Empowering local communities to build own wealth

The current health pandemic, compounded by calls for social and racial justice, has culminated in a perfect storm for the nation and the world. In the U.S. alone, the crisis has exposed the many gaps in state and local communities, including access to affordable healthcare and the disparity in wealth. Millions of jobs have been lost, businesses are attempting to stay afloat, and some have even shuttered. U.S. federal stimulus dollars have been funneled into state and local economies in hopes of softening the blow. 

Private and public institutions have seized this moment to reset conversations around how to rebuild amid the fallout of the crisis. In early July, the Democracy Collaborative, in partnership with the Anchor Collaborative Network, hosted a week-long Community Wealth Summit focused on leading institutions, government agencies and nonprofits in examining the economic recovery through a racial equity and community wealth building lens. 

“Community wealth building has never been more relevant to the fate of this country and its economy than it is now in this COVID-19 era,” said Ted Howard, executive director and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative — a Washington, D.C.-based research and development lab focused on building a democratic economy. 

The community wealth building model pulls together the talents, capacities and institutions within a community to rebuild capital by creating and empowering locally owned businesses. Utilizing this model of starting at the local level should ultimately produce economic prosperity that is broadly shared, as well as racial equity and ecological sustainability. 

More than 100 representatives, ranging from local governments to colleges, joined the virtual learning summit with the drive to push forward the community wealth building model and to discuss current ongoing collaborations within their communities. That included efforts happening among their residents, businesses, community-based organization, hospitals, colleges and local government entities. They also explored the successes, the many challenges they’re facing during the current crisis, and what they deemed will be the new normal beyond the pandemic.

During the course of the week, participants also heard from key stakeholders and partners at community organizations, representatives from local economic and community development offices, and anchor institutions. All shared local efforts their communities have underway to mitigate the fallout from the pandemic. 

Take Washington, D.C. as an example. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office swiftly stepped in and created a $25 million microgrant program to offer relief to local businesses impacted by the pandemic. They received more than 7,000 applications in seven days. Also, in response to the national protests against racial injustice, the D.C. Council approved $1.32 million to fully fund the Racial Equity Achieves Results (REACH) Act, amending the Office of Human Rights Establishment Act of 1999

  • The REACH Act — unanimously approved by the Council’s Committee on Government
  • Operations — requires the district to develop and provide racial equity training for government employees. It also amends the district’s code to require the budget and planning office to design and implement a racial equity tool to aid in eliminating disparities among government employees. In addition, it requires the mayor’s office to include racial-equity-related performance measures in the development of an agency’s annual performance plans.

“Each of us really has a responsibility to our communities to do everything within our powers to ensure equity, fairness and justice is happening in communities that have historically been under-resourced, marginalized and perhaps seen disinvestments over the years,” said Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who authored the REACH Act and presented a part of the district’s recovery efforts at the summit.

During the week-long summit, one of many key questions was: Will new economic and societal systems have to be built in order to recover and achieve true systemic change, impact and power? 

“We’re not reinventing new systems, but we’re re-envisioning those systems in our communities [with the goal of building wealth for all],” said a participant during one of the many working sessions. 

Howard echoed that point. “We are now at a fork in the road,” he said. “Either head toward ever more concentrated local economies and Amazon recovery, if you will, or laying the groundwork for community wealth building for a truly demcoratic economy moving forward.” 

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