Stockholm’s call for transformative change coincided with my return to a priceless handbook from the Democracy Collaborative, Cities Building Community Wealth, that describes and documents an array of strategies that have been proven effective in building local economies and food, water, and energy systems in 20+ US cities. These strategies work, they build local resilience, and they contribute to creating economic democracy. They also model on a local level the kind of transformative shift needed on an international level, while building local capacity to adapt to what Mother Nature will be sending us.
Today, I will reflect upon the complicated web of emotions Roxanne and I experienced while in California celebrating our daughter’s graduation from UC Davis Medical School, followed 36 hours later with the birth of our second grandson, Benjamin George. While euphoric about both these family milestones, the joy was tempered by news from home of the ever-expanding Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire and word that parts of Taos County were being evacuated, with our friends in Taos having to keep themselves and their pets indoors 24-7 due to the smoke engulfing their community. It is hard to celebrate when you know friends and neighbors are suffering or threatened.
So the week away from NM had its extraordinary ups that were tinged with anxiety and worry about the state we love and our fellow New Mexicans. A few other things that transpired while we were gone will find their way into today’s reflections.
One of those things was my accidentally packing of an extraordinary handbook, Cities Building Community Wealth, a Democracy Collaborative publication I had long forgotten but whose contents are ever so germane to today’s discussion.
The other notable event of the week was the publication of Stockholm+50, an international climate report that, unlike those from the IPCC, doesn’t mince words or frame findings in a context of hope borne from false promises like carbon sequestration and hydrogen fuel.
So today, I will try to weave all these events and reports into a cogent story that leads to an almost inescapable conclusion, one reached by climate journalist Dahr Jamail some years ago as he described in two Retake radio interviews in 2019 & 2020 — that the game is long over in the battle to contain the impacts of a climate change and our energy is best devoted to local adaptation and resilience strategies to better prepare for what Mother Earth has begun hurling our way.
But before we dive into the two reports, some personal context to frame my reaction to them.
Med School Graduation, Joanna and Maria, May 13, 2022
On Friday the 13th our daughter Joanna and her partner Maria both graduated from UC Davis med school. Roxanne and I have been sympathizing weekly with the insane challenges these two doctors met over four years of often almost inhuman schedules. So, we were beaming with joy and bursting with pride at what they had accomplished.
The graduation’s keynote speaker underscored that the graduating doctors were going to have the opportunity and responsibility to save lives and to become part of the lives of patients and families, often at their most vulnerable and terrifying moments. Joanna’s residency will be in the Emergency Room at Highland Hospital, Oakland’s public hospital, where overdoses and gunshot wounds are some of the most common reasons for admission, but also where the very poor seek treatment for life-threatening conditions — patients who could be more appropriately treated in clinics, but who do not have access to medical clinics. So, she is guaranteed to see people in desperate need. (She did a 30-day clinical rotation at Highland last fall, so she knows what to expect.)
The keynote speaker did not dwell on these new doctors’ roles in hospitals and clinics, but rather he focused on their roles in the community, as with an M.D. after their name they will be viewed as de facto community leaders and experts on the impacts of the social determinants of poor health outcomes: poverty, malnutrition, housing insecurity, etc. As such, he asserted that these doctors have a responsibility to raise their voices and advocate for policies that explicitly address the social, economic, and environmental conditions that lead to poor health.
It occurred to me that the social determinants of health are often the same conditions that our world, nation, and state will need to address to prepare communities to be able to adapt to the consequences of our international failure to address climate change in a timely and meaningful way, something we will outline below, but first more personal context.
The importance of adaptation work and building community resilience was underscored by the second family milestone of last weekend, the birth of our second grandchild and the endless flow of photos from delivery room to homecoming, showing an entirely oblivious and innocent baby Ben in the arms of mom and dad with our other grandson, Torrey, only 2 1/2, looking on protectively. These shots made clear to us why the work ahead is of such importance, as our grandkids will develop into adults living in the communities we leave them. It matters how resilient those communities are to face the future we are leaving them. Thoughts of NM smoke underscored the importance of resilience.
