Fabricated Community and Participation Empowering Policy Makers

EXCERPT FROM Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development, and Inequality in Boston BY JEREMY LEVINE

The Codman Square Technology Center was bustling. It was late March 2010, and inside the building’s entryway, twenty people waited to sign a visitor’s log. After signing in, some entered a room where free tax preparation services were being offered. A few others made their way to a room filled with desktop computers. But most entered a third room, the largest in the building, where sixty or so people were already settling in for a public community meeting.

Paper plates and plastic forks in hand, several attendees hovered around a buffet of red beans and rice, cabbage, marinated oxtail, and fried plantains. The rest sat, eight across, in neatly arranged rows of chairs. The meeting was an opportunity for residents of Four Corners to meet with Steve Early, the president of S&R Construction Company. S&R, a New Hampshire–based firm, had recently won a bid to construct a new Fairmount Line station in Four Corners, just up the street from the Technology Center. The Greater Four Corners Action Coalition (GFCAC), a local community-based organization, co-sponsored the meeting with the state transportation authority.

Steve, a middle-aged White man dressed in a light brown button-down shirt, jeans, tan work boots, and thin-framed glasses, was at the front of the room near a lectern. Three officials from the transportation authority stood next to him, including Wanda, a Black woman in her forties from the State Transportation Authority’s Office of Diversity and Civil Rights, and Pablo, a Latino community relations manager in his fifties. Marvin, GFCAC’s Black executive director, chatted with residents at the back of the room, while Mela, a Black community organizer with GFCAC, moved up and down the aisle, handing out copies of the meeting agenda.

Of the seventy people in the room, only ten were White. The rest were people of color. At 6:30, the dull roar of conversation quieted as an older Black man approached the lectern. He did not introduce himself, but his assumed authority suggested he was somehow affiliated with the meeting’s sponsors, and his casual, untucked shirt hinted that he was likely linked to the nonprofit co-sponsor, GFCAC. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” the man said, speaking with a West Indian accent.

For more than twenty years the Four Corners community have lobbied for stops on the Fairmount Line … We have fought hard, and it was agreed after our struggles that we’ll have four stops along the Fairmount Line. We have been involved from the selection of the sites, to the designs. Everything, we’ve been involved in … This is a community-based—what do you call it?—a community-based project in that we, the community, were the force behind this … And, as we go forward, this is our first community meeting that involves the principal of S&R Construction, Mr. Steve Early.

In the crowd, a cell phone’s muffled ring was silenced. After a brief pause, the man continued. “There’s jobs involved,” he said, referring to construction jobs, “and what we’re fighting for is jobs for the neighborhood people. Too often, again, people from the outside benefit from what we have fought for. Away with that.” He clarified that GFCAC itself was not hiring, but the organization could help steer people in the right direction. “We don’t control the construction site. We’re not contactors. We’re just neighborhood persons trying to make sure that justice prevails for neighborhood people—people of color.”

The man finished his portion of the talk and introduced Pablo. In turn, Pablo invited Wanda to talk about workforce diversity. “Good evening,” Wanda began. “We’re happy to be in the community and getting this project started.” She detailed the demographic goals for the project workforce: 30 percent minority workers and 6.9 percent female workers across all subcontractors. S&R Construction, she said, had “made every effort to reach out to the community and get everyone involved.”

Steve, S&R’s president, echoed Wanda’s overtures. “We want to hire more from the community,” he said, noting that half a dozen women and people of color were currently working on the project. “We are taking an interest in this community, to making it right for everybody.” Pablo told the audience that state officials would distribute monthly reports to keep track of the quotas. Everyone who signed in to the meeting would receive updates via email. “Again I’d like to thank all of you for inviting us to this meeting, and we will continue working very closely with the community throughout this process. Any questions, please pick up the phone and call me.” Pablo provided a phone number where he could be reached.

The next item on the agenda was a question-andanswer period, moderated by Mela. Residents lodged questions about pest control and other matters, but the conversation quickly zeroed in on the Fairmount Line workforce goals. How would they be enforced? Who would be responsible for connecting workers from the neighborhood to S&R? And could the community see workforce statistics weekly rather than monthly?

On the issue of a weekly report, Mela moved from moderator to participant. “When we pre-met with all of the [transportation authority officials], and the contractor, Mr. Early and his crew, and the Office of Diversity, we were told that we would get a weekly or biweekly report,” she said, directing her comments at the state officials. “So, the monthly report is not really what we had agreed to … We had a few meetings before we got here so that we could make sure that all of our bases were covered, so that we would be able to come and bring you the real information and all the issues that were brought to us so that we could have those things addressed, so that we could come here with some agreements that the community would accept. And so I just want to know why the change happened since the last meeting.”

