Five years ago, as a 20-year-old community development organization (CDC), Isles was a model of effectiveness. In Trenton, the nonprofit corporation was building energy-efficient homes, training high-school dropouts in construction, addressing environmental contamination, promoting financial literacy and savings accounts, and helping community groups complete neighborhood plans. With strong management systems, diverse funding sources, and awards from the White House and the United Nations, Isles was on top of its game.
The good news is that Isles was able to improve upon that reputation, but only after learning what it wasn’t able to accomplish through traditional community development.
In the late 1990s, Isles began rethinking the question: “How do we know we are succeeding?” With a mission to foster more self-reliant families in healthy, sustainable communities, how would we really know this was happening? After developing measures for self-reliance (a real challenge), Isles looked to the Healthy Cities movement in Europe and Canada to devise ways to assess neighborhood and city “health.” When we did that, vexing questions kept arising: even though Isles developed hundreds of homes, nurtured many family self-help successes, and spent millions to redevelop Trenton communities, the population of the city kept shrinking. Working-class families continued to flee to the suburbs, leaving behind increasingly concentrated poverty. In fact, the suburbs around the city were witnessing white flight out to the even further exurbs. Could we be winning and losing at the same time? We were successful at the community development game, but our work was growing more difficult as overall neighborhood deterioration worsened. Once we mapped the regional social and economic forces fueled by sprawl, we were surprised. It was as if we were making waves at the local level, but the tide was heading out.
Not only was our community development work not addressing the core forces of sprawl, but sprawl was undermining the important community work we had accomplished. And community residents were weighing in: 85 percent of the roughly 300 families that came to us annually to buy a home sought homes outside of Trenton.
We pulled together leaders of area organizations to help us better understand — and address — these regional challenges. They brought planning, research, racial justice, environmental and community development interests to the table. Recognizing the common ground — that sprawl was causing the deterioration of the social and economic life of the region (not just environmental) — we formed a regional coalition. From an initial focus on central New Jersey, we quickly realized that an effective response had to be statewide.
The New Jersey Regional Coalition (NJRC) was incorporated in 2003 and is now a statewide nonprofit, coordinating three organizations in the north, central, and southern parts of the state. As chairperson of the board of the NJRC, I’ve learned how to look at the broader regional issues (property tax reform, regional land-use decision-making, suburban affordable housing, and suburban white flight) in addition to our work on critical issues in the inner cities.
The future of effective community change may lie in the capacity of organizations to tackle local development issues while also affecting the broad regional forces that lead to distressed local communities, such as concentrated poverty.
To do this, Isles is transforming itself from a CDC to a regional development corporation (RDC). This requires us to:
Housing and community development organizations in the region do great work, but we need some new tools and a more systemic approach to changing communities. The growing regional equity movement offers a number of them. Yet these tools require us to be viable in the suburbs, not just the cities. To do that, we need to tear down walls to the suburbs while learning some new lessons.