Cities Building Wealth for All

A keynote delivered at the Cities Reducing Poverty Summit on Tuesday, April 4, 2017 in Hamilton by Atkinson’s Colette Murphy. This event was convened by Vibrant Communities Canada and the City of Hamilton, and co-hosted by the Maytree Foundation and the Canadian Federation of Municipalities.

It is great to be in Hamilton with all of you. Just over a week ago, I was here for the Around the Bay race – the oldest long distance run in North America. I accompanied my husband – the runner in our household. It struck me as I cheered from the sidelines of the gray, rainy course with so many others that the race is a good metaphor. It captures what I’ve experienced as the spirit of Hamilton residents, and the entire Vibrant Communities network.

To attempt this race, you must be determined. It’s a tough course moving across uneven, hilly terrain. You have to pace yourself, knowing you’re in it for the long haul and not just a short sprint. And you must celebrate each victory along the way – big and small milestones – as we did when Sandra Holder, the last racer, crossed the finish line and was greeted with a marching band, cheering residents and confetti. So, thank you – all of you – for your determined, persistent and enthusiastic efforts.

And thank you, Elizabeth, for your introduction. It’s a privilege to be part of this conversation about the places we call home: Hamilton, Burlington, Oakville, Halton, Toronto, Kitchener and Waterloo, London, St. Thomas, Chatham-Kent, Renfrew, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, Kenora, St. John, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Cranbrook and Whitehorse. Have I missed any? Please shout out the name of your town.

These places where we live and work matter to us – or we wouldn’t be here. Nor would we put our names on ballots, put our savings on the line to start businesses, or put countless hours into our communities to make them even more vibrant than they already are.

But the people with whom we live and work matter to us even more – or we would simply accept poverty as inevitable. Each of us knows someone, or is someone, whose life has been deeply scarred by poverty’s realities. It’s this knowledge that has moved us to act:

To claim and uphold the right of every human being to an adequate standard of living and protection under the law;

To build and invest in companies that value employees as the engine of profitability, not as the fuel;

To recognize the wellbeing of people as a true measure of a community’s net worth, our principle asset and the only one that accrues real value over time; and,

To even re-imagine and re-write the rules of a 20th century economic game that is increasingly creating more private wealth than public good.

It’s this disconnect between old rules and new realities that lit a fire under the Atkinson Foundation a few years ago. We decided our expectations, as a society, had sunk dangerously low and it was time to start raising them dramatically. After decades of record-breaking economic growth, we concluded it was not unreasonable to expect decent work for every Canadian. We decided we would not invest in businesses or sectors unwilling to disclose their performance to this end. We recommitted ourselves to repairing Canada’s social safety net. We got behind the Fight for $15 and the modernization of provincial employment and labour laws. Further, we set our sights on a 21st century economy that belongs to the citizens of this country – not global plutocrats.

Like many of you, we decided to give more oxygen to solutions over problems when we realized the questions we were asking about how to end poverty were taking us down a dead-end road.

Ask any social scientist and they’ll tell you that questions are never neutral.  They’re fateful. Systems move in the direction of the questions we ask of them. Ask questions about problems, we can spend energy. Ask questions about solutions, we can gain energy. Some say a preoccupation with problems can actually make them worse or harder to solve.

So, we stopped asking what makes a community poor and started asking what makes it wealthy. With help from the Mowat Centre, we also started investigating what impoverishes a province and asking what makes it prosperous.  We published two reports on an approach to economic development and poverty reduction called community wealth building.

This approach was pioneered in the United States and has been promoted globally by an organization called The Democracy Collaborative.  From the multiplier effect of institutional “buy local” or “social procurement” strategies that keeps money circulating in a community, to workforce development to eliminate barriers to training, these economic strategies complement more traditional ones. They leverage the collaborative power of anchor institutions – municipalities, unions, hospitals, universities and colleges – to make cities stronger, fairer and healthier by every measure.

As you know, the traditional approach to economic development is based on a zero sum game in which some people win and others lose. The community wealth building approach is based on a positive sum game in which no one wins at someone else’s expense. It’s gaining traction because the old approach, simply put, is creating too few winners.

The people leading this effort in Canada, the US and the UK are a lot like you and me. They hold elected office like Mayor Eisenberger. They are public servants and union leaders. They manage social services. They run businesses like the Hamilton Spectator. They are academics and philanthropists like Terry Cooke. They are education and health care administrators. They are also community organizers and activists like these two remarkable people – Tom Cooper and Deena Ladd – whose tireless work to raise the wage floor in this country is nothing short of heroic.

