71.1 February 2024

Participation, Diversity, and Legitimation in U.S. Housing: A Rhetorical Analysis of Two HOPE VI Reports


By Christopher J. Morris


Purpose: The purpose of this article is to consider: (1) how participatory rhetorics and methodologies can often invoke classed and racialized hierarchies and (2) the rhetorical strategies by which participatory processes in development contexts become co-opted for institutional means rather than for transformative outcomes.

Method: Blending critical discourse analysis and rhetorical criticism, I read two influential federal U.S. housing reports associated with the HOPE VI housing program to derive legitimation strategies seemingly at work in divesting local residents of significant participatory input.

Results: As suggested by analysis of the two reports, HOPE VI’s participatory rhetorics consisted of four key legitimation strategies that constrained participation as: participation-as-cultural narrative, participation-as-bio/necropolitics, participation-as-diversity, and participation-as-theodicy.

Conclusion: The legitimation strategies reveal that participation is not a neutral framework. The methodology’s institutional privilege has the potential to iterate hierarchy and the reproduction of marginalization. Even in explicit invocations of diversity, race, and community, participation risks the entrenchment of otherization. These problematic qualities challenge organizational and institutional efforts to achieve a transformative agenda for diversity and inclusion.

Keywords: Participation, Rhetoric, Diversity, Housing, Race

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Participatory processes and their goals are defined in large part by their rhetorical constructions of difference and institutional imperative.
  • Participatory methodologies lack neutrality. Critically evaluating their uses in development, public engagement, and housing offers opportunities for reassessing relationships between communication and collaboration.
  • Diversity is an institutional framework and not inherently applicable for transformative goals related to identity and socioeconomic difference.

Introduction: Participation, Diversity, and Housing

Participation has origins as a workplace approach to diversity. Indeed, participation has functioned as a methodological and communicative framework for negotiating classed and racialized difference. Participatory design, for instance, is rooted in workplace democracy movements in 1970’s Europe, while participatory action research can be traced to decolonial labor movements also of the 1960s and 1970s (Robertson & Simonsen, 2013; Lenette, 2022). Today, participatory methods remain prevalent tools for engaging marginalized communities on behalf of institutions and organizations. In healthcare, for example, many practitioners rely on participatory communication for increasing public engagement in medical interventions in underserved communities (McFarlane et al., 2022; Seifer et al., 2010). Meanwhile, governments and local organizations have implemented processes like participatory budgeting as ways to increase input from marginalized and racialized groups (Lerner & Secondo, 2012; Kasdan et al., 2014). Technical communication researchers have long turned to participatory methodologies to coordinate varieties of stakeholders (Evia & Patriarca, 2012; Moore & Elliott, 2015). The social justice turn in technical communication values participation as a promising framework for bringing about diversity, equity, and inclusion (Agboka, 2013; Moore, 2018). Proponents of participation have legitimated its uses––that is, following sociologist Jürgen Habermas’s concept of legitimation, sought to instill confidence in the administrative effectiveness of participation–– by claiming that such methodologies instantiate democratic principles (Björgvinsson et al., 2012). Participation, however, has not been without its faults. Despite their often-purported social justice aims, participatory methodologies are fraught with racialized rhetorical and programmatic undercurrents that challenge the liberatory efficacy of the programs that participation supports.

Some critics see participation as a neoliberal rhetoric that builds consensus for economic development at the expense of the least powerful (Kaethler et al., 2017; Dore, 2022). From the standpoint of racial and ethnic diversity, other critics further contend that participatory methodologies often ascribe vulnerability and dysfunction to people of color as immutable characteristics. Pin (2020), for instance, in a critical assessment of participatory budgeting, concludes that, “Consistent with a racial-deficits model of organizing, people involved in participatory budgeting presented certain racial groups as embodying attributes that made engagement in the process challenging” (p. 587). Fashioning marginalized participants as vulnerable and pathological are persistent features of many participatory projects. Such persistence prompts the question, “How do organizations mobilize conceptions of diversity and participation to navigate racial and cultural difference in public engagement?” Quick and Feldman (2011) argue that “participation and inclusion are different and complementary ways of engaging diverse populations,” with participation referring to programs, policies, and methods of community involvement, and inclusion referring to processes by which communities are formed (p. 285).

However, one area in need of further analysis is how participatory rhetoric functions as an essential communicative technology for “creating” the communities to be included and enlisted in public input. In other words, participation and inclusion are not necessarily separate processes. Rather, I argue, they work together in otherizing those called upon to participate. Ultimately, this otherizing tendency suggests that diversity as a concept relies on a racialized, participatory approach that allows institutions to engage in selective inclusion exemplifying how participatory rhetoric and methods tend to further legitimize the hierarchal difference it seeks to confront.

As an historical case study, this article evaluates the participatory rhetoric of the HOPE VI housing program, a federal public housing program in the United States known for its participatory approach in its destabilization of affordable housing. HOPE VI’s use of participatory methods—against its own participants—illustrates how participation can devolve into a rhetorical method that leverages conceptions of diversity and inclusion to give cover to institutional and workplace antagonism. Indeed, concepts like citizenship and participation arguably have institutional violence baked into their deployment in many public housing publications, especially along the lines of race and development where, often, distinctions between workplace and community are collapsed. Accordingly, the purpose of this article is to interrogate the rhetorical machinations by which participation can be co-opted for institutional rather than transformative outcomes.

The methods of participation are linked to the rhetorics of participation. W. Michele Simmons’s Participation and Power: Civic Discourse in Environmental Policy Decisions (2007) is especially instructive for thinking through this relationship between language and methods when it comes to institutional engagement with the public. Simmons reveals how public participation policies implemented by the U.S. federal government “actually worked to prevent significant participation” (2007, p. 43). In her historical analysis of risk communication in environmental policy, she finds that the government’s documentation and technical communication (via laws, regulations, and reports) actually mandated limiting the programmatic extent to which affected residents could be heard on policy matters (2007, pp. 64, 85–108). On this front, Simmons’s work demonstrates that participation works at the levels of both language and policy, rhetoric and methods, since the language in the documentation delimits programmatic methods. As a result of her analysis, Simmons calls for a “rhetoric of ethical participation [that identifies] … the unequal power relations that currently work to marginalize public involvement” (2007, p. 18).