An official from the state explained: The state’s contract with S&R stipulated a monthly pay schedule. In order to get paid, S&R would submit payroll information that would contain the demographic statistics used to verify workforce quotas. The data on workforce demographics would, as a result, only be available monthly. “That’s fine,” Marvin called out from the back of the room. “But I don’t like surprises at a community meeting. So when we agreed to something, and you found out later that you couldn’t live up to that, it would have been nice if you called our office and said ‘Look this is what we found out’ since then.” “That’s fair,” Wanda responded meekly.

The remaining questions centered on the logistics of monitoring the workforce quotas, potential coordination with local organizations, and the design of signage around the new station. As 8pm approached, Marvin moved to the front of the room to summarize what had been discussed and give assurances about future opportunities for residents to hold the contractor accountable. It would be a long process moving forward, but he reminded everyone that GFCAC had already negotiated a number of concessions. “This is a working process,” Marvin explained. “I think what we got from S&R to this point, before we even came here, was a major accomplishment … I think you need to know, as Mela has mentioned about our pre-work that brought us to this, to get us to this point, where we did come in here with some agreements already.”

After the meeting, about a dozen people mingled. They chatted and exchanged information. By 8:30, the room had emptied and the building closed for the night. When residents of the Fairmount Corridor wanted to influence projects in their neighborhoods, they attended meetings like this one. As a technology of governance, public participation is by no means limited to poor neighborhoods—or even urban politics, for that matter. Indeed, participation has been a centerpiece of American political institutions since the colonial era, often romanticized in the nostalgic image of a New England town meeting. Participation is fundamental to Americans’ notions of democratic citizenship. Today, sociologist Caroline Lee notes, “Americans face proliferating invitations to ‘have your say!’ and ‘join the conversation!’”

Participation is increasing everywhere, though it has become particularly common in poor neighborhoods.Demands for community control and self-determination among low-income communities of color were fueled, in part, by the Black Power Movement in the 1960s. In response, government policies like the Community Action Program, with its requirement for “maximum feasible participation” in local antipoverty efforts, helped institutionalize the practice. And emerging organizational forms, like community development corporations, continued the tradition long after specific government reforms ended. This combination of ideas, policies, and organizational structures transformed radical demands for resident participation into a mundane, taken-for-granted step in community development planning.

In theory, participatory governance expands decision-making power beyond elites and experts to everyday residents equipped with experiential knowledge. Participation enables democracy by incorporating that unique knowledge into public decision-making. Advocates of participatory democracy expect that neighborhood conditions will necessarily improve when the voices of local residents are considered.

Recent research, however, critiques the ways participation unfolds in practice. An entire industry of participation experts has emerged, professionalizing participation in ways that can decouple deliberation from authentic grassroots mobilization. In fact, elite actors often use lay participation to counter social movements and protests. “Rather than serve as a challenge to elite and expert authority,” sociologist Michael McQuarrie argues, “participation is now deployed as a tool of that authority.” These tensions were evident during the meeting in Four Corners. At first blush, the residents at that meeting certainly seemed empowered. Public officials like Wanda and Pablo deferred to “the community” as a valued stakeholder and structured the meeting accordingly: Hosting the meeting in public implied transparency. Using a sign-in sheet to distribute updates signaled open lines of communication. And matching the food to the ethnic composition of the neighborhood suggested respect for local residents.

Yet initial impressions can be deceiving. Under the guise of a free-flowing conversation, the event actually followed a fairly rigid structure. Public officials may have intimated deference, but they offered no real concessions. Promises to hire more people “from the community” are not, after all, enforceable commitments. And who, exactly, qualified as “the community”? Residents of Boston? People of color from Boston? People of color from Four Corners? It was never clarified. The commitment to ongoing communication similarly lacked adequate follow-through. Even though I had signed in at the meeting and provided my email address, I never received any updates on the station, nor did Pablo return my calls when I dialed the number he had provided to the crowd.

References to “pre-meetings” and private agreements between nonprofit leaders and government officials were also curious, potentially undermining the democratic promise of participation. No one voiced concern when Marvin said he “[didn’t] like surprises at a community meeting” or when Mela said GFCAC “had a few meetings before we got here … so that we could come here with some agreements that the community would accept.” At the time, even I thought their comments were ordinary. Only after conducting fieldwork in similar “pre-meetings” and returning to my field notes did I find it noteworthy. But these hidden conversations happening outside of public meetings are significant. They suggested that much of what appeared to unfold organically in public were in fact privately predetermined. And they hinted at the powerful role community-based organizations played in translating the act of participation into the realization of political voice.

Jeremy Levine is assistant professor of organizational studies at the University of Michigan. He will discuss his book, Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development and Inequality in Boston. The book is available at Princeton University Press (www.press.princeton.edu.)

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