Growing up impoverished in the Grand Rapids area himself, Justin Beene brings a unique perspective to his lecture on Community and Economic Development. He has seen first-hand the good intentions behind top-down investing to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, and the consequential damage wreaked upon such communities. Urban cities have largely been developed through three forces: gentrification, pouring resources into them, and community development. Beene asserts that we need to cut off top-down funding and start supporting neighborhoods in solving their own problems. We must do things with its citizens, not for them or to them. Instead of enacting additional programming or conducting further needs assessments, we need to eliminate the “broken vending machine” that is development today, and break the cycle of toxic charity that runs rampant in creating gratitude, anticipation, expectation, entitlement, and dependency among the poor.
Beene further advises students to look at scripture for development inspiration. Jesus did not help us from afar, maintaining a safe distance from which he could minister to His people—He became flesh and lived among us. It is not enough for us to simply treat the impoverished as a separate entity. According to Beene, we cannot truly love our cities until we love every aspect, that is, the pain and brokenness in addition to all that is good. Once we share the hurt and deeply feel compassion, development is not only possible, but will lead to healing and justice for communities.
On the subject of social programs, Beene says, “Programs are not the answer—people are the answer.” Under the Asset Based Community Development system, we need to build on things that already exist rather than create out of a deficit. This remedies the incorrect inferiority complex of the poor, as well as the superiority complex of the rich. Ultimately, we ought to see our cities as a classroom where actual learning can take place, not meaningless activities. A city is a parish, a place where people are brought in to build, serve, and grow with each other. A city is a playground, not a battleground. We often see development as an enormous obstacle, an opponent we must fight against, but, we can explore a playground, meet new people, and love it directly and intentionally.
Beene further reinforces his final message of love, personal integration, and identification within a city with a quote from Lila Watson: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time; but if you have come here because you believe that your liberation is tied to mine, then let us begin!” He left students with a final thought on what our cities and communities should look like, saying, “Men did not love Rome because she was great; Rome was great because men loved her.”