An aisle of spices in Roxbury’s Nubian Spices, with shelf labels that read, “Black Owned Business”
Image credit: Drew Katz

Black Bostonian communities citywide have more than just something to say for themselves: their economies are building institutions that prioritize asset-based community development and are creating the foundations for a local solidarity economy. In so doing, they draw on histories and energies that have grown and percolated from past and present efforts toward sustainable, people-based planning.

The desire to build a community-led local economy has been part of the imaginaries of Black and Latinx communities in the United States for centuries. The late Charles “Chuck” Turner, a former city councilor and local movement legend going back to the 1960s Black Boston United Front, and his comrades left a legacy of community control and self-determination in Boston’s working-class communities of color.

Black Boston is developing a new model of bottom-up community economic development.

Roxbury, a stomping ground for Malcolm X, Ruth Batson, and Chuck Turner on their journeys toward justice, has become home to many of these initiatives that plan from the bottom.

Our organization, the Boston Ujima Project, which is a home for arts and cultural organizing, political education, and investment in Black-owned and cooperative businesses—and to which Turner contributed until his passing in 2019—is just one part of a much larger story. Along with other institutions—including a community land trust, a local Black-led market, and a Black-led organizing hub—Black Boston is developing a new model of bottom-up community economic development.

Owning the Land

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) has long offered a nationwide model of community control. From its roots in grassroots community organizing, gathering folks in Roxbury and North Dorchester to address illegal dumping in their neighborhoods in 1986, to the launch of its community land trust in 1988, to gaining the power of eminent domain in the Dudley Triangle neighborhood (allowing DSNI to consolidate land to build housing), to its current role as an executor of community will on its land trust, DSNI has had to adapt its strategies and actions to meet community needs.

John Smith, the organization’s current executive director, relayed that DSNI’s mission is no longer “organizing now to gain those very physical, tangible benefits [of a cleaner, safer neighborhood], but organizing to retain those benefits”; and this work involves working toward more climate-resilient housing development. This shift in focus has also meant a change in how DSNI obtains funding and financing for its work. Now the organization is asking critical questions to keep operating and to expand its reach. Smith intones that:

Land trusts are an effective buffer because they give the community control; but that’s a harder thing to fund….So our challenge is really working with different stakeholders to develop some more robust funding mechanisms and operations; for instance…what kind of credit facilities can we work with stakeholders to create that help us take [more] housing off the speculative market?

Peers in the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, which DSNI has helped seed, like the Chinatown Community Land Trust and the East Boston Neighborhood Trust have been key thought partners. A next step for DSNI is to set up a fund—sourcing dollars from community development financial institutions (CDFIs), donors, and philanthropic arms of investment outlets—that will allow them to buy houses going into foreclosure as well as homes left by elders with no immediate family. This fund will enable DSNI to keep housing and land away from the speculative market and in shared ownership.

Meanwhile, DSNI remains true to Dudley Triangle legacy residents through its commitment to a Declaration of Community Rights. Its board of 30-plus people consists entirely of community residents and stakeholders. As Smith affirms, “We will always be rooted in [the Declaration of Community Rights]. That’s not something we can ignore. It’s a callback to always remind us of who we are…always making sure that we are there advocating for and doing community building within that community. That’s our strength.”

Mission-Centered Markets

“We need to do the necessary deep work to ensure that sovereignty exists.”

Ownership of space and partnerships with funders have also been key to helping develop a newer node in this growing community network, Nubian Markets. Opened in 2023, this full-service grocer focused on the African diaspora through food (including a halal butchery, restaurant, cafe, and gathering space) has the audacious goal of controlling the food marketplace and attaining food sovereignty. Founder Ismail Samad, a chef by training who has worked in the food industry quite literally from the farm to the table, posits that an integrated marketplace can effect real change in a neighborhood’s food systems by unwinding consumer alienation and building real relationships with Black and Latinx small business owners and retailers to platform their goods in their own neighborhoods.

In helping to develop the marketplace, Samad drew on his past work as director of contract manufacturing and culinary operating for CommonWealth Kitchen, a local food business incubator, and his expertise in helping BIPOC-owned businesses scale and obtain contracts with anchor institutions like Boston Medical Center.

Samad felt what the community needed most was a new market that supports food workers and food businesses at a neighborhood scale. Samad was able to build from his prior relationship with Boston Medical Center, which as the lead funder of Nubian Markets, has provided non-extractive, zero-interest loans, allowing the business the flexibility it needs to thrive.

The need for food sovereignty is urgent, to hear Samad tell it. In his eyes, “We can’t pilot this stuff anymore. You either are going to invest in something that’s different or we just won’t keep doing it because we’re just up against a wall….You have to divorce yourself from the current system of slave economies that rely on bots and bullies.”

Samad sees local ownership as key to enabling Nubian Markets to “prioritize legacy residents and small businesses that are intentionally being excluded from economic possibilities”—and on the marketplace’s ability to generate community wealth not just for store owners, but also chefs, workers, and vendors. Samad offers a contrast between food access and food self-determination as maintained by self-sustaining, closed loop food systems:

It’s very difficult to stand up a paying market when you’re putting free food into communities.…Not to say you don’t put funding into food access movements—we need to ensure that communities eat. But we need to do the necessary deep work to ensure that sovereignty exists. From a sovereign standpoint, we ask: ‘What are the assets that we have within our communities to build the world that we would like to see?’

