(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 375: Who Represents “The Community” Part 2

March 24, 2022

This week we’re joined again by Jeremy Levine, Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan. In part 2 of our conversation Jeremy talks more about his book Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development, and Inequality in Boston. In Part 2 we discuss how people talk about “the community” and what public outreach and participation could look like in the future.

You can listen to the show at Streetsblog USA or in the hosting archive.

Jeff Wood (1m 23s):
And now for part two of our conversation, we pick up where we left off last week.

In the book specifically, you talk about how there’s winners and losers and that kind of dynamic where some neighborhoods that really didn’t need help, probably got some help because they were on the corridor and other neighborhoods that needed help did because they’re on the corridor. You discussed the need to realize that that winners and losers are chosen in order to get better outcomes. But I’m wondering why these philanthropies specifically have that power.

Jeff Wood (2m 5s):
How are they given that power to choose winners and losers? And is that even important in the long run?

Jeremy Levine (2m 10s):
Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, this is one of those things where you got to see the whole field and see sort of how the whole thing is really all connected, you know, to quote a great line from one of the greatest TV shows of all time, all the pieces matter let’s list a Freeman from the wire. But in this case, seeing the whole entire field is really critical because it’s not just that like one organization came in or one group or one class of organizations like philanthropy came in and said, we’re going to do this. And then everyone else said, okay, we’re going to let you do it. But you have to sort of understand the entire system of incentives. So to get, even understand that we have to sort of understand that the whole thing is based on this idea that the community matters, the community should be valued and the community should control development in their neighborhoods, whether or not that’s realize whether or not that actually happens.

Jeremy Levine (2m 59s):
A practice is sort of an open question. And it’s a sort of contentious question, but I think it’s, it’s, it’s undeniable that it’s certainly a norm amongst anyone working in this space, but what does that mean then in practice, largely it means deferring to local organizations, particularly when we’re talking about community development, we’re talking about community development corporations in a poor neighborhoods, which was the case in Boston. Now that means that they’re getting, being seeded. A lot of authority control and power from city, government, state, government, and federal government, federal government loved the HUD DDOT and EPA region. One administrators love the nonprofits, thought they were the epitome of community. They bought into any performance of community that the nonprofits portrayed themselves.

Jeremy Levine (3m 43s):
They were uninterested in sort of checking them or seeing if that was sort of not true. They were the instanciation of community. And additionally, we have a situation today, which is very different than say 60 years ago, when nonprofits are direct recipients of government funding to do community development work, we rely on them to be the ones to do the Lytec housing, to do the section eight housing, particularly in these poor neighborhoods. Like we have to have them to do the work sometimes. Yes, it’s a joint venture. They work with others, but you know, they’re going to be at the table if they exist in a particular neighborhood. Okay. So we’ve seen it to them. Well, what does that mean about philanthropy? How does philanthropy play into this? Well, nonprofit community development corporations, or community based organizations in general, aren’t just getting their money from the government.

Jeremy Levine (4m 27s):
That wouldn’t be enough. They’re also getting a big portion of it in non-trivial amounts, from philanthropy, from foundations, from other sorts of funders, from intermediaries, like Lisk, like enterprise. And so on that sort of sit in between this sort of space of foundations of federal government grants, repackage them out to local CDCs and other community organizations. So when we are relying on community-based organizations or CDC is to play a big part in doing the work on the ground, or even at a minimum to be the ones that are representing community members at the table, by definition, we’re going to bring in their funders as well, right? Their philanthropic partners to become a part of this.

Jeremy Levine (5m 7s):
But in addition to that, philanthropy is also playing a role and this isn’t just Boston, but in general of shoring up the absence of public resources famously at least in the national media, mark Zuckerberg put a huge amount of money to Newark public schools. Although controversially, it was later revealed that it all went to basically consultants that came up with plans for how to fix them, where public schools are not actual sort of books or facilities or anything like that. But in any event, Newark public schools needed money. Mark Zuckerberg, through his philanthropic giving gave them the money to help do that. The same thing was true for frankly, what a lot of stuff that happened in the Fairmount corridor. In the case of the Boston foundation specifically, they basically were responsible not just for putting together, but also for funding, the big Fairmount indigo planning initiative, which at least at the time was the most expensive planning initiative that the city of Boston, what was then called the Boston redevelopment authority had ever engaged in this was something that the Boston foundation orchestrated.