Toward that end, my approach in this article is more proscriptive than prescriptive. I highlight communication practices to identify and to avoid. This article seeks to engage in a rhetoric of ethical participation by highlighting the rhetorical assumptions and strategies that HOPE VI used to co-opt participation, diversity, and inclusion. Focusing on the United States, I demonstrate that subsidized housing and mixed-income housing are products of a neoliberal ideology of diversity and reflect contemporary racialized population management. Diversity (i.e., racial difference) has become a commodity that development professionals sell to renters, buyers, and investors in a marketization of race. This marketization constructs racial (and other differentialized) representations as archetypal—by which I mean that diversity connotes a “desirable” form of racial difference that organizations, workplaces, and institutions operationalize through policy and rhetoric. Often, these diversity measures work against racialized subjects by obscuring how “desirable” forms of diversity legitimate institutional and structural violence against “undesirable” subjects. In U.S. housing, as privatization and pro-growth agendas took hold in the 1980s, federal support for low-income housing took the primary form of subsidies to “desirable” lower-income renters so that these renters could live in Whiter, higher-income neighborhoods. Diversity, as a reflection of racialized desirability, “indicated a shared buy-in into an unmarked white, middle-class culture of tolerance … made possible by selective inclusion—the incorporation of respectable people of color among white people—but threatened by overwhelming numbers of unrespectable, low-income minorities and the low-cost rental housing they depended upon” (Berry, 2015, p. 150). In the contemporary neoliberal housing market, even newer, “affordable” housing initiatives (funded by subsidies to private developers) relied on racial population management in order to maintain the “desirability” of redeveloped areas. The result of these policies was that those most in need of affordable housing were often excluded from economic gain, further entrenching systemic inequality.

Frequently, diversity means symbolically flattening or erasing difference even as such difference is explicitly represented. However, what communication practitioners often miss is how difference is constructed such that institutions, organizations, and workplaces can go about the business of erasure. Importantly, participatory methodologies and their communication functioned as key rhetorical tools for the articulation of undesirability. When we analyze the HOPE VI federal housing program, we can recognize the rhetorical strategies by which institutions actually construct undesirable subjects to legitimate their own visions for a desirable diversity.

HOPE VI and Neoliberal Participation

HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) was a U.S. federal program that, from approximately 1992 to 2012, funded public housing demolition in favor of housing vouchers and privatized mixed-income developments that purported to emphasize citizen participation. More recently, similar federal programs have been implemented: Choice Neighborhoods (2010–present) and Opportunity Zones (2017–present). In response to the acute crime and concentration of poverty that affected public housing complexes and low-income communities by the late 1980s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) committed to tearing down “the projects” and replacing them with more standalone, single-family homes. The initial stated goal of the program was to reduce the concentration of poverty and crime in public housing units. HUD sought also to deconcentrate poverty by giving vouchers to low-income residents to rent more expensive housing units in higher-income neighborhoods.

HUD’s efforts resulted in thousands of affected low-income residents living in homelessness as well as a re-concentration of poverty in other areas. When HUD demolished public housing units and redeveloped communities with new houses, new retail, and social amenities, the department reserved fewer new units for low-income residents than had existed prior to redevelopment. In stipulating its form of desirability (i.e., diversity), HUD made admittance to the new developments contingent upon work requirements, drug tests, and criminal records. Lower-income residents who remained post-development were eventually priced out of neighborhoods that experienced rising incomes and expenses. At the same time, displaced residents who received vouchers to move to higher-income areas suffered a similar pricing out effect and struggled also to adjust to demographically different neighborhoods. Meanwhile, HUD justified this approach by citing lower crime rates and rising incomes in the redeveloped areas. Those statistical successes, however, were achieved in no small part by removing low-income, “undesirable” residents from a given neighborhood.

HOPE VI was the programmatic lodestar in a federally mandated, neoliberal mission to reduce the state’s burden to house the nation’s poorest—a crucial aspect of which manifested in HOPE VI’s federal mandate that residents “participate” in the redevelopment process. For HOPE VI, participation generally meant enlisting resident input and feedback on the needs of the communities targeted for redevelopment. While participatory action research and methods have long been featured in community work, HUD appropriated participation in two major ways. To begin with, HUD instituted a perfunctory participation. The department mandated that housing authorities enlist resident participation through methods like surveys, forums, meetings, committees, resident councils, workshops, and newsletters.

Such methods are standard participatory tools. Indeed, HUD mandated that public housing authorities consult with public housing residents in drafting their initial redevelopment proposals. These consultations ideally took the form of “a resident training session and several public meetings” (Vale, 2019, p. 27). However, these requirements “remained vague, so actual practices varied quite a bit … [and] participation could often be rather rushed and limited, especially if a local tenant organization had leaders who were not broadly supported or well engaged with the full range of constituencies in the development” (Vale, 2019, p. 27). In this fashion, participation often became non-participatory. HUD policies created a crowding-out effect that ultimately amounted to something more akin to collusion among more powerful stakeholders. Likewise, HOPE VI embraced an oppositional stance in which these planning engagements served to manage the risk of resident pushback and stakeholder conflict, all while HUD used participatory rhetorics to legitimate its programs and to engage in selective inclusion and exclusion of resident input.

Secondly, HUD did not codify participatory requirements into law, which prevented any enforcement mechanism for residents to effectively implement their recommendations or address their concerns, even as housing authorities went through the motions of community meetings, for example, to fulfill grant applications. The participation that HOPE VI ultimately brought about was a participatory arrangement that bolstered public-private partnerships more than it supported transformative community work. Moreover, the participation that HUD favored featured the enlistment of a wide range of institutions and organizations to support redevelopment. These organizations included but were not limited to local governments, developers, financers, housing authorities, development associations, community organizations, architectural firms, and private companies. This kind of participation was borne from the reduced direct role of the federal government in providing affordable housing. Accordingly, HUD was able to leverage rhetorics of participation in order to limit resident power, while at the same time empowering other organizations to fulfill the state’s role to their own benefit.

