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The Best Defense Against Inequality? Strong, Local Organizations

A new white paper on LISC’s capacity building efforts describes what it takes to position local organizations to meet the needs of their constituents and build equitable and inclusive communities. In the blog that follows, the authors discuss our country’s fundamental requirement for strong local associations—a need identified by a famous observer of American democracy nearly 200 years ago.

In the 1840s, the French diplomat and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville praised America’s nascent (and profoundly flawed) democracy for the ways it encouraged civic organizing and activism. In fact, Tocqueville argued that America needed such activism if its democracy were to survive.

Because political parties and individual leaders have the legal and constitutional right to ignore the people’s needs after their election, Tocqueville wrote that “no countries need associations more – to prevent either despotism of parties or the arbitrary rule of a prince – than those with a democratic social state.” His belief was that the best defense against what he called the “inequality of conditions” were vibrant, effective, citizen-driven associations.

Contemporary community organizations do not always arise from activism. Sometimes they form to advance more equitable local outcomes through programs and services. Still, many of the groups with which LISC works grew directly out of movements for racial justice and community control, and they maintain their commitment to these causes to this day.

A meeting of staff and participants of the People's Paper Co-op, part of the Philadelphia community organization Village of Arts and Humanities. The Co-op connects formerly incarcerated people with artists, civil rights lawyers, and many others to run a multitude of programs and initiatives.
A meeting of staff and participants of the People's Paper Co-op, part of the Philadelphia community organization Village of Arts and Humanities. The Co-op connects formerly incarcerated people with artists, civil rights lawyers, and many others to run a multitude of programs and initiatives.

Now, during a period of growing national inequality associated with race, income, and wealth, these same organizations – as well as emerging ones – continue play a crucial role in the country’s broader needs for greater “equality of conditions.”  

This role is crucial because local organizations can both advance more equitable community development, and also promote policy solutions that are responsive to local needs – preventing “arbitrary rule,” to quote Tocqueville. Or, to use more contemporary terms, community groups can voice demands that advance racial and economic justice.

Precisely because they are so familiar with local need, community organizations have needs of their own. They are often under-resourced. To meet changing local conditions, they must continuously learn new skills and tactics, and raise money to expand their scope and programming. And all this while maintaining their connections to the grassroots and serving as effective advocates.

This report describes strategies that can build the capacity of local organizations to meet the contemporary challenges of inequality. Recognizing that equitable outcomes result from the work of local organizations as well as the influence of broader public policy decisions, the report focuses on capacity building both at the grassroots and at the systemic level. This multi-pronged approach can create powerful organizations and at the same time channel more resources to community residents.

Mi Casa, for example, is a 27-year-old D.C.-based non-profit housing development organization that supports tenant groups through the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA. TOPA gives tenants the right to buy their building when its owner has decided to sell, provided they can match an open-market bid. TOPA is an example of legislation that stemmed from housing activism and around which community organizations continue to play a role, because they work directly with residents to educate them about their rights and help them make decisions that benefit their neighbors over the long term. LISC, which manages the District’s fund to help tenants acquire their buildings in addition to investing its own resources in the effort, has helped make it possible for 4,517 low-income families to purchase their homes since 1988.

In one of the fastest-gentrifying cities in the country, this work has literally kept families of color in their neighborhoods. As Elin Zurbrigg, deputy director of Mi Casa, put it:

It's always a validation of our work that LISC supports us because we both believe in equity and social justice. We believe that society historically has not been equal to all people. And that all people have not been given equal opportunity and that we should right that imbalance.

Nearly two centuries after Tocqueville’s visit to America, the threat to equality persists, as does the opportunity of organizations to help rectify it through public policy and effective, on-the-ground implementation of newer policy tools. We’ve been grateful to learn from practitioners around the country as they’ve advanced this vital work.


Related

Building Capacity, Changing Systems

This LISC research report looks at efforts of intermediaries to advance equity considering the needs of local organizations and also citywide actors and the public sector. The goal is to learn how intermediaries can build the capacity of entire systems to promote equitable outcomes. 

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