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Igniting Inclusive Economies: CityScapes Summit

By Hélène Lesterlin

I saw the future at the Cityscapes Summit, or at least, the future I hope to see in my lifetime: where equity is built into our economic systems from the ground up, where the exchange of ideas is joyful and humble, and where heart-felt connection infuses the hard work of rebuilding systems and cities for justice. It was an extraordinary island of ideas and action that we all lived on, for three days in mid-May, in Durham, North Carolina.

Hosted by NGIN (New Growth Innovation Network), a national nonprofit dedicated to advancing a just economy, the theme of the gathering was “Igniting Inclusive Economies” and it attracted people from all over the country, to learn from each other and be inspired to action. Through site visits in the city, workshops, panel discussions, presentations, and social events, the conference refracted the many emergent ways that small and mid-sized cities are integrating inclusive community development with economic development. From urban planning, to real estate development, to community engagement, to public-private partnerships, to inclusive and accessible capital, over and over, I heard how historical injustices have impacted communities of color, have hollowed out entire neighborhoods, and how people are creating solutions to start to redress these wrongs, or at the very least, name them and bring them into the light. 

My experience is just one subjective take, but I met many people who reflected back to me what I was feeling: that in that space, designed so generously by NGIN, we started to feel the momentum, the power, and the impact of the change that we are all a part of. Each speaker, each side conversation, each session evoked for me a sense of “this is really happening, change is already happening.” A majority of the leaders and practitioners I met and learned from were people of color, and many were from regions outside of the Northeast. It was striking to me how they are advancing Just Transition under radically different conditions, but share a clear sense that this work is necessary and growing. The conference theme of inclusivity meant that social equity and racial justice were the starting points and the goals, which created a real shift in my own feeling of what was possible.

Getting out of my bubble here in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills to see what’s happening in other communities was a huge privilege. It has filled me with a sense of energy. I am eager to build on the connections I made, and stay in touch with the new friends I made who are working in solidarity across distance.

To share a few highlights from my scribbled steno pad notes, I am choosing a few topics and conversations that particularly resonated for me:

  • New Growth Innovation Network (NGIN) is a national nonprofit focused on advancing inclusive economic development to ensure that economically disenfranchised individuals and communities can lead, shape and benefit from regional economic growth and prosperity.” They have an online community that you can join to be connected to practitioners and projects, as well as resources to help move your work forward. I signed up and am looking forward to seeing how I can stay in the loop of the work they are organizing.
  • The day I arrived, I visited a building acquired and renovated by Black Robin Ventures, a commercial real estate development project that is aiming to bring properties back into the hands of POC and women-owned businesses. A group of us, about 35 people, stood in a circle in the new gallery space. We listened to the story of the rise of Black Wall Street in Durham, starting in the late 1800s, and how it became one of the wealthiest Black commercial districts in the country, adjacent to the Hayti residential community where the majority of Black residents lived. The 1960s brought urban renewal, a highway cutting through the district, and destroyed its thriving. The building we were in was the only one that was now Black-owned in the area, although Black Robin Ventures and others were looking to change that. I asked if they had started organizing community funds to have community ownership. They have not yet, but from the curious eyes and rapid follow-up conversations I had, it seems a perfect place to launch a community fund for real estate investment.
  • Still at the Black Robin Ventures site visit, we switched gears to issues of today, and heard from Durham natives Angel Iset Dozier and Aidil Ortiz, who are consultants/activists/educators/strategists, and who had created more equitable and impactful community engagement processes for the city of Durham to use when it sought community input and buy-in for urban planning projects. They had succeeded in having the city agree to use the resources they published and to follow their blueprint to ensure equitable and authentic engagement. The challenge, of course, is making sure they actually do it, but the community is now watching. Starting in January 2023, they started cultivating people from the community to sign up with the city to be hired as consultants to provide services and act as a bridge so that “underrepresented residents have the power to influence the policies and decisions that impact their communities.” The process of recruiting people to act in these roles was fascinating – there is much to be learned from this project here and in other cities to ensure equitable outcomes in city planning.
  • The highlight of the second day was a keynote by Arlo Washington. A documentary, Oscar-nominated this year, The Barber of Little Rock, is really worth watching even if it only shares part of his incredible story. He came home to start a barber school as a way to help his community jumpstart entrepreneurial work, but ended up seeing that the real issue was lack of access to even minimal capital for starting or growing businesses in the Black community. In the mostly Black neighborhood of 30,000 people, which had been redlined, there were literally no banks; in the mostly white neighborhood of 8,000 people, there were 14 banks. He started a CDFI (community development financial institution) to provide grants and loans, setting up shop in the parking lot of the barber school. Later he started a credit union. The stories of how he transformed people’s prospects and lives is inspiring. (And has me asking why we don’t have a CDFI in Kingston or in the Hudson Valley. Maybe we need to start one!)
  • Then began the sessions, featuring panels, workshops, and roundtables from a variety of organizations, along three content tracks: Reimagining Systems, Community Wealth Building, and Inclusive Capital. It was hard to choose what to attend, but I jumped in, and learned about the work of the Democracy Collaborative; the City of Tacoma’s innovative Tacoma Equity Index; the opportunities in the National Science Foundation’s “Engine” with 10-year grants for consortiums; more about how CDFIs and impact investing can move cities and communities towards equity, including one project emerging in Indianapolis for a Black-led CDFI; and a workshop led by the Participatory Budgeting Project that had me reflecting on how timely it would be to implement a project with the city of Kingston that truly engaged the whole city in deciding on funding allocation (stay tuned on that).

There was so much more, from conversations with people I bumped into, sat next to, and boldly introduced myself to (and I’m an introvert!). A month later, I am still following up with people, and learning more about their projects. 

All of these initiatives and efforts towards imagining and implementing a more just and equitable economy and society ripple in my memory, and remind me that there is a movement towards Just Transition afoot, despite the difficulties. We are a part of it, we are connected.

For more, you can listen to the archive of the 5/28/24 Good Work Hour where I talk a little bit about this trip, and also mention the day I spent in Morganton, NC learning about The Industrial Commons and their co-op development center!

Clearly, there is too much to share in one post, but get in touch if you want to hear more about this research trip.

Articles and personal reflections from the GWI team as they navigate their lives and their shared work.

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