Posts by Author: Deonna Anderson

Creating a Black-Led Credit Union in Response to Police Violence

Protestors rally at the Minnesota governor's mansion in the aftermath of Philando Castile's murder by police in 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Jim Mone)

One week after Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in a Twin Cities suburb in 2016, community members gathered on the historically black north side of Minneapolis. Over 200 residents showed up to a meeting organized by Blexit, a grassroots organization addressing inequity in Minnesota and the wider U.S.

The residents took part in small and large group discussions. They talked about what they wanted to invest in and divest from. They wrote their ideas in marker on butcher paper posted on walls throughout the meeting space. Then they voted on their most pressing priorities.

“The number one idea that had twice the amount of votes than any other idea on the board that night was to establish a Black-led financial institution on the northside of Minneapolis,” says Me’Lea Connelly, Blexit founder. “And that was the beginnings of what we now know as Village Trust.”

Connelly now serves as the director for the Association for Black Economic Power, which is leading the charge to open Village Trust Financial Cooperative, a Black-led credit union, on track to open its doors by 2019.

After that evening in 2016, Connelly and core members of Blexit organized around the credit union concept to ensure there was a strong desire from community members for a Black-led financial institution and a commitment to invest in it once it was up and running. During the campaign, they also encouraged people to invest in Black banks across the country.

There are currently no Black-led financial institutions in Minnesota, but as Next City previously reported, Village Trust would join the more than 345 credit unions operating in the state.

Across the country, there are fewer than 20 credit unions serving Black communities, according to Bank Black USA, which has been pushing the #BankBlack movement.

“I think [the Village Trust credit union] is important to support,” says Jon Logan, Bank Black USA board member. “I think a Black-owned credit union, it means that they’re going to be doing things a little bit differently there. They’re going to be focusing on their community and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

After early discussions with community members about establishing a credit union, the Blexit team was able to secure a $430,000 grant from the Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota to establish the Association for Black Economic Power, hire a staff member, and start researching to determining the project’s feasibility. Connelly notes that it was important to house the operations of the credit union outside of the social justice organizing group.

Since its founding in February 2017, the Association for Black Economic Power has been working to determine the role it will play for community members, which so far includes recruiting people to pledge to become a credit union member and collecting data from community members, which they’ll use in the application to prove interest in the credit union. At the end of 2017, Connelly says they had over 1,100 pledges, representing over $3 million in deposits.

The Association for Black Economic Power executive committee (from left-right): Amber Jones, Danielle Mkali, Elaine Rasmussen, Me'Lea Connelly, Felicia Perry, and Ron Harris.

The association recently received a new grant from Capital Impact Partners, a leading nationwide community development lender. At this stage, the group is also asking people who pledge to be members what products and services they’d like to see Village Trust Financial Cooperative offer once it opens its doors. Connelly notes that they won’t be able to offer every service and product that community members request.

“It’s really important for us to not reinvent the wheel, that we are instead a distribution point for products and services and programs that are already working but might not be reaching the Black community,” Connelly notes. “So the challenge that we face right now is how do we build relationships with organizations and institutions that have powerful services and how do we create a pipeline for services?”

A handful of questions guides the work, according to Connelly:

What are the most painful predatory financial services that are hurting our community the most and how do we address that? How do we provide equitable financial products and services to a community that hasn’t been served? How do we do that in a way that helps them to build wealth in the long term? How do we provide the products and services that black folks need to build the life that they dream of and how can we be their partners?

Even before obtaining a charter to legally operate a credit union, the Association for Black Economic Power is working to address community needs.

“We’re focusing on providing services to a community that it unbanked and underbanked,” Connelly says. “There aren’t a lot of financial institutions on the northside of Minneapolis.”

Village Trust will, in beta, start a loan fund that will give a small number of small dollar loans for emerging cooperative businesses.

“We want to encourage black business owners to establish cooperative businesses,” says Connelly. “We want to support emerging black cooperative businesses because we believe that the cooperative entity has the ability to insulate the black economy more efficiently than investor-based business models … As a financial cooperative, we also want to ignite a broader black cooperative movement.”

One commitment that Village Trust makes is that they won’t say no. If someone submits a loan application, they’ll either get approved or get a plan.

“What that means is that we’re here for the long term to walk the pathway of wealth building with you and even if we don’t necessarily have the products and services that you need, we have relationships with organizations that do,” Connelly says.


Creating Spaces for People to Participate in Urban Planning

Under an elevated rail line in East Harlem. (Credit: Design Trust for Public Space)

Sometimes it takes leaving and returning home to realize what it is that truly makes us tick. Luisa Santos grew up in Miami and returned there after graduating from Amherst College. She got to work as program coordinator for an environmental service-learning program, and also got connected with the Miami Climate Alliance, a coalition of environmental organizations.

“I think it was actually in Miami that I became interested in urban planning, both because Miami’s planning is more car-based and didn’t feel like it was actually supporting people, so I got curious about that,” Santos says. “And it seemed to me like people weren’t very involved in the planning process so it was kind of those curiosities that kind of made me curious about urban planning back then.”

Following her curiosity about how people can play a bigger role in shaping cities, Santos did stints in policy work and community organizing in D.C., then NYC. She volunteered with organizations to strengthen worker cooperatives, and served as an interim member of Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City’s Board of Directors. She took inspiration from efforts like Cooperation Jackson, a grassroots effort to re-shape the economy of Jackson, Miss., from the ground up.

