Earlier this month, a small group of roughly 50 people gathered in San Juan, Puerto Rico to discuss what a liberatory movement for community economic development might look like. For many, it was their first in-person conference since the COVID-19 pandemic. The convener? CEO Circle, an informal network of leaders of color of national community development organizations.
Founding members of the loose network are Akilah Watkins-Butler of the Center for Community Progress, Tony Pickett of Grounded Solutions Network, Maurice Jones, formerly of the Local Initiative Support Corporation or LISC(now at One Ten), Lisa Rice of the National Fair Housing Alliance, Marietta Rodriguez of NeighborWorks America, and Calvin Gladney of Smart Growth America. Since the network’s founding, three additional CEOs have joined: Lisa Mensah of the Opportunity Finance Network, Ismael Guerrero of Mercy Housing, and Deeohn Ferris of the Institute for Sustainable Communities.
The formation of this network marked a watershed for the field of community economic development. Today, most of the national organizations in the field are led by people of color. As recently as five years ago, that was decidedly not the case.
The theme of the conference was Community Development for Liberation. The group had gathered, noted one speaker, for three purposes:
- To provide a community of support for one another. As one participant noted, this was not because CEOs of national networks are special, but because they have in common “coming to leadership at national organizations known to be mainstream” and facing the need to “fundamentally shake up an institution that was not built for you to lead it.”
- To leverage tools and relationships for collective benefit for leaders of color in the broader sector.
- To develop dream space to envision what community development for liberation looks and feels like.
Recovering “Community” in Community Economic Development
It is scary sometimes. We also knew we had an incredible responsibility. We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. People sacrificed a lot for us to get where we are at. We had to get past our own fear and understand the bigger collective mission of our work.
CEO Circle member
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