From Advocacy Planning to Transformative Community Planning

By Marie Kennedy

The most important thing we advocate planners did in the 1960s was to be explicit that planning served one or another set of interests. As a result, planning and other professional services were made available to those with less money and power. Our practice in the 1960s and early 1970s was connected to broad social movements—the civil rights, anti-war, student and women’s movements. This connection tended to keep the community in charge and the planners somewhat accountable. That’s no longer the case. And for this and a number of other reasons, it’s time to move on from old-style advocacy planning.

The Limits of Advocacy Planning

Today advocacy planning has been institutionalized in some limited spaces—it is a recognized paradigm taught in planning schools and the modus operandi of many community-based organizations.

Advocacy planning helped institutionalize community participation in planning, particularly in the public sphere. Of course, this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, mandated forums for participation can offer a foothold for struggle. On the other hand, participation today is frequently structured into a win-win framework—if we just hear from all the stakeholders, we can figure out what’s best for all. By ignoring power disparities, participation becomes a smokescreen behind which real decisions are made by those who always made the decisions.

The terrain of struggle has changed greatly since the heyday of advocacy planning. Compared to the 1960s and 1970s, redevelopment (like everything else) is much more privatized. It is also more piecemeal and the government role is secondary—supporting private developers rather than playing the organizing and coordinating roles. The targets of advocacy planning are therefore not as obvious. Development struggles are dispersed and there are fewer opportunities for broad discussions about development goals and strategies and fewer political pressure points.

Unconnected to social movements and mostly practiced in the NGO world, advocacy planning today is often reduced to a technocratic practice that differs from traditional planning practice only in terms of who the client is. Dependent on funding sources which count success by the number of products, the practice of advocacy planning is primarily representative, rather than participatory, democracy. A lot of progressive planning is stuck at this place. You can be progressive in many ways and still fall into the trap of “thinking you know better” and that it’ll just be faster and more effective if you do it for people rather than with them.

From Advocacy to Community Development

Genuine community development combines material development with the development of people, increasing a community’s capacity for taking control of its own development. This requires building within the community critical thinking and planning abilities so that development projects and planning processes can be replicated by community members in the future. A good planning project should leave a community not just with more immediate “products”—for example, more housing—but also with an increased capacity to meet future needs.

Unfortunately, it’s rare when public policy and planning practice reflect this understanding of community development. Perhaps that’s why we have so little of it. Too often success is measured solely by the numbers—the number of houses built, clients served or jobs created. These are important outcomes, but insufficient for community development. If we don’t include less measurable goals in our criteria for success—goals that have to do with empowerment—we’re likely to meet our quantitative goals while our communities are increasingly underdeveloped.

If community development with empowerment is our goal, then we can judge the planning process by how successful it is in “lifting all the voices”—bringing previously marginalized voices into the discussion and organizing the unorganized. In the planning process, how many people move from being objects of planning to subjects? How successful are we as planners in framing a process that is comfortable and encourages the participation of people who are not used to speaking in public, and not facile at articulating their concerns and visions? How culturally sensitive are we to different forms of expression and self-organization? Are we able to successfully confront dynamics of racism, classism, sexism and other exclusionary patterns of behavior that block full participation by various groups? What practical accommodations do we make to reduce the barriers to participation for groups that have been left out? Overall, how successful are we at nurturing well-informed, genuinely democratic politics and discourse, a discourse about options and about the “values” and “interests” involved. Success measured in this way requires a transformative approach to community planning and development.

Transformative Community Planning

In a chapter in the book Dilemmas of Activism , Chris Tilly and I contrast two models of community organizing used in the heart of Boston ‘s black community. We term these two approaches “redistributive populism” and “transformative populism.” While we developed these concepts to understand a political struggle, I find them equally useful in distinguishing between progressive approaches to community planning.

The redistributive approach is essentially advocating for people, while transformative planning understands that the successful redistribution of resources followsredistribution of control over those resources. Although concerned with economic justice and redistributing wealth, redistributive planning doesn’t support organizing to redistribute power and it doesn’t aim to cede control over planning decisions to oppressed people. The model assumes that the repository of knowledge is with the planners. It’s “we’ll figure out what’s best to do and do it for you,” not “we’ll help you do it.” Although redistributive planners frequently have a critical analysis of the structural nature of social and urban problems, they will support organizing that focuses on issues that accept people’s existing ideology rather than that which takes on hard (and potentially divisive) questions such as racism.

Both redistributive and transformative planners would acknowledge that there is a political nature to all we do, that all of our work has implications for the distribution of power in society and that there is no such thing as a value-free social science. The redistributive approach, however, reserves this awareness for the planner/organizer, while transformative planning requires that expanded political consciousness be part of any community development process.

