Nonprofits—Yes You Can Advocate. And Now’s The Time

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on February 2, 2017

Amidst the chaos of the past couple weeks there has been at least one positive change—a lot more people are starting to stand up and speak out about issues that concern them. I have personally had people seek out my advice for their first-ever calls to legislators and spoken to many first-time protestors. Many, many, more individuals have dramatically stepped up their commitments (myself included) to call, write, show up, and be a visible presence for justice in the world. 

The nonprofit sector needs to make a similar shift, organizationally. For a long time, many of us left the advocacy to the 501(c)4s, to our national organizations, to the organizing groups.

We know there are some political restrictions (which are really very narrow) on 501(c)3s, but most of us don't know exactly what they are, and tend to err on the side of caution, of not rocking the boat, and of not risking our funding. And when we do speak up, it's often very carefully limited to our wheelhouse—advocating to keep the programs that fund us alive and funded, or for rule changes that let us do our jobs better.

We can't afford to do that any longer. 

In the community development world, our constituents are overwhelmingly low income, and include people of all races, colors, and creeds. Our very reason for being is to support everyone in growing healthy communities where people can achieve their full potential. We have worked in untold communities that have been brought to life again by refugees and immigrants. We battle every day to heal the scars left by generations of legalized segregation, discrimination, and hateful violence. Even when our particular missions are specific, technical, and "not political," they still embody a desire for justice, fairness, opportunity, and compassion.

This means that not only do we need to stand up against disastrous and inhumane funding cuts, we can not stand idly by and be silent on the bigger picture moral crises facing our country right now, as well as the danger to its democracy.

As nonprofit organizations, we have an additional moral authority to bring to bear when we advocate as compared to people acting alone. Many of us have relationships with and access to policymakers in our official capacities that individuals do not. We have the ability to gather and share stories from our constituents to underscore the points that need making. We cannot make every cause our own, but neither can we keep our heads down and not speak on anything beyond our doors.

So in that spirit, I gave myself a refresher course on what 501(c)3s can and can't do, so I could share it with all of you. I suggest you read this piece from the American Bar Association and check out the Alliance for Justice's Bolder Advocacy site. But here's a quick version.

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Fair Housing is NOT War on the Suburbs

Posted by Jason Reece, PhD on February 1, 2017

The Obama administration’s revised Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule has recently come under fire—again—by the new administration. Attacks on the rule have been debated here on Rooflines, but what is lost in this debate is that AFFH has been successfully piloted, and this experience should be informing our policy debate.

The AFFH rule was revised in 2015 to produce a more robust assessment tool of fair housing for entitlement communities, in response to criticisms of lackluster assessments conducted under the previous model. The revised AFFH rule documents a detailed planning process, providing significant data resources to support assessment efforts. Although the new rule is not perfect, reform was sorely needed, and it presents a significant opportunity to assure HUD’s grantees are working to further fair housing in their respective communities.

President Trump’s reputation and hostility to fair housing is well documented. His selection for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has long resisted civil rights efforts, and his choice for HUD secretary, Ben Carson, has referred to the rule as federal “social engineering.” These positions represent a long standing resistance to the new rule from many in the Republican party, particularly Tea Party supporters. In May 2016, Republicans in Congress attempted to eliminate AFFH, but their efforts were rebuked. Conservative publications such as Breitbart News Network have referred to AFFH as a “war on the suburbs,” and the rule has been a focal point for some of Trump’s alt-right or white nationalist supporters. Most recently, legislation was proposed to eliminate the rule and to not allow HUD to produce geospatial data on racial segregation.

A pilot of the AFFH rule
As the debate on the future of AFFH continues, it has focused on the theoretical impacts of the proposed rule. But, lost in this debate is the fact that a pilot of the new rule was tested on more than 70 grantees of the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) across the nation.

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Not Your Average Community Garden

Posted by Ashley Milton, PhD. on January 31, 2017

[Foreword: The 11th Street Bridge Park, a project of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River at Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), is working to transform an old freeway into a new civic space across the Anacostia River. In the summer of 2016, 11th Street Bridge Park staff and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) began working in partnership with faith-based communities on both sides of the river to revitalize underutilized spaces with urban gardens. The project's goals include providing access to fresh food in a recognized food desert, piloting design concepts for urban agriculture in the future park, health and nutrition education, and creating peaceful respites for congregants and the community. These urban garden projects were supported by funds from The Kresge Foundation.]

Located east of the Anacostia River, Wayne Place is a transitional housing facility for young adults who grew up in the foster care system. In the spring of 2016, Wayne Place residents and staff from the 11th Street Bridge Park project and the UDC began work on a community garden in an underused area adjacent to the apartments with goals of offering residents the opportunity to participate in growing their own food, saving money on produce, building social capital, expressing their creativity, and providing horticulture therapy (the attempted remediation of health conditions through the act of gardening).

