A Servant-Leader’s Approach to the Gentrification Dilemma

It’s hard to deny the presence of trendy coffee shops, new boutique businesses, and soaring housing costs as signs of gentrification for pockets of urban cities historically kept for low income and minority communities. While the influx of new residents, businesses, and revitalization efforts has boosted neighborhood economics and aesthetics, for the servant-leader it raises the question:

what about the people?

The approach offered here is in no way comprehensive; neither am I proposing servant leadership itself as the answer to the gentrification dilemma. Instead, I believe it serves as a vehicle to our desired end of a more just and caring society – an open-ended summary of the guiding principles that help us responsibly address an issue that impacts people’s need for shelter, amongst other needs.

We do not prioritize the place over the people.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”

While we celebrate the benefits revitalization efforts have on the landscape of urban cities, we must in the same breath address the realities of displacement fears, lack of affordable housing, and the generational effects gentrification has on native residents. Prioritizing the former over the latter creates a cognitive dissonance that can confuse the overall point of our service, to support the needs of people.

We must prioritize the fundamental needs of the citizens in communities before we begin to address the landscape around them. That doesn’t mean we disregard green space, infrastructure, and neighborhood beautification, they play a vital role in communities; however, we should keep in perspective we only care about those things because of the people who will reap the benefits from them.

What good will these efforts do if the residents can’t actually afford them? Or are displaced before they have an opportunity to enjoy them? As we strategize around landscape improvements, we do so from a people-first perspective.

We make solutions for the people, with the people.

“Do those served grow as persons? do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? and, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

How do we create systems that empower those we serve to grow individually and collectively into healthier, freer, and more self-sufficient citizens of their respective communities, who can equally participate in new neighborhood activity and benefit from the seemingly inevitable changes? And how can we prevent further displacement for those most sensitive to housing costs or other negative effects?

Answering these complex questions requires listening, being careful not to assume the needs of others or the best approach to address them when they are uncovered. Our efforts then should give agency and voice to native residents to lead out on the change that takes place in their neighborhoods, as we take on the primary role of servant, supporting and providing resources and advocacy where they see fit.

Rohit Malhotra of the Center for Civic Innovation put it this way, “Systems made for us without us are not for us.”

Finally, we allow our humanity to lead us to humility.

Greenleaf poses another dilemma that we must also consider – our humanity:

“As one sets out to serve, how can one know that this will be the result? This is part of the human dilemma; one cannot know for sure. One must, after study and experience, hypothesize – but leave the hypothesis under a shadow of a doubt.”

Along our respective servant leadership journeys, we will indeed be faced with dilemmas of various kinds where the solutions on its’ face may not be evident. Our tests of servant leadership are not only defined by our arrived resolve, but the values and principles that help guide us to them.

So for the servant-leader, tackling big topic issues like gentrification – which directly impacts mankind’s most essential needs, is no easy feat. It requires empathy, listening, collaboration, and especially humility; the kind that takes us back to the drawing board when we find that some of our efforts do not produce the results that we’ve hoped they would.




By: Starr A. Smith

Quotes from Robert K. Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader

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