Jeremy Levine (6m 4s):
They put it together, they funded a substantial amount themselves. They actually got other funders to come in and pony up some money at the table as well. They literally had meetings to negotiate between city officials and their own grantees to make sure that everyone was going to be able to work together, to be sort of copacetic, to be friendly, to, you know, not be adversarial on this project. And so, so let’s go back to the actual question. How is philanthropy playing a role here? What’s allowing them to sort of come into this space? It’s partly because we’ve organized things in such a way that we need the nonprofit sector, both CDCs and their funders to do the work and to fund some of the work.

Jeremy Levine (6m 44s):
Also it’s because these organizations have situated themselves as the sort of outside strategic political actor to bring people together. The Boston foundation was probably one of the best at this during my field work, quite literally doing tours of the corridor for different officials, Kita herself initially got the EPA interested in the Fairmont corridor by talking to some folks that she had done a different project with and bringing them through, paying for a tour, renting a charter bus, and then having lunch at the Boston foundation afterwards, same thing preceded the Fairmount indigo planning initiative. And in fact, the regional administrator from HUD at the time said at one of those things like this is what the Boston foundation brings to the table.

Jeremy Levine (7m 25s):
This is why we have them. We are sort of doing our thing at HUD, trying to make sense of what we can, you all that are doing work on the ground and trying to make sense of you. We see a value in the Boston foundation in doing things like this. So we, that we know what’s going on and we can all get together and make sure the, the ship is sort of where the train in this case is going in the same direction.

Jeff Wood (7m 46s):
It’s just so fascinating how, how that basically stands in for money that probably in the 50 sixties maybe earlier was government money or was public funding precisely. And so that’s kind of the change and you know, the big thing I think about when I see that is, is it fair? Is it something that is a positive outcome? And I’m not saying that they don’t have the best interests of the community or what they feel like is the best interest in the community and heart, it’s just, you know, is it right to supersede elected officials or other agency that people in the neighborhood might have? There’s another interesting story about basically they were talking about, I think it was a matter of Penn station where there was this kind of back and forth between whether they wanted the station or not.

Jeff Wood (8m 28s):
And the folks that maybe live next door were against it because they felt like their foundations would be damaged, but there was an organizing to get more people that were more of the community to kind of push back on that. And so I feel like that feeds into that too, which is like, we’re talking about nimbyism in this country, we’re talking about housing, we’re talking about all these things, but it’s ultimately there is no community that actually exists, right. It’s factions and how the community foundations help build these factions is really fascinating.

Jeremy Levine (8m 56s):
Yeah, totally. That’s really interesting. And I think this is really the tension and the challenge that was both the hardest part to grapple with in the book, the most interesting part to grapple with, because it’s sort of unclear, it’s not as sort of straightforward as, you know, a big question of, well, will this be affordable housing or will this be luxury housing will be truly affordable housing or will it be something in between which sort of animates a lot of the discussion, especially in the housing space, in the NIMBY YIMBY and all that sort of world. And I think that like that’s important and I think it is obviously happening. It’s not to deny that it’s happening, but it sucks up a lot of the public attention because it shows pretty clear sides.

Jeremy Levine (9m 41s):
And then we can sort of latch ourselves on to them. Do I think affordable housing should be built in this affluent neighborhood? Yes or no. It’s pretty clear or candy, pretty clear where you stand when we get to the more mundane stuff that I’ve followed and studied in the book that I think is frankly, the more modal experience of doing committee development and seeing these sort of factions, it’s way more complicated to have that same sort of normative interpretation. So the example that you provided with this at Penn station, I think there’s a really good one. So there is a new station that got built in matte a pen behind Woodhaven street. What Haven street is a street where there are a bunch of single-family homes and they’re mostly, the residents are homeowners who are by and large older middle-class black women, those older middle-class black women, opposed that new transit station.

Jeremy Levine (10m 30s):
They had no problem with the train, no problem with tracks, but having a new station built, they were worried about a lot of things, privacy, but mostly it’s like those construction. They thought the rattling was going to literally rattle their foundations. Their homes were going to be worth nothing anymore. And so that was their stated claim. So there used to be, and there was at one point a committee development corporation and Matt pen, but about halfway through my field work a went bankrupt. Basically there was not enough money coming in for the money they needed to be coming out the executive director at the time, a guy named Spencer DeShields, he went on vacation and then he basically just never returned. There was an interim director for a little bit, but basically they went to put funder as thought, saw them as a risky bet.