These community wealth builders share a commitment to using their individual and collective economic power in ways that promise benefits for everyone. They see deep divisions in their cities along race, gender and income lines – and know these conditions do not attract investment or talent. The consequences of unbridled inequality can, in fact, repel people and make a city less competitive.

We cannot count on young, innovative private wealth builders alone to create what KPMG calls “magnet cities”. They need to partner with community wealth builders like us who are committed to getting everyone trained and ready for employment, to give everyone who has the entrepreneurial spirit and a solid business plan a chance to be part of our supply chains, and to give everyone the option of being part of an employee-owned business.

If you’d like to see what these ideas look like on the ground and in practice, there are several case studies in the Mowat reports I mentioned earlier. They’re on our website –  If you have your mobile handy, they’re very easy to find at and

Both reports provide evidence that reframing poverty reduction to community wealth building is leading many of us down a productive and creative road. This new frame redefines key terms like prosperity, wealth, poverty and inclusion.

Prosperity is one of those economic goals that we usually think of as driving competition, the kind that creates winners and losers, haves and have nots, the wealthy and the poor.  We think of poverty as something we can remediate with a strong social safety net and charity.  So, we set inclusion as a social goal to drive cooperation. A consequence of this way of thinking, however, is that we are divided neatly – and artificially – into givers and receivers. The donors and the beneficiaries. The strong and the weak.

When we look at prosperity, wealth, poverty and inclusion in this way, the conversation is all about the damage caused to the receivers and their families by the economy; the kind of damage that accumulates over lifetimes and becomes the next generation’s inheritance.  It can become mired in the problems rooted in income and wealth inequality, such as access to healthy food, affordable housing, safe streets, and decent work.

We can burn up a lot of fuel spinning our wheels on remedial measures – instead of generating enough wealth for all of us, and a legacy that can produce dividends well into the future.

Helmi Ansari from Grosche, who spoke earlier this morning, has described this process as an “upward spiral” that leads away from poverty and precarity and toward community wealth and decent work. We’ve been inspired by his example to join the Better Way to Build an Economy Alliance and hope you will too.

We’ve also been inspired by the people who will join me this afternoon on a panel called Reversing Fortunes: Cities Building Wealth:

  • Rosemarie Powell from the Toronto Community Benefits Network – a community-labour alliance of over 70 organizations. TCBN is working with our regional transit authority, government, philanthropy and other partners to produce a wide range of benefits for low-income communities from the Province of Ontario’s multi-billion dollar investment in public infrastructure, including for social enterprises and other small businesses.
  • Denise Andrea Campbell from the City of Toronto. Denise has been leading a process to develop a social procurement policy framework for the City (and to embed it in their Poverty Reduction Strategy). They’re maximizing their purchasing power to create more work opportunities for people who need them and diversifying their supply chains.
  • From his perspective from the C-Suite, Ian Troope will tell the story of the PanAm Games and how Ian and his team engaged small, medium and diverse suppliers in mounting this major event.
  • And Leena Sharma Seth. Leena will share why the community wealth building approach captured the imagination of the Halton Poverty Roundtable and how they’re engaging their communities in shaping and realizing this vision.

If I had more time, I’d tell one more story for all the responsible investors in the audience today – the story of Atkinson’s efforts as one shareholder among many who are engaging businesses in reducing poverty. Instead, I’ll refer to you SHARE, the Shareholder Association for Research and Education, and Shannon Rohan’s groundbreaking work to connect decent work conditions, corporate performance and value creation. Do check it out when you have a minute.

I’d like to close with a quote from an article on inclusive prosperity published yesterday in the Harvard Business Review:

“Prosperity in a society is the accumulation of solutions to human problems.”

By emphasizing solutions as the engine of growth, the authors cast capitalism as a force for prosperity but they also offer direction for any of us who want to work harder to make the world better off.

Our mission, they say, is “to imagine, develop, and launch more life-improving solutions, especially the kinds of goods and services that improve ordinary people’s lives. Businesses, in particular, have a variety of social responsibilities, but the essential one—and the main reason that private enterprise is given license to operate—is to innovate.”

As we continue to think hard together about how to engage businesses in what Mayor Eisenberger calls the “total team effort” to fight poverty, my hope is that we will hold this definition of prosperity in mind. A prosperity that creates true solutions, not more or deeper problems, and knits us more tightly into the inclusive and prosperous country we long to be.