In my opening comments I noted that the goals of the Stockholm+50 are not dissimilar from those related to addressing the social determinants of health. From the Stockholm+50 report:
Securing a healthy and prosperous planet for all means embarking on a joint journey where our footprint of today does not hamper the well-being of current and future generations. Stockholm+50 presents an opportunity for co-creation and multi-stakeholder approach to accelerate implementation in the coming decade in areas fundamental to a sustainable future: the relationship between human and nature, what we invest in, and how resources are used and shared. “
Note the emphasis on community resilience and preparing for future generations by redefining our relationship with nature. The report goes on to highlight strategies it feels can lead to a more resilient and more sustainable community and world.
The first strategy:
- Accelerating the implementation of commitments for a sustainable, inclusive, peaceful, and gender-responsive future through exploring enhanced and innovative financing and capacity;
Note the focus on sustainability and inclusion to strategies that are gender-responsive and seek peace. The inclusion of gender and peace are not the kind of priorities found in most climate reports. Their inclusion in the first strategy is welcome. Second recommendation:
- Driving actions across sectors needed to recover and build forward from the pandemic and its adverse impacts on people, planet and prosperity;
Note the emphasis on intersectionality, a theme emphasized throughout the Democracy Collaborative report. The work can’t be done alone; it requires collaboration, cooperation, and intentional commitment to building resilience. This points precisely to why we have made little progress on an international level. Our intentional priorities at a global level are still growth, profit, and comfort — goals that constrain the imagination and prevent being intentional about resilience, equity, and sustainability. This is why Retake is focusing locally. Third recommendation:
- Advancing policies and partnerships for transitioning to a zero-pollution and nature-positive global economy, including by rethinking new metrics for our economy;
Important to note the emphasis on rethinking our economic metrics. In the body of the report you will find emphasis about eliminating growth and GDP as the sole measure of a healthy economy. This has been a constant theme of Retake’s — with finite resources you can not sustain economic growth that depends upon consumption of those resources.
- Promoting structures for meaningful youth participation by strengthening the voice and representation of young people and ensuring that the wellbeing of current and future generations is at the core of all discussions;
Youth deserve a seat at the table, not just outside with signs. It is their future we are tinkering with and, for me, I’m done with listening to white-skinned, white-haired politicians pontificating about the need to be reasonable and protect jobs (code for protect corporate profit). Jobs are important, but a habitable planet should be the first consideration, and if you start with that, then jobs will follow — jobs in a sustainable economy, not a planet-killing one.
It is all about intentionality. If you start with the premise that growth and jobs are the goal, you keep drilling. If you start with the intention of saving the planet, you stop drilling, reduce growth, and develop systems and structures that support transitioning communities and states. The U.S. came up with $40 billion yesterday to save and rebuild a distant, small, but deserving country. What is the price tag on a livable future for future generations? Last recommendation:
- Supporting the mobilization of innovative and bold action and collaboration by business to drive system transformation.
This is the centerpiece of the Democracy Collaborative’s work: innovation and bold action to transform our systems. The old systems are intentional about the goal being profit, so everything is built around that priority. In a democratic, sustainable economy, goals will intentionally focus on distributed wealth, local and personal resilience, and a sustainable planet.
It is worth noting that the upcoming Stockholm+50 conference is occurring five decades after the 1972 UN Conference in Stockholm, a conference that made the link between environment and poverty and placed it at the forefront of the international agenda. Even if you’ve barely been paying attention, you realize how little impact that conference had on international behavior. We burn more fossil fuels, drive more cars, produce more stuff, eat more meat, throw away more trash, and fly more miles than 50 years ago, when we were warned that we needed to transition from those behaviors. And so, while the Stockholm+50 report strikes the right, urgent tone, it would be naïve, even irresponsible, to live under an assumption that change is on the way from global nations.