Jeremy Levine (11m 10s):
They said, we don’t want to put more money into this if it’s not going to be a successful project. So, you know, we’re not going to sort of save it. Okay. So you have a bunch of residents then community members undeniably that don’t want this new train station and then add the sort of race and class dynamics, which are complicated in this place, black middle-class women. So they’re really the only people saying one way or another, what they want in this neighborhood and what they want is to not have a new transit station. Now, this neighborhood is one that is pretty far off from the closest other rapid rail from there to get to say downtown and means like a bus to a train. And there’s a, it cuts everything by like a third. So the members of the nonprofit coalition around this corridor, they used to include that CDC in that a pan that went bankrupt, they wanted the new station because it was part of their broader plan for this corridor that had all this money behind it, that HUD EPA and got advocating for it and so on.

Jeremy Levine (12m 2s):
So they basically were trying to create community support for it and organize. They got a foundation to give them money twice, two different rounds. That foundation ultimately decided not to re-up with them later. I learned after my field work had ended sort of didn’t think it was going to a good place, but they got money to basically hire some people, to be the directors of organizing, to gin up support to oppose those community members. Okay. So if we step back though and think about this, like, this is really complicated to make sense of, to, so, to say as, particularly from a NIMBY YIMBY perspective, right? So on the one hand we have like black community members that are saying something that we have to take seriously.

Jeremy Levine (12m 42s):
Like they don’t want it they’re community members. If there is such a thing as community control, if there is such a thing as valuing the community, as they said, their voices should be heard at the same time, we then have an outsiders to the community organizing with philanthropic dollars to essentially suppress the one big community voice that’s coming. And then at the same time on, on top of all of that, what are we talking about though? A resource public transit access that would benefit the poor Madelyn residents that don’t have cars, unlike those middle-class residents that drive to the meetings that they went to on Woodhaven street in pant. So I think when you get down to these sort of actual cases, that aren’t something that just sort of elevates up to something that would make a clear and obvious say New York times article or whatever about the NIMBY NB world.

Jeremy Levine (13m 32s):
It’s very hard to say to your original question of like, is this good or bad? It’s kind of complicated. Right. And I think getting down to it, it really challenges us to wrestle with this as a good or bad. And I honestly don’t know where I stand on it to be Frank with you. And it was actually a challenge. And, and, and I think readers of the book may find some of it unsatisfying my take on it because, you know, I see this as something that is like a problem to have outsiders undermining the community. But also we’re talking about a resource that is benefiting an aspect of the community that wasn’t represented from those middle-class folks. And I think really at a minimum, the book is organized around trying to make some of those tensions way more explicit than at least I’ve seen them either in the press, in the popular conversation or even in scholarship for that matter.

Jeremy Levine (14m 22s):
If we’re going to make sense of all this, we got to put all those tensions all on the table.

Jeff Wood (14m 27s):
There’s another piece that, that relates to that. I think that goes to capacity and capacity building. And that’s a term that I heard so many times when I was at my previous job. But you say that it kind of has its own bias. What do you mean by that?

Jeremy Levine (14m 40s):
Yeah. So the problem with capacity, so capacity capacity is a thing that makes a lot of sense. So when we are thinking about funders that are deciding between a lot of different grantees with limited resources who to give money to, and that includes both public resources and private, philanthropic resources, the value and for reasonable reasons is on those that have grantee potential grantees that have the capacity to do a project in some ways like it makes total sense, right? Why would you fund someone that doesn’t have the capacity to do projects? The catch 22 here though, is that how does one develop capacity in the first place?

Jeremy Levine (15m 19s):
And this is where there’s a big, a hole in resources that are available, particularly for groups on the ground that are trying to do this work in the case of Matta pan for nonprofits that are maybe trying to start up to get things going, where do we even begin? And it’s a challenge because both philanthropic dollars and public dollars are not incentivized to fund capacity. They’re not incentivized to write a check, a sort of like, you know, when Jeff Bezos and Mackenzie Bezos announced their split, there’s a huge windfall from McKenzie Bezos and very famously. She wrote checks, no questions asked to grantees, hugely popular, you know, a bunch of HPC and others and actually people that are unclear weren’t even expecting it.

