Recently, I attended the 10th Annual meeting of the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations (NACEDA) that was being held in Philadelphia. The meeting gathered together several hundred people from across the country involved in various community development efforts from housing to workforce development to voter engagement to creative placemaking to youth work and more. As a professor of Urban Studies I felt quite at home. Whenever I am in such environments I am inspired and challenged by the community work that others are doing around the country.

As part of celebrating their 10th anniversary NACEDA put out a special publication entitled Talking Values: Soulful Conversations within Community Economic Development. One of the articles that caught my eye was entitled “Has the Term Community Development Run its Course?”  This has been a question we have been asking ourselves in the Urban Studies department for the last few years, so I was quite interested in what the authors had to say. The main author Brittany Hutson, a freelance journalist from Detroit, began by stating that “the community development field has sought to empower individuals with skills, tools, and resources they need to affect change within their communities.” However, she goes onto write that in many ways the dominant emphasis in many community development corporations (CDCs) has been the construction of affordable housing. Other CDCs provide various kinds of services  and programs such as job training, financial literacy, and other needs faced by residents in low income communities. Instead of just focusing solely on housing there is a growing desire within the CDC network to be more varied  in their approach to their work of strengthening local communities.

A major issue Hutson raises is that many CDCs employ individuals who have earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in community development or related fields, but do not live in the community or really see themselves as part of the community apart from their work role. Thus CDCs have become service providers. Furthermore, the services that are provided are not primarily determined by the needs and concerns of the local residents, but by funders whose priorities dictate that the money they provide be used in a certain way. Thus, the idea of local empowerment and local control gets pushed back by  the needs and motives provided by the professional staff and funders. While everyone’s motive is to improve the lives of people living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet, the way it is often carried out leaves the community folks out of the decision-making loop.

Huston concludes by stating that the problems faced by local communities call for local solutions and too often that is not happening. One of the respondents to Huston’s article, a 20 year community development veteran, stated that the term “community development” needs to be “rescued and defined in terms that center on “improving lives by enhancing the prosperity of those we work with.” Another respondent confessed that too many CDCs “have been focused on one aspect of community development,” i.e. affordable housing; and that such a focus has lost sight of the more holistic vision that community development should and used to have.

The article and the various responses took me back to the first year of my doctoral program in which I wrote a paper exploring the relationship between community development and adult education. At the time I wanted to see if there was a conscious and intentional effort to connect the community development efforts in stressed communities with efforts to actually develop the skills and increase the working knowledge of the people in those communities. What I found was uneven. In Europe and parts of Africa community development seemed to see its link to adult education, but in the United States that link is very weak, if present at all. In the history of community development in the U.S. the agricultural extension programs which taught farmers the latest techniques were some of the first community development efforts. One of the earliest uses of the term “community development” occurred in 1934 at the National University Education Association (NUEA), whose work was university based programs assisting residents in mostly small town and rural settings. While my effort to learn the history of the community development field revealed widely differing theories as to its origins( from rural extension programs to anti-poverty programs to the Civil Rights movement), I was particularly interested in the NUEA focus because for me community development has always first and foremost been about human development.

My interest in adult education and community development led me to the work of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton who in their own distinct ways developed a field known as popular education. Like the term “community development,” the phrase “popular education” means different things to different people. I have always defined it, as community based education for social change. In other words, popular education is about bringing folks in a community together to discuss and identify problems or solutions in their neighborhood, to access and develop their skills, and then come up with a plan for finding solutions to those problems. It is a process which makes the basic assumption that people, when given the chance and support, can make improvements and find solutions for the challenges facing their community. But equally important to the solutions, is that in the process of solving problems people are identifying their skills and knowledge, further developing those skills and gaining awareness and confidence in their own capabilities. At times there is concrete teaching, but its not the standard lecture one often associates with teaching. It is more dialogical and problem-focused, so that everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner, and the topics are focused on real issues facing people at the moment. While some folks call this process “empowerment,” it is not so much about giving people power, but helping people discover the power they have within them that has been suppressed and therefore ignored.

A few years ago, I was asked by a local community organization that was just being formed to conduct a leadership training program for local leaders who would be heading up the new organization. What I assumed and found to be true, is that my role consisted mostly of helping people identify and build on the skills and insights they already had. I certainly brought in some helpful ideas, skills,  and concepts to the course, but often I was simply giving names to things that people were already doing; they were acting like leaders in their homes, their jobs and on their block, but no one thought of what they were doing as leadership. Over the course of the 6 weeks we met together I brought in material designed to help people develop a new skill like setting an agenda and efficiently running a meeting, but even there that new skill was being built on a solid foundation that the people were coming to see they had. In the end people felt affirmed and confident that they could lead the organization forward, which they did quite capably.

That experience and others like it confirmed for me that at its root, whatever form community development takes – housing, job training, GED certification, financial literacy and so on – the development of people is at the core. It hearkens back to that core mission “to empower individuals with skills, tools, and resources they need to affect change within their communities.” That is the central focus of our work. The work of community development is human development.



Brittany Hutson (2018). Has the Term Community Development Run Its course?, Talking Values: Soulful Conversations Within Community Economic Development, Washington, DC:NACEDA, pp. 28-33.

Alexander Von Hoffman (2012). The Past, Present and Future of Community Development in the United States. The Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University.

Bryan M. Phifer (1990). Community Development in America: A Brief History. Sociological Practice, 8 (1), Article 4.