In discussing this post, Roxanne noted, ” Aren’t we being hypocritical, making these assertions after driving to and from an airport 60 miles away and then flying to and from California.” While she has a point, my response is two-fold:
- While humans will always seek to travel to see a child’s graduation or to visit grandchildren, transformed transportation systems and structures could accommodate that reality. The proliferation of affordable electric cars with a national network of charging stations and bullet trains will foster capacity to travel with a smaller carbon footprint. While individual behaviors are important and can force system change, we will never achieve a zero-emissions world on the backs of individual sacrifice. Systems must change.
- We need to travel less. Maintaining family connections is important, but traveling to distant vacation spots may need to be reduced until air transit is done more sustainably.
The strategies offered above from the report’s executive summary are similar to the goals and strategies found in Cities Building Community Wealth, the Democracy Collaborative publication, from which I offer this:
In the interstices of the economic challenges visited upon so many American cities—— promising alternatives are emerging. These stories are like seeds of nourishment sprouting on vacant land. They tell us that across the United States, in more places than most would imagine, a new kind of economy is beginning to appear. It’s an economy that, because of its fundamental design, tends naturally to create inclusion and prosperity for many, not simply for the few.”
Our cities’ economic challenges have intensified from the dual impacts of COVID and the growing climate catastrophe. Addressing those economic challenges will be far easier if we become more intentional about pursuing sustainable goals and implementing the kind of community resilience-building strategies outlined in the Democracy Collaborative’s publication. Their report calls for:
- innovative financing mechanisms like public banks and city investments explicitly designed to address poverty, water and energy use, and access to nutritional food, eliminating food deserts by creating local food systems;
- being more intentional in our housing strategies, focusing on those very low-income individuals and families most in need of housing, not just creating more market-rate housing that does not address the needs of those experiencing housing insecurity, but consumes valuable resources;
- They also call for buy-local policies and public ownership of key systems (e.g. energy, transportation) that retains community wealth instead of exporting our profits to Wall Street.
All these strategies can build community wealth and resilience and build capacity to better adapt to whatever economic and environmental challenges are to come. Again from the Democracy Collaborative:
Given the magnitude of the crises we now confront, it is imperative to come together as never before. City leaders may be better positioned than anyone to help their communities dream of what might be, to help communities fully recognize how great our collective power can become. As authors of this report, we hope that the time is coming when community wealth building will move from disconnection to unity, from potential power to actual power—guiding inclusive economic development policy across the land.”
The report ends with short summaries describing how 20 U.S. cities have adopted community resilience strategies. I’ll cite five that illustrate what can be done if you are intentional about building community wealth and resilience.
When Roxanne and I took our 15-state road trip in 2018, our itinerary was largely shaped by the Democracy Collaborative, as we intentionally visited many of the cities described in Cities Building Community Wealth.
Austin, Texas. Population: 885,415, People of Color: 50%, Median Household Income: $56,351, Unemployment: 5.9%.
Widely known as a high-tech hub, Austin, Texas is also one of the most segregated metropolises in the nation. In an effort to reduce income disparities and provide living wage jobs for the diverse residents of this newly majority-minority city, the city council allocated $60,000 out of the 2015 budget to support further development of Austin’s $7.7 billion cooperative sector, which employs more than 2,500 individuals. In 2014, the City launched the Recycling Economic Development Program, which includes plans to redevelop a 107-acre landfill site into the municipally owned Austin [re]Manufacturing Hub, which will support the development of locally owned business transforming recyclable materials into new products. Austin was one of the first large municipal governments in the U.S. to power all of its city-owned facilities with renewables. Its general fund has received more than $500 million from the municipally owned Austin Energy over the last five years, which has helped finance parks, libraries, and emergency services. (emphasis mine)
Note how in Austin much of the resilience infrastructure being built was funded from profits generated by the local municipal utility. Instead of local energy use profiting Wall St., as is the case in NM, Austin retained and reinvested those profits in local priorities.
