Community Conversation with Shannon Brawley & Shayna Cohen

“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. 

Community Conversation with Diane Lynch and Nessa Richman

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.

Community Conversation with Chloe Chassaing

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.” 

Worker-owned cooperatives are still new to Rhode Island, so there are lots of eyes on CUPS. Chloe credited a number of local organizations for helping them get off the ground (shout out, Fuerza Laboral, Rhode Island SBDC, the Center for Employee Ownership, Fortnight, and Urban Greens!), as well as cooperative lenders like the Cooperative Fund of New England and the Fund for Jobs Worth Owning, and national resources like the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.

So visit White Electric Coffee to enjoy a great cup of coffee and delicious locally-made pastry and support one of Rhode Island’s first worker-owned cooperatives. 

Community Conversation with Dr. Michael Fine

“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.”

Community Conversation with Jazandra Barros

“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. 

Community Conversation with Eva Agudelo

Eva Agudelo, founder and executive director of Hope’s Harvest RI, joined Local Return director Jessica David to talk about the importance of a strong local food ecosystem. Hope’s Harvest mobilizes volunteers to recover surplus food from local farms and distributes it to local hunger relief agencies. The organization has expanded rapidly over its three years, and it played a vital role in providing healthy food during the pandemic.

Standing up such a top-notch gleaning operation requires incredible attention to logistical details, which Eva demonstrates in spades. She sees her work, though, as continuing an ancient practice of justice and love. “When we’re nourishing our community, it’s an act of love,” Eva asserts. “We do it as an act of love, because we know that it’s something that makes people healthier and happier. And it’s an act of care.”

Kudos to Hope’s Harvest for stepping in to fill an important gap in our food system. There are lots of ways to support Hope’s Harvest (getting your hands dirty is optional)!

Community Conversation with Andy Posner

Andy Posner, president and CEO of the Capital Good Fund, joined Local Return board member Jessica David to talk about the lessons he’s learned over 12 years of providing an alternative to predatory payday loans. Capital Good Fund has saved clients an estimated $5.5 million, and borrowers increase their credit scores by an average of 75 points.

Andy covers the challenges of growing the Fund to sustainability, his goal to democratize impact investing, and how we might change the narrative around financial management. “The problem is not that poor people don’t know how to manage money,” he points out. “They’re amazing at it. What they don’t have is money to manage.”

Building community wealth requires practical solutions to the very real barriers to financial stability. Thanks to Capital Good Fund for developing a creative solution that offers affordable credit and accessible investment.

A Call to Action: Building Local Wealth and Resilience

COVID has changed us. The global pandemic has hit home — for many of us, quite literally, in sickness, death of a loved one, loss of a job or business, or drastically different daily realities. We are hopeful to see vaccinations and signs of reemergence, but many of us are still grieving, exhausted, and wary of an uncertain future. For Black and Indigenous people, people of color, and poor and working-class people, the impacts have been felt even more acutely, as was true of the recession a decade ago.

And yet at this time, we must look forward. There is no going back to normal. The damage has been too deep, plus normal wasn’t very good for many of us. COVID has revealed much; as Rhode Islanders, no longer can we claim not to see the disparate outcomes and burdens that persist across our society, fragility of neighborhood businesses, ways systemic racism has been baked into our economy, and even unintentional effects of misguided actions or failures to plan in ways that support all members of our community. And the full economic impact of the pandemic has yet to be felt; there are more challenges ahead for small, locally owned businesses. 

This is our moment to move toward a stronger future, to build deep and wide community wealth and resilience. Wealth allows us — individually and collectively — to control our own economic destiny; it is necessary for resilience: our ability to withstand challenges and persist, adapt, and transform ourselves.[1] Building community wealth and resilience starts small and local. It will require deep stores of imagination, agility, collaboration, patience, persistence, and courage.

A large influx of stimulus money is quickly arriving, and we need to be prepared.[2] Learning from the past, we have an opportunity to ensure that the coming economic recovery period is more just, more inclusive, and better able to build sustainable, shared prosperity for all Rhode Islanders, especially the most vulnerable. In that spirit, we humbly offer the following eight principles to guide Rhode Island’s path forward. 

  • People and place at the center. Regardless of race, gender, class, or zip code, people should have power, choice, and ownership.[3] Wisdom and resilience abound within communities who have faced oppression. Prioritize places that have experienced decades of disinvestment, and let the people who live in those places guide decisions. 
  • Local first. New and existing programs, policies, and spending should be designed and implemented to connect and build upon the assets we already have: the small businesses that drive our local economy, places that make our state special, and groups working to make our state better. 
  • No silver bullet. Economic self-reliance requires a diversity of sectors, size of companies, and types of jobs. It also requires an ecosystem of supports. 
  • Define value. Markets aren’t neutral or inevitable, and all economic activities aren’t equal in value. Our policies and programs should incentivize environmental sustainability, inclusivity, racial justice, and innovation — and we should be able to see these benefits in our community.[4] 
  • Ownership is fundamental. Wealth comes from ownership of assets. Local ownership means local decision-making and local benefits; studies have shown that money spent at local businesses generates as much as a 76% greater return to the local economy than money spent at national chains.[5] Policies and programs should prioritize ownership of assets and invest in locally owned enterprises.
  • Collaborative governance. Too much done under the cover of economic development is about exclusion. People know best what they and their communities need. Decisions for how resources are allocated should be made as close to the ground as possible. 
  • Reclaim finance as a tool for community. Most of our financial investments don’t touch  the businesses and communities we care about. Nationally, Americans invest nearly $56 trillion in stocks, bonds, and other funds, almost all of it in global corporations.[6]  Let’s develop new ways to connect capital to our own communities.
  • Assume abundance rather than scarcity. Focusing on and building the assets in our communities, we can grow an inclusive economy and shared prosperity. 

We offer these principles to help spark a new conversation. We’re committed to listening and learning, and we hope our public systems, institutions, and every household will join us. There are appropriate roles each of us need to play. Rhode Island has been here before, in this moment between crisis and recovery. We have the opportunity to learn from our past experiences and prepare for a better future. 

Local Return Board of Directors
Sue AnderBois, Josh Daly, Jessica David, Carmen Diaz-Jusino, Raul Figueroa, and Lisa Raiola

Local Return seeks to build community wealth in Rhode Island, particularly in neighborhoods that have experienced historical disinvestment. We are a new organization focused on building the local community investment ecosystem, advocating for local policies and practices that support a vibrant and just local economy, and increasing community consciousness. 


[1] Our gratitude to Marjorie Kelly for this definition of community wealth-building
[2] H/t Bruce Katz, Colin Higgins, Andrew Petrisin, Michael Saadine
[3] Our gratitude to Common Future for this apt aspiration
[4] H/t Mariana Mazzucato
[5] H/t Institute for Local Self Reliance
[6] Thank you, Michael H. Shuman