Journal of Community Power Building      COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing

 A Seat at the Table

By Yvette Cooks and Marc Dohan

The following is an exchange and reflection between Yvette Cooks, a resident activist in Fitchburg, and Marc Dohan, the Executive Director of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation.  The narrative in italics is by Ms. Cooks, while Mr. Dohan’s narrative is in regular text.

Writing for the Power Journal has brought back many memories of my journey towards “a seat at the table.”  I remember walking in that negotiating room feeling so inadequate as a member of a nine-member team that was supposed to represent the community.  I was a "nobody" and this great responsibility had been placed upon me.  I had always thought that people who made those kinds of decisions were people with PhDs or some other kind of impressive degrees.

I decided to “play-act” and pretend I knew what was going on and what my role was.  I soon discovered that no one knew what their role was in the beginning and they knew just about as much as I did.

As time went on certain things frightened me and I thought we would not make it.  But I had come to depend on my team members, and they on me.  Together we were tough and unbeatable.  All my fears became overshadowed by the fact that I had a team working with me.

The experience of working with a CDC and the city gave me confidence and boosted my self-respect.

I don’t have to have a PhD to make a difference; I just need to be me.  This is one event that I will never forget.

Introduction and Background

In November of 2000, the Twin Cities CDC purchased the first of fifteen vacant lots and abandoned buildings in lower Cleghorn.  In preparation for that purchase, CDC community organizers had already begun canvassing the neighborhood to determine what the community wanted to build to replace the lots and buildings. 

We at the CDC thought that this was a neighborhood that was in great need of revitalization.  It was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the City of Fitchburg and suffered from a high crime rate.  In the several years that the project was underway the one block at the center of the neighborhood saw arson, attempted murder, innumerable drug deals and acts of prostitution, and regular burglaries and robberies.

We wrestled long and hard about how to revitalize the neighborhood.  How many units should we demolish in order to transform the neighborhood?  We believed that we could only justify the demolition of housing if we had the support of the people who lived in the community.  In addition to the new homes, sidewalks and water mains, we wanted to make sure that a new generation of leaders would be ready to reclaim their neighborhood and that the neighborhood would be rebuilt in a manner consistent with its vision of itself. 

Gaining Power

If you ever want to move mountains, get masses of people together who are passionate and convicted in what they believe in…you then have power, real power!  When the CDC came together with the community it initially gave the appearance of losing control, but ultimately the CDC became stronger because it merged with a second force.   Once the community and the CDC were side-by-side, the city was no longer in total control but was left having to deal with one conglomerate force of power.  I realized how much the community needed the CDC to be successful and at the same time how much the CDC needed the community to create power.

We were dependent upon the city for financial support and for political support to undertake any development projects, and we had very little power to negotiate the terms of our development agreements with the City of Fitchburg.  We knew that the city preferred the system in which they met with a few community residents and focused their discussions on the executive director of the CDC. 

As volunteers representing the neighborhood, we had standing and power that paid staff of the CDC could never have.  As voters and stakeholders in the community, we had a different relationship with city officials than a CDC dependent upon a city for financial and political support, because we were independent of the City.     

We gave the CDC real power in the negotiations, but we also demanded more from the CDC.  From now on, we wanted the CDC to have our “sign off” before proceeding with the Plymouth Street Initiative.  

Sharing Power  

It is necessary to discuss the leadership role at the negotiating table.  It was essential that each member of our group spoke and that it coincided with the points of view of the other members.  We had to stand strong, we had to stand united, and we had to stand unbeatable.  We had pre-meetings and post-meetings to disagree with one another and to come to some kind of compromise, but at the negotiating table we could not waver.

Had one person, just one, disagreed with the other eight, they could have become isolated and the entire team process could have been compromised.

We were nervous about the process, because we knew that the city had fixed ideas about how they wanted to redevelop the neighborhood and we did not think they would be receptive to other ideas from the neighborhood.  While we wanted a neighborhood project, we did not want this process to collapse because of one or two residents.

We thought the City of Fitchburg had always dealt with “token” community residents; the types who were directors of organizations, or well-known individuals within the community who would almost always side with them.  We knew that the CDC relied on the city for block grants to complete projects as well as future projects and were somewhat afraid to ruffle the city’s feathers.  The city opposed the kind of in-depth involvement the community wanted with these houses.  There were threats.  I remember hearing that the CDC was not going to get any more contracts from the city.

To involve the community and at the same time protect ourselves we undertook an elaborate process to make sure that the neighborhood representatives were in fact representative of the neighborhood.  First, CDC staff canvassed the neighborhood and developed a set of principles that it asked the community to adopt.  The principles served to unify the CDC staff, board, committees and neighborhood around ideas about how to redevelop the neighborhood. 

To bridge the gap between the city and the neighborhood, we invited nine members of the community: four stakeholders including the city’s ward councilor, a local business man, the head of a local non-profit organization and a local priest; four neighborhood residents; and one resident from another neighborhood in the city to sit down with the city’s director of planning to develop a plan for the neighborhood.

