Abstract: Contesting Community Benefits Agreements: The Promise and Limitations of Local Organizing for Equitable Urban Development (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Contesting Community Benefits Agreements: The Promise and Limitations of Local Organizing for Equitable Urban Development

Sunday, January 17, 2016: 12:00 PM
Meeting Room Level-Meeting Room 16 (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Amy Krings, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Detroit, MI
Purpose: Given its high rate of poverty, divestment, and shrinking public services, Detroit’s elected officials and residents are hungry for new jobs and economic development.  However, not all large-scale development “trickles down” to existing residents and, in some cases, it burdens host communities. 

To resolve this problem, some Detroit stakeholders have begun to organize in pursuit of a policy tool called a Community Benefits Agreement. CBAs aim to mitigate harm associated with urban development while sharing the benefits of anticipated positive outcomes with existing residents of the host community (Baxamusa, 2008; Gross, 2008; Gross, LeRoy, & Janis-Aparicio, 2002; Janis, 2007; Laing, 2009; Larsen, 2009; LeRoy, 2009; Parks & Warren, 2009; Salkin & Lavine, 2007, 2008). A CBA is an agreement between a developer and a coalition of community-based organizations, labor unions, environmentalists, and other advocacy groups. Community members pledge their support of a development, effectively trading their endorsement in return for local benefits (Parks and Warren 2009). It is important for Social Workers to understand the promise and limitations of Community Benefits Agreements. However, there has been limited exploration of CBAs among Social Work scholars.

Methods: My data were collected within a political ethnographic study of a Southwest Detroit campaign to secure a CBA in exchange for hosting a new international bridge, border crossing, and interstate. After analyzing data collected through participant observation (2010 – 2013), as well as interviews (n=77) and a content analysis of media coverage, I demonstrate why and how the broader political-economic context moderated strategic goals and tactics, and why the CBA campaign was not successful.

Results: The results of this study provide a cautionary tale about ability of Community Benefits Agreements to systemically protect low-income communities when they are confronted with undesirable development. First, at the outset of the Southwest Detroit campaign, the decision to pursue a CBA represented a second-choice strategy; an attempt to secure procedural power and tangible benefits at a moment when alternative investments were beyond what was considered possible. As a result, local leadership moderated its goals in a way that complimented the broader growth regime’s interest in development; opting to conditionally endorse the crossing rather than pursuing a “Not in my Backyard” campaign. The Southwest Detroit campaign was, quite simply, never able to compel the State of Michigan to guarantee a Community Benefits Agreement in exchange for hosting and endorsing the new bridge. Instead, the host community’s power-base and political leverage have decreased since 2008 when the bridge was proposed.

Implications: The study of Southwest Detroit CBA campaign demonstrates how economic, political, and environmental injustices are reproduced at the local level. Further, it reminds Social Work researchers that if we only study “successful” campaigns–be they campaigns for CBAs or other issues–our results will be biased because we cannot identify the economic and political structures that obstruct grassroots political claims. Instead, we must also study power dynamics within communities that cannot get their issues on the political agenda, lest we ignore communities whose needs are obstructed from the political process.