What is community wealth?

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.

Community Conversation with Karen Figueroa and Pam Jennings

“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.”

This, says Pam Jennings, is participatory budgeting

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.

Follow along with Central Falls Warriors for Change.

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. 

Buy local + eat local + ❤️ = Dish Up RI

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.

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.”

Join us for Local Investment 101!

Register now!

Rhode Island’s small businesses have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdowns. As we plan for the revival of our businesses, our economies, and community life, local investing is one potential solution. 

That’s why Local Return is hosting Local Investing 101, a workshop series with Community Economist Michael H. Shuman, author of five books on local economies and local investment. According to Shuman, “Americans now have about $56 trillion in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance funds—nearly all of it invested in global corporations. If we could shift even a small amount of that capital from Wall Street to Main Street, local economies could flourish.”

Special thanks to our sponsors who made this possible: Bank Newport, Delta Dental of Rhode Island, The Business Development Company, Navigant Credit Union, and Pawtucket Credit Union.

The series is built around four live sessions on June 16, 23, and 30, and July 14 from 6:00-7:30 p.m. and 15 videos you can watch independently between sessions. It’s intended for potential investors, small businesses, community officials, and anyone who cares about the local economy. Registration for the full workshop and video series is $50; scholarships are available.

Register here.

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)!