy stuff we say or do is focused on that.

I believe that we are subject to [politics]. We operate in a political environment, but we don't see ourselves as a political organization, and I don't know if their is a distinction there. We are forced to negotiate that political terrain. 

The leaders of black church-associated CDCs are not disingenuous. The directives of their governing boards do not emphasize political action. Pastors of their associated black churches are the chief political advocates of the CDCs and the communities they serve. When they state their organizations are not political institutions, they believe it and they mean it. They honestly do not see their missions as overtly political. In many ways, then, the activities of black church-associated CDCs are similar to "secular" CDCs and other nonprofits. Their actions fitting the category of political are incidental, which seems to be the case with the majority of nonprofit organizations. As Elizabeth Reid (1999, 316) of the Urban Institute observes, "Most 501(c)(3) organizations are politically active only when their organizational mission requires them to be." Unless they expand their definition of the political and accept the inherent political nature of their work as community developers, black church-associated CDCs will continue to practice a politics of incidentalism rather than a politics of purposiveness.

Second, misinterpretation of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code by the leadership of black church-associated CDCs, and their counsels, limits political action by their institutions. A common utterance of the directors of black church-associated CDCs is that, as nonprofits, particularly 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, they cannot be political or engage in politics, which they generally equate with partisan electoral activity. The directors believe their organizations must be what nonprofit advocacy scholar Judith Saidel (1993) calls "bystanders" of policy and electoral processes. This is incorrect. All charitable organizations can participate in issue advocacy or educational legislative-regulatory actions including lobbying, as long as no more than approximately 20 percent of their tax-exempt contributions pay for it (Alliance for Justice 1999; Arons 1999; Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York 1998; Reid 1999). They also may put more than a toe or two in electoral waters. Charitable organizations may practice electoral actions such as nonpartisan voter registration, voter education, and voter mobilization. Some nonprofits may engage in more political action than a 501(c)(3) charity. Specifically, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization can participate in any activity the IRS permits of 501(c)(3) organizations. Additionally, charitable organizations may participate in any activities that serve public purposes such as lobbying and advocacy in the public interest. It may also engage in a substantial amount of nonpartisan electioneering, if it is not its primary activity. One black church-associated CDC, the Southeast Queens Clergy for Community Empowerment (SQCCE), had the vision and knowledge to address the issue by chartering a nonprofit 527 political action committee (PAC).

We are still involved in electoral politics. However, what we did, because of our 501(c)(3) status, we created another corporation. It is a political awareness group. So, any politics is done through that group -- Southeast Queens Clergy for Political Awareness. It was created in 1995. It has its own chairman. All the political activities are executed through that organization. We don't want our politics to affect our nonprofit status.

As a PAC, the Southeast Queens Clergy for Political Awareness may engage in unlimited partisan political activities. It can spend money to recruit candidates, fund their campaigns, and air negative ad campaigns against a political incumbent or challenger. Most directors of black church-associated CDCs s are aware of the 501(c)(4) and 527 options for engaging in political action more directly. Few mention the possibility of pursuing them.

A third explanation for suboptimum political action by black church-associated CDCs is the nature of their work as mostly developers limits the amount of time they, like other community organizations, spend on policy issues (Gittell 1980, 242). No directors of black church-associated CDC consider physical, economic, and human development activities diversions that prevent community residents from pressuring city government to do more to reform their neighborhoods. Furthermore, all of directors of the CDCs dispute the idea that CDCs cannot be effective developers and community advocates. Evidently, nonpolitical development does divert black church-associated CDCs' attention from exerting too much pressure on government and depresses their ability, or will, to act equally as community developers and political actors.

The current forms and levels of political action by black church-associated CDCs are deficient for transforming city politics, let alone neighborhood politics. The directors acknowledge it. The majority (68 percent) of directors characterizes their access to public officials as limited and 78 percent of them characterizes their influence with political elites to be limited or nonexistent. Perhaps the political access and influence of black church-associated CDCs would be greater if they increased their political development. Holding elected officials accountable, for example, through electoral action such as publicizing voting records might make a difference. Some directors express that they would like to see their black church-associated CDCs and others do more political development than they do. A director in Brooklyn, a former organizer of Harlem Initiatives Together, the Harlem-based Industrial Areas Foundation group, makes the most coherent statement of this perspective.

