3 Ways to Jumpstart a Community-Grounded Economy

By centering on race, seeing community members as experts, and changing policies, we can build an economy that benefits everyone.
Women at Farmers Market photo from Shutterstock

Photo from Shutterstock.

This article is part of New Economy Week, a collaboration between YES! Magazine and the New Economy Coalition that brings you the ideas and people helping build an inclusive economy—in their own words.


In late 2011, residents in the Franklin Avenue section of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a predominantly black and Caribbean neighborhood, received notice that their community garden was being torn down. The property owner, after decades of abandonment, was selling the land. Long-standing residents who turned the blight into a community space for organizing, sharing culture, and growing produce in a neighborhood lacking healthy foods, now had one week to remove their belongings.  Years after hard work and beautification, the land was stripped away as it reached what realtors claimed was its full “market value” worthy of attraction and investment. (Four years later, the lot remains empty and fenced off).

A transition to a new economy ... can fail when we do not consider that people are coming from different starting points. 

There was something tragic in this moment. Not only did a community lose a vital space for organizing, but it marked the completion of a deep round of gentrification as rents skyrocketed and affordable housing contracts expired, turning into high-end rentals and condo developments that attracted a “different clientele.” Local stores turned into coffeeshops and the demographics on Franklin Ave. changed. 

While displacement is often driven by policy, economics, and the housing market, we often find that our models of a new economy are either not enough to stem the tide of an exploitative economy, as was the case on Franklin Ave., or can even have the (un)intended consequences of inequity and displacement, as it played out in West Berkeley/North Oakland.

As we think about our transition to a new economy, how do we ensure that our next economy benefits all of us?  Here are three critical ways we can work towards that goal.

1. We must center race in our analysis and understanding.

We are a nation that displaced indigenous communities and was built by the hands of exploited black slave laborers, the indentured servitude of poor European and Asian immigrants, and Latino migrant workers.  A transition to a new economy that centers on cooperative economics and equality can work when many of us start off in the same place, but can fail when we do not consider that people are coming from different starting points.  Therefore, we should use a structural race analysis that looks at how our institutions (like schools, government, and businesses) and policies (like social security and taxes) interact to create opportunities or barriers for people based on their race. This would help us understand how we are situated in our society and economy.  In doing so, we can better understand the unique challenges that face communities and better design economic models that can create racial and economic equity—not just equality—and build a stronger society. 

2. We must prioritize communities as experts and leaders. 

We must look to community residents in places where we work not just as consumers, but as innovators and active participants, especially when working in communities of color.  In fact, new economy practices such as cooperatives are deeply rooted in our nation’s indigenous and black communities and we would be wise to recognize these roots.  There is a deep history of organizing, knowledge, and community strength passed and shared through generations; to ignore or dismiss this history will supplant years of expertise and knowledge that we need to survive. 

Some of the most successful models that prioritize community leaders as experts include groups like Urban Tilth, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network’s D-Town Farm, and Friends of Brook Park.  These groups are testaments to how the new economy of urban agriculture can drive a future that prioritizes racial justice and creates opportunities for all. 

3. We must craft transformative policies. 

To actively move from an extractive economy to a regenerative one requires policy change that will transform the structures that build our economy, such as land ownership and access to capital. Advocates and innovators doing community-owned solar, urban agriculture, and community development should look at policy solutions that emphasize community land trusts, where land is owned by community in perpetuity, limiting the growth of value to remain affordable and accessible and stem displacement or speculation.   Or, advocates can look to municipalities like Los Angeles and Chicago, which are passing Good Food Procurement policies that prioritize issues such as local hiring and the environment, and reward contractors who work with existing neighborhood businesses—those who pay good living wage jobs and even procure food from local urban farmers.  

We must ensure that we do this transition right, otherwise we will fail to create solutions that work for all of us.

Lastly, for the new economy to take root, we need place-based investment strategies that actually build a just transition towards the new economy.  For example, efforts like Gulf South Rising, Richmond Just Transition, and Green Justice Philly are looking to transition to a clean-energy economy by advocating for a variety of policy changes, including financing. For example, they advocate that public funds be diverted from supporting a dirty energy economy and given into the hands of a community controlled investment that supports the development of projects like clean energy cooperatives.

The transition to a new economy is critical and necessary.  We face too many challenges, from global climate change to income inequality, to continue in our current fashion. But we must ensure that we do this transition right, otherwise we will fail to create solutions that work for all of us.  By centering on race, seeing community members as experts, and changing policies, we can begin the steps towards a more just and equitable economy.