A successful transformative planner must actively listen and respect what people know; help people acknowledge what they already know; and help them back up this “common sense” and put it in a form that can be communicated convincingly to others. A transformative planner challenges people on exclusionary, narrow-minded thinking and has enough respect for people to let themselves be challenged. In working in a racially divided city such as Boston, this means not basing our work on the superficial pasting together of short-lived, issue-specific coalitions, but rather focusing our work on transforming relations between groups.

Successful transformative community planning also requires planners who are willing to acknowledge that into each planning situation we bring with us our own attitudes and biases—biases that flow from our own class background and location, our own gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so forth. We must also recognize that our preferences for certain planning and development outcomes are typically based, at least in part, on these biases and that they’re not always (or even often) about being “right.” Our preferences are just that, our preferences.

Successful transformative community planning means wielding our planning tools in a way that frames real alternatives; elaborates the trade-offs in making one or another choice; and puts real control in the hands of the most affected people. It does not mean making everybody a professional planner—a possessor of the particular set of skills that planners have developed through professional education and practice. It does mean using our skills so that people can make informed decisions for themselves. It means including in the trade-offs the consequences of different decisions in terms of overarching community values.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative

One example of transformative community planning may be found in this story about
the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), an organization that started in the 1980s and took on the task of engaging residents of a particularly bombed-out section of Boston in order to create a vibrant urban village.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we referred to this area of Boston as the Bermuda Triangle. Half the housing disappeared through arson and abandonment in less than ten years. The number of businesses on the two main streets in the area went from 339 in 1950 to 73 in 1980. The area had become a dumping ground—I once even saw a whole side of beef in a trash-strewn lot. The one playground in the area had been taken over by drug dealers. Tensions between the African-American, Latino, Cape Verdean and small white population sometimes exploded into violence.

Today, the neighborhood boasts hundreds of units of permanently affordable housing, new businesses, several safe playgrounds and a major new community center soon to break ground. Two other organizations have been spun off: a development entity, Nuestra Comunidad, and a community land trust, Dudley Neighbors Incorporated. Perhaps more importantly, a resident-driven board of directors representing the diversity of the community as well as institutions in the area and almost 4,000 dues-paying members truly runs the organization. Hundreds of volunteers lead and participate in DSNI activities, ranging from working committees to community-wide meetings and planning processes to neighborhood cleanups and festivals. There is a particular emphasis on youth development and two of the current staff, including the current executive director, started with DSNI as youth representatives to the board. From the beginning DSNI has been committed to a transformative approach to community development. Meetings are held in three languages and most work is done through standing committees of residents with staff as facilitators. In 1998, DSNI began the Resident Development Institute with nine different popular education modules in which hundreds of residents have since taken part.

Remaining committed to the principle of bottom-up planning has not always been easy. Like many CDCs and community planning organizations, DSNI has had to grapple with the contradictions between its mission and what public and private funders are willing to support. For example, DSNI won eminent domain rights to vacant land and buildings in the neighborhood. As a condition, the city set a deadline for the start of housing construction as the mayor needed to be able to point to his accomplishments before the election. As the staff hustled to meet the deadline, organizing and base-building took a back seat. When it became apparent that DSNI had become a largely staff-driven, as opposed to resident-driven, organization, the executive director, in an unusual move, stood up to the mayor and called a halt to the housing work while attention was brought back to organizing. The outcome of such an action was at the outset uncertain, but the city ended up backing down from its demands. DSNI was willing to take a chance in order to remain true to its values.

Although DSNI’s large projects—such as the new housing and community center—get most public attention, sometimes the transformative approach is even clearer in its smaller projects. For example, when John Barros, the current executive director, was a teenager, he wanted to paint a mural and sought permission of DSNI to do so on one of its buildings. Instead of just giving blanket approval, DSNI staff said, “What a great idea—here’s some thoughts on how you can involve the youth of the neighborhood in designing and painting the mural.” What John thought would take a couple of weeks or months stretched into a project that lasted a year-and-a-half. The result was a brilliant piece of organizing and a mural that expressed the concerns and hopes of the youth of the neighborhood. As a result of this project, many of these kids got involved with the organization and became the first organizers of Nubian Roots Youth Committee, still active today. Twenty years later, this mural has never been defaced with graffiti. John recently told me, “That mural expressed the thoughts of my generation; now if the mural gets defaced, it will mean that it’s time for a new mural.”

Transforming Community

After close to forty years of working as a progressive planner, I’ve learned that every community has a combination of promise and peril. Every community has experiences and traditions of working collectively, of listening to what the most humble and marginalized have to say, of imagining a better world. Every community also has external pressures to conform to and compete within the status quo, and internal cynicism, self-interest and despair that undermine efforts to work together.

The challenge is to build on the positive and find creative ways to overcome the negative. The challenge is to constantly expand ordinary people’s self confidence, their trust in each other and their ability to understand and strategize about their situation—and through this their control over that situation. Meeting this challenge is what I call transformative community planning. For me, this is the most exciting evolution of advocacy planning—not advocating for people, but helping people to effectively advocate for themselves.

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