City governments building community wealth and cooperative local economies

Exciting news from Jacksonville, Florida, New York City, Austin, Texas and Richmond, Virginia
Posted by: 
John Duda

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of impressive activity at the level of city government, all around policies designed to build community wealth and encourage the growth of cooperative local economies. It's encouraging to see that the work of grassroots developers, local foundations, community activists, and field builders (like ourselves here at the Democracy Collaborative) is beginning to gain a foothold in the world of municipal policy.  While certainly many of the models that have currently proven themselves on the ground have done so with the invaluable support and close cooperation of local policymakers, what's new and exciting in 2014 is the way an increasing number of city governments are stepping into leadership roles and catalyzing new projects and initiatives.

Concentrated urban poverty remains a pressing issue; 2012 data shows that nearly 1 in 6 people living in major metropolitan areas lives below the poverty line.  In Jacksonville, Florida—the state's most populated city and, geographically, the largest in the contiguous United States—Mayor Alvin Brown has the distinction of being not only the first African American to hold his position, but is also the first mayor in the United States to commission and convene a Community Wealth Building Roundtable to explore comprehensive approaches to tackling this problem head on.  

The Roundtable process (in which The Democracy Collaborative participated as consultants to the city) brought community leaders together with institutional stakeholders for a conversation about steps that could be taken to redeploy existing assets strategically to transform the economic situation on the ground in Northwest Jacksonville, where generational poverty has resulted from historical patterns of disinvestment.  This video shows highlights of the Roundtable—including some of the best moments with community leaders from Cleveland, Ohio, Washington DC, Amarillo, Texas, and Pittsburgh, PA, who talked about their experiences with initiatives designed to build community wealth through transformative local economic development (like Cleveland's Evergreen Cooperatives).  Our just-released report to the city identifies key strategies for building off these conversations to develop a comprehensive wealth building initiative.

Jacksonville isn't the only city getting excited by community wealth building; the first Office of Community Wealth Building in the country was recently opened by Mayor Dwight Jones in Richmond, Virginia. (Coincidentally, the other Richmond, in California, is also part of the municipal-level community wealth building story, with Mayor Gayle McLaughlin one of the first US mayors to support worker cooperative development!)  In Virginia, the new office, with a budget of $3.5 million, and headed by former Democracy Collaborative researcher Thad Williamson, will be actively working to isolate opportunities to build community wealth across traditional city government silos.

Cooperatives in particular seem to be gaining new recognition as an effective economic development strategy that keeps capital anchored locally while democratizing ownership.  In Austin, the city council recently worked with the Austin Cooperative Business Association (ACBA), one of the new local cooperative alliances developed under the aegis of the National Cooperative Business Association, to draft and pass a resolution highlighting the positive impact of Austin's 40+ cooperatives, and directing the City Manager "to convene stakeholders to develop recommendations that detail ways the city can promote the development of new  and existing cooperative businesses."

Something similar is happening in New York City, where, with the support of Mayor De Blasio's Director of Industrial and Income Mobility Initiatives at the NYC Economic Development Corporation, Miquela Craytor, and numerous members of the City Council, $1.2 million has been allocated to spur the development of new worker cooperatives, specifically targeting low-income and minority residents.  This initiative follows an excellent and forward thinking report by the Federation of Protestant Worker Cooperatives highlighting the unique power of worker cooperatives to create both jobs and asset building opportunities in historically marginalized communities; our own new report, Worker Cooperatives: Pathways To Scale, makes the policy case for supporting worker cooperatives more generally.