“When people are neurodivergent they’re often forced to think in a way that’s very normative, which can be very harmful,” said Casey Gallagher, “so we really want to create a space and support programming for individuals to be themselves and celebrate neurodivergent joy.”
Casey and Tara Boulais co-founded LUNA Community Care to provide programs and support services — such as one-on-one peer counseling, special interests groups, and a drop-in center based in the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket — for neurodivergent people.
Casey is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and Casey is a Community Health Worker and Peer Support Specialist. They are both mothers. “I’ve been working in a system for the past seven years that is broken, and I would like to fill the gaps,” said Tara. All of LUNA’s programs and services are shaped and delivered by people with lived experience.
LUNA Community Care is also a worker-owned cooperative. Why a cooperative? “My favorite word is ‘synergy,’ Tara notes, “which means everybody working together for the greater good.” And Casey explains that LUNA is committed to collective liberation. “That means really means amplifying the voices of the most marginalized people in our communities, so that we all feel like we are neighbors and community members and local to one another.”
Lanre Ajakaiye is president and CEO of 25 Bough Street Development. He is also the first person in Rhode Island to do a Regulation CF crowdfunding campaign, a fundraising strategy made possible by the JOBS Act of 2012 which allows non-accredited investors to contribute.
“It’s a pathway for unlocking the community and the network, and your community and your zealous advocates,” said Lanre about Regulation CF.
25 Bough is a 22,000 square feet commercial building that takes up a corner city block in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence. Lanre’s vision is to host a Futures Hub to provide youth grades 3 through high school with financial literacy, career awareness, and more. Nonprofit partners will locate in the building, which will also house a cultural experience museum and event space. Lanre is in discussions to bring a local bank to 25 Bough; there’s currently no locally-owned financial institution within the neighborhood.
A Rhode Island native born to parents who immigrated to Providence from Nigeria, he purchased this building a mile from where he grew up. Within just a few months, Lanre raised $206,000 from “188 investors from the community who want to see this come to fruition.” As he pointed out, the crowdfunding campaign gave people an outlet to express their support for his vision.
“I’m way past community engagement,” said Lanre, “and I’m all about community activation.”
Are you a member of Urban Greens Food Co-op, the consumer-owned grocery store located on Cranston Street in Providence? Perhaps you’re a stock holder. Or maybe you’re just wondering why Urban Greens never ran out of toilet paper early in the pandemic.
Urban Greens opened its doors in the summer of 2019, after years of work by a dedicated board, including now-Chair Philip Trevvett. Since then, it’s become a neighborhood staple, thanks to the hard-working team led by General Manager John Santos.
“Sharing the wealth means sharing opportunity,” says John, and that’s really what Urban Greens is all about. They provide healthy food, purchase food from local farmers and producers, and prioritize local businesses for all their needs. As Philip describes, “there’s many ways in which the community-owned business – both through how it profit-shares and how it relationship-builds – recycles more money in the local community than a typical business might.”
Urban Greens raised money to build the store through a direct public offering, in which anyone could become a shareholder for as low as $2,000. Over 150 people and families invested, resulting in over $600,000…and a brand new grocery store.
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’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.”
“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.”
“It’s really amazing to me to see how much folks are growing sometimes on very small pieces of land,” noted Jazandra Barros, Community Outreach Coordinator for Southside Community Land Trust.
SCLT would know. They’ve been around for 40 years, building infrastructure for urban gardens and farms. Jazandra spoke with Local Return director Sue AnderBois about their agricultural history and their more recent efforts to strengthen the local food system as a whole. “We’re meant to be in community by nature,” Jazandra said. “We thrive and grow in community.”
And community investors, take note! Jazandra highlighted an exciting development at 404 Broad Street, where SCLT is creating a small-scale, neighborhood-specific food hub. This hub will provide a processing facility for farmers who work with SCLT to wash, pack, and store food, and it will offer retail spaces for local food entrepreneurs. As Jazandra described, “The food is grown here, it’s processed here, and it’s distributed here.”
That’s exactly the kind of full-cycle investment we need to make, for the benefit of our people, communities, and economy.