Our faith in the Committee grew during the negotiation process.  For example, when the city’s planning director failed to make a meeting, the Committee quickly learned that a meeting without the city present was unproductive.  While the Committee continued to be aggressive they worked very hard not to alienate representatives of the city and learned to be tough negotiators with a measure of flexibility so as to not force the process to breakdown entirely.

City officials were very leery about what they were hearing from the neighborhood.  They frowned on the two- and three- family homes that the neighborhood wanted, because they believed that the neighborhood had enough rental units and wanted to make the neighborhood less dense and create more homeownership. 

It’s important to note however, that we were on a different playing field than the CDC.  Although we were mindful to try not to alienate the city we had to put pressure where the CDC could not.  We had to demand more and the CDC had to allow us to do so.  We had to do our job independently from the CDC.  It worked.

The CDC demonstrated its dependence on us when late in the negotiating process the executive director of the CDC left the negotiating room and told the city to reach an agreement with us.  When the executive director made the decision to leave the decision making process it shook me like a thunderbolt.  I was petrified, feeling that maybe this Committee could not carry itself without her.  Although I understood why she left (the city kept putting the spotlight on her and she now felt that that the nine-member team was ready to stand on its own), I was still very scared.  This fear was quickly dispelled when I realized that we were being led by one of the best organizing directors.  She eliminated my doubts, helped with my confidence and was there to bring me through to the end.


In order for the community to have a place at the table the CDC had to first give up its power before it could ask the city to give up some of theirs.  From an activist/leadership point of view, I don’t think the CDC had ever done anything like this before.  There were high risks involved – one, the risk of not having the community truly invest itself to the point of doing whatever it took to succeed.  Two, the city becoming agitated with this new process and telling the powers-to-be that they would find another developer. 

While bringing the community to the table improved the project, it also made the project take longer and cost more.  To move the project to a conclusion we created deadlines.  We believed that the deadlines would push the parties, including ourselves, to reveal bottom lines, and that without a deadline there was little incentive for the community representatives or the city to push to resolution.  For both of these groups, delay, while not ideal, was preferable to a breakdown of the negotiations, and there was not a real downside to a delay of several months.  But for the CDC, delay meant losing control of the project and its finances, and we could not afford that result.

We had worked so hard for such a long period of time only to have the city to agree on ten of the twelve points the community demanded.  We weighed their decision and thought of the possibility of letting it go there.  Members raised the point that we were there to serve the community and they had asked for twelve points not ten.  The decision was made to bring it to the community at the annual meeting.  We prepared hard for this event, each person taking a role to speak to the community in order to inform them of all that had taken place and how we had done everything possible to get them to agree on all twelve points. 

We sent the city an ultimatum:  Reach agreement or we would go public about the impasse at our annual meeting scheduled for later that month. 

I think we all believed when we walked over to city hall for our meeting that we would settle the thing right there, or at worst we would receive a phone call a while later telling us that we had an agreement.  Just in case, we had two agendas planned for the annual meeting – a celebration agenda and a confrontational one.  As the hour approached though, it became clear we weren’t going to hear anything from the city.  We took a deep breath and headed off to the annual meeting at the church in Cleghorn.

We were brilliant at the annual meeting.  We told the city what we thought in front of more than one hundred people.  We told them that the money in question was not their personal money and that it belonged to the people.  We quoted Malcolm X in the context of “doing whatever it takes by any means necessary” (violence excluded, of course).  Towards the very end we asked all those who believed in the plan to please stand. Everyone stood, including city officials.  We knew we had won.

What We Learned

In short, the community has come to play a critical role in engaging the CDC to act (with the community in mind), and to have the city to respond (again including the community). 

Now that the Plymouth Street Initiative is nearly complete, we need to find a way to assure the community’s place at the table in other upcoming projects.  We have continued to learn and relearn the lesson that sharing power with the community increases the CDC’s power, but comes at a cost.  There is always a temptation to seek community input only when there are disagreements with the city, and to save time and money on projects by eliminating this process when the CDC doesn’t need the power that the community residents provide.  We must continue to plan and budget for longer projects to make sure that the community has the time to provide its input.

We earned a seat at the table.  We took the blows and didn’t fall.  A voice was out there, demanding to be heard and it didn’t stop until we got results.  Our Committee was proud to represent the Cleghorn neighborhood.

Yvette Cooks has been a community activist for 3 ½ years. Presently a Board Member of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation, she is also a Board Member of Human Rights Commission of the City of Fitchburg, Community Health Connections, Burbank Hospital, and a member of the Plymouth Street Initiative Committee (PSI) and the Cleghorn crime watch.  She has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice and a BA in Psychology.   She is very active in the "fight for justice" and often represents people of low- to moderate-income, as well as people of color.

Marc Dohan is currently the Executive Director of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation.


Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing