Image Source: Jenni Konrad

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, Nexus Community Partners is a funding intermediary that employs a community wealth building approach to advance its mission of building “more engaged and powerful communities of color” since 2015. Three years in, the work is still in early stages, but the effort nonetheless illustrates a promising attempt to fuse organizing in communities of color and immigrant communities with community-based economic development.

Nexus began as Payne-Lake Community Partners in 2004. Its aim was to build economic and political power among communities of color and immigrant communities along Payne Avenue in St. Paul and Lake Street in Minneapolis. As work expanded, both in terms of adopting a broader community-building vision encompassing more Twin Cities neighborhoods, the group was renamed Nexus in 2010. The organization’s revenue, as reported on its 2016 Form 990 report, was $2.28 million. Funded largely by contributions from local foundations, Nexus in turn provides grants to community-based organizations, as well as running training institutes and hosting tables that foster alignment and cooperation among the groups that it supports.

In adopting a community wealth-building frame, Nexus borrowed heavily on the work of others. Its focus on promoting greater community ownership of business, such as through starting or converting existing businesses to worker cooperatives, is similar to the approach embraced by other cities, such as Richmond, Virginia and Rochester, New York, as well as the efforts of the Denver Foundation in Denver, Colorado.

But Nexus has also sought to make the “community wealth-building” approach its own. This includes redefining community wealth-building by developing its own set of eight principles, including equity, mutuality, stewardship, and attention to cultural practices. The cultural practices principle in particular illustrates the unique “Nexus approach” to community wealth building. As Nexus writes, “Economic strategies must be tailored for the specific communities they are designed to benefit. Culture is a resource for creating and expanding wealth building options.”

As Elena Gaarder, a program officer at Nexus, explains, “If it is not grounded in the principles in mutuality, stewardship, then it is just another economic development model. Our community wealth work is grounded in that set of values: mutuality, stewardship, and equity. Our definition is really based on those and ultimately it is looking at redesigning markets away from extractive policies and investments towards strategies that redesign markets.”

Programmatically, Nexus has organized its community wealth-building work in three areas: 1) authorship, 2) leadership, and 3) ownership. Authorship refers to efforts to develop community voice. Leadership involving training activists of color to be politically active; for example, the Board and Commissions Leadership Institute, a seven-month training course to enable activists of color to serve effectively on city and county appointed boards and commissions. Ownership refers to the foundation’s work supporting community groups that are organizing worker cooperatives and related forms of community-based business ownership.

But building a supportive culture to support this work cuts across all three of these program areas. In terms of rollout, the foundation has envisioned a three-part strategy: with 2016 envisioned as a “seeding” phase focused on awareness raising, convening, educating, and getting a common language, 2017 focused on launching programs (a “cultivation” phase), with this year being a “harvesting” phase where tangible outcomes begin to become visible.

Part of the “seeding” phase meant making communities of color aware of the past history of cooperatives in communities of color. So, for example, Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, who authored a book on the history of the Black cooperative movement in 2014 called Collective Courage, came to North Minneapolis where she spoke and met with residents.

As Theresa Gardella, Vice President of Programs and Operations at Nexus, explains, “Not many people in the Black community know that cooperatives have not only played an economic role, but also have supported movements.” The broader strategy, she explains, is to “rake a group of people using a cohort model, steep them in the richness of the history, including those activities that didn’t get called cooperatives, and bring that forward.”

To date, Nexus has organized two cohorts of what it has called the North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship program. The fellowship itself is four months in duration. There were 10 people in the first cohort and 11 in the second. About 90 percent of participants have been women.  Danielle Mkali, a program officer who leads the fellowship program, explains how it works.

From the very beginning, we are asking the fellows to build a case study around their cooperative. We have them research the business and have them develop a final presentation of their cooperative. For the final presentation, we have local co-op leaders come in. It is like a science fair. The cohort members meet with other co-op leaders and share ideas and build connections. We see the fellowship as really kind of a starting point. For some folks, it is a deepening. Once folks have completed the fellowship, Nexus will then provide technical assistance support. This includes helping them connect with lawyers, consultants, and people who understand co-op governance. As an intermediary, our goal is to walk alongside them even after they completed the fellowship.

Lavasha Smith is one of the North Star fellows. Smith, who is 27, currently lives in South Minneapolis with her seven-year-old son and works at Big Brothers Big Sisters as a match coordinator. But she dreams of helping start a cooperative. Smith recently completed the four-month fellowship. Launching a co-op is still a year or two away. She envisions partnering with another fellow or two to co-start a business. Smith’s personal interest is in natural hair care, but the co-op may end up being broader than that and might also include selling natural soaps and beauty products. She didn’t start the fellowship knowing that she wanted to start a co-op, but the co-op idea speaks to her in ways that programs that promote individual entrepreneurship does not. “That community piece is really important. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can do it together. It’s about what the community needs and giving back to that,” she says.

Harrison Bullard also has been a fellow, but he comes from a very different background than Smith. Rather than coming from the nonprofit sector, Bullard has worked for over 30 years as a security guard and a safety engineer. He has also been active in SEIU (Service Employees International Union), Local 26 (where he remains a steward and had previously served on the local’s executive board) and has participated in the union’s national African American Caucus (known as AFRAM). Bullard’s dream is to develop a worker co-op that can bid directly on jobs, rather than having to negotiate contracts with employers, similar to the union co-ops that are being organized in Cincinnati and elsewhere. “What would happen if the union actually bid for the jobs?” Bullard asked. “Some of these jobs are million-dollar jobs.” Right now, the workers “only get a small portion of that and you’re working for somebody else.”

Gaarder points out that a large part of the work is not just building cooperatives, but also building the ecosystem of support that gives the cooperatives a reasonable chance to prosper and thrive. As Gaarder explains, “The work that Nexus is building infrastructure around cooperative models. From that what we learned, it has to be a coordinated effort that builds the infrastructure first locally and then brings in national partners to build support that is needed.”

Part of this has been linking existing services to co-op development. For instance, Shahir Ahmed, Business Lab Director of the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), supports “clients that come through the Nexus pipelines.” This includes providing training, technical assistance, access to capital in the form of business loans up to $250,000, and spaces for the businesses. NDC is also working with Nexus and the national nonprofit Project Equity to support conversions of existing businesses into worker cooperatives. Additionally, NDC has a contract with the City of Minneapolis through its C-TAP (co-op technical assistance) program. While the program is still in its start-up phase, Ahmed is optimistic. “This is something that is going to happen. Business owners—some are baby boomers, some are looking to convert—transitioning into a worker co-op is a viable option for some,” he said. “We are excited to build our capacity as an organization to support that—and help those businesses.”

In the Twin Cities, a major cultural challenge in the work has been changing notions of what a co-op is and whom does it serve. As Gaarder explains, food co-ops are “still what people think about.” And food co-ops in the Twin Cities have typically been white-led. There are also very few people of color in Twin Cities who provide co-op technical assistance. “Maybe one or two,” Gaarder estimates. She adds, “Our goal is to change that and build the capacity of our partners to understand and have connections to resources to cooperative business development.”

One program that Gaarder supports at Nexus is the East Side Economic Growth Initiative (ESEGI), a coalition effort of ten organizations, that, as she puts it, are all “coming from different perspectives saying what we have been doing isn’t moving the needle. How do we really get at eliminating racial and economic disparities on the East Side?”

For this work, Nexus and its community partners are taking a bottoms-up approach. So far, this effort has led to some small wins. For example, a local social service provider, Merrick Community Services, agreed to purchase some food for its food bank from the local Hmong American Farmers Association.  Other area anchor institutions have also shifted policies to support local purchasing. Work also progresses in other areas, including workforce development and changing city and county policy. For example, Nexus has succeeded in getting the city of St. Paul to include the concept of community wealth building in its planning documents.

As for co-op development, in addition to the efforts profiled above, some seeds are starting to take root. One is the Village Trust Financial Cooperative, a credit union that is organizing in the Black community of North Minneapolis. (About 42 percent of North Minneapolis is Black, Mkali estimates). Begun in part as a community response to the police killing of Philando Castile,  the group aims to open its doors in 2019. Another effort, led by DeVon Nolen, involves developing an investment co-op in North Minneapolis that aims to foster community ownership of commercial and residential property.

Mkali notes that there is still a way to go. When asked if the co-op movement is opening up to people of color, Mkali responds, “There is a little bit of me saying we will see when we start owning things. Minnesota has over 1,000 cooperative businesses and I don’t know if any are black-led. And we are talking about revenues of $34 billion.” That said, she sees some positive signs. “A lot of people seem really ready to share power and think differently about where they are putting their money,” Mkali adds. “When people get a little sense of Black cooperative economics, they are blown away by the power and resilience … It is a path that I am willing to walk slowly on. It is urgent, and I understand it is for the long haul. It is not a quick fix.”