What Happens After No?
You might remember when Amazon announced that they were beginning a search for their second headquarters, and the varied conversations this sparked; you may remember the flurry of activity across the country by both large and smaller cities rushing to get their applications in to be considered. Maybe you were surprised—or not—to see New York City listed as one of the top 20 finalists, and then, Long Island City selected as one of two new headquarters, with two billion dollars in government subsidies going to Amazon to site their headquarters in Queens. And then I’m sure we all remember the news on Valentine’s Day that the local and city-wide organizing efforts against HQ2 had won out and the Amazon Deal flatlined.
Amazon’s retreat was both a lost opportunity for jobs and tax revenue and a watershed moment, ultimately, in large part, a reflection of community power. It’s just one of many examples over the last few decades of community organizer and labor battles against economic development projects that weren’t addressing community priorities or meeting community needs. The common problem is that the developers saw community stakeholders as obstacles, not as partners. This framework of trickle-down economic development has been entrenched for many decades. The Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD) and CUNY made development alternatives the focus of their recent, concurrent conferences, a testament to how this topic is a core issue of our time.
But Amazon isn’t the only example. Other battles have been underway in New York City, such as the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment in the Northwest Bronx, and the fight to save, and then transform, Interfaith Medical Center in Central Brooklyn. In fact, these campaigns—and the ones that came before—were pivot points that also led to better development alternatives, fighting forward and shaping a different vision for building wellness, self-determination, and economic democracy in communities.
In the Bronx, the Kingsbridge Armory fight was ultimately successful and the community and labor coalition was able to defeat the plan for a low-wage shopping mall backed by Mayor Bloomberg. The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC), along with 25 other organizations, were then able to win a historic, legally binding community benefits agreement that reflected many community priorities, including living wage jobs, local hire, and local procurement standards.
Fighting for nearly two decades on this project, along with many others like it across the borough, and the trajectory of Bronxites getting poorer even as more business came into the community, led the NWBCCC and other grassroots organizations to create the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI). Organizers and leaders began meeting and sought to answer the following questions:
How can our victories also enable people to own and control critical pieces of the local economy?
If community members collectively owned and governed key assets in the Bronx, could we create an economy that builds shared wealth and ownership for low income people of color?
To that end, BCDI is a community-led effort to build an equitable, sustainable, and democratic local economy that creates wealth and ownership for low-income people of color—what we call economic democracy. At the center of BCDI’s model is creating an infrastructure for economic democracy through six core projects.
Similarly, in Central Brooklyn, when Interfaith Medical Center joined the growing number of safety-net hospitals slated to be closed, a labor/community coalition came together successfully to keep the hospital open and fight for resources to effectively meet community health needs. The Coalition to Save Interfaith, as it was called, commissioned a report to better understand the health issues in the surrounding zip codes and make recommendations to address the root causes of poor health— mainly poverty. The coalition and its allies won a pledge of hundreds of millions of dollars to transform the local healthcare delivery system in Central Brooklyn through strategies to build wellness and shared wealth.
CoLab has been intimately involved in both of these stories and continues to be deeply entrenched in these and other communities.
Organizers and leaders engaging in the Bronx and Brooklyn have shared many lessons. A few highlighted at the CUNY conference include:
1. We need alternatives to planning and development processes that neither meaningfully engage community stakeholders, nor, as a result, meet community needs.
2. It’s not enough to just fight for crumbs or put band aids on systemic challenges; our work must also address the root causes.
3. Economic democracy as a framework allows the most impacted to be at the center of decision-making and to create a vision for building shared wealth and collective ownership of assets in our communities.
4. Given the vast and growing disparities in wealth and income in our city and nation, there is no better, more urgent time than now to advance this vision—in New York and in other communities. As Wendoly Marte, Board President of BCDI shared on a CUNY conference panel: “if not now, when? If not us, who?”
As Program Director for Participatory Planning and Policy in the MIT Community Innovators Lab’s Just Urban Economies Program (JUE) I’m privileged to work with BCDI and other community partners to build the long-term strategy, and supportive public policy, for community-driven equitable development. Our shared goal is to help advance a vision for economic democracy in the Bronx and beyond.
The Just Urban Economies program co-creates models for economic democracy and self-determination with local stakeholders in the U.S. We enhance this work by bringing together practitioners across the country to learn together about innovative place-based models and build capacity to advance the field of economic democracy. All of the research and knowledge products that we co-develop are based on the indigenous experience and analysis of the marginalized groups with whom we work. That experience and analysis informs our shared understanding of the economic democracy vision we seek to advance.
Katherine Mella, Program Director for Participatory Planning and Policy under the Just Urban Economies Program (JUE) at the Community Innovators Lab at MIT.