Too Legit to Quit: Exploring Concepts of Legitimacy and Power in Scaling-Up Community Development Work

Lillian K. Steponaitis (MCP ’14) examined community-based organizations, in which success is based not only on the services they offer, but also their more intangible networks of trust, robust local relationships, and on-the-ground knowledge of community needs.  As local organizations grow and seek to replicate themselves, the question of local trust and participation, the very basis of their legitimacy, is sometimes challenged. Her thesis examines the case of Banco Palmas, the first community organized bank in Brazil, to address the question of how the changing relationships of scale affect Banco Palmas’s ability to effectively engage with, and thus legitimately represent, the residents of the neighborhood of Conjunto Palmeiras.  Based on information gathered through fieldwork at Banco Palmas and drawing from the literature on empowerment, it is argued the struggle for legitimacy plays out not only between the Palmas organizations and the local residents association, but also in how new members and non-members interact with and participate, or do not participate, in bank activities. The case points to the importance of linking personal politicization and empowerment to collective organizing through new methods of online engagement.