In Jesus on Main Street, as well as in your dissertation, you write about the factors contributing to gentrification. What are some things we need to keep in mind so that we’re building an economy that benefits the people who live there rather than displaces them?
Many of the same principles that apply to Community Economic Development as a whole should be part of an anti-displacement, anti-gentrification strategy. Equipping people with local ownership of their own businesses will go a long way for those business owners and keeping that money local. Wealth building activities are critical. How you help people start their own microbusinesses or larger businesses is a critical factor.
Affordable housing is another thing. I have a whole chapter on this. If housing prices skyrocket, that’s just going to displace people, which obviously goes against the principles of Community Economic Development. So another strategy is preserving affordable housing and encouraging the building of more affordable housing. Some churches are actually getting involved in repurposing their buildings or their space to build affordable housing as well.
Chris Smith, my Slow Church co-author, wrote an article for Strong Towns a couple weeks ago about the community development corporation his church started. He talked about how they turned an old school property across from their church into 32 units of affordable housing
One other thing I’ll mention about gentrification. When people hear gentrification, they think of the residential part of it. But there’s also commercial gentrification: How can we serve local people with local businesses?
Something we talk about a lot at Strong Towns is the importance of humbly observing where real people are struggling in real places and in real time. Then you draw from what you have and build on that to address those struggles. One of my favorite case studies from your book is the Church of the Messiah in East Detroit. I believe the pastor’s name is Barry Randolph, right? Talk about holistic—the breadth of what they’re doing is pretty amazing.
I’ve collaborated with him. And I met him the first time when we did a CCDA workshop in Kansas City in November. He is just an amazing guy. But it’s an amazing community as well. I encourage you to reach out to him or I can connect you; he’d be a great person to interview. He takes the ideas that people have in the community and equips them and makes things happen.
One thing I was just totally blown away with is their fearless approach, not feeling bound to what a church can get involved in. So they do internet service provision, for example, because that’s a real need in the community and it impacts people’s ability to thrive. They’ve helped a number of people launch businesses, providing them space. They do workforce development. I included Church of the Messiah as my capstone case study because they view it as a holistic approach as well.
I try to make this point in my book: You can’t just look at this as, “Hey, we’re going to do one program and we’re going to solve the economic challenges of our neighborhood.” You may have to focus on only one program, and that’s fine, but you’re darn well going to have to connect with other people doing other types of programs. So if you’re doing a microbusiness program, you may want to connect with someone doing a business incubator, for when those microbusinesses are ready to grow. If you’re doing workforce development, you better connect with the employers in the neighborhood and connect to other people doing programs. Remember, it takes a whole ecosystem approach.
My takeaway from the Church of the Messiah is that they built this ecosystem from the ground up because there was nothing around them.
I listened to an interview you and Barry gave and he talked about how when someone signs up for internet, it’s somebody from Church of the Messiah who comes out and installs it. That’s such a great image.
Last couple questions, moving into the very practical. First, what are some practical next steps you would give to a church, synagogue, mosque, or another community of worship, to begin exploring Community Economic Development?
You need to find a group of people that share this burden for economic justice, for healing in your community. That could be people within your church or faith community as well as people outside of it. So, I’d say that’s the first step: finding people that share this desire and this vision for economic thriving for all.
Then start educating yourself. Research the different aspects of Community Economic Development. Listen. Take an inventory. I provide a number of worksheets in the book, adapting asset-based community development specifically to Community Economic Development. Ask, who’s doing what in the community and who’s falling through the cracks? Who’s not being served by the existing programs?
If you follow those steps, find a group of people, start dreaming together, start educating yourselves, start listening and identifying gaps in the community and assets in the community, then I think you’re at that point where you can actually start thinking seriously about, “Okay, which of these Community Economic Development toolkit strategies do we want to take on first?”
Your book is very practical. It’s packed full not only of information and case studies, but also assessments and worksheets. My own first step recommendation is for people to get the book. There’s so much in there. My final question is whether you have any tips for people who are already engaged in Community Economic Development. Specifically, what advice would you give them to reach out to local religious groups to explore collaborating?
Just recognize there are churches who are interested in this. I won’t say all churches but a growing number. I guess it’s a matter of reaching out and finding those churches who are. Sadly, they’re also going to run into churches that are too busy, can’t do it, or aren’t interested. Look for those churches that are hosting a faith and finance class or a workforce development class. That’ll give you an idea of who is at least interested in this more holistic discussion.
It’s not very efficient for a local economic development leader to have to call all these churches to find out who wants to work with them. Hopefully they are the ones who start getting contacted by churches. This is part of my goal, part of my dream.