“This is the best job in America.”
“I love what I do.”
Ask people who work in community development about their careers and that’s what you’re likely to hear. It’s a field in which you can be entrepreneurial and ambitious, take risks and earn a living, yet feel fulfilled by knowing your work has a positive impact on people’s lives. Because it often offers unusual opportunities for creativity and, it can be a good choice for young professionals starting careers.
Community development is the economic, physical and social revitalization of a community, led by local residents. The field emerged about 30 years ago as a grass-roots movement to improve living conditions, most often in low-income areas. It has since grown into an industry, and continues growing, with jobs in urban, suburban and rural areas in every state and overseas.
Volunteering and Internships Are Keys to Future Jobs
The difference that community-development efforts can make is evident in the South Bronx, N.Y., says Paul Grogan, a vice president at Harvard University and former president of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a national organization based in New York that finances local community development housing and business initiatives. “In 1979, [the South Bronx] was rubble, the dustbin of history. Today it’s still poor. But housing is booming, crime is down, and you can see the start of economic revival. A new supermarket is opening, there’s a Little League team playing, it’s now a place where life is normal,” he says.
Partnerships Are Key
The field relies on partnerships between resident-led and professionally staffed neighborhood groups and public-sector and for-profit investment and support. Nonprofits pursue programs, such as low-income housing or job-training for at-risk youth. These are supported by local, regional and nationalintermediaries which provide funding and technical assistance. Sources of business-sector backing can include corporations, investment banks, law firms, lenders, mortgage companies and even venture-capital pools.
“In a growing number of corporate boardrooms, lagging neighborhoods are now touted as targets of opportunities,” says Neal Peirce, a syndicated columnist based in Washington, D.C., who writes about state and local issues. For some banks, community-development finance has become an important business line. For example, Bank of America has made a 10-year $350 billion commitment to community-development lending. Additionally, developers, property-management companies and business owners are partnering with local groups in housing and economic development ventures.
The public sector assists these efforts by providing subsidies and funding services, regulating, monitoring and even partnering in projects to make direct loans or reduce risk. Further, universities and foundations are expanding their support of community-development initiatives.
In Tune With the Times
Demand for talented community-development professionals has swelled over the past decade, and the career’s popularity has grown. “Community development is fully in tune with the times,” says Peirce. “The field is entrepreneurial; its approach spans the political spectrum and is popular because it combines doing good for people and communities with the ethic of self-help and self-improvement.”
The field spans a variety of careers and industries involved in economic and social revitalization. Dan Nissenbaum and Roxie Perez-Lohuis represent either end of this spectrum. Nissenbaum, 36, is a senior vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank’s community development lending arm. Perez-Lohuis, 28, is a manager in a social-services program run by a Bronx nonprofit neighborhood organization that owns more than 1,500 apartments. She helps tenants overcome obstacles in their daily lives, such as finding day care so they can work, and build their skills to help themselves and each other.
Even though they come to the field from different approaches, they share a similar enthusiasm.
“My job is full of excitement. The phrase ‘doing well by doing good’ may be trite, but it’s true,” says Nissenbaum.
“This work is very rewarding, the type of reward that nourishes the soul,” says Perez-Lohuis.
Community development work can involve:
- community organizing,
- financing, housing and new businesses,
- redeveloping deserted industrial sites,
- job training,
- joint-venturing in developing local supermarkets and
- shaping public policy.
- community-based nonprofit organizations,
- city, state and federal government,
- business enterprises,
- academic institutions,
- real-estate development companies,
- social-service agencies,
- job training and placement organizations,
- investment firms and
- think tanks.
Even beginning jobs can offer challenge and interest. Shelia Slemp, 26, works for Neighborhood Progress Inc., a Cleveland organization. She designed and now manages a program that links college students to internships in grassroots community-development groups.
Slemp found her current position through anorganized by Case Western Reserve University, where she’s pursuing a graduate degree in social work. She’s been participating in and civic organizations for years with her ‘ encouragement. After graduating from the University of Virginia, where she majored in government, she spent two years as an AmeriCorps intern, working in teams with community residents on building a greenbelt trail and other projects.
Community development appeals to Slemp because of its interaction with local groups that are “constantly innovating and thinking creatively,” she says. “I find building community by encouraging people to be involved is much more effective than through any corporate or government agenda.” She works 25 hours a week, setting her own hours, while continuing her studies.
Building Upon a First Job
An advanced degree usually isn’t necessary for your. The wisest career journey starts with an entry-level job. This experience will help you decide whether you really do enjoy the work, the kind of work you like best and the setting you prefer.
From your first job, you can climb the ladder in your organization. It may even pay for further education or training. Many banks, for example, offer first-rate in-house training. Or you might take a series of jobs — some paid, some volunteer — to try out different settings.
As an alternative to an advanced academic degree, you might consider enrolling in training courses. During the past three decades, a specialized nonprofit sector has grown that offers workshops on general community-development concepts and strategies, as well as specific techniques, such as commercial real-estate development. .
All right, nothing is perfect. The best part of this career is seeing the positive changes in lives and neighborhoods that result from overcoming the economic factors that cause economic and social decline. The hard part is the frustration, day in and day out, of pushing against forces that resist change. Sometimes it’s people who can’t or won’t break out of their cycle of poverty. Other times it’s an external event, like a plant closing that eliminates neighborhood jobs.
Although community-development jobs often are more flexible than most, they may require long hours, including evenings to attend meetings or weekends to complete special projects. You may have the opportunity to quickly gain responsibility and experience in a variety of work mainly because your organization is understaffed, leaving you to handle many tasks and take the reins.
Another drawback can be compensation. Though salaries in nonprofit community-development organizations are comparable to those at other nonprofits, the pay is generally lower than in the for-profit sector.
This is a field where you could spend a lifetime or use as a springboard to another career. Former community developers lead foundations, banks, development companies, publishing houses and universities.
Others have followed a path to elected office, becoming mayors, state and local legislators or U.S. Congressmen and women. For example, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) started out in public life organizing her neighborhood to fight the construction of a highway that would have cut the area into disjointed pieces. The neighbors won.
Volunteering and Internships Get You in the Door
Internships usually are structured positions within an organization, which will teach something about the work in return for your labor. They also may pay a stipend. Many local, regional and national community-development organizations and foundations have created formal internship programs. Or you can approach a community-development group and make your own slot.
Mark Gaines used networking and informational interviews to find a desirable employer. He learned about the Dallas division of Ryland Homes, a for-profit housing development company, and got his foot in the door by creating an internship with them. “They’d never had an intern before,” says Gaines. He was selected by the National Congress for Community Economic Development, a trade association in Washington, D.C., to participate in its emerging leaders training program. Gaines also has teamed with two other graduates of the program to launch Resurgence Magazine , a Web site devoted to community development.
His latest project is a collaboration with a newly formed nonprofit, the African-American Pastor’s Coalition, building 284 market-rate homes in a long-ignored section of Dallas. As part of the project, he administers a mentoring program that helps African-American builders complete about one-fifth of the homes.