By Nakeefa Bernard Garay
Nakeefa Bernard Garay is a Newark resident and PhD candidate in Rutgers University’s Global Urban Studies Program. The following is the introduction to her dissertation project.
Why is community engagement so hard to cultivate?
During my time working as a fundraiser at community development nonprofits in Newark and Paterson, New Jersey, there was a common understanding among practitioners that community engagement was important to their mission-driven work. Some nonprofits had staff dedicated to community engagement, while others with fewer resources tried their best to center resident engagement and empowerment activities into as many projects as possible. One trend that I observed was a struggle to bring members of the community to the table. Outreach efforts yielded few participants, and the participants that joined were often the same group of folks that attended events faithfully. Yet there was also an understanding that not all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) struggle with engaging community members—some did it very well! The impetus for this study is rooted in the need to unpack how community development nonprofits facilitate civic engagement among residents and stakeholders. The overarching research question guiding my study is: why and how do community development nonprofit organizations conduct community engagement? Specifically, what variations exist across CD NGOs in resources, strategies, successes, and challenges in mobilizing residents?
Background and Literature
Civic engagement, or an individual’s voice in shaping the future conditions of his/her community, is an important factor in working toward social and economic justice (Fung, 2006; Ngang, 2018). When disenfranchised individuals are able to contribute and ultimately steer development decisions, they can articulate and demand solutions for unjust conditions (Arnstein, 1969). A review of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) showed that in cities with a citizen advisory council for CDBG funds, there was a greater likelihood of funding directed to ethnic and racial minorities, women, and poor neighborhoods (Weir, 1999). Within the context of democratic nations, civic engagement is important because it promotes the basic principles necessary for a strong and effective democracy (Fung, 2015; Smock, 2004; Walsh, 2006). Finally, for nonprofits serving as primary service providers in impoverished communities, civic engagement helps ensure the long-term success and sustainability of community development initiatives because with input from those affected, nonprofits can design resident-informed interventions and programs that meet the needs of the community (Luka & Maistry, 2012; O’Connor, 2007). This premise behind participation is evident in America’s community development history.
The United States’ contemporary community development movement was forged by 1960s social movements geared towards the fight for social and economic justice. Although New Deal laws played a role in shaping federal community development policy in the first half of the 20th century, contemporary community development practice in the United States began in the 1960s and was influenced by the Black Power Movement and the Direct Democracy Movement (DeFilippis, 2007). The Black Power Movement mobilized residents on issues of poor education, policing, and the economic relationship between blacks and whites—pervasive problems in Black America that were really a conversation about community control (DeFilippis). Similar to the Black Power Movement, the Direct Democracy Movement engaged with questions of community control and rejected the centralized New Deal era policies in favor of local decision making and control (DeFilippis). Both movements shaping community development were conversations about community control. There was a theoretical and practical impetus for advocating for community control. These movements posed questions about who should have decision-making power over the types of projects, programs, investments, or needs in a community.
In theory and practice, community development exists to meet the social and economic development needs of individuals and places left behind by the capitalist political world economy (DeFilippis & Saegert, 2012). Nonprofits are critical community development actors because they provide social services when governments are unable, and they help articulate and organize community voices. However, despite the efforts of hard-working community development actors, civic engagement initiatives are not easy to design and implement. An analysis of community development history and theory gives some insight on why nonprofit community engagement is hard to pull off.
First, due to neoliberal trends in governance and funding priorities, community development organizations prioritized poverty alleviation outputs related to housing and economic development instead of activities that facilitate civic engagement and empowerment in underserved urban communities (Bond, 2004; DeFilippis, 2007). This forced organizations to develop technocratic and administrative capacity over community building and organizing capacity. Secondly, unlike other community development outputs, progress and success is hard to measure with civic engagement activities, and thus harder to sustain financially. A study of community development corporations in Cleveland, Ohio reports that private funding that initially supported a CDC’s community engagement and organizing activities was withdrawn in the early 1980s and replaced with funding earmarked for housing and economic development activities because the foundation thought community organizing “had been pretty difficult to measure progress” (Yin, 1998, p. 142). Finally, community engagement is hard to pull off because of the many political and economic forces working against these efforts. Although participation is a fundamental feature of democracy, governing bodies don’t always seek out participation as an explicit goal, especially not among the powerless economic underclass masses. Since mobilizing scores of people could spark a systems change to the capitalist political economy, some question the ability of community development nonprofits that were shaped by neoliberal conditions to effectively mobilize and organize residents in the name of social and economic justice (Maistry, 2012; O’Connor, 2007). In a speech titled, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde warns of the dangers of relying on mainstream patriarchal systems and tools to effectively address the oppressive outcomes created by those same systems. In other words, the relationship between private and public funders and nonprofit organizations is a delicate dance. Nonprofits must raise funds to stay afloat to serve the community. The grantor-grantee relationship naturally puts limits on the type of social and economic justice goals and outcomes.