HOPE VI can be best characterized as an instance of participatory development, a development effort that acknowledges the benefits of working with local, “underdeveloped” communities. Though HOPE VI featured common participatory design methods like design workshops, HOPE VI was not a participatory design project. Additionally, though HUD and local housing authorities collaborated with residents to improve social services, HOPE VI was not an instance of participatory action research. Both of those approaches maintain standards and protocols that, as previously mentioned, were not institutionally, legally, or empirically stipulated in the HOPE VI program. That HUD’s redevelopment efforts, featuring such a hodgepodge of methods with little coherence or accountability, illustrates a persistent operational and ethical problem with participation: It can devolve into an easy yet rhetorically powerful gesture that gives cover to institutional antagonism.

Concerns about such perfunctory participation are not new. Many scholars have put forth typologies of participation, where, for instance, problematic participation takes the forms of “therapy” or “manipulation” and efficacious participation is defined by “citizens control” and “self-mobilization” (Larsen et al., 2015, p. 7). What my analysis of HOPE VI suggests, however, is that such typologies are neither as static nor as simple. Rather, appeals to “citizenship” and “partnership”—the ethical end of the participatory spectrum—can facilitate a programmatic reality wherein the most vulnerable are indeed manipulated and pathologized by institutional language. Qualifiers like “citizen” and “citizenship,” for example, are often defined to implement processes of exclusion at the same time that they presume to facilitate inclusion.

With implications for designers, researchers, advocates, and instructors, the purpose of this article is, accordingly, to interrogate the rhetorical machinations by which participation can be co-opted for institutional selectivity rather than for transformative outcomes. HOPE VI discriminated “against [the] lowest-income African-American women, because it disproportionately destabilize[d] the economically-precarious, female-headed households who predominate in the severely-distressed public housing projects its grants targeted” (Duryea, 2006, p. 571). To examine the relationship between the perpetuation of disparities such as these and the use of participatory rhetoric, I apply critical discourse analysis to federal reports associated with the HOPE VI program. In the following sections, first, I discuss my methodology of discourse analysis and rhetorical criticism while also providing some detail on the artifacts I analyzed. Then, I typify the legitimation strategies derived from my analysis and offer detailed readings of my artifacts as organized by their legitimation strategies. Finally, I conclude with a brief discussion about disciplinary imperatives so that practitioners feel more equipped to continually interrogate participatory methodologies and their rhetorics.

Methodology: Deriving Legitimation Strategies from Critical Discourse Analysis and Rhetorical Criticism

My methodology blends critical discourse analysis and rhetorical criticism. While discourse analysis argues that institutions are driven by ideologies, the rhetorical criticism I practice shows how such ideologies are reflected in language and lines of argument. I analyze two major federal reports that represent significant turning points in the programmatic life of HOPE VI. I employ critical discourse analysis (CDA) to show how the discourse of participation, with respect to HOPE VI, facilitated institutionalist goals in national housing policy. CDA is effective because it allows researchers to incorporate multiple theoretical perspectives, analyze a wide variety of texts and contexts, and identify patterns of presumptions in communication. Along these lines, CDA functions as a critically productive analytic by which to establish generic qualities of institutional communication practices by organizing “strategies” and “discourses.” Additionally, CDA helps establish rhetorics of participation as I discuss them here, enabling me to explain how social realities are produced and maintained through language or the “ideological character of discourse” (Fairclough, 2012, p. 10).

CDA is generally a recursive process of reading, whereby the practitioner moves interactively between theory and data collection. This process typically entails four stages: 1.) identify a “social wrong” that has come about in a dialectical relationship between semiosis and event; 2.) describe how ideology or other social elements take the semiotic aspect of the social wrong for granted such that there is a barrier to addressing the wrong; 3.) consider how the social wrong constitutes the function of ideology or social relations; and 4.) suggest “possibilities within the existing social process for overcoming obstacles to addressing the social wrong in question” (Fairclough, 2012, p. 15). The “taking for granted” in the second analytic illustrates foundational compatibility with rhetorical institutional critique.

To evaluate institutional logics and their vocabularies, I practice rhetorical criticism on the artifacts. The rhetorical criticism I employ consists of the standard research process of selecting and analyzing artifacts, deriving research questions, reviewing literature, and theorizing communicative meaning therein. However, I take a more defined approach by engaging in ideological criticism, in which the critic “looks beyond the surface structure of an artifact to discover the beliefs, values, and assumptions it suggests” (Foss, 2018, p. 237). In that respect, I perform the four analytical moves put forth by Foss (2018): “(1) identifying the presented elements of the artifact; (2) identifying the suggested elements linked to the presented elements; (3) formulating an ideology; and (4) identifying the functions served by the ideology” (p. 243). This style of rhetorical analysis provides practitioners and scholars alike useful tools for explicating the complexity that lays at the heart of many social problems and solutions, while examining the relationship between rhetoric and methodology. This relationship is based on the idea that a document’s rhetoric represents the communicative predicates and strategies involved in carrying out methodological practices. This relationship is ultimately how I establish links between HOPE VI’s: rhetoric, methods, and exclusionary effects.

