An antiracist paradigm for community development along with actions by investors, government, and philanthropy can move the United States toward more racially just financing.
We all want to thrive in the places we live, and to have a say in the decisions affecting our communities. Yet, across the United States, residents are being left out of planning and investment decisions, especially in communities of color and those with low incomes.
The community development sector, which does the work of building healthier communities, was born out of the civil rights and Black Power movements, with resident-led organizations working to address poverty and improve the quality of life for residents. But over time, the sector has become highly formalized and professionalized to capture resources for real estate projects like affordable housing and community facilities. Its growing overreliance on those with technical expertise and advanced degrees has led to underrepresentation of leaders and practitioners of color who live in and understand the needs and priorities of the communities most harmed by inequities. As less value has been placed on the intentional and steady work of building relationships and trust with the community, the field has moved farther from its roots in resident leadership and community self-determination.
At the same time the community development field has begun to recognize its long history of using “low income” as a proxy for race and that despite decades of investment, racial gaps in outcomes related to health, wealth, and wellbeing persist. There is a need to bring a more race-explicit lens to community development work, to ensure that the flow of capital addresses the needs of those most impacted by poverty and structural racism. Embracing equity and centering race is essential to advancing health and wellbeing for all.
ThirdSpace Action Lab, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), is taking a hard look at how structural racism shows up in community development to lift up ways to increase the sector’s embrace of explicitly antiracist approaches. Actors across the community development ecosystem—including those who hold the power and resources in the field, such as investors, government, and philanthropy—can move the United States toward more racially just community development financing and practices.
Community development practitioners suchas community development corporations, housing developers, and other community-based organizations and service providers who are implementing local projects and solutions can directly engage residents and drive investment and development to address their priorities. Examples of what this looks like:
Prioritizing the needs, solutions, and leadership of people most affected by inequities, especially Black, Brown, and other residents of color and residents with low incomes;
Advocating for community priorities, including collaborating with resident leaders and resident-led organizations;
Building resident knowledge of how public resources are allocated or how different community development decisionmaking processes work;
Prioritizing clear, accessible communications and mechanisms for facilitating resident participation; and
Inviting resident participation on community development organization boards and advisory bodies.
Financing and investing institutions such as community development financial institutions (CDFIs), philanthropic impact investors, private banks, and other investors can prioritize investments in community-driven projects or investment funds. These institutions must hold themselves accountable—and governments and communities must hold them accountable as well—to the needs and priorities of those most impacted by structural racism and poverty. Examples of this are:
Increasing lending and investments to community development organizations, nonprofits and businesses led by people of color and reducing reliance on predominantly White, well-resourced partners;
Increasing the use of low- or zero-interest loans and innovative financial tools that support collective ownership and governance efforts, such as land trusts and worker cooperatives; and
Evaluating the impact of institutional rules and expectations around reporting and data collection on practitioners and residents.
Philanthropy can also play a role by considering longer-term grants, direct funding of community-led, place-based organizations, general operating support rather than project-based grants with heavy reporting requirements, particularly for small and mid-size organizations, investments in advocacy and organizing, support for leadership networks for practitioners of color and for direct support to community-based organizations.
Practitioners, investors, and funders in community development can also examine their own policies and practices to ensure they are building the racial equity competencies of their current and future staff and boards. Examples of what this looks like:
Instituting more equitable hiring practices, staff tuition support, reconsidering minimum degree requirements, and developing racial equity onboarding materials; and
Requiring equity-centered professional development for staff and board engagement around racial equity learning.
Policymakersand public officials can actively include residents in decisionmaking about how communities are financed and developed and hold the community development sector accountable for antiracist practices. Governments set the terms not just of what gets funded but also where and under what conditions community development work can occur, who can do it, and what happens if that work doesn’t meet certain standards. As such, it plays a crucial role in holding the community development sector accountable as well. Examples of what this looks like:
Targeting funding to communities and organizations with both demonstrable need and proven equity practices;
Requiring resident engagement in decisions about project funding and siting;
Streamlining and removing technical language from public processes to reduce barriers to resident participation; and
Incentivizing or mandating community equity plans.
ThirdSpace Action Lab and RWJF’s work together continues, and we are committed to sharing what we’ve learned and putting it into practice. ThirdSpace Action Lab’s series of research reports on antiracist community development is available on The People’s Practice, its dedicated website on the subject.