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Our underserved communities are the source of future strength

How did you end up on your career path? Was it through careful planning? Education or training? Or just happenstance, falling into a field you barely even knew existed?

We’ve been thinking a great deal about these questions, as our organizations continue to strategize ideas promoting equity and opportunity. Both of us ended up in community development — essentially, investing in the social and economic well-being of underserved people and communities — mostly by coincidence, thanks to a few distinct experiences in our early careers, as well as good mentors.

Along the way, we’ve had the chance to test and deploy solutions related to affordable housing, economic development, health, and jobs — eventually leading multi-market organizations deeply committed to this work.

Of late, though, we have also been troubled about the future — not just the ongoing challenges facing families and communities, which have worsened over the past few years, but about who will lead ambitious new community investment strategies in the coming years.

Today, the people who experience social and economic challenges most acutely — people of color and those with low incomes — may not see a clear path to jobs that draw upon their lived experience. Their prospects are hampered by worsening gaps in family income and wealth, with Black and Hispanic households earning about half the average of white households; difficult gaps in education that limit advancement opportunities; and/or persistent gaps in health and wellness, including exposure to violence and high rates of chronic disease.

Not every employer would view such socio-economic circumstances as valuable. But in community development, we recognize that they underpin creativity and success. When we tap into the authentic expertise of people who live in and look like the communities we serve, we strengthen the ecosystem that builds economic opportunity and create a ripple effect that extends beyond any one organization or neighborhood.

We’ve seen the benefits first-hand. It is why our organizations — the Citi Foundation and the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) — are joining others to lead programs that expand the talent pool in the community development field. We are part of a growing cadre of foundations, impact investors, housing organizations, community-based nonprofits and public officials that have experienced the real value of a more inclusive community development workforce. It isn’t just that it is the right thing to do. From a practical perspective, it makes our programs more successful.

For example, last year the Citi Foundation provided grant support enabling LISC to launch a pilot program connecting students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to paid internships at community development financial institutions (CDFIs) offering financial products and services to underserved communities.

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The program addresses a persistent racial gap in internships, with Black students less likely to find paid positions than their white counterparts, as well as prepares young people for community development opportunities. The internships pay $25 hourly and are focused on supporting people and places struggling to overcome years of disinvestment.

The first cohort included young people like Marsi, who just graduated from Howard University and plans to pursue a graduate degree in urban planning, with a focus on affordable housing. “Even being aware of community development as a career path…that opened up a lot of ideas and opportunities for me,” she said.

The first participants in the federal Economic Mobility Corps, which places AmeriCorps members with CDFIs, have similar reflections. With Citi Foundation funding, LISC’s EMC program has attracted both young people and older, nontraditional participants who often spend their years of service in the same communities where they have long resided.

Rebecca spent her time at Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito Lajas (the Lajas Savings and Credit Cooperative) in her hometown of Lajas, Puerto Rico. There, she helped more than 600 residents address concerns about affordable housing and financial stability. She also built skills for a return to the workforce, having left her job as a bank teller when her now-teenaged daughter was born. She even made her service a family affair — bringing her daughter to events so she could learn about the work of the cooperativa — and she recently signed on for another year.

Programs and experiences like these can help spearhead a movement within community development that is intentional about how and where we invest, and about who is participating and leading those efforts.

If we can break down long-standing obstacles based on where people live or where they come from, we can support gains that uplift whole communities and drive economic growth for the entire country.

McHale is president of the Citi Foundation. Scott is president of LISC.

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