The following documents were chosen for analysis, based on their significance in the federal deliberation processes that legitimated HOPE VI as policy:

  • A Decent Place to Live––a 71-page report completed in March 1988 by the National Housing Task Force, which the report says, “was established in September 1987, as part of a Congressional effort to reexamine America’s housing policy” (HUD, 1988, para. 1). The report states that the purpose of the Task Force was “to undertake a comprehensive review of housing policy” (HUD, 1988, para. 3). Moreover, the Task Force was comprised mostly of developers including James Rouse, pioneer of urban renewal––or “Negro Removal” as James Baldwin once remarked—but also included financiers David O. Maxwell and Lewis Ranieri, who would both later be criticized for their roles in the subprime mortgage crisis. The context of the report was a spectacular rise in crime and poverty in American cities as well as a shortage in affordable housing, as political will to invest in public housing had waned. The discursive frames and policy recommendations in this report laid much of the groundwork for HOPE VI, urban redevelopment, neoliberal development that characterized the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Congressional lawmakers looking for solutions and support from the private sector for the housing crisis were the report’s primary audience.
  • HOPE VI: Building Communities and Transforming Lives (1999)––a promotional report written and distributed by HUD in the later years of the Clinton Administration. At that time, Congress had codified HOPE VI into law for the first time with the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 (Public Housing Reform Act), marking a move away from the contingent, legally ambiguous appropriations bills that had previously constituted the HOPE VI program. As a result, the Clinton Administration and then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo embarked on a promotional tour to tout the successes and benefits of the program to residents and potential development partners. This report, replete with optimistic visuals and a foreword from Cuomo, was part of that campaign and exemplifies the typical legitimation discourses associated with HOPE VI.

To analyze the reports, I practice rhetorical criticism informed by ideological critique. By analyzing HUD reports for ideological and discursive elements of participation, neoliberal governance, and racialization, I identify four key rhetorical strategies that legitimate institutional intervention at the expense of participants (Table 1). The strategies exemplify how the undercurrent of desirability in diversity rhetoric and policy relies concomitantly on policies and rhetorical expressions of undesirability, thereby entrenching hierarchy and difference in favor of institutional managerialism. The strategies are: participation-as-cultural narrative, participation-as-bio/necropolitics, participation-as-diversity marketing, and participation-as-theodicy. I view these strategies as heuristic and instructive, inasmuch as they illuminate communicative practices to avoid. After all, as Simmons contends, “rhetoricians and technical communicators involved in policy … can use … participatory heuristics to help them identify oppressive power relations and look for spaces to intervene” (2007, p. 134). In the next section, I demonstrate how each legitimation strategy manifested in the rhetoric of HOPE VI federal reports.

Table 1: Institutional participatory legitimation strategies

Analysis: HOPE VI’s Rhetorical Legitimation

Participation-as-Cultural Narrative

Homeownership constituted HOPE VI’s predominant cultural narrative. Proponents and policymakers argued the goal of housing in the United States was for a greater number of people to own homes as a way of fulfilling the American Dream and achieving socioeconomic agency. The National Housing Task Force asserted that “Homeownership is a fundamental American ideal” (HUD, 1988, p. 45). HUD stipulated that “Homeownership is vital to long-term neighborhood stability and thus is an important element of most HOPE VI revitalization plans” (HUD, 1999, p. 8). A significant HOPE VI mandate was to present “opportunities for homeownership” (HUD, 1999, p. 3). From a policy perspective in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this position proliferated amid the backdrop of an increase in homelessness, with the corresponding Task Force figuring that “A decent home is the important beginning point for growth into the mainstream of American life” (HUD, 1988, p. 3). In HOPE VI, participation was largely defined by homeownership, which represented one’s desirable inclusion into mainstream socioeconomic norms.

In the legitimation strategy participation-as-cultural narrative, participants are framed as being inducted into hegemonic cultural narratives by way of institutional intervention. In some cases (HOPE VI included), participatory discourse has a constitutive rhetorical effect whereby participants are often pathologized, stereotyped, or cast as emblematic of a larger cultural problem. For HOPE VI, the premise was that low-income residents were incapable of self-determination as signified by homeownership. In the neoliberal American context, the discourse of “self-help” crafted a narrative with certain kinds of characters who required institutional management, and as such, “Instead of engaging an already defined and unitary poor subject, each ‘self-help’ approach proscribes a certain kind of citizen” (Kohl-Arenas, 2011, p. 814). In other words, HOPE VI’s process of selective inclusion entailed prescribing particular types of citizens (homeowners, in this case) as being fully and appropriately “American.” Moreover, as Kohl-Arenas (2011) contends, “During the neoliberal turn of the 1980s ‘self-help’ took yet another form as conservative politicians and public intellectuals put forth the now well-worn argument that a bloated welfare state … has created deep dependency among the poor” (p. 814). Thus, in HOPE VI, low-income participants were framed as dependent and lacking in self-help. With respect to written documentation, HUD enacted this framing by appealing to “national” ideals that leveraged hegemonic identification with normative values, like family, safety, and consumption. Moreover, this rhetoric suggests that participatory cultural narratives legitimate institutionalist aims by drawing contrasts between good and bad “kinds,” between desirable populations and undesirable populations that threaten hegemonic values. Such threats, in turn, legitimate institutional action.

A Decent Place to Live claimed that “programs to facilitate homeownership and to assist owners in maintaining their properties are key elements in a comprehensive, locally developed housing strategy” (HUD, 1988, p. 47). Years later, HUD adopted this framework and argued that increased access to homeownership would bring the disempowered into the fold of the American economy: “the flight of … families from declining cities weakened local economies, crippled local institutions, and frayed the ties that bind the poor families that remain to the values and the opportunities of mainstream society. In cities across America, HOPE VI is giving these families new reasons to return” (HUD, 1999, p. 8). These statements allude to White flight from urban areas and imply that, once inner cities were to undergo institutional intervention, they would again be desirable and “normal.” Such deployment of selective inclusion invokes a persistent racialized contrast that often “redirects blame for substandard schools, low wages, and scarcity of jobs away from the structural forces that caused these problems while simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes about African American families” (Greenbaum, 2019, p. 2). HUD underscored that “HOPE VI communities are able to compete because they can offer the attributes that most households seek—quality housing, safe streets, good schools, and proximity to shopping and employment” (HUD, 1999, p. 8). Notably, “these families” and “attributes” signify “normally functioning” (i.e., normally participating families)—once more invoking the constitutive nature of participatory rhetorics. HUD drew distinctions between desirable behavior as displayed in some and undesirable behavior as displayed by others. A participant’s desirability was determined by their relationship to hegemonic narratives, which had the concurrent effect of naturalizing institutionality while at the same time pathologizing participants.