Jeremy Levine (16m 1s):
She just was sort of giving it all out. That is not the norm in grant giving in the public or philanthropic space AF no, instead it’s sort of like, let’s sort of seize who, who like ha again, who has the capacity. So because these groups are incentivized to show success with their grants, right? It’s particularly when we think about foundations, these are strategic private organizations. They want to think about the work that they’re doing. They want to think that they’re not just writing checks to people. They don’t wanna think they’re just sort of giving it out. They want to think that they’re doing it with intention. The fact that like their grants are going to make an impact are going to have an effect are going to make lives better for people rightfully so.

Jeremy Levine (16m 41s):
You can’t know that you’re going to make people’s lives better. If you fund an organization or a place that you have no idea. If the program will be successful at all, or if there ever even will be a program, you could dump millions and millions of dollars into trying to get an organization on its feet to try to get it with the staff that can sort of do a project to do the organizing that’s necessary. It may take millions and millions and millions of dollars to even get close to that over many years, funders aren’t incentivized to make that happen. So it means then that when they’re determining who gets money and who doesn’t, they’re going to privilege capacity, who has the capacity. That means then if you sort of don’t have the capacity, it’s like impossible to get your feet off the ground, right? It’s this catch 22.

Jeremy Levine (17m 21s):
You can’t do the projects cause you don’t have the money and you don’t have the money because you can’t do the projects that show you have the capacity to do more projects. And so in the end, then it creates a system that, again, it gets a little tricky when we think about, is this good or bad on the one hand, I think it’s great that organizations in disadvantaged neighborhoods like Upham’s corner in Codman square, they had great high capacity organizations with five to 10 at the time million dollar annual budgets that were doing really good work, building housing, building, affordable housing. Great. The problem though, is that, what does that mean about Matt a and about getting stuff done and Matt a pan. So it’s one of these things where the capacity point has a lot of sort of obvious and reasonable reasons to focus on it.

Jeremy Levine (18m 3s):
But if we’re going to do that, then we got to be clear that some organizations, some neighborhoods as a result when organizations become the proxy for their neighborhoods are going to be left behind and are more importantly going to be left further behind, right? It’s a relative inequality thing. It’s not about like, is this money helping sort of change the dynamics between poor neighborhoods and non poor neighborhoods, but rather some poor neighborhoods are able to sort of keep going, maybe sort of, you know, get stuff a little bit better than it once was, but others are just never going to be able to catch up. And that’s the problem with the sort of way funding is done. Now, the emphasis on programs, privileging capacity, when determining who’s going to get funding and the sort of reticence, frankly, to even give capacity grants, to sort of write a check to someone to say, do your thing.

Jeff Wood (18m 47s):
Can you make a comparison to the gatekeeping that seems to exist in this way to the gatekeeping of say zoning codes, it just popped into my head. So it’s not like a preconceived question I had. I just, it feels like there’s a gatekeeping in trying to get into community development. And there’s kind of these cliques and groups that operate it. And you mentioned, you know, if you don’t have the capacity, you know, the double-edged sword, but it feels like the same way kind of with zoning codes and letting people into a neighborhood, letting people into the system, it seems like on both sides generating a problem and in creating an inequality in some form or fashion.

Jeremy Levine (19m 20s):
Totally. Yeah. I mean, we’re talking about barriers to entry, really of getting involved, getting access to resources and of having those, these resources distributed more equitably, I’d say the sort of key difference then would be the difference between sort of codifying into law. You know, what can and cannot happen. Whereas this system like is dealing and effected by different laws and different sort of regulations. But a lot of it is a sort of like social norm almost of working together. It’s driven by the fact of like all of these different groups in their incentives to work together and what kinds of projects they’re incentivized to work on and not, it’s certainly driven by what kinds of funding are available.

Jeff Wood (19m 58s):
The other thing is just, you mentioned also the professional kind of ism of community development corporations. And it makes me wonder also if you’re just somebody in the community that wants to make a difference in coming to the system, you’re excluded. But a lot of the folks that work on these foundations and the community development corporations and others are there professional class there, they were trained in school for this, or they came up through the ranks because they were hired at a young age into the system. And so that differentiates them from community members who just live in the community and probably don’t have the same amount of time because it’s not their job.

Jeremy Levine (20m 32s):
Yeah, totally. With one important caveat. So the totally part is that this field is so diffused. I mean, I, I tried to do this network map at one point in the book to sort of show how many different players are involved. And I didn’t even really do it justice for that matter, but it’s just this blob of different groups and organizations. And you imagine if you’re someone that just sort of shows up to the meeting, you could show up to one meeting one week and another one another week, it’s all extensively about say a particular project in your neighborhood, but like maybe you have an acronym of DND leading the meeting next week, the acronym is bra next week. It’s, you know, DDOT or whatever, all these acronyms. And I’m just using the government acronyms, maybe it’s, co-hosted by an organization called CSN DC.