“It’s like actual people who have been oppressed or marginalized and really have no access to the dominant economy at all, are just like, ‘Ok then. We’re going to create our our autonomous economy and system of governance,’” she says. “Which is, I feel, how it should be … absolute direct democracy to the point of people making the decisions and implementing them directly.”

Santos is just now wrapping up a year exploring and contributing to an array of initiatives reflecting that spirit of representation and participation, as a 2017-2018 equitable space fellow with the Design Trust for Public Space, a nonprofit that partners with government agencies, community organizations and sometimes private companies to achieve long-term change in the way public spaces – like parks, plazas and streets – are designed.

Santos’s role as an equitable space fellow, in her words: “to make sure that these projects and these decisions that are being made are more equitable.”

Changemaking takes time, she’s learned, and one year doesn’t quite allow for all the change to happen. One project Santos worked on is El-Space, an effort in partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation to revitalize and make use of spaces underneath elevated infrastructure like highways, subways and bridges. These spaces are often underutilized, dark and unsafe.

A map of elevated structures in NYC. (Credit: Linda Pollack/Design Trust for Public Good)

“If you think of how highways historically, even the process of building the highway, they cut through low income communities of color,” Santos says. “[The project is] trying to look at how we can address improving these spaces in a systemic way … considering not just a particular site but thinking of highways and other infrastructure as interconnected … how can you address the whole system of this infrastructure.”

It’s a project that can be costly. Santos says having the funding to implement the changes is one big obstacle. The next obstacle is to make sure funding is spread out equitably throughout neighborhoods and the potential impact the project might have on gentrifying the area.

“I’m just really curious about how to be able to make those processes [more equitable], not just be inclusive but actually be led by people,” Santos says.

Santos also got involved with the Design Trusts’ ongoing advocacy to give community gardeners access to more resources and protections, which began with developing Five Borough Farm, a framework for NYC’s community gardens. Community gardeners expressed the need for more secure land tenure because there isn’t an official land use policy with community gardens and their right to exist, as well as needing resources to maintain lands they do have, a process to designate more space as community gardening land, and access to more compost and professional business training.

Last year, City Councilmember Rafael Espinal introduced a bill that would have set up a comprehensive plan that would have established some of those protections and resources for gardeners. While the law passed, the final text barely resembled the original proposal. The law only required the city to create an “urban agriculture website.”

Santos says the Design Trust for Public Space is in the process of working with the city’s legislators, community gardeners and NYC Parks Greenthumb, the municipality’s community garden program, to establish another plan that would make access to information and resources more equitable and address disparities between big and small growers in the city.

While the legislation will likely take years to actually come to fruition, Santos says, they want to get it done right the first time instead of having to push for amendments to legislation and more resources for an even longer period of time.

Luisa Santos.

One other project that Santos is involved in at the Design Trust is at the very beginning stages, led by a team of 2018 fellows at the nonprofit, called the Power in Place Project. It’s a partnership with South Bronx Unite, a coalition of community organizations in part of the borough facing a wave of new development.

Power in Place consists of a community asset mapping and a planning project that will support the coalition’s community land trust, a vehicle intended to preserve the affordability of residential as well as non-residential space. The asset map will have markers for businesses and property, as well as human assets and including like community gardens. The fellows will then engage with community members to determine a plan for use of land in the area and support the community land trust in being able to advocate to city government and possibly to private building owners in the community.

“It’s really like an organizing tool,” Santos says. “That’s a really exciting project.”

While Santos’s time at the Design Trust is coming to an end, her career in urban planning is just starting. The outgoing equitable place fellow is starting an urban planning and community development degree at Tufts University in Boston.

“I felt that urban planning would actually be an interesting way to pursue [my interests] because it would be learning the structures, how to affect the structures that allow for people to come together,” she says.


Entrepreneurs of Color Supporting Each Other Nationwide

A gathering held as part of the first Black Entrepreneurship Week in Charlotte, hosted by Shaw University and the Carolina Small Business Development Fund. (Credit: Troy Thomas of Thomas Photography)

When Aniyia Williams started her company, Tinsel, she didn’t have much money in the bank. The company makes headphones that double as jewelry.

“It’s been a long, arduous journey building it,” Williams says. Aside from typical manufacturing challenges, she says raising money was the hardest part. A former supervisor invested in Tinsel, but that wasn’t enough. She had a strong business background, growing up in Philadelphia, working in the family business and helping her grandmother with the accounting. But when she pitched venture capitalists, almost all said no.

Williams wrote that she pitched over 100 investors. She secured funding from two.

“It’s a really frustrating experience … of knowing that there’s a great opportunity in front of you and no one is willing to give you the chance to try to bring it to life,” Williams says.

That experience, coupled with what Williams learned during a residency with Code2040, a nonprofit trying to increase black and Latinx representation in tech, inspired her to launch Black & Brown Founders in 2017. The organization aims to create a strong community network for tech entrepreneurs of color, who are often excluded from conventional venture capital.

“The big thing that I say about Black and Brown Founders is that … we’re trying to teach Black and Latinx entrepreneurs like alchemy,” Williams says. “We’re trying to teach them how to turn things into gold, right?”

And she’s not alone. In response to the bleak statistics about representation in startup funding, a cadre of organizations has emerged to tackle various aspects of the challenge.

According to a 2015 report by CB Insights, a data analytics company that focuses on the tech sector, only 1 percent of venture capital-funded startup founders were black. The Project Diane report, released in February 2016, found that startups led by African-American women in the U.S. made up less than 0.2 percent of all venture capital deals between 2012 and 2014.