We first had to determine—for this location—the design and programming best suited for building a socially and economically empowering urban food hub. Urban food hubs are high efficiency food production sites that utilize bio-intensive, aquaponic, and hydroponic food production methods. Co-located within these urban food production sites are commercial kitchens that serve as business incubators and training facilities for food processing and nutritional health-related activities, and a mobile food truck focused on food equity and distribution of healthy food and education. Given their location in urban neighborhoods, hubs also focus on waste reduction and reuse through composting, water management, and related approaches to minimizing pressure on urban land and infrastructure systems. As such, the partnering organizations facilitated three on-site planning meetings with the Wayne Place community. This was a critical step to getting the project off the ground and establishing buy-in for the garden’s maintenance. Input was gathered on the garden’s design, the types of food to grow and its distribution, and how the space would be used as a peaceful respite to residents’ busy lives.

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A Community Planning Process—Even A Good One—Is Not Enough

Posted by Jessica Wolin and Brett Cook on January 26, 2017

What does it mean to value a public housing community that has been neglected for decades and now experiences high rates of violence, degraded housing, limited infrastructure, and a frayed social fabric? For many developers, city officials, and others, it means tearing all that down and replacing it with new mixed-income housing. What this redevelopment method often overlooks, however, is the experience of residents who bear witness to the physical destruction of their homes and the elimination of familiar street corners, basketball courts, green space, and all the other private and public signposts of community and lived history.

Simply inviting residents to participate in design charrettes and an official community planning process does not mitigate the significant loss of home that reverberates across generations. Just the inherent language of community “transformation” signals that what has come before is not worth holding on to, and renders the history of these public housing sites insignificant. Knowing this, our challenge is not to envision “transformed” communities, but an evolution that carries with it visible markers of what has come before and illuminates the history of the place and the people who have lived in these places for decades. What is needed is a radical act of longevity.

In San Francisco, a far-reaching process is taking place to replace and rehabilitate thousands of units of public housing. Called the HOPE SF initiative, four of the largest and most debilitated public housing communities will be entirely rebuilt, including new streets, parks, bus stops, community spaces, and housing.  The intent is to keep residents in place and living in their communities without moving them out of San Francisco, never to return. Even with this commitment and the promise of safer, healthier housing, honoring community history has taken on increasing importance as residents have voiced their grief as the place they have called home is entirely demolished. “Once they tear it down, you're tearing down the history of what makes Potrero Hill. Whether you call us a ghetto or a project ... there's a lot of history here and a lot of stuff has happened here.” Furthermore, community residents believe that historical recognition is needed to solidify their sense of belonging in the newly developed mixed-income housing that will be created through the HOPE SF initiative.

In response, HOPE SF has partnered with San Francisco State University (SFSU) to see how art can play a role in visually and experientially carrying forward individual and community history, culture, and connections as part of this neighborhood change effort.

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OCC Moving Steadily Forward on Fintechs—Is This a Good Thing?

Posted by Josh Silver on January 24, 2017

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) appears to be plowing ahead with its proposal to allow non-bank financial technology companies, known as fintechs, to acquire national bank charters. The agency recently released a white paper called Exploring Special Purpose National Bank Charters for Fintech Companies. It asked for public comments; the comment period recently closed.

So why is this a big deal and why am I writing another piece about it? The OCC’s proposal would revolutionize the regulation of financial institutions. Like the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the OCC has regulated banks, not non-bank financial companies, for decades. If the OCC moves forward, it needs to make sure it is equipped to regulate a different type of financial company. And to become equipped for this task, it would need to adopt comprehensive and vigorous oversight of fintechs.

Surveys have found that fintechs offer high interest-rate loans with hidden features to customers, many of whom are underserved consumers and small-business owners. Sound familiar? Remember the supposed wonders of subprime mortgage lending?

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) has serious concerns that payday lenders and other abusive lenders may try to take advantage of these charters if the OCC is not careful. 

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CFPB: Government for the People

Posted by Bill Bynum on January 23, 2017

Those of us who work in regulated industries, such as banking institutions and credit unions, often succumb to the temptation to see government regulators as adversaries and to view any restrictions they impose as unreasonable curbs on free enterprise.

Increasingly, this anti-regulation chorus in the financial services industry, coupled with the virulent anti-government sentiment sweeping into Washington, has painted a huge target on the back of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Policymakers and the voting public don’t need a long memory to understand the danger in undermining one of the most effective pro-consumer federal actions in our nation’s history.

The 2008 housing crisis made clear that giving banks free reign to put profit before the interests of American consumers places the entire economy at risk. Before the CFPB, lightly regulated banks did sloppy underwriting, tricked consumers, and took unconscionable risks in investment markets. This crisis cost American households on average about 40 percent of their net worth, according to data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.

Banks struggled in the crisis too, of course, but the financial service industry’s recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. The rebound is even more striking when compared to other sectors of the economy, and to American consumers.

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Organizing Will Win

Posted by Laura Barrett on January 20, 2017

For anyone who organizes and advocates for worker justice, the last months of 2016 felt like an unmitigated disaster. But even as we begin 2017 facing grave uncertainty about the future for working people, we should not forget the accomplishments of the past year. In fact, it is even more important to celebrate them and take the lessons about successful organizing that we can.

In the Interfaith Worker Justice affiliate network, worker centers and faith and labor groups have moved a number of campaigns to improve the lives of working people.