Burlington, Vermont. Population: 42,323, People of Color: 21%, Median Household Income: $43,620, Unemployment: 9.0%. In 2015,
Burlington, Vermont became the first city in the nation to source all of its energy from renewables, thanks to its municipally owned Burlington Electric Department, established in 1905. Its tradition of local sustainability is embedded in institutions like the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), which holds local ownership, equity, and opportunity for all city residents among its main goals. CEDO, established in 1983 under the leadership of then Mayor Bernie Sanders, provides technical assistance to local entrepreneurs and targeted assistance to employers paying living wages. It has operated the revolving loan fund, the Business Loan Program, since 1984. The City provided a $200,000 seed grant and million dollar loans from the Burlington Employee Retirement Fund, negotiated a loan pool from a local bank, and organized volunteers to support the development of the Champlain Housing Trust (formerly known as the Burlington Community Land Trust) at its outset in 1984. In 1989, CEDO and its Executive Director Peter Clavelle successfully invoked the Public Trust Doctrine in a case before the Vermont Supreme Court, allowing the City to acquire derelict land owned by the Central Vermont Railway and to convert its formerly industrial waterfront into an accessible, multi-use esplanade. In 2001, the City worked with the Champlain Housing Trust, now the nation’s largest land trust with more than 560 limited-equity homes and 2,000 apartments, to redevelop brownfields into the waterfront’s first housing project. The development is the first LEED-certified multi-family property in Vermont. The City of Burlington has also helped to build long-lasting networks and institutions in support of permanent affordability, such as the Burlington Housing Trust Fund, which supports the creation and retention of affordable housing through a dedicated portion of property taxes, approved by voters in 1989.
Note how in Burlington, their energy has long been delivered by a public utility rather than an investor-owned utility. Note also how the city’s economic planning and development is intentionally focused on the needs of low-income residents and struggling local businesses. They are not investing to lure mega corporations to create more stores and services that seek tax credits and then exploit local labor and export profit.
Cleveland, OH. Population: 390,106, People of Color: 60%, Median Household Income: $26,096, Unemployment: 18.1%.
Once a former manufacturing center, the City of Cleveland has pushed forward to stabilize Northeast Ohio and has taken an asset-based approach to development, concentrating on the unique resources of its people, institutions, and geography. The City, in partnership with Cleveland’s university, hospital, and community foundation anchors, helped to create the Greater University Circle Initiative (GUCI), a place-based urban revitalization strategy aimed at economic inclusion, community engagement, physical development, and institutional partnerships. GUCI is aimed at improving a community divided between the great wealth of institutions on one hand and poverty-stricken, African-American communities on the other. Under Mayor Frank Jackson, the City provided $77 million in loans, remediated 28 acres of brownfields, and aided GUCI in obtaining federal financing. These efforts helped to retain biotech entrepreneurs, bring new investment to the area, and redirect a portion of local anchors’ $3 billion purchasing power to local business. Mayor Jackson and Economic Development Director Tracey Nichols were instrumental in bringing to life the worker-owned Evergreen Cooperatives, a key component of GUCI’s buy local efforts. This new model of collaboration among the City and its hospitals, universities, and The Cleveland Foundation helped the City expand its Community Benefits Policy, which provides bid discounts to locally, minority, and women-owned business and requires local and minority hiring and subcontracting. Between 2010 and 2014, the City increased contracting to these business groups from 29 to 39 percent of total contracting dollars. University Hospitals adopted similar standards and in 2013, nine leaders of business, civic, labor, and trade organizations signed a memorandum of understanding with the City to hire locally on construction projects and to support workforce development training programs. Maintaining the only industrial commercial land bank in the country, the City of Cleveland has remediated more than 125 acres of brownfields, helping to return previously abandoned lands to productive use.
Minneapolis, Minnesota. Population: 400,079, People of Color: 36%, Median Household Income: $50,563, Unemployment: 8.0%.
