When urban non-profits represent residents better than local government

A sociologist suggests the role of non-profit organizations has changed in urban areas:

To Levine, the incident illustrates something he’s been tracking over four years of monitoring the interactions between neighborhood nonprofits, city leaders, and private organizations in Boston. Based on his observations, he argues in the journal American Sociological Review, the role of nonprofits in disadvantaged city neighborhood has been changing. They’re no longer just extensions of the state or representatives of a few interest groups. They’re “legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods,” and in many cases, “supersede” elected officials…

What’s happening now is that these organizations are directly negotiating for resources from public and private sector entities that hold the proverbial purse strings. Community organizations are now authoritative voices at the table, and often regarded by both private companies and bureaucrats as more invested and deeply knowledgable representatives of the neighborhoods. In Boston, “district-based elected officials, by contrast, attended ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings but were largely absent from substantive discussions of redevelopment planning,” Levine writes.

The phenomenon is particular to low-income communities for a reason: These communities have very specific needs for services. But also, these are the places where voices of residents can be easily unheard by politicians. Think about neighborhoods in Detroit left to fend for themselves for basic needs in the city’s worst days. It’s community organizations that are transforming them into livable spaces. In Flint, where residents’ concerns about poisonous water were essentially ignored for the longest time, it’s nonprofits that are stepping in to address the damage done. “There’s a political vacancy in these poor neighborhoods that these organizations can fill.”…

Obviously, this phenomenon has a lot of positives. For one, it’s a “victory for the motivation of the war on poverty,” Levine says. Empowered community organizations present a stronger front against displacement, environmental racism, and transit inequity. They can be more consistent than elected officials, because they don’t suffer from political turnover. But the good stuff only happens if these organizations know what the entire neighborhood actually needs. Sometimes they don’t. And in those cases, it’s not possible to vote them out or hold them accountable. If a nonprofit dissolves, it’s hard to pick up the pieces quickly, because the infrastructure for a new organization has to be rebuilt from scratch.

I’ve recently heard or read several critiques of national and local urban policy in the United States that suggest much of what has been tried has been ineffective. At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily mean that government needs to be completely eliminated from the equation. At times, only a larger government body can access certain resources or leverage certain opportunities. But, this new analysis suggests perhaps the best conduit between government (with the resources) and the people is a non-profit. Perhaps government can’t do everything, particularly in responding to local needs when politicians need to answer both to local voters as well as politicians and leaders above them.

Of course, we want to know whether the role of non-profits leads to better outcomes. National and local governments have been fighting a war on poverty and/or trying to address the issues present in poor urban decades for roughly half a century now.

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