Nonprofits hailed as new leaders

When we seek deep knowledge about low-income communities in our region, where do we turn? If King County is anything like Boston, new research by sociologist Jeremy Levine suggests that nonprofit community-based organizations may have “superseded elected officials as legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods.”

Poster for meeting called by King County community-based organization

Poster for meeting called by King County community-based organization

Levine proposes that as public funding has declined, policy makers and public- and private-sector funders rely on community-based organizations – not only as providers of services (food assistance, affordable housing, job training, etc.) – but increasingly as “invested and deeply knowledgeable representatives of the neighborhoods.”

In part this trust comes from the consistency of organizations that are not subject to political turnover. In its discussion of Levine’s findings, The Atlantic’s CITY LAB noted that low-income neighborhoods benefit from this consistency as “empowered community organizations present a stronger front against displacement, environmental racism, and transit inequity.” At the same time, Levine acknowledges the flip side – organizations that do not adequately represent all the communities they serve cannot be voted out.

Local nonprofit leader Vu Le may welcome Levine’s findings. Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit that works to bring more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector, Le blogged last year about why the leaders of nonprofits serving marginalized communities should be respected as leaders and as experts about their communities: “We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting.”

More recently, Le wrote about his frustration with funders’ and policy makers’ lack of trust “that people and communities who have endured decades or millennia of injustice actually understand their own problems and know how to fix them.”

Levine has observed nonprofits taking on leadership roles in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. As requests for proposals (RFPs) for King County initiatives go out to community-based organizations in the coming months, we may see if funders trust (in Vu Le’s words) “that communities have the solutions, that they are the solutions.”