Minneapolis, which has long been a center of cooperative development, is seeing a new burst of cooperative activity. The City is working with local partners to explore opportunities to build off its Business Technical Assistance Program to develop a Cooperative Technical Assistance Program. Loan program staffers in the City’s Business Development office have already begun training on how to evaluate a cooperative cash’s flow and organizational health. Residents have likewise embraced cooperative development, as exemplified by the Eastside Food Cooperative, financed by neighborhood associations that pooled their grants from the City’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) to create a revolving loan fund. Many of the members that formed the Eastside Food Cooperative went on to create the 200-member NorthEast Investment Co-op, in which individuals together invest in commercial real estate development. The cooperative has bought several blighted properties and established three new businesses in east Minneapolis. The City is building off its earlier green investments with the 2014 launch of the Green Deconstruction Pilot Project. Through partnerships with the social enterprise Better Futures Minnesota, the City will employ ex-offenders in deconstruction and salvage activities, help to establish local marketplaces for reusable materials, and collect data on the environmental, social and economic impacts of deconstruction compared to traditional demolition. When Minneapolis and St. Paul built light rail, they worked through their regional planning agency to develop a $4 million revolving loan fund, the Ready for Rail program, which dispersed 206 no-interest loans to small businesses affected by the construction; nearly two thirds went to businesses owned by people of color. Minneapolis is the only city in the country offering business lending that is compliant with Islamic law, a critical source of support for Muslim entrepreneurs among the city’s large population of Somalis.
Note how every single Cleveland and Minneapolis strategy is intentionally focused on uplifting low-income residents and neighborhoods and building local resilience and sustainability. Intentionality matters.
Oakland, California. Population: 406,228, People of Color: 61%, Median Household Income: $54,395, Unemployment: 12.5%.
Despite the fact that Oakland, California has one of the principal international ports in the U.S., the City emphasizes localism in its food and energy sourcing, contracting and procurement, and business development. Thanks to the efforts of Councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington, Lynette Gibson McElhaney, and a coalition of cooperative advocates, the City Council passed a resolution supporting the development and growth of worker cooperatives and the City’s Business Assistance Center’s efforts to provide support to worker cooperatives. The resolution is a symbolic step toward eventually introducing an ordinance that would create funding pools and preferential purchasing arrangements. Such an ordinance would build upon Oakland’s Local and Small Business Enterprise Program, which requires the City to meet minimum contracting and purchasing participation rates of local firms, emerging businesses, and businesses employing Oakland residents. The Port of Oakland has set similar goals, with 61 percent of local hiring achieved in a recent major development. Since the City provided $50,000 in funding to create the Oakland Food Policy Council in 2006, it has made great strides to support its local food system, including amending its zoning code to reduce restrictions on backyard gardens and selling homegrown crops. Through a pilot project with the school district and other institutional purchasers, the City is developing local food procurement guidelines and identifying local suppliers. The City sources 2.3 percent of its energy from solar panels installed on municipal buildings. It’s also working with the County of Alameda to develop a regional Community Choice program, which aggregates consumer demand to create a viable market for renewable energy. The aim is not only reducing emissions but also generating living wage jobs, and promoting ownership of renewable energy assets by low- and moderate-income residents and communities of color. The City also supported the creation of the Oakland Community Land Trust in 2010, with an award of more than $5 million in Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding, which helped the trust acquire its first properties
Having lived and worked in Oakland most of my adult life, I take special pride in the degree to which the city has become explicit and intentional in developing policies to benefit low-income Oakland, i.e. most of Oakland. And then investing in those strategies transforming policies from promises to programs. Oakland is not a wealthy city. It has made economic and environmental justice priorities and then creatively invested resources in those priorities.
Rochester, New York. Population: 210,300, People of Color: 55%, Median Household Income: $30,200, Unemployment: 13.9%.
The city’s first female mayor, Mayor Lovely Warren, has led the city to adopt community wealth building strategies. She played a leadership role in launching the Market Driven Community Co-op Corporation, an effort to develop a network of cooperatives linked to anchor institution purchasing, similar to Cleveland’s Evergreen
Cooperatives. The initiative to date—with which The Democracy Collaborative is assisting—has gotten widespread backing from area anchor institutions and community groups. In 2013, the City established a land bank, supported by $4.6 million in grants awarded
by the New York State Office of the Attorney General, following the National Mortgage Settlement of 2012, which transferred $25 billion from large mortgage firms to local communities as recompense for abusive lending practices. The Rochester Land Bank Corporation
has transferred more than 40 properties into public ownership.
