Doing More than Giving Back

Too often traditional models for community investment leave out the communities we’re trying to help. Here’s how we can do better.

For decades, the city of Dallas has been moving north. Roads, infrastructure, schools, homes, town centers, community centers—most of it is happening north of I-30. According to recent reports, 45% of Dallas residents live south of I-30, but 90% of the jobs are north of it.

As a black designer living in Oak Cliff, I’ve seen much of my community left behind, and it’s had a huge impact on me. It’s colored my approach to design and community work. It’s driven me to live south of 30, send my daughter to a school south of 30, and devote my time and energy to lifting up neighborhoods in my community.

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The Oak Cliff neighborhood in South Dallas.

In recent years, the conversation around racial equity in Dallas has started to change, and I’ve seen more interest in investing in South Dallas. The city’s Racial Equity Plan, approved in 2022, is encouraging the private sector to use investments to uplift disadvantaged communities. There is new energy around impact investing and taking equity and sustainability seriously south of downtown Dallas.

Yet, too often, the investments don’t have the impact they should. Well-meaning benefactors come into the community with money and an idea, do their work, cut the ribbon, win their award and leave without ever stopping to truly engage with the community. Their heart is in the right place, but their money and goodwill doesn’t effect real change.

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D. Alex John Jr. leads a goal-setting session with owners of the Do Better Café, a multifunction space to help ex-prisoners gain work experience.

Simply “giving back,” without recognizing the community’s larger goals and needs, misses an opportunity to advance equity in a deeper sense — in a way that strengthens communities, builds capacity and delivers real value. To maximize the return on money, time and creativity, investment needs to be rooted in true partnerships and responsive to expressed community issues.

On several recent South Dallas projects, I’ve witnessed firsthand the different ways an inclusive, collaborative approach can produce more meaningful results. In each case, we were able to find unexpected ways to stretch the investment and connect with the larger community needs.

Here’s what I’ve learned about getting the most bang for the community investment buck.

Identify what’s missing

Like any project, community investment needs to be based in analysis and a true understanding of community needs. As a designer, I’m always looking for options that provide value in multiple ways.

This philosophy was key to LPA’s work with Do Better Café, a facility that will be in Bishop Arts and was founded by a pair of sisters, Khusbu and Pooja Bhakta, who left their previous professions to focus on justice reform. They envisioned two components: a retail space leased out at cost, and a café where ex-prisoners can gain work experience and learn how to run a business.

In a goal-setting exercise, we explored what the neighborhood is lacking, and ways the café might move beyond its goals to help fill those needs. Ultimately, the café was developed as a multifunctional space: a coffee shop during the day and a nightspot in the evenings, with comedy, poetry, rental opportunities, and receptions. Expanding the revenue opportunities will translate to more support for the employment program.

“Our projects shouldn’t be ‘for’ communities, but true partnerships ‘with’ them, to use community investment to advance equity.” — D. Alex John, Jr., LPA Design Director

Marry the funder’s goals with the community goals

An inclusive approach adds value and ensures funding reaches its full potential. In developing a revised master plan for the Pleasant Grove Integrated Community Development Project, LPA looked for different ways to match the city’s big goals with the very specific neighborhood needs, including jobs, education, broadband access and workforce development. During the process, community organizers and neighborhood associations talked about the profound challenges of accessing healthy food in a food desert, and the need for a safe place for their kids after school hours. Thanks to their input, health and safety are key elements of the well-rounded master plan, ensuring the city and the community are getting the most value from the taxpayer support.

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Khusbu and Pooja Bhakta left their previous professions to focus on justice reform and start the Do Better Café.

Time is gold

People come to the table with passion, a clear understanding of their challenges, and sometimes a little capital from a state or federal agency. What they often lack is experience going through the complex development process and an understanding of where to apply their resources. Commercial real estate leaders can provide real value by sharing their time and expertise, beyond any financial donation.

Our time as professionals is money in the bank for community investment clients. We should be generous with our professional services and our networks. Our knowledge of processes can help clear obstacles that may seem insurmountable to a first-timer.

One of my most rewarding projects has been my time with The Real Estate Council’s Associate Leadership Council, where I’ve been able to work one-on-one with many industry professionals. It’s about the time, not the money.

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Understand the broader context

Communities south of 30 face hurdles many of those north of 30 do not: poor air quality, heat islands, lack of access to healthcare. The links between zip code and chronic illness are impossible to ignore. We need to keep these factors in mind when doing community investment projects. Before we put our heads down to design, we need to look up, recognize and analyze the broader context.

This came into focus when we started a recent healthcare clinic project in Joppa. As a direct response to the community’s long history of environmental injustice, our team made healthy and ethical materials a core part of the design approach. For example, we’ve avoided concrete and asphalt wherever possible and used alternative mixes that aren’t associated with harmful emissions. Beyond contributing to the health of the neighborhood, the approach adds a layer of meaning and a sense of empowerment to the project.

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Groups need to focus on an inclusive, collaborative approach to produce more meaningful results.

A similar approach was used when I was part of a design team working to develop The Place at Honey Springs (TP@HS), a community center in the same neighborhood that exemplifies the type of facility their community desperately needs. TP@HS was only able to make it this far with the careful leadership of Shalondria Galimore, a community organizer who has made it her life’s mission. These are the people who need our services the most.

These ideas are nothing new in our work for commercial clients. As designers, we go to great lengths to understand their needs and make sure our designs help them be their best selves. We need to apply the same rigor in community development. Our projects shouldn’t be “for” communities, but true partnerships “with” them, to use community investment to advance equity.

D. Alex John Jr. is Design Director of LPA’s Dallas commercial studio. He is active in a wide range of community projects in South Dallas and serves on the board of directors of The Real Estate Council (TREC), the local commercial real estate industry association.