Business, Design, and Community Conversations

Behold the flaming Los Angeles spirit of ___ + activism. Art activism, music activism, poetic activism, meditative activism… This spirit blesses L.A., elevates it to this cosmopolitan haven for diversity, and creates a communal meaning for personal revelations. I felt how it expanded my heart, but being a natural disruptor I’ve come to question the openness, business relations, and technology of community organizing.

1. Relationship with businesses

It is the consensus that small businesses benefit immensely from community initiatives, since they are more local, more service-focused, and “nicer”. The “community economics” project illustrates how we can “harness the economic opportunities for low-income individuals” [3]. In Chinatown where I volunteer, for instance, most stores are family-owned and have a very traditional outlook, making them clear allies for preservationists.

On the other hand, corporate social responsibility initiatives also include community consciousness. Many companies are now encouraging employees to volunteer more on company time. For example, Mars Incorporated encourages community involvement by offering paid time off to clean parks, aid medical clinics, and plant gardens. They add up to 95,000 hours in 2015 [2]. The perception of the corporate intruder should also acknowledge that employees themselves belong to communities as well.

As a prospective business student, I feel distanced by the adamant rejection of developers in communities, but I am also truly appalled by the ruthlessness of cities like NYC when it comes to destroying old neighborhoods [4]. Not knowing what to believe, I dug into the class issue lurking in business itself, and read about the history of the private sector’s alliance with agendas like mid-century segregation. The ones who publish books on gentrification sometimes express sentiments like this: “We are gentrifiers. That is to say, we are middle-class people who moved into disinvested neighborhoods in a period”. This is “disaster capitalism” [5]. The same article also proposes the use of community land trusts, which takes housing off the speculative market. There are also efforts of putting more housing in the public sector, which is currently reflected in the contentious Proposition 10 in California.

2. Academic importation

“Let’s bring people together!” “We welcome our allies.” “Have a conversation in this space/community!” These words time again recur in community talks and events, aside from passionate denunciations of the capitalist developers building, well, new buildings. There are scholars using the “critical praxis” to endlessly evaluate the degree to which a talk is inclusive -- this is admittedly why I joined in the first place, being noted for my frequent in-class citation of critical theory I learned from policy debate. But I wonder if “radical conversation”/”political pedagogy” in this “inclusive space” has become the standard for community rhetoric. It seems like organizers have imported a vocabulary of radicalism from the academia, which is in a sense empowerment, but in another sense a turnoff for people who wish to use their own language to describe change. I found little online discussions on this problem, but I will take note of this pattern in future events.

3. Relationship with technology and design

Sustainable design strategist Ezio Manzini wrote in his paper The New Way Of The Future: Small, Local, Open and Connected offers examples of what local, connected projects look like in a globalized network society [1]. This is the kind of practical guidelines that stand out. It strikes me as the parallel of the crowdfunded business as outlined in Chris Anderson’s book Makers, which I recently read. It assumes more technological competence in individual participants. Of course, we need the hope that even if a physical zine only has a circulation of ten, it still changes lives; but the next generation of community leaders shouldn’t stop their aspirations at this. The online design circle is rapidly lowering the cost of innovation, so why not use it?

In discussions, I never heard one suggestion close to using physical space to promote technological creativity; the current concept of “space” rejects old traditions as much as technology. Maybe this stems from the reaction to technology broadening the definition of community. 60 percent of millenials believe in the connective power of online networks, whereas older generations number around 30-50 percent [6]. I look forward to a future where technology draws global resources for a community without sapping its culture.

But we must reconcile our differences and push forward. As fleeting as “intergenerational music night” sounds, thinking that our youth voices are sometimes outright washed over by bureaucratic debates among the senior board members reminds us of the importance of community action. It is a bridge of many ends -- intergenerational, intercultural, interracial, and increasingly intersectional. The bridge every belief is building, and every debate is strengthening.

Cites:

[1]https://medium.com/@dosticen/radical-community-development-84436cc7cf21

[2]Nickels, William G, James M. McHugh, and Susan M. McHugh. Understanding Business. Boston: McGraw-Hill Learning Solutions, 2013. Print.

[3]https://www.frbsf.org/community-development/initiatives/economic-development-small-business/

[4]https://real-estate.laws.com/gentrification

[5]https://newrepublic.com/article/144260/stop-gentrification

[6]https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/community-in-the-digital-age/408961/

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