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CityFixer

When Nonprofits Are the New City Leaders

In some low-income neighborhoods, they’re regarded as more authentic representatives of the residents. That has good and bad consequences.

A pawn shop in Boston's West Side. One positive about the increasing strength of neighborhood organizations is that they can be stronger fronts against displacement. (Eric Stocklin/AP)

In September 2011, a public meeting was held at a public housing project in the Four Corners neighborhood in Boston’s Dorchester district. The topic: Should City Growers, a for-profit agricultural company, get permission to turn two adjacent lots on Glenway Street into an urban farm?

The session, which started promptly at 6 p.m., was moderated by the head of Four Corners United, a community organization. City officials sat in the first row. Also in attendance were the company’s representatives and about 30 African-American and Caribbean residents of the neighborhood. Charles Yancey, a 15-term city councilor, walked in around 6:45 p.m., and asked the first question when the question-and-answer round began. Jeremy Levine, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, was there, and he recounts what happened next in a recent blog post for LSE.

“The project was imposed on the community,” [Yancey] declared, “top down.”

After a few minutes, Marvin Martin, the nonprofit director moderating the meeting, walked up toward Yancey from behind. He tapped the city councilor on his shoulder and started whispering in his ear. When he finished, Councilor Yancey abruptly sat down. “I’ve been informed that I’ve overstayed my welcome,” Councilor Yancey announced. “In my own district.”

To Levine, the incident illustrates something he’s been tracking over four years of monitoring the interactions between neighborhood nonprofits, city leaders, and private organizations in Boston. Based on his observations, he argues in the journal American Sociological Review, the role of nonprofits in disadvantaged city neighborhood has been changing. They’re no longer just extensions of the state or representatives of a few interest groups. They’re “legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods,” and in many cases, “supersede” elected officials.

Local nonprofits have been providing city services, education, job-training, affordable housing, and so forth, since 1960 War on Poverty. But they’ve grown increasingly powerful since then because of several “structural shifts,” as Levine calls them. He writes:

These structural shifts—government’s continued reliance on [Community Based Organizations] amid declines in public funding, the growth of private funders, and the move toward partnership—rearrange the puzzle pieces of governance, creating the space for CBOs to wedge out district-based politicians as the assumed representatives of disadvantaged neighborhoods.

What’s happening now is that these organizations are directly negotiating for resources from public and private sector entities that hold the proverbial purse strings. Community organizations are now authoritative voices at the table, and often regarded by both private companies and bureaucrats as more invested and deeply knowledgable representatives of the neighborhoods. In Boston, “district-based elected officials, by contrast, attended ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings but were largely absent from substantive discussions of redevelopment planning,” Levine writes.

The phenomenon is particular to low-income communities for a reason: These communities have very specific needs for services. But also, these are the places where voices of residents can be easily unheard by politicians. Think about neighborhoods in Detroit left to fend for themselves for basic needs in the city’s worst days. It’s community organizations that are transforming them into livable spaces. In Flint, where residents’ concerns about poisonous water were essentially ignored for the longest time, it’s nonprofits that are stepping in to address the damage done. “There’s a political vacancy in these poor neighborhoods that these organizations can fill.”

To be clear, these organization aren’t scheming to sweep politicians aside, say nonprofit leaders. “We do make an effort to not supersede local government. We instead try to work alongside of them to increase communication between the residents and the government officials,” says Brittany Bradd, executive director of the Brightmoor Artisans Collective, a community organization in Detroit. “At times, it is necessary to fill in the gaps when the government is unable to provide what is necessary.”

While the scope of Levine’s paper is limited to Boston, he’s also noticed this shift in his trips to New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. And the works of political scientists Clarence Stone and Robert Stoker, and sociologist Nicole P. Marwell, also support his case. “There’s a general shift across the country and cities of an elevated role for nonprofit and community-based organizations—the difference is in the degree of involvement.” he says. “Boston might be particularly involved as non-elected neighborhood represented; In Chicago, [these organizations] may have a greater role than they’ve had before, but they may have not bumped out—or superseded—elected politicians.”

Obviously, this phenomenon has a lot of positives. For one, it’s a “victory for the motivation of the war on poverty,” Levine says. Empowered community organizations present a stronger front against displacement, environmental racism, and transit inequity. They can be more consistent than elected officials, because they don’t suffer from political turnover. But the good stuff only happens if these organizations know what the entire neighborhood actually needs. Sometimes they don’t. And in those cases, it’s not possible to vote them out or hold them accountable. If a nonprofit dissolves, it’s hard to pick up the pieces quickly, because the infrastructure for a new organization has to be rebuilt from scratch.

The future of this de facto urban governance is now murky. Two of the organizations Levine studied were recipients of federal promise and choice neighborhood grants—part of an interagency effort to revitalize urban neighborhoods by the Obama administration. It’s unclear whether a Trump administration will be eager to continue to fuel such grant programs, which means that the influence these organizations currently enjoy may wane. And big private funders, who already play a significant role at the state level (think: the Koch family foundations) may rush into the vacuum. If that happens, it’s possible that the most vulnerable residents of U.S. cities will be left high and dry.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.