Like the participation-as-cultural narrative strategy whereby participants undergo symbolic and behavioral (mis)alignments with the hegemon, participatory discourses construct participants as parts of a larger collective body. The rhetoric that invokes a collective body emphasizes the biological, physical, and mental capacity of participants. In economic development, participants are often constructed as embodying risk and signifying death—both bodily individual death as well as national or international decay. In that way, participatory discourses are biopolitical. Generally, biopolitics refers to the state’s ability to defend society and to regulate human life. Foucault argued that biopolitics was a “management of state forces” that relied upon configuring “populations” whose subjections were defined by “particular biological and pathological features” ([1978] 2007, p. 367). In the context of federal housing, biopolitics reflects racialized, classed, and gendered methods for determining what “kinds” of people live where and why. At the same time, while the state regulates life, it regulates death also; the state is necropolitical, in that it exercises “the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die” (Mbembe & Meintjes, 2003, p. 161). Participatory discourses are bio/necropolitical when they legitimate interventionist policies, usually by naming a harm to the collective, societal body—be that harm physical or cultural—which is almost always refracted through a “national” or institutional ideal that gives cover to racialized population management (Goldberg, 2008; Smith & Vasudevan, 2017).

Participants in this legitimation strategy are figured as at-risk by virtue of their exclusion or difference from the hegemonic norm. Conversely, the hegemonic norm is threatened by the “dangerous” or “endangered” outsider. The legitimation of this threat-exclusionary paradigm stems from the bio/necropolitical capacities of the state and its capillary institutions. In HOPE VI, crime and socio-environmental collapse were the threats that the state mandated participation remedy. In 1988, the Task Force staked their programmatic efficacy on “the vital role that housing plays in human and community development” (HUD, 1988, p. 4). Later, HUD emphasized “the importance of transforming the lives of public housing residents as well as their physical environment” (HUD, 1999, p. 4). Accordingly, participation was very much propagated as essential to achieving full-fledged agency and humanity for the excluded, as HOPE VI promoted “human development” contingent upon “place” in society, which could be transformed as one’s “life” also could be transformed.

Crime was the impediment (i.e., the threat) that participatory mixed-income housing would overcome. A Decent Place to Live painted a bleak picture of the excluded zones of America’s underdeveloped. Referencing drug-related crime in the urban United States, the Task Force wrote, “The plague of drug use and drug dealing must be confronted” (HUD, 1988, p. 3). They refer to gang-related activity as “domestic terrorism,” and weave an existential crisis in which “some urban neighborhoods, housing projects—both public and private—have been reduced to contested turf, dominated by battles between gangs, between drug pushers, between any two people with a gripe and weapons. Children walk to school in fear of being shot; they are recruited to serve as drug dealers and prostitutes” (HUD, 1988, p. 10). With a gesture toward the policy imperative of the state, the Task Force recommended “the range of anti-drug, law enforcement and related actions … be taken to stop the violence” (HUD, 1988, p. 11). They go on to say, “Just as a national task force to combat terrorism was convened in 1985 … a similar high-level effort against domestic terrorism is needed today” (HUD, 1988, p. 11). To deal with these threats to the nation, and “In order to ensure success, local government must participate in identifying and carrying out solutions” (HUD, 1988, p. 34). Lastly, the Task Force’s participatory discourse reflects a paradoxical structure of exclusion/inclusion, when they write “that the persistence of intolerable conditions in even a very few projects blights not only the lives of the people who live in them and the neighborhoods in which they fester, but the entire effort to house low-income people in the United States” (HUD, 1988, p. 34). Such framing of participants as risks-at-risk reveals that, as participatory discourses take root (especially in healthcare and housing, for instance), participation can be framed to hinge on the axis of life and death.

The intervention that the federal government made in these matters was framed as one of necessity since, according to HUD, “without access to the jobs, the support services, or the transportation that would enable residents to move up and out—we should not have been surprised when these projects failed” (HUD, 1999, p. 3). HUD was “committed to ensuring that residents at all HOPE VI sites have access to the information, expertise, and support they need to participate fully at every step of the redevelopment process” and “rather than reinvest in failure, build new communities. Start from the ground up” (HUD, 1999, p. 3). In this participatory framework, the intervention provides the tools for the underdeveloped to participate, and this participation solves both deficit and threat. The excluded are transformed by virtue of participatory interventionism, since with HOPE VI, participants have “the power to see a better future” (HUD, 1999, p. 11). In other parts of the federal reports, residents are termed “poverty-stricken” who can “transform” and be “strong,” “as first-time homeowners … [are] no longer weighed down by isolation and despair [and] able to realize the American Dream for themselves and their families” (HUD, 1999, p. 11). HUD thus accentuates its role in mediating life and death by contrasting pre-intervention, underdeveloped residents against full-fledged, healthily functioning Americans.

Equally important, individual transformations mirrored a neoliberal transformation of the state and its institutions. Specifically, the transformation totaled a move toward self-sufficiency and a sort of de-public-ing that matched that of the housing market, as engineered by the federal government. According to HUD, HOPE VI services “show prospective homebuyers how to clean up their credit and maintain their home, equipping them with the knowledge they will need to become astute home seekers, qualified mortgage applicants, and successful owners” (HUD, 1999, p. 11). In moments like these, A Decent Place to Live evoked a series of metamorphoses wherein residents will develop and evolve from mere residents to full participants in the housing market. Public housing serves as a cocoon for a homebuying butterfly. Elsewhere, HUD employed the metaphor of a sociopolitical ladder, along which residents were expected to ascend at last from state dependent to independent citizen: “HOPE VI provides a ladder of assistance to residents of distressed public housing, for whom the climb out of dependence to self-sufficiency can be particularly tricky” (HUD, 1999, p. 12).