Jeremy Levine (21m 14s):
There’s all these different groups. And they all know who’s what’s and what’s what’s right themselves, the field. Right. And even, although even then there was some confusion and sometimes they didn’t quite know, and it actually made it, you know, by value add, in some ways it was sort of trying to map out all these different players, but the average person coming off the street doesn’t know that. And the problem then is that you go thinking that like, oh yeah, well we heard this last week from you, the city. Right. But actually the city can mean like seven different agencies that are all involved in different aspects of a particular project that are co-sponsored with a bunch of nonprofits that maybe have some philanthropy there too, then that’d be at the meeting or whatever, wherever the funding is coming from. And so that level of just even understanding who the players are, I think is a significant barrier to entry.

Jeremy Levine (21m 57s):
What the caveat is though, is that some of those sort of professional class stuff wasn’t as consequential as I had really thought it was now. Yes, it is in consequential as a barrier to the sort of social or cultural capital access of someone that doesn’t necessarily have those degrees. But the degrees, for instance, and in Boston, the big degrees are like MIT from dusk, from urban planning. Like those are some of the main players that would be involved in this. I was surprised about at times where that may have been a barrier to like access to the field. But once there that wasn’t necessarily like your ticket to getting involved and get a seat at the table, routinely people could be denigrated for in fact, having an MIT or Harvard degree as being sort of, not really attuned to what was happening and that sort of cultural capital and talking that talk could at times be a liability within conditional on those that are there sort of already.

Jeremy Levine (22m 53s):
So it’s one of those things where like the clean and neat story, right? Of like the professionals that all like are at the same country clubs and like go to the same events and sort of have all that sort of same degrees, or maybe we’re in the same graduate classes together that wasn’t actually necessarily like the end all be all. And in fact, some people that literally were in the same master in city planning, graduating classes for MIT could find themselves on opposite ends of particular issues around projects. And that alone was not sufficient. For instance, there was a particular case actually, where someone was trying to get resources. This is a CDC was trying to get resources from an agency in city hall, the person that he needed, those resources from specifically, they were in the same graduating class. Couldn’t get it, couldn’t get them to return a phone call.

Jeremy Levine (23m 35s):
Right. So like while it can be a significant barrier to entry and understanding things totally true. The caveat though, is that like maybe a necessary, but insufficient to really sort of making moves once you’re already in the field,

Jeff Wood (23m 47s):
The book questions a lot about what actually constitutes community. And we talked about this, but what surprised you the most about how different groups and organizations define the term community?

Jeremy Levine (23m 55s):
You know, the thing that probably surprised me the most, and this is getting a little meta, but as how everyone could define it differently, implicitly when they’re speaking, but not like be confusing to one another. And the reason why that was surprising is because, you know, you think of language and you particularly think of this language in committee development. A lot of this work is technical. We’re using acronyms, right? We’re talking about projects that have very technical specifications. You know, we’re talking about like acronyms that relate to, you know, how tall a building can be, all these kinds of things so far, all this kind of stuff. But when it came to community, people like were saying it and talking about it, but meaning different things when they’re saying it and like not making it as explicit when they were talking to each other and it became less surprising when I sat down and thought about it more and understood that we’re not really talking about a specific community here.

Jeremy Levine (24m 52s):
We’re not talking about Roxbury Dorchester, manna, Penn. We’re not talking to you about the people who show up to a meeting. We’re not talking about a racial or ethnic group that we think should be empowered. And part of the process, we’re not talking about any of that. And we’re also talking about all of that at the same time. And to make sense of all of that, you know, I had to think about what this concept means and how it gets used. And I think in that regard, the different definitions, weren’t so surprising as it was that like all of it was about something good when it was used. It was to elevate one’s position. If I say I’m representing the community, I’m saying that in order for you to respect me more for you to take what I’m gonna say more seriously, if I say I went out to the community and did community organizing, it’s the same thing.