The gathering space, a room located in the front of Nubian Market’s building and within its food service court, is key to this work. Meeting community needs is about more than providing goods and services. Gathering spaces build relationships. Samad understands this interweaving of business and community space as building a “circular economy, [where] everybody’s connected to each other.”

Community-Oriented Green Space

Community-led development need not pertain only to business or to the built environment. Mass Liberation, a nonprofit education and development outlet operating out of a local organizing hub (the Boston Liberation Center), has taken on the work of planning another communal space for open use. Originally founded in 2019 to galvanize community responses to (and actions against) police violence, the group now helps people organize to address rising rents and difficult housing conditions.

Mass Liberation is also seeking to build Harriet Tubman Freedom Park on an empty green parcel on Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury, adjacent to the Liberation Center, to address the lack of open green spaces. Andira Alves, the organization’s director, posits that the current apathy toward green spaces is a result of “the history of policing, specifically in Boston, where groups of three or more people loitering outside can be identified as gang members. It’s really been normalized that hanging out outside comes with surveillance.”

The City of Boston opened requests for proposals regarding the development of a series of small, empty lots on Blue Hill Avenue in 2022. Alves, who also works as an asset management coordinator at Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, a local community development corporation, felt that this was the perfect opportunity to lean into both her development experience and her skills as a community organizer with the Boston branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “We initiated a very extensive community process….We mapped out the entire neighborhood [of Grove Hall, a sub-neighborhood within Roxbury], knocked on every single door, and collected nearly 200 letters of support.”

The idea for developing Harriet Tubman Freedom Park in Roxbury was spurred by the demise of the Harriet Tubman House in the South End, about three miles away. Alves remembers the former building had fulfilled many community needs, including “GED programs, elderly programming, and daycare. It was gutted intentionally so the owners could sell out to major developers to build luxury apartments that cost upwards of $600,000.”

The park in Roxbury, she adds, is “kind of a continuation of that struggle, of us wanting something that’s not going to raise rents or property values unnecessarily while still being a community good that we all have access to.” Mass Liberation plans to place the completed park into a community land trust to maintain that communal access and ownership so that the park can’t be excavated and replaced as its namesake in the South End was. Alves is also in the middle of planning for a program, tentatively called Friends of Harriet, that would create a resident-led board to oversee day-to-day operations and funding for upkeep, as well as a membership component to keep people engaged, because “it’s really important for folks to feel ownership of it.”

Mass Liberation knows well the outside development pressures that the neighborhood faces. Organizers at the Boston Liberation Center are, at the time of writing, currently campaigning against a proposal for luxury apartments that would go up directly across the street. Ironically, the park itself has been mentioned in the developers’ proposal as a coming amenity. It’s pressures like these that make the work of preserving community spaces so urgent.

Ujima assemblies, both in-person and virtual, have been a key organizing space to develop shared strategies aimed at realizing community visions.

Investing in Ourselves

True democracy, we believe, is not just the ability to have a say, but the ability to take decisive, coordinated action toward collective goals. For our part, the Boston Ujima Project has steadily worked to increase democratic community-led planning and governance throughout the city.

After raising $4.5 million in investment capital through our first fund, in the past year alone our hundreds-strong membership voted to finance five businesses, allocating over $1.1 million. Participation in investment votes is a democratic process. No investment can go through without membership approval. This year, we have increased the minimum membership voter turnout required for a valid vote to occur from 51 percent to 60 percent. This increase in quorum means hundreds of community members must vote for an investment to be approved, enabling us to authentically reflect the investment priorities of working-class BIPOC Boston residents. Before an item comes to a vote, member committees work to review and audit companies and recommend investments. Our staff and technical assistance partners, like the Boston Center for Community Ownership, ensure that network businesses are adequately supported beyond investment through marketing, education, consumer organizing, and peer-support gatherings.

Collective decision-making, at any scale, is a disruption of business as usual. The promise of this approach extends beyond the support of small businesses—to arts, culture, politics, healing, childcare, and relational programs. Ujima assemblies, both in-person and virtual, have been a key organizing space to develop shared strategies aimed at realizing community visions.

An important facet of this work is honoring the expertise and knowledge of our neighbors and valuing the elements of our city that we plan to preserve. One aspect of the violence inherent in gentrification is the refusal to see what is already here. Everything cannot be planned, designed, or constructed by real estate developers, nonprofits, or institutions. This ideological blindness disregards the expertise and richness of existing communities—and can only be bridged when we acknowledge and learn to love the worlds that are already present.

Deepening the Community Vision

When asked about the future of Roxbury, Smith, Samad, and Alves all responded with notes of measured optimism. Smith, speaking to the increased levels of gentrification in surrounding neighborhoods, replied that he, “[doesn’t] see Roxbury being exempt from that. DSNI’s role, along with our partners at play, will always be to advocate for development without displacement in and around Dudley Triangle.…There’s a certain cohesiveness that’s still here.”

Samad, referencing the same displacing forces that have led to the leakage of local purchasing power to businesses from outside the community, relayed that Nubian Markets is, “trying to invest in ourselves and in our communities to address community needs.…We’re proud to be working with others in an ecosystem approach.”

Alves, the most upbeat, remains inspired by the work that has come before her. “I think despite all the changes that we’re seeing throughout the city or even in Roxbury, I am optimistic,” shared Alves. “I think Roxbury has a very strong history of fighting back and organization. And I think people know that when they walk through Grove Hall and Blue Hill Ave, you can sense that. I do feel like despite all the changes, there’s always going to be that resistance.”