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Chinese Progressive Association

Building Solidarity and a Community Land Trust to Remain in Boston

Background

The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) has been fighting to improve working and living conditions for Chinese Americans and everyday people in Boston for over four decades. Influenced and inspired by the civil rights movement, CPA was founded in 1977, mobilizing around community issues like school desegregation and land use policy, as well for normalizing relations between the United States and China. 

From the beginning, the goal of CPA was to “just have a place for the community”, says CPA’s Executive Director, Karen Chen. “The founding principle of CPA is [that] we have to believe in the people,” Chen further explains. “There are a lot of experts out there in different areas, but there’s wisdom in the community, and we find it in the community. We believe ordinary people [should] have decision-making power on things that impact our lives. Our job…is to create the conditions so that people can do this.”

Empowering Community

Creating the conditions for individual and community empowerment involves multifaceted organizing that can meet people’s basic needs and provide avenues for further growth and development. CPA’s expansive projects include a workers center that offers education, leadership development, and cross-sectoral organizing; regular drop-in services for members including translations, immigration issues and consumer and retirement benefits; multiple youth programs that teach skill-building and develop organizational leaders; political and civic engagement that builds political knowledge and power; coalition work; and myriad cultural programming projects. 

A theme running through CPA’s work addresses the interrelated issues of housing, land use, and economic development. In 1994, CPA successfully organized for community use of a parcel of  land that would have otherwise been developed into a parking garage. In 1999, CPA helped launch the Chinatown Resident Association and created affordable housing through HUD, impacting hundreds of homes. And in 2004, CPA helped residents of more than 500 units of affordable housing in the Chinatown area remain in their homes by winning reduced rent-increases and overall healthier living conditions. 

Struggles over land-use and development—particularly around processes of gentrification and displacement—remain at the forefront of CPA efforts. Says Chen, “In the last 15 years, the housing stock in Chinatown has doubled, but the majority of those [new homes] are luxury housing. So, what’s happening is that you’re building new housing that’s not for the people and it’s also been driving rent up in both subsidized and private housing… A lot of the row houses, so you’re talking about 500-600 units of row houses in Chinatown that used to serve as low-income housing, have actually been displacing a lot of working families, [as] property value is skyrocketing in this area.”

Community Land Trusts, Alternative Economics, and Solidarity Economy

Recently, organizers, leaders, and community members have sought to gain community control over land-use through the envisioning and launching of the affiliated Chinatown Community Land Trust, which CPA helps to support and incubate.  In contrast to most forms of private and public development that seek to maximize profit and keep communities away from decision-making, community land trusts take land out of speculative markets and allow communities to collectively decide how land should be used. 

“Everyone is concerned about Chinatown, and Chinatown gentrifying,”’ explains Chen. “The thinking behind the community land trust was [that it is] a strategy to stabilize Chinatown’s future, so that residents actually have a stake in the future of Chinatown…land trusts serve as a steward to the land, you know, and we hope that this is the way that we actually have a stake in the community and its land.”

The Chinatown Community Land Trust emerged from many years of conversations and efforts by community members and leaders fighting for social justice and working towards community health and well-being. This innovative, alternative approach to development and property ownership augurs an increasingly robust participation in Boston’s growing solidarity economy. Says Chen, “Solidarity Economy is about building power for people who have been marginalized. And also thinking about alternative economic models because so much of the current system is built off of greed and profit…so looking at alternative models where wealth could be shared differently [is important]. Chen continues, “the concept [of solidarity economy] is, you build a system where the economic engine of things is drawn from the community instead of…feeding into globalization. You kind of build your own little system, right?”  

A current challenge to building these systems lie in creating the language and vision that can better connect solidarity economy to the “day-to-day struggles” of community members. “I think it needs to be more concrete,” says Chen.  As the history of CPA suggests, the dimensions of solidarity economy —alternative economic institutions like cooperatives and community land trusts; building collective power; and shifting consciousnesses towards economic and social possibility—have deep roots in the work of many community organizing groups in the United States. Weaving these dimensions into a coherent, legible, and convincing project is an ongoing process.