The rest of the economy relies upon the childcare industry, and yet it’s undervalued, under-compensated, and disrespected. Dulari Tahbildar helps the 350+ family childcare providers in Rhode Island who are members of SEIU 1199 obtain professional development and training. She hears over and over “that family childcare providers do not want to be treated as babysitters. They want to be respected as professionals.”
The SEIU Education and Support Fund offers professional development workshops, technical assistance, community and network building, and workforce development. “Family childcare providers are this amazing group of mostly women, mostly Latina women, who are incredible lifelong learners,” says Dulari. “They have this true desire to keep learning, to keep developing their craft and keep developing their skills.
Family childcare providers offer a unique and critical option to parents. They care for small groups of children, usually up to six or nine, out of their homes. They offer more flexible hours than many centers, which some employees require. They may share the language or cultural background of the child. “Family childcare providers are really embedded in neighborhoods,” Dulari describes. “It’s so vital to have that access. When the person that is taking care of your child is located in your neighborhood, there is a sense of familiarity, there is a sense of similar cultural context, that really helps build connection in communities.”
What’s the first thing Dulari would do to build a more just local economy? “Change who’s making decisions, change how people listen to women immigrant entrepreneurs, and really hear what they say they need, and give it to them.”
It takes an ecosystem to build community wealth. No person or place exists in static isolation, so we need to understand the connections and dependencies between entrepreneurs, investors, support resources, policies, funding streams, and the broader environment.
Participants in the Local Investment 101 Workshops worked together to develop a SWOT analysis of our community investment ecosystem. This gives a pretty good overview of where we’re starting — and what we have to tackle to build wealth, resilience, and equity in Rhode Island.
To build a just local economy and strengthen our community resilience, we need a more robust set of tools. Local investing is one potential solution. On Wednesday, August 4, Local Return is hosting a community planning session around local investment.
Local Return exists to build community wealth. So what is community wealth, and why does it matter?
A community’s wealth comes from the assets that it collectively owns or controls, and which the community uses to care for its place and one another. Community wealth is not just about monetary value that exists or is generated in a place. It involves:
Multiple forms of capital — financial, yes, but also social, intellectual, natural, cultural, built, and political.
Local ownership of these capitals, so that control and benefits remain in the place.
Shared ownership, so assets are stewarded by and for the community and not just a few members.
Community wealth matters because it leads to community resilience (in the same way that personal wealth leads to personal resilience), a place’s ability to withstand challenges and persist, adapt, and transform itself.
So how do we increase a community’s wealth? We like this definition of community wealth building from Marjorie Kelly of the Democracy Collaborative: creating and using local assets to make a community more vibrant, developing assets in such a way that the wealth stays local, and helping families and communities control their own economic destiny.
“It’s giving people real power over the money and decisions that impact their community under the assumption that it’s the people that use those spaces and are walking the streets and in the schools every day that…have a pretty good knowledge of what changes and what things they would like to see happen.”
Last year, Pam and Central Falls City Council President Jessica Vega taught a semester-long elective class at Central Falls High School on participatory budgeting, with an actual budget of $10,000 available to spend. Karen Figueroa, then a junior, enrolled in the class and served on the project’s steering committee. “I thought that it was really cool how students could be able to change something in the school,” she said.
Students submitted their ideas — about 300 of them — and the class organized them into similar themes. Committees within each theme worked together to develop plans for how the $10,000 could be used. Then the students voted, using real voting machines, on ballots printed in three languages. The winning idea? Improving the school’s bathrooms. “We finally have real mirrors,” said Karen, who will be studying political science at Salve Regina University next year. “And we also finally have soap and enough paper towels and toilet paper in the bathrooms. Most of the time, we didn’t have any of that.”
People know best what they and their communities need, and decisions for how resources are allocated should be made as close to the ground as possible. This fundamental principle applies to all community investments, and we hope our leaders will keep it in mind as millions of federal recovery dollars flow into the state.
“The biggest issue facing our industry is the lack of individuals coming into the industry,” Rhode Island Nursery & Landscape Association Executive Director Shannon Brawley told our board member Sue AnderBois. “And we have such an increasing demand for our services, for our products, as we navigate climate change, as we navigate issues around food security, (and) protecting our farmland. All of these things are tied to our industry.”
So over the past few years, RINLA developed Growing Futures, a suite of career programs to connect people, companies, and training in the $2.5 billion plant-based industry. Growing Futures includes the first-in-the-country multi-employer registered apprenticeship program in the field. And part of the program included a partnership with the state’s Department of Environmental Management, which estimates that over eight weeks, Growing Futures participants contributed to a labor savings of over $100,000, reflecting 5,000 labor hours, and helped clear 18 miles of public lands.
And the reaction from both employers and job seekers was rewarding. “We got almost these love letters from people,” said Shayna Cohen, senior consultant with Karen Karp & Partners, who helped develop the programs. “We were bringing people in, showing them potential, finding where their passion was, linking it to what we had to offer, and putting them in front of employers.”
