Building Community Wealth

Written by Annabella Liao

Community: a collective. Neighbours united. Togetherness. And Wealth: in funds? In capacity to act? In community care? 

Defining Community Wealth

Measuring success in terms of community wealth extends outside of capital and liquid assets. Community wealth also looks like creating more inclusive economies, improved social cohesion, and strengthened mutual aid. According to Jo Reynolds, Senior Director Partnerships and Development at SI Canada,  “Community wealth builds community-owned assets and retains wealth and well-being for communities in order to improve quality of life for everyone.” So, what exactly does building community wealth mean? According to the Democracy Collaborative who first articulated this concept in 2005, “Community Wealth Building (CWB) is an economic development model that transforms local economies based on communities having direct ownership and control of their assets. It challenges the failing approaches that have been widely accepted in [North] American economic development for too long, and addresses wealth inequality at its core.”

In the case of the city of Windsor, the building of the Gordie Howe International Bridge (GHIB) is a model example of a community collaboratively engaging with the economy and ongoing flow of capital to bring collective benefit into their backyards. This massive infrastructure project led to the creation of a Community Benefits Plan as a required element in Windsor-Essex and Detroit, Michigan by the Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA). The Plan states that when there are large infrastructure builds, the community should receive a tangible benefit from it besides temporary workforce opportunities. In this instance, $10 million will be allocated on each side of the border to projects which either mitigate the side-effects of construction or benefit neighbouring communities. “New trees, art installations, supports for small businesses, youth programming and improvements to homes, parks and community hubs are a few initiatives that are already empowering the local communities to implement their vision for the future,” said Heather Grondin, Vice President, Corporate Affairs and External Relations, Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority. We can see that in this “business-for-good” model, the bottom line is positive shareholder return in a system where everyone is a shareholder. 

Social Innovation Canada has identified Community Wealth as a key thematic area for project and partnership development. So, to better understand what building community wealth looks like in action, I sat down with Jo Reynolds, Director of Partnerships and Development at SI Canada and Denise Soueidan-O’Leary, Director of Projects and Partnerships at the Centre for Social Innovation, to discuss their experience working on community wealth projects. As we walked through different examples of embedding generative economies in local communities, it was clear that first we had to explore what it means to centre equity and inclusion in this work. 

Equity and Inclusion Centred 

In a world where too many are getting left behind, I asked Jo what it means to centre equity and inclusion while building community wealth. They replied with another question: “What does equity mean in our day to day life? If we do not centre equity every day in everything that we do, then we are continuing to subscribe to the status quo system that is not equitable.” Equity and inclusion requires reflection and conversation before change. This can start by setting out a collection of principles built on common ground, asking whose voices are missing, and working to bring them to the table. 

On equity and inclusion, Denise spoke about the Women’s Entrepreneurship Pathway at Regent Park: “Often when we look at accelerator programs or business programs, they’re for people who are a couple steps ahead. They’re tailored to people who already have their idea, they have some business acumen and skills. But at Regent Park, this wasn’t the case.” The pre-existing programs were inaccessible for the residents of Regent Park because they were not taking an asset-based approach and meeting people where they were at. “Residents were saying that they can’t access funds even though they had all these ideas. What CSI did was support these grassroots organisations in accessing the funding they needed and unlock dollars for themselves,” says Denise. 

Resources can be made more accessible to members of a community through things like cooperative ownership, land trusts, local business development, or even local events. For example, CSI’s Regent Park initiative Every One Every Day: TO hosted over 30 workshops, one of which included tree-planting. One resident expressed “This is the first thing I have ever planted! I’m so excited to nurture it, and watch it grow, so I can give back to the community. I learned so much walking around the park and getting to know the species and history of the trees. I want to be part of that. Like a legacy. It feels good to know I’m contributing.” Certainly, building community wealth is not just about embedding local economies into communities – it is equally about improving quality of life, nurturing roots and connections, and empowering all residents to practise resilience.  

Echoing these sentiments, it is obvious that without an equity and inclusion lens, opportunity gaps will not be addressed as effectively. Centering equity does not mean going to traditionally marginalised voices for advice. It does not mean including them in consultation panels. Doing good work rooted in genuine equity and inclusion means becoming equal partners with underserved stakeholders, and making sure that the wealth is accessible to all members of the community.

Breaking Barriers to Realisation

Another inspiring example was brought up by Jo, who highlighted the Parkdale Neighborhood Land Trust as a beacon of affordable housing made possible through investing in community wealth. The Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust actively engages the community in decision-making processes, and collaborates with residents to make sure that all voices are heard in shaping the future of the neighbourhood. Besides retaining deep affordable housing in the community, community wealth has also been manifested in relationships, equity, and inclusion. 

Moving forward, both Jo and Denise hope for this simultaneous increase in social cohesion and wealth in communities, but there is much work and many adversaries ahead. Most of our financial structures today are built on short-term returns, but these short-term gains do not lead to long-term positive outcomes. For those who cannot be convinced that collective growth is the way to go, Jo says, “Redirect your energy from those who won’t change their minds…redirect it into continuing to nurture communities; spend your personal time and energy with people who do see possibility and are working towards correcting our systems.” 

As we reached the end of the conversation, I was still in awe of the intricate map of community wealth building strategies Jo and Denise had embedded in my mind, rich with examples of thriving local economies. But with continued unequal wealth distribution and limited resources, this work is not always easy, so I asked them if they had anything they wanted readers to know about the powerful impact of their work as community practitioners. Denise responded:  “The idea of having somebody look at you and say, ‘I think that’s a great idea, let’s figure it out’, is such an unlocking tool…when people hear ‘yes’, they’re more likely to dream.” 

Annabelle Liao is a Propel Impact Fellow joining SI Canada for summer 2023. Annabelle is currently completing studies at the University of British Columbia in Global Resource Systems with a Sustainability Communications Specialization. 


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