You Must Remember This: Uses of the Past in Community Development

Shelterforce Magazine


“History is bunk,” declared Henry Ford to a newspaper reporter in 1916.  “The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”  Although widely derided for his gruff dismissal of every pioneer and precedent that laid the foundation for his own industry, he was merely voicing a popular sentiment of his day – and ours.   We are a people who would rather look forward than backward.  Indeed, Americans are famous for their fearless embrace of the future – and notorious for their willful ignorance of the past.  We constantly remake our world and reinvent ourselves, with scant regard for who and what came before.

Our field is no exception.  Those of us who are designing, assembling, or operating the shiny new vehicles of community development seldom look back.  We are called to action by the crumbling infrastructure, lost jobs, broken lives, and lousy housing of today.  Making things better here and now is what matters the most, a case of do or die.  Who has time to wonder how the story began?

It’s not just the breathlessness of what we do that keeps us facing forward; it is also the discontinuity that comes from a natural progression in who is doing it.  Many of the field’s pioneers are passing from the scene.  They are giving way to a new generation of practitioners who come to community development with enormous enthusiasm and impressive technical savvy, but with little knowledge of the origins and evolution of the field in which they’ve chosen to work.

That’s true for every generation, by the way.  It was certainly true for me and mine.  I remember a meeting at the Highlander Center in East Tennessee in the 1970s.  Twenty budding young community organizers were gathered in a circle of rocking chairs, earnestly discussing political strategy.  Standing at the edge of the room, listening silently to the spirited conversation about poverty, power, property, democratic participation, and economic justice was Myles Horton.  After an hour or so, someone turned to Highlander’s founder and asked him to comment on the proceedings.  With a twinkle in his eye, he slowly replied “Well, I’m disappointed to hear you spinning your wheels, debating the same things we were debating in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties.  But I’m encouraged to see there are so many more of you debating them.”

That was forty years ago.  Slow learner that I am, it took me awhile to understand that Myles didn’t mind that we were wrestling with the same old questions.  He was dismayed that we were coming up with the same old answers, uninformed by things that were done and things that were learned by a previous generation.  It’s taken even longer, however, for me to appreciate just how useful the past can be for practitioners in a field as contested and complex as community development.

I’ve been buried of late in a couple of history recovery projects, digging away in my own tiny corner of this field.  Over the last year and a half, I’ve been assisting two talented filmmakers from Open Studio Productions in San Francisco, who are creating a short documentary about the emergence of the first community land trust in the late 1960s, an outgrowth of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.  More recently, I’ve been working with Greg Rosenberg, a friend of mine in Madison, Wisconsin, to develop a digital archive of photographs, documents, and videos called Roots & Branches (, focused on ideas, people, and precedents that gave rise to the modern-day CLT.

This immersion experience has reinforced my belief that history can be more than an academic exercise in categorizing names, dates, and events; more than an aesthetic adventure in curating artifacts from the past.  It can also be a source of support for community development practitioners, helping them to do their work and to stay the course.  History is a tool with many uses.

History reminds us of values that called us to this work.  Values are precarious for individuals as much as they are for organizations.  The daily demands of making do and the necessary compromises involved in securing grants, negotiating loans, and working in coalition with dissimilar partners where the least common denominator is the currency of solidarity, can grind down the edges of our idealism.  Looking backward at our field compels us to look honestly at ourselves: realizing, perhaps, what we have lost along the way; restoring, perhaps, a modicum of luster to the guiding principles with which we began.

History reassures us that mistakes will happen.  We’re going to mess up, no matter what.   Indeed, much of the story of community development is a parade of false starts and failed experiments by flawed people who bravely persevered, finally getting it right.  Just knowing that so many of the people we have put on a pedestal had frailties like our own can help us to accept our own limitations – and to push on despite them.  It can also help us to be less leery about looking foolish when we fall on our faces.  Community development’s past (and much of its present) has been populated by a motley crew of twisted sisters and holy fools, moving forward through trial and error.  That is how our field has always progressed: learning from our mistakes, not fearing to make them.

History redeems ideas once considered dangerous or impractical.  It reclaims territory long conceded to skeptics and foes.  It opens new paths to the future, hacking away at the cultural kudzu that has over grown the past.  In this way, Howard Zinn has argued, history has a creative use, “emphasizing new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.”

History has a defensive use as well, preserving previous wins in the face of right-wing revisionists who would rewrite the past for their own purposes.  We accept our mistakes because we realize we usually get better because of them.  They revile them as dangerous experiments that should never have been attempted, evidence of the disingenuous futility of any publicly funded efforts to alleviate or eliminate poverty.

History warns us, in the words of Martin Luther King, that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle,” an admonition particularly apt to community development.  We are fighting to change the lives of people who don’t count because they are poor or who aren’t counted because they are immigrants.  We are improving conditions and preventing displacement in neighborhoods buffeted by successive waves of disinvestment and reinvestment.  We are building institutional vehicles that travel a rocky road between the domineering mountains of market and state.    The bankers, developers, planners, and city officials who look down from these heights are sometimes our partners, but just as often our adversaries.  And, even without their opposition, there are usually NIMBYs aplenty blocking our way and heaping scorn upon our heads.

To study the past of community development is to recognize that continuous struggle has ruled the game since the very beginning.  The opprobrium we attract is merely a way of keeping score.  “You ain’t been doing nothing, if you ain’t been called a Red,” goes the cheeky refrain from one of Elliot Keenan’s songs.  Battles behind us; conflicts ahead of us.  No one should be shocked, shocked to find that grumbling is going on in here.

History challenges us to be worthy of the company we keep.  A long-departed colleague of mine, Chuck Matthei, was fond of chiding his peers to ask themselves constantly, “Who sits at your table?  Whose faces do you see when you’re doing your work?”  I confess that I often bristled when he played his Catholic Worker card, but I’ve come to accept the essential truth of it.  A daily mindfulness of the people being served and housed in the present, while keeping in mind those for whom services and homes are being kept affordable in the future, gives integrity and focus to our work.

But to remain at the table year after year, continuing to do the difficult work of community development, I believe that you also need to see a few faces from the past.  You need to summon the presence and to endure the judgment of the ghostly artisans who built this table.  “If you don’t know history,” says Michael Crichton, “you are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” The pioneers who sit across from us, separated by a polished expanse of time, connect us to something bigger than ourselves.  They put us in touch with events, ideas, and acts of courage that create a context for our own endeavors, inspiring us to keep going; urging us to do more.  It’s not easy measuring up to heroic figures of yore, but if you’ve never even heard of them there is no reason to try.

The past doesn’t supply practitioners of today with an operator’s manual, saying precisely how to solve the toughest problems in our field.  History doesn’t give us answers.  It offers something else: a robust acquaintance with values, mistakes, possibilities, struggles, and heroes.  These things are far from being bunk.  They are fundamental to the work we do – and well worth remembering – as time goes by.