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Learning How to Build Community Wealth

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity

“I want to talk about wealth because I want to be part of a movement that begins to change how we think about wealth.”

Wealth is a taboo topic in our society. Yet, it is a topic that I want to spend more time discussing with other people, not necessarily in a rigorously academic way, but as a casual, dinner party kind of way. I know I sound like a very fun guest to have at your next COVID-19-safe social gathering, but sometimes speaking about wealth transparently within our social networks can help us better understand how we create social meaning around wealth. I want to talk about wealth because I want to be part of a movement that begins to change how we think about wealth. Primarily, I want to shift the conversation from building individual wealth that benefits the few at the top to a concept of building community wealth to uplift the many. 

I will be the first to admit—I do not know a lot about wealth. What I do know is that wealth inequality is getting worse. There is no end in sight. I know that our present economic system values profits over people. And I know that the opportunity to build wealth has been systematically denied to Black Americans throughout history, which has led to the racial wealth inequality we see today. I know that we need a better system. 

“Our system incentivizes the hoarding of wealth.”

Over the years, public policy has focused on building capacity for increased individual wealth. But personal wealth can only take you so far unless you are part of the 1%. As we continue to take stock of the economic fallout of COVID-19 and see millions of people suffer income loss and other inequities, we have noticed that most billionaires grew their wealth. In fact, it has been shown that the wealthiest members of the billionaire class now have 21 times more wealth than they did in 1982 in today’s dollars. Our system incentivizes the hoarding of wealth, and even billionaires promising to give their wealth away is not enough to enact change on a meaningful and systemic level. So, what comes next? How do we create a pathway forward that can deliver sustainable and local development?

We can expand our framework of building wealth from an individual level to a community level. 

Community wealth building (CWB) is a term coined by the Democracy Collaborative in the last decade. CWB refers to a “system-changing approach to community economic development that works to produce broadly shared economic prosperity, racial equity, and ecological sustainability through the reconfiguration of institutions and local economies based on greater democratic ownership, participation, and control.” Drexel University’s Nowak Metro Finance Lab has adapted this concept to fit neighborhood economic development and entrepreneurial dynamics. They describe Community Wealth as a system committed to upgrading skills, growing entrepreneurs, increasing incomes, and building assets. Instead of relying on traditional community economic development models in which cities are forced to compete against one another to incentivize corporations to create jobs in their regions, Community Wealth is rooted in place-based economics. Rather than leaving the decision-making to the government and private sector, CWB provides an opportunity for all community stakeholders to come together to address their needs. Furthermore, CWB aims to develop institutions and local supportive ecosystems to create a new sustainable and equitable model of development, instead of one driven by profit. It seeks to redistribute wealth from the few to the many. 

“Community Wealth can be used to redefine how we value our society.”

Community wealth is more than an economic framework. Community Wealth can be used to redefine how we value our society. In Indianapolis, the nonprofit Kheprw Institute has defined community wealth as “the collective assets—social, intellectual, cultural, financial, etc.—that a community owns or controls that enable the community to care for one another and the natural environment. Some examples include worker-owned cooperatives, community-owned housing, and locally-owned credit unions.” Alkhemy, a program within Kheprw Institute, builds community wealth by growing the social, intellectual, cultural, and financial capital of local under-resourced entrepreneurs. This is one example of a local community coming together to practice community wealth. 

I am still learning about Community Wealth and defining what it means to me. I believe that wealth is more than financial assets and should include social relationships, the environment, and other non-material assets that are often overlooked when evaluating a community’s worth. Instead of a deficit approach, Community Wealth provides an opportunity to highlight the strengths of each community in its own right. The spillover effects of transforming our basic assumptions about wealth can lead to the stabilization of local economies and the redistribution of wealth so that an entire community can benefit. 

By Camille Gladieux, PhD Student