Jeremy Levine (25m 37s):
I’m sort of marshaling some moral worth and value from what I’m saying. And then, then by talking about it, I’m performing it. If I’m bringing people out to a particular meeting, I’m sort of exemplifying that I am truly attuned to what the community wants. And so to me, the sort of then surprising thing about all this was like how it all made sense when everyone was talking about different things and ultimately the big sort of conclusion of the book reflected again in that sort of play on words in the title is how we’re using the concept. Not so much to have a particular denotation or to denote a particular group or place or person, but to use it in small P political negotiations to pursue political ends, to elevate my position, to say the thing that I want to see on this vacant lot is the right thing, the appropriate and the legitimate thing in community is a very valuable tool in making that work.

Jeremy Levine (26m 36s):
The upside of that then is that those that are sort of at the grassroots can use it effectively to elevate their position. But also because this concept and because this word can mean a lot of different things, and we never really define it when we’re engaging in these debates, say at a community meeting, it also meant the public officials could do this sort of one, two step or maybe, well, you know what you might call in slang terms like an okey-doke a sort of slight of hand where they can talk a game of community. They can talk about valuing the community, but never really be able to be held accountable to specific people, specific neighborhoods, specific processes, right. Because we all say, yeah, the community is good. So if someone says, I don’t think this project is reflective of the community, a city official, that’s hosting that, meeting the community being say, say, all right, well, that’s why we’re having the community meeting.

Jeremy Levine (27m 25s):
We have a community process, we’ll have more community meetings. We’ll organize the community, we’ll go out to the community, we’ll bring the community, the meeting, you know, and so on and so forth. Right. Needing all these different things, meaning the place, meaning the people, meaning the people that participate in so on and like, what do you say to that? How do you say no? You say, yeah, well you, you know, someone in the audience and this happened, routinely people in the audience would say, well, yeah. I mean, yeah, we, we value the community committee processes. Good. We should have more community. And it sort of allows those that are sort of pushing things forward to not necessarily be pushed, to be transparent about specifically who is going to benefit which neighborhood we talking about, who’s going to be there.

Jeremy Levine (28m 5s):
And so I think then the surprising thing, isn’t so much that like, there is a lot of different definitions that are in play that shouldn’t surprise any of us. Right. We all use the concept so much. The surprising thing was more how important and powerful it was for sort of tying all this together for being the main currency in which we debate and decide what happens in poor neighborhoods. And I think making that more explicit, making that taken for granted aspect of community and sort of deconstructing it, if you will. I think it was really important to sort of reveal this sort of fundamental underlying truth of what is going on.

Jeff Wood (28m 40s):
So in the end of the book, you have solutions and some ideas that you have to make, some of these things better. One of them is related to public outreach or community organizing or whatever that might be. How does that get kind of deconstructed and reconstructed in the way that you were just speaking about community and how it’s, how it’s represented, because, and there’s a quote in the book that I think was really my aha moment. I’ll just say right now, there will never be a definitive answer to the question of true authentic community representation because there’s no such thing as a single cohesive community voice.

Jeremy Levine (29m 11s):
Exactly, exactly. So that sentence, that line flies in the face of how the entire community meeting process and apparatus has set up, right? The whole process works best and is designed to assume that the process, if done right, if we have the right urban planning exercises, if we do a fun map game on the table where we put different things at different places that our planners love, if we do some dot thing on a map, on a big poster board or whatever, that, then we’ll be able to come together, we’ll talk it out. We’ll break up into groups, come back to the big group and we’ll have the community’s vision of what the community wants. It assumes and works best when there is a singular community voice.

Jeremy Levine (29m 54s):
Now, of course, if you pushed someone that does this to say, well, you know, is there going to be a singular community voice? They’ll say, well, no, there’s lots of, Can you people want different things. There’s many different things. Okay. But then why are we doing this in the first place? If the modal answer, if the most common experience of after community meeting or committee processes? Well, a lot of people want a lot of different things. Then why are we doing this in the first place and calling it a community meeting, right? Like it’s kind of doesn’t make any sense when you think about it that way. And I think that, like that assumption, that sort of undergirds, the whole process is faulty. And in that regard, I think that the solution is not going to be about getting the right people or more representative people to the meeting, which is what I think a fair and reasonable reaction when we say like, oh, it’s mostly white people or homeowners that are disproportionately coming to these meetings, those at the time and energy and effort to be able to show up in the evening without childcare and so on.