HUD also highlighted how HOPE VI sites supposedly helped “entrepreneurial public housing residents become small business owners” (HUD, 1999, p. 13). This emphasis on entrepreneurialism ultimately instituted a second layer of exclusion, because it added an individual deficit on top of a cultural one. For example, HUD wrote, “HOPE VI developments are being enriched with a vast array of resources and services that can help any motivated resident climb toward a better future—but motivation is the key. Many housing authorities have established rigorous admission requirements for HOPE VI communities” (HUD, 1999, p. 14). These requirements meant that “the housing authority may require that public housing residents be in a self-sufficiency program that sets clear goals for moving toward independence. Like any private landlord, most housing authorities demand that residents do not have a recent history of abusing their lease, their credit, or the law” (HUD, 1999, p. 14). In this case, participation functioned as both a means and an end. The excluded are made agential by participating in institutional processes, so that, in the end, the excluded may participate as a state of being and thereby maintain their own lives as well as the life of the institution.

Participation-as-Diversity Marketing

Diversity marketing is generally understood as marketing to diverse audiences, which requires “acknowledging that marketing and advertising must offer alternative ways of communicating to diverse groups” (“Diversity Marketing,” 2020). Participatory discourses frequently extend past marginalized groups of people and refer additionally to entire organizations or sub-institutions. According to Kohl-Arenas (2011), “While participatory processes of the 1960s were often aimed (at least in language) at confronting and gaining access to unequal power structures, modern day participatory processes are designed primarily to build trust, relationships, or to ‘integrate’ once ‘isolated’ populations into the global marketplace” (p. 815). Mohan and Stokke (2000) make similar conceptual links between neoliberal institutional participation and decentralization. Neoliberal participation means involving a greater number of organizations (typically, private institutions) with the added aim of diffusing accountability. When “organisational arrangements for decentralisation include, in order, privatisation, deregulation, delegation, devolution, and deconcentration,” they argue, “the notion of participation in state decision making … means market transactions” (2000, p. 248). Put another way, participation represents an impulse to totalize power “based on a harmony model of power” (Mohan & Stokke, 2000, p. 249).

Beyond organizational harmony, however, a key aspect of diversity marketing is an emphasis on enlightenment and progress, such that the communicator, in calling upon diverse or integrative approaches, signifies “development” or that which is developed from a techno-intellectual standpoint. Coupled with consistent appeals to racial and ethnic diversity, participatory aspects of HOPE VI relied heavily on the portrayal of its participatory approaches as “new” and “innovative,” especially with institutional diversity rather than simply ethnic diversity in mind. To be clear, rhetorical uses of futurity and innovation retain a racialized character, given the fraught legacy of terms like “primitive” and “backward” to refer to colonized and formerly enslaved peoples. Thus, while marketing claims of exigent and exciting products are nothing new, in the case of HOPE VI, it does demonstrate a discursive relationship between the developed (i.e., the enlightened, the innovative, the progressed) and all the socioeconomic machinations of mixed-income housing, namely neoliberal decentralization. As a result of this relationship, the HOPE VI participatory scheme suggests that an interventionist legitimation as applied to instances of socioeconomic “failure” or deficit allows the state and institutions to undergo their own transformations. This allowance potentially curtails democratic and legal avenues for implementing state accountability, because the state can promote undemocratic outcomes while proclaiming participation-based progress, as it did in HOPE VI, when HUD espoused belief in “the capacity to foster communities with a diversity that fulfills the promise of America” (HUD, 1999, p. 8). This diversity was just as reflected in diversity of organizational and institutional input as it was reflected in ethnic numbers games. In rhetorical terms, participation-as-diversity marketing manifests as metaphoric scientism (marked by phrases like “frontier,” “laboratory,” and “sophistication”) and as futurist discourse (e.g., “new,” “modernization,” and “creation”).

It is therefore particularly significant that HOPE VI’s organizational diversity was marketed as a new frontier in institutional configuration. “In addition to its tremendous significance as an urban revitalization tool,” HUD argued, “HOPE VI is the laboratory in which the future of public housing is being tested today” (HUD, 1999, p. 16). The mixed-income approach was touted as the cutting-edge of planning and urban problem-solving. This cutting-edge aspect relied on participation for legitimation, since, “A primary explanation for the mixed-income and, increasingly, mixed-use nature of HOPE VI revitalization plans is the growing sophistication among grantees and their financial advisors in obtaining and coordinating diverse public and private funding sources” (HUD, 1999, p. 16). Furthermore, HUD stated, “One of the lasting legacies of HOPE VI will be that grantees, residents, partners, and other stakeholders are working together to creatively transform America’s worst public housing into ‘communities of opportunity’ for the new millennium” (HUD, 1999, p. 16). Participation for HOPE VI and HUD was most valued when it instantiated an institutional imperative to fashion itself anew amid intensified coordination of various organizational actors.

This techno-intellectual imperative had been established at least since the Task Force’s 1988 report, which also argued for participatory mixed-income programs on grounds of innovative institutionality. The Task Force referred to a decentralized, localized formula as a “new era of cooperation” (HUD, 1988, p. 12). Promoting mixed-income developments as a “modernization program,” the Task Force wrote, “The combination of effort by these public and private entities constitutes a ‘new wave’ of initiative and resourcefulness in meeting our critical housing needs. Vigorous and diverse, it raises new possibilities and new hope for housing low- and moderate-income families” (HUD, 1988, pp. 33, 10). In heralding the state’s domain of enlightenment and epistemic authority, A Decent Place to Live called for a “new spirit of cooperation” that “should arise between the federal government and private owners of assisted housing in order to preserve … housing for low-income residents” (HUD, 1988, p. 12). In gesturing toward organizational participation, the Task Force remarked, “Local financial institutions, the business community and religious organizations are all important players in this ‘new wave’ of local initiatives” (HUD, 1988, p. 19). This innovation referred heavily to democratization of finance and securities instruments. “The new wave is characterized by new sources of money,” the Task Force wrote, as well as, “new ways to cut construction costs and new techniques to reduce barriers to affordable housing” (HUD, 1988, p. 19). In terms of the federal government’s role in housing finance, the Task Force labeled it a “new delivery system” and that “the rise of this new system could not have happened without substantial federal assistance” (HUD, 1988, p. 19). HOPE VI’s participatory discourse indicates a dual function of diversity marketing—a function that communicates diversity as participation in identity-based liberalism and also one that relies on appeals to “innovation” and the “new” to signal the enlightenment and competence of the institution.