Since 2016, Kathryn Finney, founder of Project Diane, has been helping women of color enterpreneurs through BIG Incubator, an incubator in Atlanta. Twenty women were accepted for the second cohort in 2017. The third cohort started in February 2018. is another example that happened to also inspire Williams. The not-for-profit offers fellowships to students at historically black colleges and universities who are focused on how to become a successful tech investor and learn how high-growth companies work. The first cohort started in October 2017. While the program is still new, Hadiyah Mujhid, the organization’s founder, says she’s already seen fellows begin to understand how venture capital works.

“A lot of this program is about exposure,” Mujhid says, adding that they’re hoping that no matter if students become founders or VCs, they have a better understanding of how decisions are made and who cuts the check, in addition to a pathway to a career in tech while remaining connected to their prior networks.

“Another component of success is hoping [through] their role as interns or kind of like junior analysts with these firms, they have the opportunity to help source and identify entrepreneurs in their community who may need investments or funding,” Mujhid adds. “So we’re really hoping to have another impact in that way and helping to distribute funding to people that normally investors wouldn’t ordinarily get in contact with.”

Meanwhile, Black and Brown Founders has hosted three events so far, one in San Francisco, one in Philadelphia, and another in Austin during South by Southwest. At the San Francisco event, there were 91 in-person attendees and 673 live stream attendees, according to Black & Brown Founders. The latest gathering brought together hundreds of people to Huston-Tillotson University in Austin. Thanks to sponsors and donations, the events have been free for attendees. Workshops covered everything from alternative financing to managing a tight company budget.

Williams and her team are planning to have a total of four Black & Brown Founders events in U.S. cities this year, including one in August 2018 event planned for Bay Area tech entrepreneurs, in partnership with Oakland Startup Network. She’s set a goal that, by 2021, 10 percent of the companies in the Black & Brown Founders network will each be generating revenues of half a million dollars or more and have at least three employees.

Stephen Green attended Black & Brown Founders’ Philadelphia event in 2017.

“It’s an embodiment of me,” Green says. “I’m a Black and Brown founder. My mom’s Puerto Rican, my dad’s African American, so it’s really something that really speaks to me.”

“Black and Brown Founders is needed because most large organizations still function from a standpoint of implicit bias of we either don’t exist or we are pigeonholed into specific industries or parts of town,” adds Green, founder of PitchBlack, a Portland-based organization that holds pitch competitions nationwide.

“I’m lucky that most of my experiences here in Portland are around Black and Brown folks already, but to go [to the Black & Brown Founders conference in Philadelphia] and just be immersed in that everywhere you go was pretty cool, and also to be at a conference that was really around the stuff that I’ve spent my professional career around,” Green notes about the event experience. “And to do that with people who look like me is awesome … generally when I do that here in Portland, in professional settings, I’m usually one of the only people [of color].”

Based in the venture capital hub of the Bay Area, Black & Brown Founders workshops cover the ins and outs of getting access to that capital, but she’s also encouraging entrepreneurs to look beyond that money source when starting up.

“Part of what gave me some encouragement was that I could see that there were efforts happening in an attempt to have more people of color become investors and new funds being started that were focused on people of color,” Williams says. “[We’re] rewriting the playbook, redistributing wealth and also really allowing ourselves to create a community and an economy where we can actually start to invest in ourselves,” she says.


Recycling Programs Show “Untapped Potential” to Grow Human Services Nonprofits

Operations manager Jason Prasad (right) shows staffer Jacob Powers how to cut the top off a mattress, at St. Vincent de Paul's mattress recycling facility in Woodland, California. (Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul Society)

In a warehouse located in Eugene, Oregon, a worker scoops melted recycled glass from a 2,300-degree furnace. He pours it onto a table, where his assistant presses down into the molten glass with a decorative mold. They are making tiles to be sold in the on-site shop and tourist shops across the country.

About six miles away, in another warehouse, three workers sort through 16 thousand pounds of donated, used books, determining which should be sold and which should be pulped.

The warehouses belong to the human services nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. Susan Palmer, the nonprofit’s economic development director, says the waste management operation at St. Vincent of Lane County has three main goals: divert materials from the waste stream, create jobs for the local community, and generate revenue for the nonprofit. It’s working. In addition to books and glass, the nonprofit recycles mattresses and box springs — over 300,000 annually — employs about 385 people in its waste management programs, and brings in $21 million from these activities yearly.

St. Vincent of Lane County uses some of that revenue to fund its other activities – affordable housing development, emergency and homelessness services, and employment solutions like its job search center where people can get help with resumes, career counseling and interview tips.

“We’re not bound to our funders,” Palmer says. “Having our own revenue stream allows us to pivot to the needs of our community.”

St. Vincent of Lane County also, for the last six years, has been coaching other nonprofits around the country who want to start their own recycling programs. The nonprofit believes that these operations can be revenue-generators elsewhere as well as creating good jobs.

At St. Vincent of Lane County, says Palmer, career development is baked into its internal hiring and promoting processes.

“We don’t have a formal system, but rather a strong need for talented individuals to take on leadership roles as we grow,” she says by email. “Employees who show willingness to grow, a desire to work on our projects and be a part of our team rise up because we need them to.”

Glass artist Chris Jenkins pours molten glass into a mold. (Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul Society)

In 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County a grant to help other nonprofits start their own materials recycling programs. That grew into the Cascade Alliance, an umbrella organization for St. Vincent de Paul’s training efforts.

“There is great untapped potential to employ more people in these jobs as more communities and companies adopt zero-waste goals that will make more materials available for reuse, upcycling and recycling,” Palmer writes.

