When the city government of Richmond, Virginia, established the country’s first Office of Community Wealth Building in 2014 , we were pretty excited here at The Democracy Collaborative, and not only because University of Richmond professor Thad Williamson, our former colleague and co-author, with our co-founder Gar Alperovitz, of Making a Place for Community, had been tapped to set up the office. It was also an important milestone for our work as advocates for “community wealth building.” Using this name for an office within a city government represented a new level of engagement with the idea that a new approach—focused on cross-sector collaboration and the use of local assets to catalyze opportunities for broad-based ownership, with an intentional orientation towards inclusive development rather than the failed promises of trickle-down strategies—was necessary if cities were going to really tackle persistent place-based poverty.
Fast forward to 2018—and the term is taking off. The city of Rochester, NY has announced its own Office of Community Wealth Building , modeled after Richmond’s. According to Mayor Lovely Warren’s announcement, the office will combine work on financial literacy and credit access along with serving as the city’s liason to the Market Driven Community Corporation, the independent nonprofit worker cooperative incubator we helped design and launch with city support. (Speaking of names for things, we’re happy to see that the MDCC, now getting on its feet fully with the hire of Kate Washington as its first executive director, has recently rebranded itself as “Own Rochester” , which is far more catchy than “Market Driven Community Corporation”!)
Meanwhile, Richmond continues to innovate, winning one of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundations “Culture of Health” prizes last year for work including the Office of Community Wealth Building. The Office, through the Center for Workforce Innovation , is working to connect Richmonders struggling with poverty and unemployment with jobs, and building the wrap around services to make sure this inclusive hiring work has lasting long term benefits. It is also convening community-led conversations to shape economic development to meet neighborhood needs in one of its geographic focus areas, and continuing to support social enterprise development. All this good work—which Williamson reflects on in a must-read piece this month for Boston Review —has opened up further possibilities at the state level, with the Virginia First Cities coalition advancing “Community Wealth Building Policy Initiatives” to help Richmond and other cities fund and support innovative work around inclusive economic and workforce development.
It’s not just Richmond and Rochester, either. NYC’s Office of Financial Empowerment has broadened its scope to include staff dedicated to “community wealth building,” and a coalition including the Denver Office of Economic Development has launched a robust Community Wealth Building Network to support, among other things, cooperative economic development strategies. Across the Atlantic, a new “Community Wealth Building Unit” has been launched inside Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s office to assist local councillors with the design and implementation of inclusive economic strategies to refocus procurement and promote community ownership—an effort we are happy to be playing a role in as advisors.
And all this activity taking place under the name “community wealth building” is indicative, of course, of a larger movement beginning to scale and accelerate. From Newark to Madison to San Francisco , inclusive ownership, smart local procurement, and and intentional focus on equity are moving closer to the mainstream of economic policy in cities across the country. The future where every city, as a matter of course, has its own “office of community wealth building” working to build opportunities and community ownership in their local economy is getting closer everyday.