Community Development and the Future of America a Podcast with Alan Okagaki

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In this Sustainable Century Solutions Podcast, we speak with long time community development expert Alan Okagaki. Alan has been helping communities around the United States and Canada define and develop their visions from community finance, housing, and micro and small business. The text below is not a transcript of the podcast and features a question/ comment back and forth between host Marc de Sousa Shields and Alan. Hope you enjoy!

Marc de Sousa Shields

Alan, so glad you could come on the show. I want to start by asking you to define community development. Its such a great concept and intuitively people love it yet, increasingly we live in a commercial not community defined world.

Alan Okagaki

To answer the question, you first have to say what you include in “community development”?  It’s such a catch-all.  In the U.S., it could be everything from a community garden with maybe 10 or 15 plots for people which, assuming you had the land, might cost a $1,000 or less to set-up, up to big real estate projects in the tens of millions of dollars.  So, the answer to the question of why it hasn’t flourished depends in part on how you define community development (CD).

But, in general, I would say there are two reasons: people and money.  The people part has to do with the fact that CD requires an unusual combination of skills that are usually not seen in one person: 
 political/community activist skills and business/technical skills.  They represent different viewpoints on the world meeting needs vs. entrepreneurial/opportunities — this is also the John McKnight vs. social worker argument.

The money part is simply that community development, especially if one considers big projects, often requires a lot of money; and even though CD strategies and projects often have a revenue generation strategy, the revenue stream is usually insufficient to create a profit or even break-even — so you need subsidy, and the more you scale up, the more subsidy you need.  In the private sector, profitability solves the scalability problem — the more you grow, the more money you make, and the more you can
finance future growth.  CD generally doesn’t have that positive feedback loop.

Last, and related to the first two points, there is the lack of CD imagination — even the basic understanding that this real-world problem cans be solved through a CD intervention.  So, this gets down to the traditions or the boxes that exist in certain places.  Some places have a rich history of CD, so people see CD solutions.  Others, that tradition is lacking.  Usually, that tradition exists because one or more funding sources have supported CD consistently in the past — so you have a tradition
and an infrastructure of CD.

OK, your turn.

Marc de Sousa Shields

I would like to reject out of hand your utilitarian description of the problem to advance a utopian idea: integrated community development could be a central pillar in a transformational approach to sustainable development. That is, CD as a vehicle for a host of social and economic activities substantially contributing to addressing big problems like climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality.

Framing the CD challenge this way could have an impact on money, people, and imagination. Or  perhaps I am dreaming? I do know this: my age-old vision of the current patchwork of great CD initiatives growing outward to infill the whole national map, is a naïve proposition at best. Is it possible, for 1,000 community flowers to bloom at once at a scale where ‘systemic and replicable transformation’ takes place (e.g., less and local purchasing, more service and less material consumption, more economic sharing, less formal work with more personal time, less scarcity and more support for community members etc.)?

It seems to me that by default most communities surround endless and soulless strip malls engaged in zero sum economics. Does this have to be so?  What would CD look like if dreamed at scale as a part of systems change? Or is this just a stunningly innocent idea from an (now) armchair CD practitioner?

Alan Okagaki

Great question.  My quick reaction is for utopian change to happen at scale, you have to have some
way of defeating capitalism, which is tough.

On the other hand, CD as a host or frame for attacking all sorts of big problems makes sense and to a certain extent is happening, just not at the scale we would like.  Also, I like the 1000 community flowers blooming and ultimately linking up approach.  I’m not sure it’s any more naïve than any other solutions I hear for major problems.

But I think the problem lies in an inherent tension between community development and scale.  If you
think of CD as an organic, locally-initiated and controlled process, the only way you get to scale is for the 1,000 flowers blooming to become 100,000 flowers blooming and then becoming 10 million flowers blooming.  People who think big picture  — how do we change the world or the nation instead of just my community – will usually think in systems terms which usually takes them down the road of models that are replicated, and economies of scale and efficiency, and supportive or shared infrastructure so that the local place doesn’t have to do  all functions locally, etc.  This is the Kirsten Moy/ Greg Ratliff scale argument.  But there are two problems here: i) are these big systems, then, truly community development or is it more like a McDonald’s franchise system; and ii) Kirsten and Greg started talking about this stuff 15 years ago and it’s never really caught on.    

Marc de Sousa Shields

Well, first, let me thank you for assuaging my sense of naivete, we Canadians suffer from that affliction – albeit often in a passive aggressive way!

Let me start by saying, I blame everything bad in America on David Koch and his brothers. Ok, not them personally, but them symbolically. Here’s my gist. They represent all that is reprehensible about vested interest lobbying run amok, which has translated into concentration of power – the very antithesis of community development –  and, worse, the commoditization of life.  Part of their package is the commercialization of what constitutes ‘value’ in life, once the sole claim of the communities we belonged to.  Companies have become so good at this that they have convince millions of us to define ourselves as part of ‘communities’ of product brands. Shocking but not surprising.

It is hogwash, of course. What truly measures value in life and what we find at the heart of community and community development are the simple things we love to do: stoop sitting, picnics in the parks, moments in houses of worship, working with volunteer organizations, communing with nature and on and on.  On our proverbial death beds, this is what constitutes value in life. Yet the conundrum we find ourselves in raises the question: is the reason the Moy-Ratliff’s assertion never panned out because companies are winning the definitional war of what constitutes value? Does ‘more and cheap’ trump living thoughtfully, purposefully with less, every time?

If any of this strikes you as true, my question is: how can we take back the definition of ‘value’ and use it to build communities in the image of community members, not corporations? Or am I simply amping my naivety to 11 again?

Last chance Alan!

Alan Okagaki

I think the problem is that some really large percentage of people, I think it might be about 40%, live paycheck-to-paycheck, defined as having savings less than one month’s expenses.  And even worse, so many people have so little time.  Start with 8-9 hours/day for a job and then add in commute time, which is getting worse because of traffic and housing prices forcing people to live further from their jobs.  Add in so many one-parent households so one adult has to fulfill all the parenting responsibilities.  And then, time and money are scarce.  And frankly, at this point, all of the simple
things that we love to do are luxuries. 

So, you’re absolutely right about the commoditization of life and also about corporate concentration of power.  But I think the values of community have been squeezed out by the difficulties in meeting basic necessities for probably more than 50% of Americans, which is a function of inequitable distribution of wealth.  So yes, the Koch brothers et al. have distorted values.  But the commercial values take hold because people have no time or space to breathe.

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