Organizations that join the Cascade Alliance receive mentorship and guidance from St. Vincent. Each organization has to fund its own start-up operation, which typically costs $150,000 to $200,000, but St. Vincent has helped pay for a couple of the nonprofits’ smaller line items – a cash register for one, a $15,000 forklift for another.

At the moment, there are 14 Cascade Alliance members, including St. Vincent itself.

Greater Bridgeport Community Enterprises (GBCE), a Connecticut-based nonprofit, is a Cascade Alliance member that has had a relationship with St. Vincent since before the alliance was established.

GBCE launched its mattress recycling operation, called Park City Green, in 2013, says Adrienne Houël, the organization’s president and CEO. In 2017, PCG recycled more than 60,000 mattresses, breaking them down into their component parts. Foam becomes carpet padding. Cotton goes into insulation. Wood becomes mulch or is burned; metal springs are sold for scrap.

Bridgeport is a depressed economic area, says Houël, who started GBCE with the intent to create jobs for the city’s residents.

“The issue of employment is the critical one here in Bridgeport,” Houël says. “And the focus here would be on trying to make sure that the unemployed, disadvantaged residents of the city would be able to have jobs, which has a very big economic [impact] for the communities and for their families.”

The city’s median household income between 2012 and 2016 was $42,113, according to Census data. That’s about $30,000 less than that of the state of Connecticut, which sits at $73,433. Bridgeport City’s unemployment rate was also about 2 percent higher than the national average in September.

Houël says one of the biggest challenges of starting Park City Green was money.

“It’s always a struggle to put together the kind of pool of resources that you need to be able to do real social ventures,” she says. “The biggest foundations do have some funds that would come in but they’re not going to come in until you really get off the ground and have your proof of concept together.”

Between 2012 – when GBCE also ran a construction program – through mid-2017, the organization employed 98 people. Houël says they employed 47 of them for 6 months or more and, of those, 32 of them for one year or more.

“One of our goals is to encourage employment stability which is one of the major barriers of the populations we work with,” she notes.

Houël worked in real estate development and marketing before starting GBCE and Park City Green. She says she used her network — including Terry McDonald, St. Vincent of Lane County’s executive director — to polish the particulars on the business plan for the mattress recycling venture.

Among those particulars, Houël had to decide whether to invest in more high-tech machines or go for hiring more people.

“So we’re obviously going to choose going for more people because that’s the purpose of our business,” Houël says. “Our mission is to employ people.”


Raleigh Program Helps These Entrepreneurs Beat the System

Graduates from the first Inmates to Entrepreneurs eight-week class hold their diplomas during the graduation ceremony. (Courtesy Inmates to Entrepreneurs)

Three months after graduating from an entrepreneurship course, La’Kia Young is working on starting an online boutique. She has associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in business Wake Technical Community College and North Carolina Wesleyan College, respectively.

But Young has something else that many entrepreneurs don’t: a criminal record.

In October 2017, Young was one of 13 people to graduate from an eight-week business course from Inmates to Entrepreneurs (I2E), a not-for-profit community outreach program that helps people who have been incarcerated start their own businesses.

While there are some companies that actively hire people with criminal histories, they are the exception to the rule. According to research funded by the National Institute of Justice, many employers are reluctant to hire applicants with criminal records. About 60 to 75 percent of people who were incarcerated are unemployed up to a year after they’re released from prison. The I2E program aims to act as a solution for that injustice by teaching entrepreneurship.

The students are people like Young, who plans to sell plus-size lingerie online. She has a business plan and is planning to launch the store before 2018 is over.

“If I would put anything into words, I would say school gave me the book smarts and that course gave me the life experience,” Young says.

The free course is taught by entrepreneurs in the Raleigh area. Young says she appreciated learning from people who were successfully running their businesses and learning about what their day to day challenges and successes look like.

“That was actually the better part of learning about what entrepreneurship was about, because the books don’t teach you about a day where something goes wrong,” Young says.

Scott Jennings, a participant in a previous version of the course who now runs a company that provides maintenance, repair and support for fitness equipment, was a mentor during the inaugural eight-week session. He says the program offers participants the groundwork for a second chance.

When someone is released from prison, they get a “second sentence,” Jennings says. It is harder for them to get a job because they have to check a box that says they have a felony. ()

Over the last decade about 150 cities and counties – in addition to 30 states – have adopted some form of “ban the box” policies and laws that remove the question about criminal history from job applications, meant to provide people with a fair chance at landing a job after incarceration. But this patchwork of laws is inconsistent; many apply only to public employers, so people with convictions have far fewer options.

“When you’re an entrepreneur, when you run the business, nobody asks for a background check,” Jennings says. “The playing field gets leveled. In the seven years that I’ve been in business, I have had [my] background checked maybe once, twice at the most.”

Over the two months and eight classes, course participants learned about finances, marketing and “the kind of attitude that you should go into starting a business with,” according to Jaclyn Parker, director for the program.

At the end of the eight weeks, participants are paired with a mentor who can help guide them through the startup process.

Graham Whitley started a web and app development company about a month before taking the Inmates to Entrepreneurs course. He says he benefited most from being able to ask questions of business owners.

“There was one mentor I asked about contracts because I’ve never written a contract in my life,” Whitley says.

Before this eight-week session, Inmates to Entrepreneurs taught one-off courses to people currently in prison consistently since 2007. Brian Hamilton, I2E founder and chairman, also did this type of outreach in prisons in the early 1990s. The organization still offers about two of those sessions per month, depending on requests.

