Finding a Framework for Equitable Community Development


Part one of the three-part series on the North Limestone Neighborhood Cultural Plan

By: Heather Hyden, Director of Community and Cultural Initiatives

It may seem ironic, naive and/or arrogant for an organization that is barely four years old and has received warranted criticism to recommend a framework for equitable community development.

Yes, we have not been on the right side of this. We have been wrong...very wrong. We have not listened the way everyone deserves to be listened to. We have implemented bad ideas. We have gotten the wrong grants and didn’t know where to start. We have rightfully lost trust. We have mirrored oppressive structures.  But, it isn’t all bad. In a short amount of time and with a very small staff, there is work North Limestone neighbors are proud of. However, we understand how your distrust was earned.

But, things are shifting. We are changing. This community deserves the best.

And, thank goodness for the incredible advocates in this neighborhood who have called us out at every turn. Thank goodness for the collective power of this community to share wisdom,  stories and stand up for what is right. Many of you never had a choice in that decision because of the histories of oppression you have had to endure every day. What else were you going to do but push for a better way every day?

We hear you! You are not alone. There is so much healing to be done that sometimes it seems impossible where to start. Maybe where we  start is by admitting we have been wrong and share our lessons learned.

What we propose below is based on our evolution in asking new questions, listening deeply and being ‘schooled’ by neighbors, PolicyLink, community development professionals and ourselves.  Our hope is that it can be a model for development not just in our neighborhood, but across the city.

So, here are principles for community development with some of my own annotations to hopefully provide clarity. This is a public blog and an open invitation for discussion.  



Community Development in Lexington’s North End should be:

Accomplished without Assumptions - Information, data, facts, and direct conversation should underpin all decisions related to community development work in the North End. All information should be validated, people should be talked with directly, and all information should be seen within the context of the community.

Note: To me, this is about two things.  First, is about how we listen to each other.  Second is about accountability. Listening requires better questions. We can’t assume your story and/or your needs. Also, we can’t assume that we heard you correctly. Accountability means we are engaged in a two way conversation. That means we are not taking notes, analyzing from our own knowledge and experience and then developing recommendations. The community tells us if we got the data right.

Equitable - Decisions made regarding community development in the North End need to be informed by those that have been historically left out of the conversation, and that might require different techniques and tactics to provide spaces in which all feel comfortable. True community development is messy - many people will disagree, and it is up to those doing the work to balance what the majority wants with what is actually needed.

  • It begins by joining together, believing in the potency of inclusion, and building from a common bond.

  • It embraces complexity as cause for collaboration, accepting that our fates are inextricable.

  • It recognizes local leaders as national leaders, nurturing the wisdom and creativity within every community as essential to solving the nation’s problems.(Note: This is one that I personally LOVE because there is nothing more infuriating than consultants from other places writing report after report about what our neighborhood needs when we have powerful wisdom and talent RIGHT HERE )

  • It demands honesty and forthrightness, calling out racism and oppression, both overt and systemic. (PLEASE! And call us out!)

  • It strives for the power to realize our goals while summoning the grace to sustain them. (Recognizing our capacity and being humble)

  • It requires that we understand the past, without being trapped in it; embrace the present, without being constrained by it; and look to the future, guided by the hopes and courage of those who have fought before and beside us. (Moving forward TOGETHER!)

Self-Determinant - The community itself should set the course for community development in the North End, and should be provided with opportunities to make it happen themselves. It should recognize that individuals in the community have the true expertise, and it should provide them with the tools to self-actuate their own wants and needs whenever possible.

Note: You are creative, resourceful and whole. You are the expert in your own story. Let us know what you need to be more successful.  Top-down development DOES NOT WORK.

Built on Existing Assets - Community Development in the North End should be built on what is already there, not on bringing in new things. This is not to say that all exterior influences should be barred and the neighborhood should become insular,  but more emphasis should be put on finding the hidden assets of the community and providing opportunities for those to grow.

Note: See equity above. This work is my jam! It is not just about listing assets, or counting volunteers as social capital. This is about finding the unique value system(s) of our neighbors, recognizing it as collective power and then using that power to push for change.

Creative - Creativity and culture are a big part of life in the North End, and that needs to be imbued throughout all sectors of community development in the neighborhood. These aspects bring a humanity to community development that can otherwise be missing, and are essential for good practice.

Note: We have to think outside the box (cliche, but often times this so-called ‘box’ can be very white and very male). This means embracing our diversity, which brings creative problem-solving from all over the world.  We have diverse cultural understandings of what an economy is, what advocacy looks like and expectations of how we care for each other. Lets creatively push ourselves to embrace difference (and step back so we can hear others’ ideas) and see problems and ideas from diverse cultural perspectives.