Editors’ Note: Jeremy Levine discusses the indeterminate meaning of ‘community’ and how it shapes nonprofit organization’s place in urban policy, a major theme of his 2021 book, Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development, and Inequality in Boston (Princeton University Press).
It is impossible to understand urban policy in the United States without appreciating the role of the community. That’s not to say “the community” is well defined—quite the opposite. But from community development projects to the principle of community control, you can’t escape it. And who can forget community-based organizations, the implementors of community control? Or community participation, the technology to realize community empowerment? This orientation has its historical roots in the Great Society, when progressive policymakers responded to the failures of urban renewal by attempting to work with the community, rather than against it. The centerpiece of their solution was “community action”: grants to community-based organizations and requirements for community participation. Since then, a central assumption of urban policy is that the solution to poverty and other social problems in cities is more community.
Social scientists make similar assumptions. We ask how new policies or development projects benefit the community, or whether the community has a say in urban governance—implicitly assuming development projects should benefit the community and the community should have a say in urban governance. Only rarely do we define what we mean by “the community,” however. Most scholarship treats nonprofit “community-based organizations” as synonymous with “the community,” though some scholars critique community organizations for failing to accurately represent the community. Yet both critique and celebration of these nonprofits rely on the same assumption: There is a true, authentic community voice out there just waiting to be discovered and empowered by the right nonprofits.
I never come right out and say it in the text, but my recently published book, Constructing Community, was borne out of immense frustration with these assumptions. I spent four years following community development projects in a predominantly low-income and racially segregated area of Boston known as the Fairmount Corridor. Between 2010 and 2014, I observed nonprofit leaders, consultants, government officials, and residents, including working inside Boston City Hall and serving as a consultant for a foundation. I initially wanted to understand what role the community played in planning new affordable housing, transit, parks, and other projects. But as I observed the people and organizations many of my colleagues would treat as stand-ins for “the community,” I gradually realized the assumptions built into my research question were off base.
In the book, I show how urban policy makers’ embrace of community opened the door for local nonprofit organizations and philanthropic funders to became central players in urban governance. For all intents and purposes, community control means nonprofit control in practice. In the Fairmount Corridor, community-based organizations (CBOs) were treated by government officials and foundations as more authentic neighborhood representatives than democratically elected politicians. CBOs and their philanthropic funders in Boston came close to resembling a co-equal branch of government alongside the executive and bureaucracy. Put more succinctly: In city governance, the nonprofit side governs more, and the legislative side governs less, than what many observers might expect.
The implementation of community control through CBOs and their funders had unintended consequences for inequality and democratic representation. Neighborhoods without CBO representatives were at a structural disadvantage to compete for resources. Philanthropic funders preferred to fund successful projects and as such were not necessarily incentivized to help struggling CBOs. Neighborhoods that did benefit from having a CBO representative faced a resource-representation tradeoff: Greater access to resources came at the expense of formal mechanisms to vote CBO leaders into (or out of) their positions as representatives.
All of these tensions were sustained and rationalized with the language of community. The community should be valued, heard, and incorporated into public decision making—so the thinking goes. But as I discovered during my fieldwork, there was no singular “community” voice for a nonprofit to represent or a foundation to fund; in any given neighborhood, there was not one but many communities. The implicit assumption built into my initial research question—what role does the community play in urban development decisions?—was fundamentally flawed. In Boston, policymakers and nonprofit leaders performed their representation of, and deference to, “the community,” implicitly shifting the boundaries of community membership in ways that would best support their status in the field. In short, “community” was not a thing with agreed upon membership criteria, but a symbolic vehicle of meaning to secure resources, establish authority, and control development projects. When government officials, nonprofit directors, or residents referred to “the community,” they rarely had the same group or place in mind. It could mean residents, residents of color, or simply whoever showed up to a community meeting. The varying definitions weren’t necessarily a problem, though. In fact, it was precisely because community can mean so many different things that the concept carried so much power in urban governance. No one could ever fully be held accountable to the community because there was no agreement on who, exactly, the community referred to.
Two examples from my fieldwork help illustrate these arguments. The first involves the development of an urban farm in a neighborhood called Four Corners. As part of a 2011 urban agriculture initiative, Boston city officials hoped to transfer ownership of a public lot in Four Corners to a Black-owned farming company. Officials turned to a local community-based nonprofit, the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition (GFCAC), to mediate between government and the community. As one official put it, the city worked with “a group of community leaders” to discuss “community benefits” and “the community process.” That “group of community leaders” was GFCAC.
In September, GFCAC hosted a community meeting with the city’s redevelopment authority and the farming company. The purpose was to determine whether the community approved of the farm. Around 45 minutes after the meeting started, City Councilor Charles Yancey, a 15-term Black councilor, arrived and sat in the audience. He was the first to raise his hand during the Q&A period and expressed serious reservations about the project—namely, that it did not have sufficient community support. “The project is not from the community,” he said. “It was imposed on the community, top-down.” Later, Councilor Yancey’s assistant went further, pressing city officials directly about the lack of community support. “At what point has the community told you they want this?…Because we just continuously hear otherwise,” he said.
The officials responded by deferring to GFCAC’s Black director, Marvin Martin. He represented the community and could speak to the support. “I’m not asking Marvin,” the assistant retorted. “I’m asking the City.” One of the officials shot back: “He’s part of the conversation though. Because he runs the community group—the local community group in the area.” “Excuse me,” Councilor Yancey interjected, “But I represent the community. And am elected. And I think that question should be answered.”