“But people who are currently incarcerated can’t actually start a business while they’re still in prison,” Parker says. “They can do a lot of the pre-planning and they can start thinking about it but they can’t actually legally start a business.”

Jennings, who owns the fitness equipment company, took this version of the class in between 2007 and 2010 while incarcerated.

After he was released from Orange Correctional Center, Jennings reached out to Hamilton.

That move “opened doorways for me,” Jennings says. He started his business in 2011.

The new course model, in its first cohort, accepted people with criminal backgrounds. Some of the participants had been out of prison for 15 years; others had just gotten out 30 days before the course’s start. The second cohort started in the second week of January.

Inmates to Entrepreneurs encourages participants to start low-capital businesses like a lawn care service, which requires only a truck, lawn mower and a few basic tools.

“We assume people are coming into our program without any money whatsoever,” Parker says.

In many U.S. states, people released from prison don’t have any money. And if they do, often it’s only enough for a bus ticket. A 2007 report prepared for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that from state to state, the amount of money people receive upon release from state prison varies – between $0 to $200, with an average of $54.

Parker says teachers also talk to participants about options for low-interest loans from both state and national resources “should they absolutely need capital to get their business started.”

In addition to the lack of start-up money, participants face other challenges. Starting a lawn-care business, for example usually requires a truck to move equipment around the city.

Parker says when those issues come up, they challenge participants to be creative, asking questions like: How can you work within this constraint? Can you borrow a truck or can you do something else until you can afford your own transportation?

Entrepreneurship is hard and not a guaranteed pathway to success. Some statistics say that 80 percent of small businesses fail within the first two years. Parker says that while they are upfront with program participants about potential failure, generally the program’s success rates are better than average, for a couple reasons.

“If someone is willing to commit their time to learning more about something and improving themselves, their success rate is inherently higher,” she writes via email. “Our program provides a large network of support that an individual starting their businesses on their own may not (and probably do not) have.”

Jennings says he’s seen participants doubt their own abilities. At least one Inmates to Entrepreneurs participant dropped out because he didn’t think he was going to be successful.

“That’s always the biggest challenge, getting people to understand that they got to work past all the naysayers that will surround them at first, even themselves,” Jennings says. “Remember, depending on where our self-esteem and our competence lies, sometimes we’re our own biggest naysayer.”


Public Bank Fans Want to Get Portland City Council on Board

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In Portland, Oregon, a movement is slowly building to establish a public bank.

After debating divestment from companies whose practices might be harmful to people or the environment, the City Council voted in April to stop investing city money in all corporations. Portland is also one of numerous U.S. cities that decided to stop banking with Wells Fargo, after the bank’s fraudulent accounts scandal made headlines.

The Portland Public Banking Alliance, which advocates for a more equitable economy, has been pushing for a public bank for about two years. “Public banking is really taking off and there are efforts, particularly in California and in a number of places,” says the Alliance’s David E. Delk.

Philadelphia talked about establishing a public bank this year. In 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico, completed a feasibility study for a public bank. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland have been pursuing the possibility. In October, Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant wanted to allocate $200,000half of that was approved — of the city’s budget for a public bank feasibility study. Washington, D.C.’s 2018 fiscal year budget includes $200,000 for a feasibility study for a city-owned bank. The governor-elect of New Jersey expressed interest in establishing a state public bank during his campaign.

Delk says there are several good reasons that Portland should consider a public bank. He says the model would give the city more control over its finances, and allow it to avoid using local resources to assist the “too big to fail” banks that caused the great recession. He notes that he’d rather see banking benefit locals rather than Wall Street.

“My hope is that a public bank would be a profit-making institution except the profit would be for public purposes,” Delk says, naming everything from addressing homelessness and affordable housing, to creating jobs and retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient. “The possibilities are limited really only by our imagination because the needs are so great.”

The Alliance imagines that the public bank would also partner with local credit unions and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to provide loans to students for college.

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who was elected to Portland’s City Council in 2016, has expressed an interest in investigating how the city might be able to establish a bank.

“We have one other person on the City Council who has made a supportive statement but we’re not really sure if it came down to casting a vote, whether he would actually be with us or not,” Delk says.

Marshall Runkel, Eudaly’s chief of staff, told the Portland Mercury he has been looking into public banks and has asked the city attorney about the matter. The city attorney’s initial stance was that establishing a public bank would violate the Oregon state constitution, which prohibits state banks.

Delk says the Portland Public Banking Alliance got a different opinion from another attorney and is awaiting a response from the city attorney’s office based on that feedback.

Establishing a public bank could take years — Delk estimates about five, “if all runs smoothly” — and will require securing funds for a feasibility study, conducting the study and then actually putting the bank in place. Delk says the Portland Public Banking Alliance plans to do more outreach in 2018 to raise awareness, and to discuss a public bank with all future City Council candidates.


In Seattle, a Different Kind of Job Interview Awaits Some Homeless

There’s a notable disparity when it comes to homelessness numbers in King County, home to Seattle. A 2017 count found that American Indian or Alaskan Native people made up 6 percent of the homeless population in Seattle — while they only made up .7 percent of the general population in King County.

Recognizing that efforts to house marginalized people don’t always equally serve Native residents, a broad coalition has formed to address not only a lack of shelter but also opportunities for employment.

“We have a huge homeless population in King County and we can’t do it by ourselves,” says Norine Hill, of the Oneida Nation of the Thames and CEO and founder of Mother Nation, a nonprofit that serves Native women and families.

