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The Privatization of Political Representation: Community-Based Organizations as Nonelected Neighborhood Representatives

American Sociological Review

Published online on


In an era of public-private partnerships, what role do nonprofit community-based organizations (CBOs) play in urban governance? Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Boston, this article presents a new way to understand CBOs’ political role in poor neighborhoods: CBOs as nonelected neighborhood representatives. Over the course of four years, I followed nine CBOs in six Boston neighborhoods as they planned community development projects. The CBOs in my study superseded elected politicians as the legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods. Private funders and government agencies legitimated CBO leaders’ claims and treated them as the preferred representatives of neighborhoods’ interests. Elected district representatives, by contrast, exhibited limited influence over resources and were rarely involved in community development decision-making. By reconsidering CBOs’ political role in urban neighborhoods, this study uncovers a consequential realignment of urban political representation. It also identifies an important tradeoff between the urban poor’s access to resources and the ability to hold their leaders democratically accountable—a tradeoff that will remain so long as governments continue to rely on private actors in public governance.