Building Economic and Democratic Power: Lessons from the Road

Jenn Miller is the Director of Social Investment with the Atkinson Foundation. Alejandra Bravo is an advisor to Atkinson with a focus on organizing for community benefits. She is the Director of Leadership and Training at the Broadbent Institute.

On a unseasonably hot and sunny mid September morning, an Ontario-based group of community leaders travelled to Buffalo, New York.

Our mission was to see first hand how organizers are building coalitions to support public policy advocacy for community benefits and to generate more economic power. The Atkinson Foundation organized this trip for two reasons: (1) gain deeper insights into the process of community organizing for equitable economic development (e.g. Community Benefits Agreements) at a neighbourhood, city and regional scale; and, (2) build stronger relationships between Canadian and American community organizers who aim to win more benefits for low-income residents from economic investment of all kinds.

Our hosts

During our two days in the “City of Good Neighbors”, Open Buffalo and PUSH Buffalo were our hosts. Both organizations are leaders in the fight for climate, economic and racial justice. Open Buffalo is one of three American sites (along with San Diego and Puerto Rico) awarded a multi-million, multi-year grant from the Open Society Foundations to address equality, justice, and democratic practice at the local level.

Made up of a coalition of organizations (including PUSH Buffalo), Open Buffalo provides leadership development, media and policy strategy and coordination, direct support, and assistance to social and economic justice organizations and campaigns, facilitates action-oriented community research, and raises the profile of and mobilizes funding for this important work. PUSH Buffalo is a member-based organization that mobilizes residents to create strong neighbourhoods with quality, affordable housing, local hiring opportunities and to by advancing economic justice in Buffalo.

Our route

We started off our cross-border learning exchange at Buffalo’s waterfront. There we learned about the Canal Side Community Alliance’s campaign to negotiate community benefits with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) as part of the waterfront’s redevelopment. While unable to secure a legally binding agreement, in 2013 the ECHDC adopted a set of principles to help guide their current and future economic development initiatives for the Buffalo Waterfront. The principles included provisions for quality jobs for local job seekers, a prioritization of local business, and a commitment to environmental sustainability and affordable housing. This was considered a historic and catalytic moment for community benefits organizing in the city.

Next stop was the Fruit Belt neighbourhood – a historic and primarily Black neighbourhood on Buffalo’s east side – where the streets are named after the orchards its first residents, German immigrants, planted. There we heard about the Community First Alliance’s inspiring commitment to community controlled organizing, development without displacement and neighbourhood unity. This inter-generational, resident-led group has been organizing to ensure residents have a voice in development tied to the expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus located in the area.

We spent the better part of the next day with PUSH Buffalo touring the city’s Green Development Zone, an internationally recognized effort to grow a new community economy in a 25-square block area of Buffalo’s West Side. PUSH Buffalo has acquired and renovated 80 units of housing in over 20 buildings, with plans to create 41 more units by December 2018. This has allowed for paid job training in green construction for over 150 workers. Over 30 construction and green sector workers have secured permanent employment with local contractors.

Before we crossed back over the border, we had the opportunity to visit Assembly House 150. It’s an old church that is being transformed into a non-profit space for experimental art and architectural projects. One of its programs – a collaboration with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo Public Schools, and the Department of Social Services – will be dedicated to workforce training projects, which will equip participants from equity seeking communities with carpentry, woodworking and design skills. The space is wonderfully unique, combining original elements like the beautiful stained glass church windows with quirky sculptures big enough to hold rooms where classes will be taught.

Our learnings

On the ride home, we each took a moment to share what excited us about the way community is getting organized in Buffalo. It was clear that even though we were slightly exhausted and sufficiently overstimulated, what we saw and heard had left each of us inspired. Key takeaways shared included:

  • Regardless of the job title on his or her business card, everyone is an organizer. To a person, those we met with saw it as their role to connect with residents and ensure that their voice and experience were centred and informed priorities and activities.
  • All organizations, coalitions and networks we spent time with recognized that leadership development builds power to affect positive change in communities, so they invest in that work.
  • Government champions are critical to success. At the same time, community organizations and alliances need to remain autonomous and independent to push for change and to remain authentic to their constituency.

Our action on community benefits in Ontario

We left Buffalo with a sense of urgency about fostering a culture of organizing and leadership development to advance strategies for community benefits tied to public infrastructure projects. This involves working across our areas of interest to develop a shared narrative or vision that incorporates building economic justice, fighting inequality in all its forms, and stimulating democratic participation in a particular place. Movement building requires diligent relationship and network building among people who are far removed from positions of power. They need to be at the centre, claiming, owning and sharing power within our democratic society.

The experience of travelling and learning together has shown us what’s possible. When leaders and organizers have an opportunity to aggregate knowledge and experience across different geographies and areas of focus, there is greater potential for systems-level change. This includes boldly reflecting on failure, transmitting insights and knowledge to each other through peer-to-peer learning, and making meaning of organizing practice as a collective.

As governments have announced commitments to billions of dollars in investment, local community and labour leaders are  seizing the opportunity to mobilize for decent work and equitable economic development with community benefits organizing. The core principle is that economic decision-making should be inclusive, open and accountable, and that economic development strategies should create opportunity for workers and real, measurable improvements for community.

Community benefits organizers are forming foundational relationships to deliver material improvements in people’s lives — by committing to shared values, to strong partnership between community and labour, and to learning while taking action for measurable gains. We are starting to see and experience infrastructure investment and development differently. By demanding tangible benefits and accountability, people are reimagining an economy they want to build for themselves. The impact: an awakening of communities to their own agency and power in shaping the local economy, ultimately building local democracy everywhere they live.

Photo above: PUSH Buffalo staff and members along with community organizers from Toronto, Hamilton and Peel.