The Coalition to End Urban Native Homelessness, which formed in 2015, includes the Chief Seattle Club, United Indians of All Tribes, Mother Nation, and the Seattle Indian Health Board. All Home, a partnership aimed at reducing homelessness, and the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing, also have a role.

According to the city of Seattle, in King County, American Indian and Alaska Native individuals are seven times more likely to experience homelessness than white people and less likely to transition from receiving homelessness assistance to living in permanent housing.

“There’s been a lot of government actions that have gotten us in the situation,” says Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club and an enrolled member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation. Echohawk started the coalition. “You can trace it back very far where Native people were moved from our traditional homelands onto lands that didn’t belong to us.”

Echohawk points to the Relocation Act of 1956, which encouraged Native people to leave reservations and move into cities, as a main starting point for the current homelessness numbers.

After being intimately involved with this work for about a year, Echohawk says, “I realized that our mainstream organizations just didn’t know what to do about our population and also that our Native people didn’t want to go to those organizations.”

The coalition has been helpful in allowing agencies and organizations to share, collaborate and talk about priorities, says Jenna Gearhart, youth home program director at United Indians of All Tribes, an organization that provides educational, cultural and social services to reconnect indigenous people in the Seattle area.

“I think that when we’re unified on issues, that’s helpful,” she notes, adding that the coalition has fostered more constant communication among local agencies.

Gearhart runs United Indians’ Labateyah Youth Home, where homeless young people ages 18 to 24 can get safe housing, life skills training and other supportive resources. There are opportunities to work and earn money on site, in the kitchen, computer lab or garden, which the organization is continuing to expand.

The home has 25 beds and serves about 80 to 100 youth annually.

United Indians has a workforce development program for Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiian adults who are members of a federally recognized tribe and are economically disadvantaged or unemployed.

Chief Seattle Club’s Native Works is a trauma-informed workforce development program that takes a person’s lived experience into account when considering employment options.

“I feel like for our population, it is completely unrealistic to ask them to suddenly come in eight hours a day, you know, five days a week, to do this workforce development,” Echohawk says. “It’s just not practical and so, what I’ve been saying to our team is if we had one person who hasn’t worked in five, 10 years, and they’re coming in one hour a day, one day a week, that’s going to be a signal of success. And then also, are we creating processes and structures that are trauma aware.”

In a recent series of interviews for an opportunity to sell Native jewelry at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the hiring staff sat with candidates around a table. They ate cupcakes and drank coffee with a smudge bowl going — a practice of burning sage or cedar — a process that Echohawk described as “intimate and gentle.”

This type of relaxed environment is meant to be conducive to interviewees comfortably sharing their work history and experience.

Chief Seattle Club gets a discount on vendor space at the famous Pike Place shopping destination. So far, that program has hired five people and Echohawk says they hope to hire over 40 people — including more staff to help run everything — over the next three years.

In Mother Nation’s mentorship program, elders train women to be domestic violence advocates, which sometimes leads to paid work in the community.

In addition to providing housing, workforce development and other services, the coalition is making policy recommendations.

One change they want to see, says Mike Tulee, executive director at United Indians of All Tribes, is a better process for connecting those who need help to the available services. In recent years, King County has taken over the intake process for people seeking support and it has created a bottleneck, and people aren’t getting the resources they need in a timely manner, according to Tulee.

When the coalition began, it received a $20,000 grant from United Way of King County. The money was used to hire a coordinator to help the organizations build capacity. Now, Echohawk says she’s talking with the Social Justice Fund and some foundations about getting grants to continue the coalition’s work.

“I believe that’s our sacred responsibility to really work with some of our folks who’ve just become homeless or are chronically homeless to say, we are your relatives, your aunties, your uncles,” Echohawk says. “We’re going to take care of you.”


Queens Small Businesses Are About Recovery From More Than a Storm

Roca Mia has been helping to rebuild the Rockaways since 2013, after Hurricane Sandy destroyed miles of the neighborhood’s beachside boardwalk and impacted more than 2,000 businesses and nonprofits with nearly 15,000 employees in South Queens in 2012. The worker-owned construction company is still busy putting back together the pieces of what the storm tore apart, through new construction and repair of both residential and commercial properties.

Working World and Occupy Sandy, a grassroots disaster relief network that formed after the hurricane, started Worker-Owned Rockaway Cooperatives (WORCs) in spring 2013, to assist people in Far Rockaway and the surrounding area with opening cooperative businesses or converting existing businesses to worker-owned cooperatives. Working World, an NYC-headquartered nonprofit that helps to build worker-cooperative businesses in low-income communities, provided free business development training and ongoing technical assistance, in addition to non-extractive financing.

“When we say ‘non-extractive,’ we mean we only receive repayment when more wealth is created locally than is repaid, i.e., repayment only comes from profits, which means we are aligned with the business in seeking success,” Alex Peters, fundraising and communications officer at Working World, writes via email. “Particularly in the aftermath of Sandy, and in a community where unemployment is much higher than average, developing businesses and [creating] jobs are crucial for economic recovery.”

WORCs is a sort of alternative to disaster capitalism, when outside business, capital and political interests go into an area affected by disaster and take advantage by operating in a way that might be less accepted under normal circumstances.

“This is also a way for people to kind take control of their economy again and to develop businesses that were actually useful for the people who live there, so that’s why a construction co-op was the first co-op that emerged out of the program, because there was a huge need for repair work,” says Scott Trumbull, director of programs at Working World. “Five years later, they’re still doing primarily recovery work, which is insane.”

