In this paper, I focus on the role of community development corporations (CDCs) in fostering public participation in the local political process. Using survey and interview data gathered from CDCs operating in the Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas, I show that the CDC is an important intermediary between the citizens and the local political arena. While, according to this study's findings, the CDCs' long-term goal is to develop a lasting sense of efficacy among CDC participants, leading to direct political participation by citizens, the nature of CDC funding does not fully support these efforts. As a result, these critical activities remain at the fringes of their official mission. By focusing on short-term outcomes rather than long-term development process, the money spent to improve the CDC constituency's capacity appears to miss its target. The results of the current study 1) shed light on the disconnect between the needs of CDCs and the objectives of funding agencies; and 2) help community practitioners interested in community development to better understand challenges related to engaging citizens in local issues and facilitating citizen participation in ways that enhance collective efficacy in poor communities.
Keywords: citizen participation, community development corporations, efficacy, community development, collective efficacy, poor communities
Community-based development organizations (CBDOs) play an important role in economic and community development efforts across the United States (Vidal, 1992). The primary CBDO responsible for identifying and addressing several important community development needs of people in poverty (e.g., access to affordable housing, credit counseling, social services) is the nonprofit community development corporation (CDC) (Silverman, 2001; Green & Haines, 2002; Steinbach, 2003).
According to Steinbach (2003), the community development corporation has become the primary mechanism responsible for development efforts in distressed communities. Created in the 1960s with the goal of giving voice and representation to people and communities left behind, these grassroots organizations stress, among other things, responsive and representative local action, partnerships among public and private sectors, and flexibility (Steinbach, 2003). (For a fuller description and history of the CDC, see Stoutland (1999) and Steinbach (2003).) In theory and in practice, CDCs have become the vehicle by which self-help efforts are attempted in rural areas (Stoecker, 1996). Given their role, the CDC's ability to place relevant issues before local decision-making bodies is essential.
Most practitioners and researchers agree that citizen involvement is necessary to generating true representative and responsive community and economic development policies (Sullivan, 2004; Daley & Marsiglia, 2001; Gaunt, 1998; Rothman, 1979). Understanding how to increase citizens' access to local government is critical to assuring that issues faced by its most fragile constituency are in fact addressed. Equally important is to examine the nature of public participation in CDCs, as such participation can occur at different levels, ranging from informational and review, to interactive (Gaunt, 1998). By encouraging different levels of citizen participation, the CDCs create different opportunities for capacity building, hence, citizen participation in the local political process.
Yet, despite the important role CDCs play in local capacity building, on the one hand, and facilitating...