Cristina, an immigrant from Mexico, struggled for years to make ends meet working for a housecleaning company. Then she became a worker-owner at Si Se Puede! (Yes We Can!) Cleaning Cooperative, and her wages jumped from around $7 to $20 an hour.

Si Se Puede got its start through the Brooklyn-based Center for Family Life (CFL), which is part of SCO Family of Services. For years, CFL took traditional approaches to helping clients succeed in the workforce—helping them with resumes, for example, and coaching them before interviews—but its leaders were always on the lookout for new ways to improve their programs’ effectiveness. Researching alternatives, they learned of several successful cooperatives and determined to bring that approach to their own community. Launched in 2006, Si Se Puede was the first, but the center has since created other worker cooperatives that do handiwork, childcare, and painting. And last year, CFL joined a coalition led by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies in a campaign that resulted in New York City allocating $3.3 million over two years to develop worker cooperatives. The allocation is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s quest to address economic inequality, which he calls the most important issue of our time.

These actions represent just a few examples of a powerful movement that is gaining traction in America’s cities. At a time when wages have been stagnant for 80 percent of Americans for 30 years, and when African-Americans and Latinos are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as non-Latino whites, a growing number of municipal leaders and economic development professionals are joining efforts by nonprofits, foundations, and community groups to champion a more collaborative approach to creating thriving, inclusive communities.

In a new report that I co-authored with my Democracy Collaborative colleague Sarah McKinley, we show how this comprehensive, “systems” approach—which we call community wealth-building—is unfolding in 20 cities, including: New York; Newark, New Jersey; Burlington, Vermont; Chicago; Minneapolis; and Oakland, California. We believe that this approach is on the cusp of going to scale.  

Traditionally, municipal economic development was a play with two actors: private business and government. Cities, with few options besides trying to attract business by offering subsidies, had the weaker role. But with the advent in recent decades of community benefits agreements, living wage laws, and ordinances blocking big-box stores, a third actor has stepped up, changing the dynamics of the process. The community—led by nonprofits, foundations, and civic organizations (and including large “anchor” organizations rooted in place such as nonprofit hospitals and universities, which together account for about seven percent of GDP)—is increasingly bringing its economic power and potential to bear. A few examples:

  • In Buffalo, New York, the city’s small-business development center is partnering with a local nonprofit, People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), to ramp up worker co-op development. The goal is to use the successful model of the Breadhive worker cooperative in Buffalo to spur additional worker co-ops on Buffalo's West Side. The small business development center, housed at Buffalo State, will provide the technical business expertise, while PUSH, which is both a community organizing group and an experienced social enterprise developer, will help incubate the new worker cooperative businesses.
  • In Portland, Oregon, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) is partnering with nonprofit community groups—including the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA)—in its Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative. The PDC has delineated six districts in areas with high concentrations of people of color and high poverty; community members in each one have articulated a vision for improving the local commercial areas by fostering economic opportunity and neighborhood vitality. The PDC has committed to giving each district $1 million over 10 years to bring these visions to fruition. While the PDC initiative helps NAYA serve its neighborhood, NAYA in turn helps the PDC reach effectively into a community by tapping its deep-rooted relationships there.
  • In Minneapolis, as part of Mayor Betsy Hodges’ Zero Waste City initiative, the city is building on its partnership with the nonprofit Better Futures Minnesota (BFM), which pays ex-offenders to deconstruct houses and salvage materials, diverting those materials from landfills. The city began partnering with BFM in 2014, combining ecological and workforce goals with its Green Deconstruction Pilot Project. The city benefits by tapping the nonprofit’s unique workforce engagement skills, while the nonprofit benefits from a steady contract with the city, which in this case is acting as an anchor institution. 

In the face of seemingly intractable trajectories toward a more unequal society, there is hope for our common future in the growing movement around community wealth-building at the city level. And there’s tangible evidence that the movement can succeed. Nonprofits and foundations can help by adopting anchor mission strategies; directing investments, jobs, and purchasing locally; and encouraging city government and other large institutions to do the same. They can place deposits with community development financial institutions. They can start their own social enterprises or offer technical assistance to those who do. Collaborative networks can form in every city to help more retiring business owners sell to employee owners. We urge everyone to find their own role to play in building inclusive cities.  

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