My study uses the historical context of national and local community development nonprofit work as a backdrop to understanding the successes, challenges, resources, and processes involved in today’s nonprofit community engagement landscape in Newark, NJ. My hope is that by analyzing and synthesizing what’s happening across the city, promising practices, lessons, and greater solidarity between Newark’s civic engagement efforts can be achieved. Early findings from my empirical study reveal current challenges that are a byproduct of the aforementioned historical context.
Before getting into some early findings, a few words on methods. Conducted remotely via Zoom, this study used interviews with executive directors and community engagement staff at registered 501(c)3 community development nonprofit organizations serving Newark, NJ. Participating organizations represent a variety of organizations; from community development corporations and intermediaries to arts and advocacy organizations to economic development organizations. The selection criteria for inclusion in my study were that organizations provide community development related programs or services in the city of Newark and be registered with the Internal Revenue Service. My analytical framework uses nonprofit capacity (Glickman & Servon, 2007), organizing strategies (Han, 2014), and steps used for recruiting and cultivating participation (Klandermans & Oegema, 1986) to understand the challenges, successes, process and practices of civic engagement among community development nonprofit organizations. Currently seventy-five percent of my sample have joined the study. Below is a brief discussion of noteworthy early findings.
Findings and Discussion
First and foremost, all study respondents–from CEO to community organizer– are sincerely enthusiastic and dedicated to cultivating resident participation. However, the most recurring theme from respondents is that there is insufficient organizational infrastructure dedicated to civic engagement initiatives. Nonprofit staff have the desire and will, but the organization’s staffing, technical, and strategic capacity is limited. A lack of strategic integration of engagement efforts was reported from junior staff despite chief executives having a genuine interest and belief in civic engagement as an important component of their work. It remains unclear how or why there is a disconnect.
Although not unanimous, staffing was the second recurring theme. There exists a lack of consistent full time staff dedicated to resident engagement. Furthermore, competing organizational interests truncate engagement priorities. Nonprofits often have “all hands on deck” moments where job descriptions get blurred or emerging priorities take precedence. For example, annual fundraisers, big grant applications, or signature events require engagement staff to step outside of their role. Community development staff that do engagement work wear multiple and sometimes competing hats at their organization forcing engagement onto the back burner in favor of more pressing work tasks. Finally, in addition to needing assistance with the technical know-how of organizing, multiple organizations report difficulty in attracting and keeping skilled engagement staff. It is unclear if this is due to the nature of the work or that the income levels are not competitive enough to keep organizing staff.
Finally, the nature of competing resident priorities makes organizing difficult. For a low-to-moderate income individual, attendance at community engagement activities might be in direct competition with work schedules, child rearing, and other pressing needs that deserve priority. Furthermore, recognize that cultivating participation has many barriers that are outside of their control. It takes a lot of time and trust to cultivate participation in communities that have been treated as politically disposable, devastated by economic disinvestment, deprived of economic opportunity, subject to unjust laws and institutional racism, ravaged by environmental injustice, and used as political pawns across generations.
Next Steps and Preliminary Recommendations
More interviews will be conducted in the coming weeks. The early findings discussed above speak mainly to the challenges to engaging community members. A deeper look at the data will uncover the successes, practices, processes, resources and strategies used. Based on the challenges discussed here, there are a few early recommendations that I would make to support civic engagement work across the city. First, funders should align funding priorities with civic engagement activities. Although it would take time to see measurable gains, community development priorities like health, education, the arts, housing, and workforce development would all benefit from stronger engagement infrastructure. Secondly, the city of Newark needs a city-wide organizer affinity group or coalition. This group would offer funding for projects and organizing staff where needed, provide technical assistance and training on engagement techniques, and serve as a clearing-house for engagement activities across the city. The goal of this group would be to support the civic engagement infrastructure citywide by filling the technical or resource gaps that currently exist at organizations. This group would be independently staffed and driven by the needs of the organizers and the communities that they work with. This group would also offer peer support and camaraderie among organizers that are all ultimately working towards the same goal: social and economic justice for Newarkers.
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