Community development corporations can play roles in providing space for [political] training to take place, to help identify those persons in their communities that's been working with them and who should be trained for office, and community development corporation cam come together as a whole, because we can't do it separately, to develop some kind of training institute, whether it's structured or unstructured, that will go to all of the houses of worship and to our civic organizations and to our nonprofit organizations and say 'Show me your brightest and best.' Then let's train them to run for office and put together coalitions to support them as they run. I mean, there are things we can do to start teaching our people what the electoral process is, without telling them who to vote for. But, we can at least tell them what is going on. We can at least start some kind of institutional structure, whether that's formal or informal, that identifies folk, that brings them along, and begins the training process. We're gonna get hit between the eyes and we're not ready.

Other directors of black church-associated CDCs seem unwilling to go as far as establishing political recruitment and training organizations. Still, most agree that their institutions could do a better job informing community residents and other stakeholders about the policymaking process and the need to track the decisions of their elected and appointed representatives.

We need to reengage the black community into public policy. We need to not only involve ourselves in public policy but educate our people in relationship to how public policy is developed and implemented, how it impacts our communities, and how we can impact public policy. I'm not as interested in elected officials as I am in helping our community understand the dynamics of accountability of their elected [and appointed] officials."

The opinions and attitudes of the directors allow one to infer that it is possible for black church-associated CDCs to be stronger, effective institutions in policymaking. The potential or capacity for action and the will for it, however, influence the realization of the possible in the political sphere.

Many, perhaps most, CDCs in urban black neighborhoods have a limited potential to be politically efficacious, whether at the neighborhood or city levels. Still, some CDCs have the political potential to exert power in public policymaking processes. Their political capacity is mortgaged to a set of three fundamental and interdependent elements: legitimacy, incorporation, and influence (Glickman and Servon 1998; Owens 1999). CDCs that consistently involve residents in its activities and effectively represent their neighborhoods to outside institutions of power and authority gain legitimacy (i.e., the right to speak or act on another's behalf). Legitimacy can foster incorporation, which corresponds to participation in city governance and responsiveness from city government. Together, legitimacy and incorporation can produce influence for a CDC, which it can develop by continuously broadening and deepening its relationships with public and private sector elites who have power or can help gain it. A CDC may then use its influence to solidify its legitimacy and expand its incorporation. Black church-associated CDCs in New York City tend to possess all three elements of political capacity. Yet, in the absence of a will to translate political potential into conscious and deliberate political action their usefulness as agents of urban black political development is limited. Perhaps they could involve themselves in electoral politics more through education, registration, and mobilization. Maybe they could form nonprofit advocacy subsidiaries and push forcefully and routinely for progressive public policies. Unless they make the choice, however, they never will be as efficacious as their indices of potential suggest they could be at affecting policymaking processes to the advantage of their communities.


New York City's black church-associated CDCs are not regular contestants on behalf of blacks in public policymaking arenas. Yet, they are not apolitical institutions. Through coproduction, they acquire discretion over public programs and wield some authority over the use of public resources (Owens in press). Aside from their involvement in the politics of public program implementation, black church-associated CDCs engage in political action. They confine it, however, to a modest set of forms. Through activities like distributing voter guides, holding policy forums, testifying at public hearings, and organizing individuals and families for action, black church-associated CDCs advance black influence in urban governance by small steps. In doing so, they address a need of urban black communities for advocates that represent their collective values and defend their interests before public and private political elites. This is insufficient.

If there is one lesson to be drawn from the last quarter century of politics urban politics, it is that political [action] is a precondition to any meaningful approach to the problems of the urban poor. The most politically active groups of the last few decades have consistently done better, in terms of political power and distribution of public goods and services, than groups who were simply the targets of government programs. (Howard, Lipsky, and Marshall 1994, 189)

By not taking bigger steps toward black citizen inclusion and influence in urban governance via more political action, black church-associated neglect a need by urban black communities for institutions that seek, directly and indirectly, to make public and private political elites serve the values and interests of urban blacks. This undercuts the historic pursuit by urban blacks for greater representation in government and more responsiveness from it.

Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | References & Notes