The organizations have hosted four co-op academies since 2013, which have reached about 100 people, and led to the launch of three cooperative businesses. They also facilitated the conversion of an existing business that was going to close because its owner decided to retire. Worker co-op advocates often promote the model as a way for lower-income people to build wealth, with workers getting an ownership stake in a co-op, and as a solution for preserving jobs that would be lost when an owner retires. A 2017 study found that due to the high number of baby boomer-helmed companies in the U.S., one in six jobs are at risk of disappearing due to retirements. The Rockaways co-ops that Working World and Occupy Sandy have supported currently employ 13 people.

Businesses in South Queens tend to be small enterprises, with over 80 percent of them employing fewer than 10 people, according to a 2013 report by the city of New York. Post-Sandy, there was a massive relief effort led by disaster response organizations like the Red Cross and numerous city agencies. But not everyone who needed resources was able to obtain them, according to Trumbull.

That’s one reason Occupy Sandy worked to get food, water and other resources to underserved communities, largely made up of people of color, in the Rockaways.

“I feel like the neighborhoods we work in were struggling before the storm too,” Trumbull says, noting that there was a need for a shift in economic development efforts in the area. “It became really, brutally apparent because all of the resources that were flowing into the Rockaways after the storm, all of the aid essentially was ending up in middle-income white neighborhoods.”

The co-op model is aimed at overcoming these longtime inequities.

“It’s not just about successful businesses sharing profit to kind of support new or budding businesses coming up through the program, but it’s also about sharing their skills, sharing their experience,” Peters says. “We envision a network of cooperative businesses supporting one another throughout the Rockaways and providing services that that community needs.”

Working World is in the process of launching a childcare co-op. And Peters says they’ve been thinking about the possibility of launching businesses that could serve the needs of Rockaway visitors, as tourism comes back to the area.

Once the childcare cooperative is launched and operating for six months, it will have one vote on the WORCs governing board or advanced assembly, which makes decisions about future projects and funding.

“It felt important to us that the people making decisions over that money were not like us as staff or us as program coordinators so that’s really why the advanced assembly was really important,” says Tammy Shapiro, who was an organizer with Occupy Sandy and currently serves as director of programs at New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives. “Any co-op that had received a loan from that fund is a part of making decisions about how the fund is spent.”

In a recent Next City interview with Michael Berkowitz, the head of Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities said that Houston should use recovery after Hurricane Harvey, “as an opportunity to make itself more equitable, more diverse, more vibrant.”

During Sandy, Shapiro says she’s seen organizations try to use disaster as an opportunity to shift in ways that would be positive for communities — but that she hasn’t seen that at a policy level that could have been useful.

“In a place like Rockaway that’s really far from the rest of the city, there isn’t great transportation, and there is the opportunity to build up business that doesn’t yet exist, it was a good place to think about that as a possibility,” Shapiro says. In the Rockaways, she says, organizers “created new opportunities for organizing and building power and we probably fend off, through that, some of the efforts of gentrification that otherwise would’ve passed.”


Growing Inequality Means a Change to Financial Ed Classes

You can learn a lot from helping more than 1,000 people — and hopefully those lessons will inform how you serve the next 1,000. That’s how one Massachusetts nonprofit focused on financial stability for low-income residents is thinking about change.

The Chelsea-based Connect started in 2012, and offers assistance in four areas: education, employment, housing and money management. Over 1,100 students have enrolled in Connect’s financial education classes since they started. Over 65 percent of Connect’s clients have an annual income of $25,000 or less, and the majority of those who disclosed their race/ethnicity identified as Hispanic.

Now the nonprofit is revamping the way it teaches students about money, credit and loans.

It’s building out and designing new class offerings (with a $25,000 grant from NeighborWorks America), and rethinking how they track their impact.

Historically to measure the success of their financial education program, says Stefanie Shull, Connect’s director, they’ve asked participants if they learned anything. But Shull says that was no longer enough, that now, they’re more interested in behavior change.

“We’re looking at how much self-reported knowledge gain was there, based on a scale of 1 to 10,” she says. “And then, what we’re moving toward is what kind of follow-up activity did a person do. Did they open a checking account? Did they make an appointment with a bank and actually meet with a banker to talk about credit or loans or other financial products?”

An analysis by the Connect team revealed their gaps, particularly with financial education programming and very-low-income residents, says Shull. She notes that some clients didn’t trust banks, had no credit record or history, and were fearful of getting a credit card because they’d heard of friends’ bad experiences and excessive fees.

“[Our financial education manager] felt like the content wasn’t quite hitting the mark for our population,” Shull says, “and it was sometimes not really contextualized to our client’s experience … like talking about saving for a vacation somewhere when a lot of our people just had never been on a vacation ever and can’t really conceive of doing that.”

Shull and the team also saw a report from the Center for Advanced Hindsight that concluded that only about 4 percent of behavior change can be attributed to financial education.

“That was just sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back for me,” Shull says. “When I saw those numbers, I thought, ‘What in hell are we doing, investing all of this time and effort into something if it’s not effective?’ Four percent isn’t an acceptable result.”

Over the next year, Connect is aiming to make financial education work better for more people by making the programming more approachable, hands on, action oriented and connected to a specific action that happens immediately.

To start, Connect is changing the way it names classes. For example, what might have once been called “Credit, Budgeting, and Saving,” would instead be “How to Buy a Car” or “Should I Buy a Car?”

