Reggie Gordon is the director of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building, the first of its kind in the nation. As he says, minorities all too often suffer from high unemployment or are pushed into low quality, service-sector jobs that don’t give them the opportunity that they need.
Currently, in the City of Richmond, the jobless rate sits at 15.7 percent for African-Americans, compared to 4.9 percent for Whites. For those African-Americans with jobs, the city found that they were more likely to be underemployed, with 30 percent working in the service industry — the lowest paying sector.
“The first step is to call it out,” says Gordon. “This isn’t fictional. Sixty years ago, there was intentionality around redlining and segregation that led to concentrated poverty. And here we are in 2018 receiving the byproduct of those intentional decisions … It’s up to us to be just as intentional about solving these problems.”
Created in 2014, Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building now works with nearly 2,000 residents a year, assisting them everything from housing and workforce development to food security and child care. Last year alone, the office received $1.9 million from the city of Richmond for its core programs and an additional $1.9 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia for workforce development.
Inspired in some ways by Richmond, and in many ways by their own particular histories of redlining and segregation, a wave of cities are now responding with new dedicated government offices or programming for community wealth building, starting in the rest of Virginia.
Richmond’s fellow Virginia cities of Charlottesville, Hampton, and Hopewell sit among the 12 cities making up the Virginia First Cities Coalition. In 2017, the coalition allocated over $13 million for community wealth building activities, including the successful advocacy for a new $7.5 million community wealth building fund from the state. Executive Director Kelly Harris-Braxton says these funds support “efforts to remove barriers to city growth and economic vitality; close the achievement gap for at-risk students; reduce the fiscal and service burden; and reduce poverty in our cities.”
Being intentional about what to do and who are the beneficiaries can mean combining new and old techniques for understanding how to build community wealth with the necessary intentionality. The Richmond office uses its social media presence on Facebook to facilitate conversations between constituents on topics addressing racial discrimination in housing and voting rights. They also offer an open-ended, constituent-driven weekly conference call listening session, where any resident can call in and discuss issues ranging from living conditions in public housing to the difficulties of finding a job as an ex-felon.
Gordon says this community engagement helps his office move beyond the paternalism that often hinders equitable policy-making. “I wanted to add the voice of the people on a consistent basis — anyone can call,” says Gordon. “We know that people understand that if they want to express how things are going, they can speak with us … We need to trust them.”
Beyond Virginia, Mayor Lovely A. Warren of Rochester, N.Y., announced a similar initiative in January, “conceptually modeled after Richmond, Va.’s Office of Community Wealth Building.” Like Richmond’s, Rochester’s new Office of Community Wealth Building addresses various forms of inequality.
“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” reads the introductory statement of Rochester’s wealth building program. The quote, borrowed from civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., nods to Rochester’s focus on not just increasing opportunity, but equality.
“The Office of Community Wealth Building will develop policies that combine existing government programs with the business community, the nonprofit sector and educational institutions to help city residents build personal wealth and achieve equal pay for equal work,” the program’s mission states. Officials say that the office will also work to improve the community’s access to credit, create more jobs, and improve neighborhood safety.
Elsewhere in New York, similar programming is underway. In New York City, the Department of Consumer Affairs recently expanded its Office of Financial Empowerment’s Community Wealth Building programming to increase the financial health and quality of life of New Yorkers with low- and moderate-incomes.
Christine Gianakis, press secretary for the Department of Consumer Affairs, says the New York office “views community wealth building as an approach to community and economic development that creates an inclusive economy built on thriving neighborhoods and broad-based ownership.”
“This means working collaboratively to support community partners and residents and to create more opportunities for inclusive ownership for all New Yorkers,” says Gianakis. This year, after the department released the results of a series of action-research projects studying neighborhood financial health, the Office of Financial Empowermentis currently exploring how to improve city neighborhoods through entities like credit unions and consumer cooperatives.
Aaron Ross Coleman is a freelance writer from Atlanta, focused on the intersection of economics and racial inequality. Based in New York, he is a Marjorie Deane Fellow at New York University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Aaron has his B.A. in Political Science from Fort Valley State University. His work has appeared in CNBC, Rewire News, The Huffington Post, and other publications.