Martin, who was at this point standing at the front of the room while Councilor Yancey remained in the audience, responded that he spoke to people, too, and “the majority of people we talked to were in favor of this project.” Nevertheless, he agreed to host more community meetings to resolve any concerns. But more importantly, he said, in Four Corners, there is a community process. “You can’t just ask ten questions,” he said to the larger group, in what I interpreted to be a clear dressing down of Councilor Yancey. As Martin later explained to me, Councilor Yancey was a guest in the Four Corners community, despite his position on the city council. And the community, organized by GFCAC, has a way of doing things. It was not Councilor Yancey’s place to interject himself into the community process like that.
The meeting ended a few minutes after their interaction and the urban agriculture company began farming on the previously empty lot the following summer.
What happens to resources and political voice when a neighborhood loses its nonprofit representative? Around the same time GFCAC took control during the debate over the urban farm, in nearby Mattapan, the Mattapan Community Development Corporation, or Mattapan CDC for short, was struggling to keep the lights on.
In late 2011, Mattapan CDC’s interim director tried to persuade the organization’s longtime funders to help keep the organization alive. With just another grant or two, they could keep operating in the neighborhood, working toward developing new affordable housing and organizing residents. But during one meeting at The Boston Foundation, representatives from three private funding organizations told the director that, unfortunately, they had no interest in supporting Mattapan CDC. One said, “We are in the business of funding successful projects, not ensuring the viability of an organization.” Funding a poor performing, low-capacity nonprofit would make them appear ineffectual as funders, and they had their own reputations at stake. They saw Mattapan CDC, a proxy for the community, as a poor investment.
Six months later, Mattapan CDC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It was a major blow to the neighborhood. As Boston’s chief of housing told a local reporter, “In Mattapan…they are the only game in town. It’s a big loss.” In contrast to the situation with Councilor Yancey and GFCAC in Four Corners, two elected politicians took the place of Mattapan CDC as representatives of Mattapan’s development interests. But those politicians couldn’t accept grants and implement projects. As a result, several projects scheduled for the neighborhood were delayed or cancelled altogether. Other, for-profit investors filled the void. One project by a suburban-based real estate investment group, for instance, bought and rebranded a 400-apartment complex in the neighborhood. The new name, combined with immediate rent increases, caused residents to rightfully worry about pending gentrification. Ten years later, Mattapan CDC is under new leadership and is struggling to rebuild.
These brief scenes tell us a few things about community, nonprofits, and the implementation of “community control” in urban policy. First, the positives: Community organizations like GFCAC were empowered to advocate for neighborhood resources and help residents realize the potential of participation. This is a significant improvement from the past, when urban renewal policies decimated disadvantaged neighborhoods and displaced residents with only minimal resistance from local organizations. At the same time, there’s been a cost: Nonelected neighborhood representatives like Marvin Martin are not subject to formal mechanisms of democratic accountability. GFCAC leaders and board members can be elected, but that is a choice, not a requirement, in the nonprofit sector. When we rely on nonprofits to represent residents, their voices are empowered to the extent it aligns with these private organizations’ interests and strategy. That is not to say we should prefer someone like Councilor Yancey over GFCAC’s director to represent the interests of Four Corners residents. But at the governance system level, this arrangement presents challenges or at least grey areas for a representative democracy. Some nonprofit directors will be more effective representatives than others; some CBOs will be more democratic than others. But no matter the specific circumstances, the system lacks formal, institutionalized, or uniform checks-and-balances by design.
Moreover, this system of governance does not work well for neighborhoods like Mattapan. When we rely on CBOs to represent urban neighborhoods in local politics and funnel resources through them, losing a CBO means losing resources and political voice. Foundations saw Mattapan CDC the organization as a bad investment, even though Mattapan the neighborhood was certainly worthy of charitable resources. In a city like Boston, this has meant fewer resources for the most disadvantaged and a far greater threat of gentrification.
It is additionally telling that Councilor Yancey and Marvin Martin’s conflict centered on who could legitimately claim to represent the community, but without any way to verify those claims. No one would ever propose a representative survey, for instance. Indeed, it is unclear how one would define the particular “community” population even if they wanted to. Was it the entire neighborhood of Four Corners? Was it the residents abutting the proposed project? Was it the longtime residents of the neighborhood? Was it the residents from marginalized social groups, regardless of tenure? Did white gentrifiers count as the community? The boundaries of community membership were never definitively defined, and context clues during the meeting were no help. In fact, no definition would have been more right than any other; it was all these groups and none of them at the same time. What was most important was that no matter who “the community” referred to, government officials and funders assumed GFCAC, the local community-based organization, represented them.
My book, Constructing Community, wrestles with these political dynamics and thinks through their implications, particularly for inequality. Beyond challenging the assumption of singular community interests, the book also describes the historical emergence of this governance system in cities, how philanthropic foundations played a critical role picking neighborhood winners and losers, and the limitations of participatory democracy. Ultimately, the book tells a story of urban policy in practice—the good, the bad, and a lot in-between—with an eye toward the potential changes that might lead to a more equitable future.
Jeremy R. Levine is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies and Sociology (by courtesy) at the University of Michigan. His first book, Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development, and Inequality in Boston, was published in 2021 with Princeton University Press. Additional research has been published or is forthcoming in the American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, and Social Forces, among other journals. He earned his Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard University.