Jeremy Levine (30m 45s):
All true, all valid, all important. But I think that doesn’t change the underlying assumption that if you had more representative sort of groups that then it still assumes you’re going to have a singular voice, right. It doesn’t work if at the end of every meeting, a lot of people thought different things that sort of all falls apart. And so one of the things that I’m, you know, thinking about in the book and in fact, since it’s come out a big hum almost a little bit more aggressive about it is to frankly, abolish community meetings. At least as we know them, I think that process and community meaning of getting people together at a set time and place can be really good and beneficial. It says maybe get people’s feelings, people’s reactions, people’s struggles, you know, like we’ll do like a focus group almost, right.

Jeremy Levine (31m 25s):
What do people, what are people hurting? Where are they hurting? You know, and the jargon terms of like consultants, what are the pain points or whatever, I think in terms of like getting a sense of like, what do people want to see and having them sort of hash that out community meetings are terrible. They’re horrible for figuring that out, right? Like there’s, there’s, there’s no way to make them better. No better representation is going to change that. I think fundamental flaw. And so what I propose in the book where I still sort of think is a better path forward is what if we just sort of abandoned this whole assumption that there’s going to be a singular community voice? What if we assume instead that there will be contention? What if we assume that said there will be conflict? What if we assume instead that almost every project is going to have a black middle-class homeowners on Woodhaven street that don’t want a station and others that might want it and that’s okay.

Jeremy Levine (32m 10s):
And that’s going to be the case. And what if we also assume that a single meeting or even multiple meetings restricted in time in place is not going to be the best venue for getting a lot of different ideas on the table that may be conflicting. What if we get rid of all of that and then focus then on, okay, what would we do to get the most ideas on the table and be transparent about what those ideas are and think some way to sort of display them. And so there’s two examples that I had in the book. One that’s straight tech driven. That’s something called a pairwise Wiki survey, which essentially is almost like an online game where you are prompted with a question and you have a forced choice of two different possible answers.

Jeremy Levine (32m 51s):
You’ve got to pick one or the other, you know, there’s some nuance there you can say, well, I can’t decide, or I like both, or I don’t like both or whatever. And then there’s an algorithm that on the backend we’ll rank them create sort of a system of sort of ranking. And that system works best when more people participate more. So it can totally account for the stronger voices in the room that a public community meeting cannot. It totally can control for a more sort of persuasive oratory. Like someone’s vocal, like being, you know, more persuasive as a debater, you know, cause that gets washed away again, the algorithm is smarter, more people play it. And I think another option that’s similar to that is like something that design studio for social intervention did, which is, was a art installation that had essentially a big board on a place where there was like, what would you like to see on this space?

Jeremy Levine (33m 37s):
And you could vote on different things. And I think the great thing about that, that overcomes a lot of these problems with the public community meeting process. And does I think things a lot better is that it is much better at getting more ideas on the table than any public community can. Cause the whole point is to get more ideas. It’s a failure. If there aren’t more conflicting ideas, right? Whereas community things are the exact opposite. If people are screaming at each other, people have differences of opinion, then the meeting goes off the rails, it’s a disaster. This totally is different than that. It also then assumes there is no one singular community voice, right? There’s a lot of different people in a particular neighborhood or place that may have different opinions. I also think it’s important to recognize that maybe people from outside of a particular neighborhood may also have good ideas that can be thrown out there and people can sort of make sense of them and think about them as well.

Jeremy Levine (34m 23s):
And I think it doesn’t have to sort of be limited. You can have it be out in a particular place. The time can be it’s totally, you know, open, especially something that’s online. And it also, I think most importantly though, doesn’t allow particularly government officials, those that are often the sort of end point in deciding what’s going to happen to sort of justify their decisions by saying, well, we heard from the community and this is where this is where the community seemed to want to go. When they say that there’s no way to really check them and say, well actually, you know, we did a vote and all these people, you know, said something different. Even if there was a vote of the community meeting, they can say, well, well we did community organizing. And like people in the community said something else, like there’s, there’s no way to verify that or to discount that.

Jeremy Levine (35m 5s):
And these other processes, quite literally, they’re showing visibly to all of our faces where the different priorities are. And even if someone that’s making the ultimate decision says, well, the, All the, the most votes in this poor neighborhood war for luxury housing, cause a bunch of people from outside the neighborhood maybe came in and voted, who knows, right. They can say, well, we don’t think that’s right and we want to do something else, but it forces them to be transparent about it. What we have now in the community meeting process, both fails in regards to not having broad participation. It fails in regard to making the that’s untenable, that there’s going to be a singular community vision and also fails in regard to not really holding public officials accountable, as you might think, a public community could.

