Life in disadvantaged areas is rarely comfortable. Poor communities often lack the resources needed to provide a strong education. As a result, new workers have few marketable skills, and grinding to secure basic necessities becomes an all-encompassing gauntlet. Low-income employees too easily fall into the vortex that is “making ends meet” and never saving. Debt is the price of living poor–a deficit of finances, but also a deficit of opportunity, and the time and energy needed to capitalize on it. Among these conditions, finding pleasure and fulfillment in life may come second to ensuring survival.
Like anyone, disadvantaged communities deserve control over their destiny. Clearly, however, solutions are needed. Community Economic Development (CED) is one such fix. It’s a market-based strategy that uses both private aid and local resources to give residents the tools to establish their own long-term economic prosperity.
CED is an alternative to conventional economic development that focuses on enacting holistic change on a local level. It aims to solve core, poverty-causing issues to bring in new businesses and job opportunities. While it is effective, CED is not a quick process. It requires substantial commitment from the community as a whole, particularly members with the visibility, influence, and resources required to enact lasting change. For CED projects to succeed, municipal officials, major groups and organizations, and a substantial amount of volunteers must be ready and willing to make the effort.
Once a community has decided to act, the next step in the process is the creation of a CED organization, or community development corporation(CDC): an non-governmental, nonprofit group that serves as a waypoint, connecting individuals, existing community groups and exterior aid in pursuit of common goals. CDCs can serve a single locality, or multiple regions. CDCs operate similarly to conventional businesses; they establish a vision and mission, then conduct research–such as analysis of local demographics, or supply chain gaps–to plan and implement economic strategies. To research and plan, pitch ideas, assist with implementation, and act as a liaison between communities and potential investors, some CDCs hire an economic development officer (EDO): a versatile expert with knowledge in business administration, public finance, urban planning, and other disciplines.
One example of a CDC putting an improvement plan into practice is Rural Enterprises of Oklahoma’s initiative to construct an $800,000 kitchen incubator facility. The REI Food Enterprise Development Center will help food service businesses with the costs of storing and preparing food, and offer job opportunities to disadvantaged workers. Another CDC, the North Carolina Community Development Initiative, has worked with state groups to build thousands of affordable housing units, fund professional ventures, and develop millions of square feet of commercial real estate and community facilities.
The most successful endeavors in community economic development are those that directly involve a large portion of the public they are meant to benefit. An environment in which voices are heard and ideas shared instills passion in participants, motivating them to seek and enact positive solutions.