Here are some of those stories:

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Five for the Frontlines: 2016’s Best Books to Prepare for the Fight Ahead

Posted by James Tracy on January 19, 2017

We asked some of our regular contributors for suggested reading lists to prepare for the coming four years. As we receive their suggestions (specifically on political theory and organizing strategy), we'll share them here. Do you have a list of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments section.—The Shelterforce Editors


“ … books and Black lives still matter.” —Prince

Say what you will about how horrible 2016 was; it was a great year for books all around. The stakes are way too high to lock one’s self away in a Scandinavian country and read them all over the next four years. These five books stand out particularly because they provide clues on what good organizing might look like in the years ahead.

In Defense of Housing, by David Madden and Peter Marcuse (Verso). The president-elect made sure that commentators and pundits from across the political spectrum had steady work in 2016, but one aspect missing from the discussion was the implications of having a real estate developer as the nation's commander in chief. In Defense of Housing clearly lays out the systemic nature of the housing crisis and seamlessly breaks down complicated economic concepts. Madden and Marcuse gently disabuse readers of illusions that the end of the housing crisis is just a policy tweak away.

Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt, by Sarah Jaffe (Nation Books). Jaffe dignifies and contemplates recent social movements including Occupy, anti-Stop and Frisk, and the Fight for 15. Necessary Trouble is necessary reading as an antidote to advent-of-fascism blues. It belongs on the same bookshelf as Piven and Cloward’s classic Poor People’s Movements: Why they Succeed and How They Fail.

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton. (Verso) An incredible anthology tracing the bloody history of broken-windows policing and its implications for city life in general. Policing the Planet is even more relevant with a president-elect who has publically praised stop-and-frisk policing and has a friend in Rudy Giuliani. It’s a solid collection with stand-out contributions from Robin D.G. Kelley, Rachel Herzing, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

From #blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation, by Keenanga-Yamatta Taylor (Haymarket Books). This book describes a politics where anti-racism and class can co-exist, fortify one another, and ultimately change the course of history. It is a book for today’s young organizers and grounded in historical analysis.

Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used To Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance, by Shon Meckfessel (AK Press). We know the script. Movements get big. Protests surge. Then, activists tear each other down debating nonviolence, violence, and property destruction. Meckfessel elevates this debate by engaging on the level of strategy and tactics. He avoids the pitfalls of more-radical-than-thou rhetoric and provides his readers with the tools to think through the hard questions that arrive with mass mobilization.

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In Troubled Times, Taking Stock of Our Community Wealth

Posted by Steve Dubb on January 17, 2017

In the wake of the 2016 election, many have focused on the vote and the politics behind that vote. But it is important, too, to look to movement assets that might be available to mobilize to continue to build local economies in the face of an inhospitable federal government. And here there is some good news—namely, that the state of what I like to call community wealth building is much stronger today than in 2001 at the start of the Bush administration.

Community wealth building strategy, as I wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, refers to the use of “community ownership of business and land to generate income-producing assets and build wealth in low-income communities over time.” The political point is that community-controlled economic institutions develop economic power that enables them to more forcefully promote policies that benefit their constituents. And it is not just policy: these community institutions provide mechanisms to employ community residents, purchase goods and services, and invest and allocate resources. In short, while one shouldn’t overstate this, there is at least some ability to work around policy obstacles, as well as push for supportive state and local policies, even, as Rick Jacobus noted, defensive battles will need to be fought.

Of course, our field has a mixed story to tell. Despite the growth of community institutions, communities are still suffering. Clearly, there has not been a full recovery from the Great Recession—this homeownership chart, for example, shows how far ownership rates remain below pre-recession levels.

But in thinking about how to face the current federal environment, it might be helpful to take stock of where gains have occurred. Among these growth areas are:

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The President as Developer-in-Chief

Posted by Seema Agnani on January 13, 2017

People have been asking me what I think about Ben Carson as the nominee to be Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s not just family, friends, and acquaintances who ask this question, but allies—people who work at other national organizations like and unlike mine.

But can I admit something? This question—what do I think about Ben Carson as nominee for HUD Secretary? —is an especially hard question for me to answer. Sure, I have set of pat answers that I’ve been giving people. I express skepticism because the nominee has so little prior experience with issues of housing and community development or with public administration. I talk about my displeasure that someone who recently and publicly called fair housing a failed socialist plot would be at the helm of a federal agency charged with enforcing fair housing. I talk about my and my organization’s commitment to fight for quality, affordable housing for low-income people; for equitable, vibrant, and sustainable communities; and about how these commitments stem from our larger vision of racial and economic justice. And I express my hope that all of these values remain a core part of HUD under the new administration, regardless of whoever becomes the head of the agency.

But underneath my answers, I admit to being uncomfortable, and even stifled with my own talking points. Ben Carson seems like a nice enough man, but my real feeling is that he is probably what they called a “Chamcha” in India under British rule—conveying a person without a backbone who facilitates the erosion of society by being uncritical and instead a pawn of the empire. I hope I am wrong.

But even more than that, the real issue is not Ben Carson.

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