Commentary: What Is Community Development?

July 01, 2009
By  Howard McAuliffe
Marion Courthouse
Howard McAuliffe, right, takes notes on a laptop to capture the discussion going on at his table during the policy plenary session.

All too often, we hear pessimists in government, academia and our neighborhoods say "You can't do that," "That won't work here," and "Their problems are too great" when discussing solutions to complex challenges, especially in disadvantaged communities.

Poverty, crime, failing school systems, lack of affordable housing and lack of health care are issues that affect all Americans, but are especially pressing in low-income communities. These issues are complicated because they require assistance from multiple sources, such as nonprofit groups; the business community; and federal, state, and local government. Furthermore, assistance is needed from a variety of professionals to make progress on these difficult issues. Exploring Innovation: A Conference on Community Development brought together a variety of community development professionals who have been working together to mitigate these problems and are making progress.

I had the pleasure of meeting many of these people at the conference. Overall, I came away with a sense of hope for the future and excitement for graduation and the chance to join this truly innovative community in working toward a better future. Since then, I've been thinking more about what community development is and about how amazing the presentations and conversations at the event were, and wondering what innovative ideas shared or sparked at the conference will be put into action.

What Is Community Development?

This question came up several times during the conference. Because my master's degree has a concentration in community development, I am used to trying to explain it and have found it difficult to do. It is apparent that there is no consensus on the definition of "community development" and the role of a "community developer." Working toward such a consensus could have important implications for practitioners.

I attended a meeting of the Community Development Institute and met someone who said his colleagues in community organizing do not identify themselves as community developers. It occurred to me that other professionals such as social workers, community activists, academics and architects may not consider themselves community developers, although they work toward strengthening communities.

I don't know what the definition should be, but I can see how "community development" can be a powerful framework for examining progressive development. Furthermore, community development can unite disparate groups that work toward similar goals. By increasing collaboration among these groups, we may find that we are more likely to resolve the complex problems our communities face.

Powerful Motivators

The Exploring Innovation conference brought together grassroots practitioners and some of the top minds in the country (often the same people) to discuss, collaborate and learn.

I wish I could have been in all of the breakout sessions because I know that I missed some inspiring presentations and interactions. In addition to memorable keynote presentations by Alan Berube, Ray Boshara, Nicol Turner-Lee and Bill Strickland, I was particularly inspired by the innovative solutions implemented by Swamp Gravy, The East Initiative and The Cornerstone Corporation for Shared Equity. They are great examples of how community development operates in different places and at different levels of influence.

Alan Berube with The Brookings Institution and Ray Boshara with New America Foundation work at the national level to influence policy.

Nicol Turner-Lee has been part of One Economy Corp., a grassroots organization that has become a global power, delivering technology and information to the homes of low-income people.

Bill Strickland has taken the simple idea of using the arts to inspire people and created a template for career training and business incubation in low-income communities.

The EAST initiative, started in rural Arkansas, was an eye-opening example of how a visionary approach to educating students can motivate them to achieve amazing things.

Swamp Gravy is a performance group that has used folk performances to reinvigorate an entire community in rural Georgia.

Finally, Cornerstone Corporation for Shared Equity has created a renter's equity program in Cincinnati that allows renters to build equity, while increasing the property owner's bottom line, creating a win-win for both groups.

These groups and individuals were powerful motivators because they used innovative ideas to create significant change in disadvantaged communities. I encourage everyone to visit the Exploring Innovation web site or look up these groups online. I can't do them justice with a few sentences.

What's in the Future?

As a young community development professional, I hope to work with these types of people and organizations for years to come. The positive energy combined with the opportunity for me to interact with amazing community development professionals helped solidify my commitment to community development. It was refreshing to see people who are carrying out truly innovative solutions to many of the problems in our country.

The way the conference functioned as a conversation between attendees, presenters and volunteers was very powerful. One recurring statement I heard was: "We have come a long way, but still have a long way to go." I think this conference helped strengthen the community development movement by creating new ties, strengthening existing ties, increasing tools that professionals have to work with and, of course, inspiring all of us to keep working toward a better future.

Howard McAuliffe is a graduate of the master's program in Urban Planning and Real Estate Development with a concentration in Community Development at St. Louis University. He was one of several student volunteers at the conference.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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