In a general sense, participatory discourses imply an institutional burden or responsibility to problem-solve by recruiting others to participate. In some cases, this burden is managerial (e.g., participatory design in workplace settings). In others, this burden can be more values-based (e.g., a community organizer who engages in participatory action research). Such burdens reflect the hegemonic and presumptive imposition of statist logics whereby values and materiality are institutionally mediated. Indeed, participatory practitioners often make decisions on behalf of institutions. The institutional necessity, then, to police values, resources, and populations represents a theodicean quality. If theodicy is the “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil,” as Merriam-Webster would have it, then participation here amounts to a defense of the institution’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of whatever harm or threat legitimates intervention or concern.

In the case of HOPE VI, the theodicean quality manifests as a duty on the part of the federal government to create favorable conditions that would support a homeownership society. Crucially, though, this federal duty is construed as supporting private finance and decentralization, such that, ultimately, the federal government’s role is mitigated or obscured even as the role remains central. This arrangement—both materially and discursively—indicates that an underlying neoliberal approach pervades institutional complexity, especially when it comes to mixed-income housing. The federal move toward financial securitization and democratization was certainly central to mixed-income housing, and the National Housing Task Force believed that “The simple device of pledging the full faith and credit of the federal government revolutionized the nation’s housing system by making possible long-term mortgages at a fixed cost with low down payments—turning America into a nation of homeowners” (HUD, 1988, p. 9). The Task Force doubled down on federal intervention when they wrote, “What is missing is adequate participation by the federal partner” and “Today, we need a renewed federal commitment to capitalize on the private sector’s growing body of experience in producing and rehabilitating low-income housing through its partnership with the public sector” (HUD, 1988, pp. 9–10). They even offered that “the federal government is the pivotal force in meeting housing needs and must be the principal source of funding” (HUD, 1988, p. 11). At the same time, however, for the Task Force, the federal government would be essential only insofar as it facilitated wider participatory institutionalism.

The discursive interplay between facilitation and necessity on the part of the federal government signified a defense of the institution’s omnipotence and its capacity both to transcend and permeate the larger system. According to the Task Force, “This [federal] capacity can be used to develop new alliances among the public, private and community sectors to produce and preserve affordable housing” (HUD, 1988, p. 10). In this regard, the alliance would consist of “civic and religious groups and national and local nonprofit organizations that would help facilitate the delivery of housing opportunity to those who need it” (HUD, 1988, p. 10). The Task Force additionally advocated a housing system based “on the understanding that government closest to the people is best situated to identify and respond to needs and conditions—especially the conditions of local housing markets” (HUD, 1988, p. 11). This participatory approach was endemic to HOPE VI over the program’s lifespan. In 1999, HUD described HOPE VI as “collaborative, enlisting a wide range of stakeholders—including mayors and other elected officials, resident organizations, developers and lenders, government agencies, nonprofit and faith-based groups, and many others—in partnerships that marry public goals, private-sector energy and funding, and the dormant hopes of community residents” (HUD, p. 5). This deferential role prescribed by the federal government ironically figures the federal government as the primary determinant of participation while it also advocates for its own reduced role (i.e., decentralized approaches to centralized outcomes). From an institutional standpoint, this ironic aspect further complicates the distinction between participant/non-participant and further emphasizes the primacy of institutional power in dictating who participates as well as how and why.

Finally, the connection between participation and finance cannot be overstated. In the documents analyzed in this article, the federal government’s primary role is seen as setting the stage for a broader approach to housing finance that relied on the federal government to arrange a market. Reflecting diversity marketing, the Task Force stated, “The principle of using federal funds to leverage other investment is key to the new partnership and a new element in federal housing policy” (HUD, 1988, p. 11). The members of the Task Force recommended “direct expenditures in the forms of loans and grants to reduce the capital cost of housing; rental assistance … tax incentives … federal insurance and guarantees” (HUD, 1988, p. 11). Moreover, they asserted, “The federal government has been an essential partner—sometimes a silent partner—by providing low-income tax credits, tax-exempt financing, rental assistance and below market-rate loans that make projects feasible and affordable to the poor” (HUD, 1988, p. 19). Similarly, the Task Force advocated that, “To encourage maximum participation by all sectors of the housing delivery system, including private and nonprofit developers, public housing authorities should be permitted to use up to 25 percent of [federally provided] funds” (HUD, 1988, p. 20). In other words, the legitimation used in HOPE VI relied on an institutional omnipotence that manifested in both the program’s rhetoric as well as the program’s material outcomes.

The sprawl of financialization matched the sprawl of institutional involvement. This involvement was seemingly based on the imperative of one institution—the federal government. Underscoring the federal government’s omnipotent role in assuming the risk burden of America’s expanding mortgage and finance systems, A Decent Place to Live reads, “The federal housing finance system has evolved into an efficient mechanism for linking the mortgage market with domestic and international capital markets” (HUD, 1988, p. 52). Despite the assumption of federal risk and the proliferation of federal funds, however, the Task Force recommended a “minimum of regulation and maximum of flexibility to meet distinctive local housing needs” (HUD, 1988, p. 19). In the state’s such mystified institutional reach lies the theodicean aspect of HOPE VI’s participation: the coordination of financial instruments and funding across a multitude of organizations, with the backing of the federal government. For participatory rhetorics, more broadly, theodicean qualities potentially obscure the determinative roles that participating organizations play in facilitating the harms those same organizations seek to solve. On the one hand, participatory rhetorics can obscure the central, God-like powers (material, institutional, or discursive) at work in certain programs and initiatives. On the other hand, participatory rhetorics can leverage that tendency to obscure either by diffusing accountability throughout wider systems or by ascribing primary agency to one entity. The potential harm is that those most vulnerable or subject to institutional imperative are denied both recognition and recompense.