Thank you, Shannon and Shayna, for developing systematic ways to connect prepared workers with meaningful jobs that offer living wages in an industry at the forefront of some of our most pressing challenges.
Building wealth and resilience requires a true ecosystem approach. Beyond individual programs or entities, we must understand how factors and players interact with one another.
Local Return director Josh Daly sat down with two experts at systems-level work. Nessa Richman is network director and Diane Lynch is chair of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, which for ten years has been bringing people together to create a more just and resilient food system. As Nessa said, “When wealth is owned by too few people within a society, then you have injustices that you really can’t resolve unless there’s a more equal distribution of resources and a more equal distribution of power in decision making.”
The Rhode Island Food Policy Council focuses on the food system from three perspectives: environmental sustainability, economic vitality, and equity and accessibility. “Over decades, municipal and state level planning, environmental management, regulatory (entities), they’ve not risen to a level of real sophistication or expertise to meet the needs of their communities,” said Diane, getting to the heart of one of the biggest barriers to community wealth-building. “And so you find that the meta network above us is often really difficult to deal with. It is not up to the task at all.”
Not surprisingly, Diane and Nessa had some concrete ideas for investments and improvements. Nessa pointed to the Local Agriculture and Seafood Act (LASA) grant program as a success story. “I would want to see a lot more small grants flowing into our farm, fish, and food businesses to help them take their next steps toward economic viability, toward growth, toward even just getting established in the first place.”
Listen in to learn more about the network and community wealth building work of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council.
Cooperative fans and caffeine aficionados rejoiced when White Electric Coffee at 711 Westminster Street reopened in May. Over the past year, a group of former employees from Providence’s beloved coffee shop formed the worker-owned CUPS Cooperative and purchased the business from the former owner.
Worker-owner Chloe Chassaing joined Local Return directors Raul Figueroa and Josh Daly to talk about the transition. While customers probably won’t see much of a change, Chloe said, “Internally it does feel differently, because we all have a stake, have a voice, have shared decision making power and responsibilities. We’re all just personally more invested, and it feels really good. It feels like we’re modeling on a small scale some of the things we’d like to see in society.”
The group looked to a cooperative structure because they’re known to be more resilient while also offering better wages and greater dignity. And there’s an added bonus for customers: you can know that the workers you encounter are receiving living wages. “All the people you see behind the counter there working are all the co-owners,” noted Chloe, “and they’re all the ones making the decisions, and they’re all the ones benefiting from your purchase of that bagel with cream cheese and avocado.”
Ever wanted to make Aunt Carrie’s clam cakes at home or serve sweet corn cakes from La Arepa at your next dinner party? This is your chance.
On May 21, a crowd gathered at Dave’s Marketplace in East Greenwich to celebrate Dish Up RI, a new initiative of Hope & Main. With a CARES Act grant from Commerce RI and support from a slew of excellent partners, Dish Up RI brings some of Rhode Island’s beloved restaurants into the grocery aisle. More than 25 participating “resto-preneurs” worked with a team of experts to bring their products to market.
Hope & Main President and Founder Lisa Raiola (also a Local Return board member) calculated the financial benefit of just one round of stocking the shelves with Dish Up RI products. “The funds that the federal government invested in this program are right back in circulation in our local economy,” she noted. “This is the power — the multiplier effect — of local, sustainable investment! Right there, we created alternative revenue streams for small businesses. We are building a distinct new food sector for Dave’s Market and other local grocers. And we are providing the Rhode Island consumer with dozens of new ways to enjoy their local favorites at home.”
If COVID has taught us anything, she continued, “it’s that we have radical permission to create something new.” Indeed! Thanks to Dish Up RI, you can get some delicious help with dinner, and feel good about where your money is going.
“I think a lot about the Old Testament and the ten plagues. For me, Moses was the first and best community organizer.” This is the kind of thing that comes up when two community organizers get together.
Local Return director (and community organizer) Raul Figueroa sat down with family physician, author, and long-time organizer Dr. Michael Fine. “Our job,” Dr. Fine said, “is to keep bringing people together in a new way so they experience their own agency and they experience their own power.”
Dr. Fine describes COVID-19 as The Great Revealer, no longer allowing us to live in denial of the chasm between rich and poor. The most important step to dealing with this inequality would be a $25/hour minimum wage, so nobody has to work two or three jobs to afford a decent home. He also suggests bringing back the requirement that public employees live in the communities they serve, thereby investing their dollars in the local economy.
At the end of the day, whether healing, writing, or organizing, it’s about coming together. “I’m writing fiction,” said Dr. Fine, “to try to find some language, some imagination to help people understand what it’s like to be one people, and not to let ourselves get split apart about things that don’t matter so that we can defend ourselves from things that do.”