Welcome to the New Economy!

Written by Nwamaka Agbo

November 18, 2015

This is the first in a series of posts from Our Economy Initiative, a partnership of Movement Strategy Center and The Workers Lab focused on sharing innovations that place our values at the center of our economy.

I lived in Oakland in 2008, when reckless, predatory, and under-regulated financial practices came crashing down into the Great Recession. Working for an organization dedicated to community empowerment and justice, I was devastated to see family after family facing foreclosure from skyrocketing loans designed to displace them, long-term workers struck with pink slips, and parents struggling to put food on the table for their kids.

I was still here in Oakland in 2012, when the impact of the Great Recession finally hit the nonprofit sector I work in. As many of our groups struggled, some even closed their doors. I was heartbroken when after 25 years, the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment shut down, leaving Oakland’s low-income women with no support for the homegrown micro-enterprises they were building. In that moment we lost a catalyst in the grassroots economic development that truly builds and anchors communities – the community self-determination I’ve worked for my entire adult life.

I haven’t given up. In fact I’m more determined than ever.

These days I focus on two crucial questions:

  • How do we claim our financial independence in the nonprofit sector and build vibrant communities based on shared prosperity and community wealth?
  • What are the pathways to transition to a just economy that embodies resilience, interdependence, regeneration and collective well being?

These questions challenge me, and all us movement builders, in many ways. These questions challenge assumptions that shape our beliefs and understanding of our current economy. And they demand that we confront our aversion to capital and money, both as individuals and as movements.

More and more organizations and individuals are exploring and making progress towards answering these questions, showing up with experimentation and courageous inquiry that give me great hope.

The shift to a new economy is already underway – visible in the burgeoning sharing economy, in business models like Evergreen Cooperatives, and in regenerative forms of finance. To continue the momentum of this shift, we need the active engagement of those committed to a quadruple-bottom line economy to help shape the new economy’s form and build the linkages we need for long-term success.

Today, right now, we need innovations like Restore Oakland and the Better Builder Program. Restore Oakland (a joint initiative of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United), and the Better Builder Program of Workers Defense Project are organizations that have taken the initial steps in moving towards a new economy by piloting market-based projects as a response to some of the challenges that impact the communities they serve.

Check out the New Economy Spotlight Interviews below with Robert Delp and Zack Norris to find out what makes these efforts so needed and so visionary.

New Economy Spotlight: Better Builder Program

Interview with Robert Delp, Better Builder Program Director

Nwamaka Agbo: What is the Better Builder Program?

Robert Delp: The Better Builder Program (BBP) of the Workers Defense Project (WDP) asks developers to commit their construction contracting chain to Better Builder standards for construction workers on their projects. BBP seeks to provide construction workers with a living wage, OSHA-10 safety training, and workers’ compensation insurance (not currently required by law in Texas) for all construction workers. Furthermore, BBP is organizing towards achieving a local hiring goal for construction projects and to secure independent on-site monitoring provided by a Workers Defense Project certified monitor. BBP standards were directly established by WDP’s members working in the construction industry to address the poor, and often deadly, conditions construction workers face on a daily basis.

NA: What is BBP’s business model?

RD: WDP’s Better Build Program is a market-based strategy that provides a fee-for-service to developers by ensuring that their business practices and standards are up to code through consistent on-site monitoring. Developers invest into BBP and justify the cost for their services to their shareholders by demonstrating that the cost savings and value-add of being in compliance with construction labor and safety code, in addition to having well trained construction workers, are better for the company’s profit margin than being served with significant fines and liens that are more expensive for the project overall.

NA: What innovation is BBP spawning?

RD: One out of a few innovations that Better Build is pursuing is policy advocacy around reforming the City of Austin’s permitting process. Because of Austin’s exploding growth, the time it takes for a development to secure the necessary construction permits can take months, rather than days or weeks. On a $30 million project, the carrying costs on a construction loan for a development that is idly waiting for permits can be $30-50,000 per month. Workers Defense Project has developed a proposal currently being reviewed by city staff that would grant access to an expedited permit review process for developers who commit to the Better Builder Program and enter into a covenant agreement between the developer, the City of Austin, and Workers Defense Project.

These are new concepts, and educating policy makers and staff about the potentially transformative effect both policies could have on the families who build our cities is a necessary process that takes time and resources. Still, Better Builder has monitored six projects since 2012 and recently secured our standards on Austin Community College’s $286 million bond program, so we are confident that the value and community benefit are evident.

New Economy
NA: What challenges does BBP face?

RD: Some of the challenges that we are experiencing include opposition from some developers and contractors to our program. We organize workers, have direct actions, hold bad actors accountable for illegal behavior and poor working conditions, and seek to alter the regulatory environment in which the construction industry operates in favor of workers. Allowing oneself to be open to scrutiny, especially by an organization seen by some as inherently combative towards the industry, is nothing short of a laborious prospect for some firms. The Better Builder Program will need to continue to make the case that our monitors are genuinely interested in true partnerships with responsible developers to create good, safe construction jobs in Texas, and to find each worksite in compliance with the standards set out by the Better Builder program.

NA: Who does BBP partner with?

RD: Since joining The Workers Lab, we have honed our business model, value proposition, and lean startup approach of our day-to-day operations. These steps have been critical in helping us refine our market-based approach to social justice. More broadly, the Better Builder program engaged extensively with the Partnership for Working Families in the beginning to model our program after some of the groundbreaking Community Benefit Agreements (CBA’s) implemented across the country. We have also collaborated closely with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the important victories they have achieved in the Florida tomato industry through their code of conduct signed by both national buyers and regional growers of tomatoes to strengthen protections for agricultural workers.

New Economy Spotlight: Restore Oakland

Interview with Zachary Norris, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center

NA: What is Restore Oakland?

Zachary Norris: Restore Oakland is a collaboration between Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United where  community leaders are coming together to articulate a vision for what they want their communities to look and feel like and then taking the next step in actively bringing people together to implement that community-driven vision. We are clear that more prisons and more police do not make our neighborhoods safer. Restore Oakland is a manifestation of true community vision for safety and economic opportunity.

NA: What myths does Restore Oakland challenge?

ZN: The past 40 years of disinvestment and this latest wave of displacement and gentrification have been based on the premise that the market will fix things as needed. Restore Oakland is our attempt to debunk that premise and to demonstrate that we need community-driven efforts to build economic sustainability for our neighborhoods. Part of seeding that vision requires us to build the high road for employers to make just decisions for workers in the work place and to create a space for healing and reconciliation so that we can all move forward with vibrant and healthy lives.

NA: What innovation is emerging from Restore Oakland?

RD: Restore Oakland is an exciting and innovative new project that creates an opportunity for organizations and individuals to explore new governance models and legal structures for the management of land and assets. We are working with a set of experts to assist us in assessing and vetting which governance and legal structures are best suited to uphold the mission, vision, and values of Restore Oakland as an equitable development project. Furthermore, Restore Oakland will need to seek out financing to acquire real estate and to advance this bold vision. We will determine what type of financing is best suited for our project needs and who are the lenders or investors that are willing to work with us to move this project forward.

NA: Who is Restore Oakland partnering with?

ZN: In addition to our partnership between EBC and ROC United, we are fortunate to have a set of strategic partners that we are collaboratively working with to refine the design of Restore Oakland. We are partnering with Community Works West, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and Urban Peace Movement to work through the facility design and integrated programming for the restorative justice healing circles at the site. We are also working closely with organizations and businesses like Causa Justa::Just Cause and Designing Justice Designing Spaces to ensure that this project serves as an example of what equitable development can look like in Oakland, in partnership with the neighboring community.

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