HUD still relies on participation as a managerial tool for navigating racialization and marginalization. In January 2023, for instance, HUD proposed a new rule for “strengthening the participation of Tribes and Tribal organizations in HUD’s housing counseling program” (HUD, 2023, para. 2). The rule essentially expands eligibility for those wanting to be federal housing counselors to include greater Native representation in housing counseling programs for Native Americans. HUD framed the proposed rule itself as an increase in participation, but the department also pointed to participatory methods like “consultation and listening sessions” with Native organizations as especially productive in bringing about the proposal. Skepticism, however, abounded during at least one of the listening sessions. An audience member questioned HUD’s methodology, arguing that, “HUD’s generic utilization of a counseling program contrived 28 years before tribes had the tools to develop our own programs is wrought with issues” (HUD, 2021, p. 9). The audience member continued that “even though fair housing laws do not apply in tribal communities, the burdensome requirements placed on tribes to comply with outdated legislation in effect creates and further perpetuates a notably unfair housing climate for reservation-based communities” (HUD, 2021, p. 9). The exchange highlights persistent tension in institutional and organizational deployments of participation: participatory rhetoric and methods have reinscribed the hierarchal difference it seeks to confront. To be sure, information derived from participatory methods can be useful for practitioners and researchers. For marginalized people, however, such labor is at once both a step removed from and an acute reminder of the realities of exclusion.

This article began with a question: “How do organizations mobilize conceptions of diversity and participation to navigate racial and cultural difference in public engagement?” In seeking a satisfactory answer, I have analyzed the rhetoric of a participatory federal housing program for discourses related to participation, neoliberal governance, and racialization. Four legitimation strategies were identified. First, participatory discourses often rely on cultural narratives that validate mainstream or larger values. In the case of HOPE VI, its cultural narrative was homeownership in relation to values like the American Dream and socioeconomic agency. Second, participatory discourses retain a bio/necropolitical character, as the exigence for participatory approaches is usually to address some threat, physical, cultural, or otherwise that the state or institution must address with an interventionist stance. For HOPE VI, the threats invoked are crime, drugs, violence, and low moral capacity, which, in context, invariably carry racialized meanings. Attaching economic and cultural deficit to certain populations legitimates interventionism that figures said populations as wards of institutional imperative. Moreover, such discourse naturalizes racial and segregationist consequences, since, “While recognizing that media-produced terms such as ‘gang banger’ and ‘welfare queen’ refer to the racial/gendered subalterns, they read them as codes for racial difference that mask the racially exclusionary aims of the legislation and policy initiatives these terms are deployed to support” (Silva, 2007, p. 264). Third, participatory discourses function as diversity marketing—not just racially or ethnically, but also organizationally. In the HOPE VI literature, in fact, diversity is an institutionalist concern rather than a communitarian one. Lastly, participatory discourses carry a theodicean quality, in that participatory institutionalism can obscure or absolve institutions of their uniquely determinative roles in complex systems.

Despite its implications of democracy and service, participation has historically been imbued with issues of power that should prompt researchers to continue interrogating the origins, motivations, and effects of one of the field’s most prominently discussed methodologies in relation to social justice. Haas and Eble (2018) defined the social justice turn in technical and professional communication as a “turn toward a collective disciplinary redressing of social injustice sponsored by rhetorics and practices that infringe upon, neglect, withhold, and/or abolish human, non-human animal, and environmental rights” (p. 5). Additionally, they argue social justice practitioners should pursue “more critical understandings of … systems of and rhetorics of hegemonic power—and how and why they have historically shaped how we regard specific cultures and communities in relation to their technical and scientific expertise or lack thereof” (2018, p. 12). In another contribution to the social justice turn, Moore (2018) advocates for “participatory design, participatory action research, and the many approaches to teaching students to ethically engage with communities …. [in contrast to] top-down decision-making and design structures” (p. 193). Rose and Cardinal (2021) maintain that “Choosing a more participatory approach shifts the perspective that people are research subjects or sources of information to one where they are collaborators and co-designers” because doing so, in their view, “allows the people who are engaged in the research endeavor to have more agency and say in the process” (p. 85).

But what does it say about a methodology that purports a social justice aim on one hand but on the other relies on processes of institutional mediation to negotiate the limits of agency? Given that participation assumes immutable difference, is participation just diversity management, and if so, in what ways does participation re-entrench notions of undesirability as applied to racialized or economically otherized subjects? To what degree has participation become so institutionalized that its methods and rhetorics allow neoliberal governmentality to continue, as one critic observed, “incorporating its own critiques …. absorbing and partially neutralising disruptive difference, turned into governable, benign difference?” (Bilge, 2020, p. 326). The legitimation strategies discussed in this article suggest that technical communicators have a far from benign role in potentially perpetuating benign difference.

The imperative for designers and communicators to turn a critical lens upon ourselves is salient amid the neoliberal trend to institutionalize social justice. Participation, as a broader organizational approach, evokes the entrenched frameworks of diversity and inclusion, which critical scholars have identified as often working against the people they purport to help. Nash (2019), for instance, claims that the university’s incorporation of difference is a “key rhetoric animating an institution’s self-presentation and organization [while signifying] an institution’s own commitment to inclusion …. as evidence of an institution’s transformation” (p. 23). Similarly, Ahmed (2012) argues that “to work for institutions, as practitioners do, can require that you develop a habit of talking mission talk, what we can call ‘happy talk,’ a way of telling a happy story of the institution that is at once a story of the institution as happy” (p. 10). What’s lost in happy talk is often the symbolic and material violences carried out in the institution’s perpetuation. In Ahmed’s study of diversity, for example, she assesses that diversity facilitates the institutionalization of Whiteness, with recruitment functioning “as a technology for the reproduction of whiteness” (2012, p. 39). Participation can function in much the same way, since after all, participants are recruited. Thus, I ask further, how might participation function as a technology for the reproduction of marginalization? Is participation a method for change; or, is it bound to institutionalism—hyperpragmatist in its unique ability to avoid being critically understood as such?


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Christopher J. Morris, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor in the Writing Department at York University in Toronto, Canada. He earned his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. His research explores rhetoric and technical communication within contexts of economic development and public engagement. His industry experience includes technical writing in finance and mortgage administration. He is also a prior recipient of the Bedford/St. Martin’s Diversity Scholarship awarded by the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication. Contact: morriscj@yorku.ca.