Jeremy Levine (35m 46s):
I think these alternatives, they don’t, you know, they don’t deal with everything. They don’t sort of necessarily, you know, have the right people that we might think that maybe are marginalized from these processes that we think should have even bigger say they don’t really account for that. And I think that’s sort of there’s room to grow in that regard, but I think they accomplish things that the public committee process doesn’t and they also avoid a lot of the really, I think, foundational pitfalls that will remain no matter who shows up on a given Tuesday night at six o’clock.

Jeff Wood (36m 13s):
Yeah, I think that’s just so fascinating. It just reminds me of, of all these times, especially in San Francisco where, you know, a community process was finished, even in Philadelphia recently, there’s a thing where a community process was finished. It was 10 years in and then somebody comes in on the back end and says, well, my voice wasn’t heard exactly. Then you go through another ten-year process and it’s like, is this ever going to end? Are we ever going to do something? No

Jeremy Levine (36m 33s):
Won’t and it’s undeniable when they, when they come back like that and say, you know, and it’s the, The Community wasn’t fully heard. You can’t say, well, no, it actually was right. They become uncontestable claims. And this is sort of the problem. And it ends up sort of favoring the status quo. I mean, the other problem here too, is that when the orientation is towards having the community’s vision, come out through these processes, it’s going to then either implicitly or explicitly rely on community consensus, right? We want the community, right? If we have a community vision, there should be consensus around this. And in fact, a lot of urban planning exercises are oriented around getting consensus, participatory democracy processes want to help get us towards some consensus, you know, at the meetings, people say, well, we want to leave here with some consensus.

Jeremy Levine (37m 18s):
Well, when our goal is consensus that doesn’t empower everyone equally, it actually empowers those that want to come in 10 years later and say, no, they are empowered significantly more than everyone else. That’s ever been a part of the process and wants to say yes. And I think this is where actually some of the findings do relate. Even though the book is an explicit about the YIMBY NIMBY world. It does relate actually to a lot of those debates because the way that public meetings structures are set up, those that want to say no to revert to the status quo, to not do something are fundamentally more powerful than those who say yes. Why? Because if three people show up to a meeting of 50 people or whatever the numbers might be and say, we are members of the community, and we don’t think this should happen by definition, you no longer have community consensus.

Jeremy Levine (38m 6s):
It becomes a liability. It could become a liability to move the project forward. Those that want to say yes, overwhelmingly could be more than those. The want to say no, but they need everyone to say yes to establish unanimity and consensus, right. Or they need the political will of those that are making the decisions to say, you know what? Those people that are saying no are a small group or whatever. We disagree with them. And we think we should move forward. So the whole public meeting process to me, and one of the big problems there is that favors the nose period. End of sentence. Right? Like it’s structurally set up because if our goal is consensus again, you know, like establishing lack of consensus is significantly easier.

Jeremy Levine (38m 50s):
Arithmetic mathematically than establishing consensus from a co from a collective action political problem. Right? And I think that we’ve set up a system that implicitly, like it’s taken for granted. We’re not really thinking about this, but I think that system sets that up. So to me, the vision moving forward is how do we not have less participation? How do we have actually more participation? But that avoids some of those, what I see as structural challenges that are baked into the cake of the way that we do the community process and community meetings today.

Jeff Wood (39m 22s):
Well, this book is a must read. I think for folks, I definitely got a ton out of it. You know, it’s one of these books. I feel like I need to send to a bunch of people to read,

Jeremy Levine (39m 30s):

Jeff Wood (39m 30s):
It, Constructing Community, Urban Governance, development, and Inequality in Boston, where can folks find it? If they want to get a copy of the book,

Jeremy Levine (39m 36s):
You can get it directly from Princeton press. You can get it from any other sort of major book retailers. You can also get it from independent booksellers from indie bound.org is I believe the correct address, but that one will identify local independent bookstores in your particular area based on your zip code. And it’s a great source in general for getting books, but the book can be found there as well.

Jeff Wood (39m 57s):
Awesome. And we, we always recommend bookshop.org. We’re also a affiliated bookshops, so perfect folks want to get the book from there. They can do that as well. Well, there’s so much more in here that we could have chatted about, but you know, I want people to go and read the book and there’s a million more ideas and things in there that are amazing. And hopefully folks get a chance to check it out. Jeremy, thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Jeremy Levine (40m 16s):
Thanks so much for having me, Jeff really appreciate it.

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free