“It’s just so much more real for people and you can weave in little bits and pieces about credit and savings,” Shull says. “It’s really more about helping people understand the specific applicability to their lives so that they can practice a range of skills and it’s all about practice.”

During the first revamped class, the Connect team brought in a timely, real-life example: They addressed fraud and identity theft prevention. The recent Equifax breach was a great tie-in that students had heard about.

Connect also plans to work more closely with its financial institution partners, which have already spent time and resources on honing methods to appeal to a wide range of demographics.

Students will also get more details about financial products that would provide more context. You know those matrices that compare credit cards’ APR and annual fees and any bonus offers? Connect wants to add a narrative column to the matrix that would tell students who the product was designed for and in what situations the product would be useful.

“It’s just really alienating just to line up a bunch of terms that says, this one takes $50 to open and this one charges you money if you go below this amount of balance,” Shull says. “It’s just not made accessible.”

Shull adds that Connect will identify holes in the range of financial products offered and investigate if any organization offers a helpful alternative.

For example, Shull says she recently learned about a small-dollar loan program in Brownsville, Texas, that doesn’t consider credit in the application process. Instead, they confirm a person’s employment and then the repayment happens through the individual’s paycheck.

Shull says her team will continue to tweak the financial education program over the next year to help people with lower incomes to thrive.

“We’ve designed our financial world for middle-class people and higher and we really have to do better, especially in an economic environment where we are creating an extremely unequal society,” she says. “We’re hollowing out a middle class but we have not yet redesigned our economy to really give people at the lower end of the spectrum a fighting chance to build wealth and credit worthiness.”


Rutgers Business Teacher Has a Message for Youth of Color

Ernest Ruffin Jr. shares business lessons in Dallas. (Credit: Young Entrepreneurz Organization)

Start a burger stand. Expand a clothing boutique. Develop technology to assist people with visual impairments. These are just a few of the ideas that Ernest Ruffin Jr. has heard as he’s traveled around to U.S. cities promoting the message of entrepreneurship to young people of color and helping them with the practical side of their business dreams.

“These students are smart and innovative,” says Ruffin, who’s executive director of Young Entrepreneurz Organization, a nonprofit that teaches sixth- to 12th-graders about starting and running a business.

Ruffin has been working with youth since 2008, and he launched the YEO Business Plan Challenge, in Newark, New Jersey, in 2013. During a three-day training session, youth compete for cash and prizes, including up to $2,500 for startup capital. Ruffin took the model on the road for the past couple summers and has had events in Dallas, Baltimore, Oakland, Milwaukee and more.

YEO partners with local organizations with roots in the communities that Ruffin visits during his summer tours.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee has partnered with YEO for two years. “The need is huge to get more of our young people to understand that they can be business owners in the hopes of having more startups here in the metro area of Milwaukee,” says Michael Waite, director of career development for the nonprofit.

In the Milwaukee sessions (where, Waite notes, attendance was 100 percent), participants learned how to draft a business plan, develop a marketing strategy and figure out financing for their dream company.

“The competition got pretty heavy on that Saturday afternoon and there were some pretty hard feelings at the end of the day, when some of those young people didn’t win the business plan competition,” Waite recalls.

Still, he expects that the challenge will provide inspiration to participants for years to come.

“It’s just another tool in their pocket to understand how to become an entrepreneur, how to be able to formulate a business plan and understand that there’s a huge possibility and opportunity for them to venture down that avenue should they choose in the future,” Waite says.

On the summer tours, Ruffin says he structures the lessons to connect to the youth. For example, when teaching marketing, he might ask, “How do you find out about Nikes?” That starts a conversation about social media, commercials and billboards.

Much of the year, Ruffin’s teaching students who are a bit older, at Rutgers University, and it’s those college courses that prompted him to create the summer challenge in Newark.

“I decided to target kids of color because my students at Rutgers University were having success starting businesses,” Ruffin says, noting that one student created two apps, one of which caught the attention of Mark Cuban, of NBA and Shark Tank fame. He had a student whose business was featured in GQ Magazine, and another who owns about 10 Schlotzsky’s deli franchise stores.

All of them had two things in common, says Ruffin, who adds that he’s happy for all of his students’ success.

The first is they credited what they learned in Ruffin’s classes for helping them in business. “The second was, they are all white,” he says. “I thought, how do I get more kids of color involved with entrepreneurship and economic development, and I wanted them to learn as early as possible, thus why we target sixth- to 12th-grade youth.” According to the last census, Newark’s population is 52.4 percent black and 33.8 percent Latino.

Ruffin’s former gig as an NBA agent is useful too. He tapped his connections in Milwaukee and this past summer, the Milwaukee Bucks donated swag bags to participants.

Ruffin has visited Milwaukee outside of his summer tour. Last fall, he met with youth in a Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee program that gives high school students an opportunity to attend college classes, tour a college campus, meet with faculty and staff members, and shadow current students. Waite says one of the youth involved plans to apply to Rutgers.

“We don’t get a lot of opportunities to expose our young people to eastern coast schools, especially Division 1 schools like that in the Big 10, so that was an excellent opportunity to expose that to our future collegians,” Waite says.

Ruffin plans to expand the YEO challenge in the future to include more cities and more cash support for budding entrepreneurs.

“I love working with young people and it connected with them so hopefully that translates to more success stories,” he says, noting that he’s currently running a fundraising campaign, called 1M for $1M.

In addition to teaching the youth how to develop their businesses, Ruffin encourages them to support one another.

He says he tells them: “You have to learn to pass the dollar back and forth,” explaining that it’s important for them to buy from businesses in their neighborhoods.


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