The priority that must be foremost to achieve community wealth and resilience is an intentional focus on building local community wealth and prioritizing the inclusion of low-income residents and communities in the design of initiatives. Research has demonstrated that community benefit does not trickle down if the focus is on profit, so the lens must focus squarely on resilience and equity, not profit.
The Democracy Collaborative’s Cities Building Community Wealth is a treasure chest of policies and practices essential to creating sustainable communities and building local community wealth. The handbook includes summaries like those above for 20 U.S. cities, as well as detailed discussion of key strategies, why they work, and how they can be implemented locally. There is no reason cities in NM could not adopt or adapt many of these strategies to build local resilience and capacity to adapt to future economic and environmental disruption.
Most every medium and large NM City has government offices, hospitals, and school districts. Cities can partner with these anchor institutions, as they are described by the Democracy Collaborative. In cities like Cleveland, Rochester, and Buffalo, convening leadership from those anchor institutions and facilitating a process through which their procurement is conducted with the intentional goal of creating community wealth has enabled anchor procurement to underwrite the creation of local worker-owned cooperatives and significantly strengthened local small business communities.
Every NM city uses energy. In Austin and Burlington, municipal energy structures pour profit into the city coffers while accelerating the path to 100% renewable energy. Public power can be achieved at state, city/county or tribal levels to the immense benefit of communities municipalizing their energy systems, e.g. Picuris Pueblo, Kit Carson Electric Coop.
Small business communities in most NM cities desperately need capital to rebuild local economies and strengthen local businesses. Creation of a State Public Bank would allow strategic injection of funding into resilience-focused partnerships between local business, and local government while leveraging federal and state relief funds and local lending institution resources.
Communities and individuals devastated by firestorms present and future can be rebuilt more easily and more quickly with a State Public Bank leveraging its lending capacity with federal and state relief funds, as was done in North Dakota after the 1997 Red River flood. From the Bank of North Dakota website:
Folks in Grand Forks, North Dakota will never forget April 1997, when record flooding of the Red River and major fires devastated the city. They also won’t forget that it was Bank of North Dakota — the nation’s only bank owned by a state — that put people above profits. The BND rushed to the rescue with financial flexibility and generosity of spirit in the public interest that no privately owned bank could match
While Grand Forks was largely rebuilt in 18 months, communities on the Minnesota side of Red River were still struggling to regain normalcy 15 years after the flooding. They didn’t have a state public bank.
While all of these resilience strategies could theoretically be implemented without public power to generate revenue for investment or without a public bank. We have coalitions advocating for both here in NM and achieving one or both would greatly facilitate, accelerate and expand implementation of other resilience strategies.
The Democracy Collaborative’s Cities Building Community Wealth has provided the models to help NM build strong, resilient local communities while elevating the conditions under which our poorest residents live. What is lacking is the broad awareness of the possibilities and the political will to take action.
Building the awareness begins with you. Please review the Democracy Collaborative’s handbook (link provided above and below), identify a local strategy germane to your community, and share that strategy and the handbook with engaged voters in your city, ward, or precinct. Also share with your local elected officials and state legislators and start a conversation. Make the handbook a discussion topic at future Indivisible meetings or meetings of whatever organization you are part of.
By initiating conversation about what can be done and using Cities Building Community Wealth as a resource, we can open minds and doors and build a consensus focused on creating local wealth and resilience.
Retake will continue to research and share strategies consistent with those found in Cities Building Community Wealth. If you’d like to be part of that work, write to us at RetakeResponse@gmail.com. It will only take a handful of you to significantly accelerate and expand this work. Join us.
In solidarity and hope,
Paul & Roxanne