The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative
Continues its Regenerative Journey
REGENERATIVE QUALITIES OF THE BCDI
Honors Community & Place/Innovative, Adaptive, Responsive / Empowered Participation /Robust Circulation/Edge Effect Abundance
Honors Community & Place/Innovative, Adaptive, Responsive / Empowered Participation /Robust Circulation/Edge Effect Abundance
December 2015—In 2012 the Field Guide featured a story about The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, a project of the MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) guided by a mission “to end generational poverty in the Bronx through shared wealth and democratic ownership.” BCDI has since evolved into a promising exemplar of truly regenerative, scalable economic development in progress, blending as it does the intuitiveness of a community’s grassroots with more formal systemic approaches to building lasting community wealth and well being, through its academic affiliations and the famed Mondragon Cooperatives of Spain.
For this Field Guide BCDI update we spoke with Nick Iuviene, Director of the Just Urban Economies Program at MIT’s CoLab and BCDI’s leader of long-term strategy; Yorman Nunez, a Program Coordinator at MIT CoLab who leads Education and Stakeholder Engagement for BCDI; and Sandra Lobo-Jost, Executive Director of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. We believe any community, regardless of its demographic makeup, can learn a lot from this nimble, place-based model of regenerative development—fueled by empowered participation, strategic network building, and edge effect abundance.
"In any community," says Sandra Lobo Jost, Executive Director of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, "you have to start with the people and ask them, ‘what is it that impacts you?’ and ‘what do you believe are the solutions to those problems?"
Lessons Learned from the Kingsbridge Armory Project
A deep bench of seasoned community organizing expertise represents one of the Northwest Bronx’s principal assets. It is one that BCDI continually draws on as it works with community organizations at the intersection of shared, sustainable wealth generation, and democratic engagement.
The long struggle to shape the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory has deeply informed the collective organizing wisdom of the Northwest Bronx. In 2014, after a 20-year struggle with multiple administrations and developers, during which a series of ill-conceived projects for the armory were proposed and ultimately dismissed, the New York City Council green-lighted a $345 million transformation of the 3-block site into what is to be the world’s largest ice sports complex, the Kingsbridge National Ice Center. With that deal, the community, led by the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, secured one of the most progressive community benefits agreements (CBAs) in the country.
“Over those twenty years the Northwest Bronx demonstrated both steadfastness and sophistication in the way it adhered to its principles,” reports Nick, who was himself an organizer in the community during the latter years of that struggle and who went on to earn a Masters in Urban Planning from MIT. “It went up against two incredibly powerful mayors—Giuliani and Bloomberg—and succeeded in preventing some truly negative developments, for example, the typical ‘poverty-wage mall.’ It also proved that it could create pragmatic, financeable development plans that were reflective of the wishes and needs of the community, and that it could negotiate and compromise when needed and necessary to secure the best outcome for the community.
So we now know we have the strength to bring the city and developers to the table and the sophistication to develop meaningful, forward-thinking plans.
Kingsbridge Armory at the No. 4 Subway line station. Photo credit Daniel Case.
An Empowering Community Benefits Agreement
Sandra Lobo-Jost began cutting her teeth as a community organizer twenty years ago as a young activist attending Fordham University, located in the Fordham Bedford section of the Bronx. She went on to direct Fordham University’s Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, and this past summer was named Executive Director of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC), an organization with a long history of organizing around community issues.
Sandra explains that the NWBCCC helped put in place two separate monitoring groups to ensure that the Armory developers honor their CBA commitments: a community advisory council (CAC) that includes the developer, local Community Board 7, local Council members, and the NWBCCC; and a second legal entity made up of 25 community organization signatories that has the legal authority to enforce the agreement if required. These groups will also oversee the community space that is being created as part of the CBA. “We have achieved two objectives with this project,” says Sandra. “We have created a precedent- setting, enforceable community development agreement and monitoring groups with wide-ranging community representation. For us this is monumental.” The NWBCCC is also organizing to create a plan to address the expected negative collateral effects of the redevelopment, anticipating that rent increases could force local residents and businesses out of the community. “We want the people already living here to enjoy the benefits of this project, not others who displace them,” Sandra says.
The Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition led in the securing of one of the most progressive community benefits agreements in the country for the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory. In partnership with other BCDI collaborators it is becoming an increasingly sophisticated player in grassroots economic development for shared community wealth building.
After Kingsbridge—Crafting Strategies to Shape the Future of Development
There are now good reasons to believe, beyond good faith, that with these monitors in place, Kingsbridge developers will carry out the terms of the CBA. Yet the fact remains that the programming and content of the development itself does not reflect the years of visioning, designing, and planning work that the community had undertaken. “Ice rinks are not at the top of everyone’s list in the visioning for the Bronx community,” Nick explains. The larger question to be answered, Nick says, is
“how do we get to the place where the community is a major actor in driving the design of these projects and we don’t have to spend 20 years on one project? How do we get in and shape and design development itself?”
BCDI is all about finding strategic answers to those complex questions through holistic approaches that enhance and then tap into a community’s fundamental strengths and assets, rather than focusing exclusively on its traditional needs. “We do need to be addressing issues where people are experiencing pain now,” Nick explains, “but it’s about doing that in a way that is getting at root causes, and building capacities and infrastructure for more transformative development.”
Sandra reports that the NWBCCC and other BCDI members have been working on new ways of organizing with broader objectives in mind. “The Coalition has always had an indirect economic justice framework,” she explains,
“but through our partnership with BCDI, our organizing has expanded to directly ask, 'how do we build shared wealth and ownership? How do we create collective governance over the assets of our community?'”
Leaders of the Northwest Bronx have proved they can create pragmatic, financeable development plans that are reflective of the wishes and needs of the community, and that they can negotiate and compromise when needed to secure the best community outcome.
Over the past year, as its grant and other funding support base has grown, BCDI has expanded from a team of one full-time and one half-time employees to a team of seven. Building on the research of an MIT-CoLab-sponsored study conducted in 2012, BCDI’s economic development focus is now on the health, energy, manufacturing, food, and education sectors, leveraging the procurement needs of anchor institutions and medium-sized non-profits.
BCDI is engaging first on two projects that use energy retrofitting as a way to catalyze the desired broader economic and social benefits that are BCDI’s focus. The first, Building Power--a partnership with the Northwest Bronx Coalition and Bloc Power, a cleantech startup focused on financing energy efficiency in low-income communities, employs local contractors to retrofit buildings housing Bronx faith-based institutions. Nick reports that many struggling local houses of worship are facing the threat of closure because of rising energy bills. “At the same time,” he says, “they are energy leaking sieves that are completely ripe for retrofitting and realizing real savings.” Sandra notes that this project engages churches and local institutions not only around environmental sustainability but demonstrates to their congregants how hiring local workers and contractors helps build wealth in their communities. It is an awareness, she believes, that the Building Power partnership can tap into as it seeks to activate the broader Bronx community around shared wealth and ownership goals.
Another even more ambitious project is being supported by a grant recently secured from the Build Health Challenge, supported by national foundations, including the Kresge and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations, to catalyze meaningful partnerships among hospitals and health systems, community-based organizations, local health departments, and other organizations to improve overall community health.
The Healthy Buildings Program is an example of how BCDI works to build partnerships tied into broader strategic goals for the community, including more cooperatively owned businesses.
This project, called the Healthy Buildings Program, which will undertake both energy retrofits and environmental remediation in large multifamily buildings, illustrates the 7th Principle of a Regenerative Economy, “Edge Effect Abundance,” as a diversity of collaborators—among them local contractors, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the NWBCCC, local elected officials, landlords, and Montefiore Medical Center—all contribute their unique skills and resources.
How Data Gathering Guides the Build Health Challenge
A methodical data gathering and integration process is currently being undertaken to determine which buildings are the best candidates for retrofits and remediation. Montefiore begins by contributing data about asthma hotspots—the buildings that have the highest rates of emergency room visits where asthma is the trigger. That data set is overlaid with data from NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to determine the buildings with the highest heat and housing violations. HPD also contributes information from its database on which of those buildings are required by law to update their boilers. An analysis of all this information will ultimately identify which buildings to target. Tenants will then be engaged to gather more intelligence: have there been complaints of lack of heat and hot water, of mold, mildew and pest infestation? An outreach program to landlords to educate them about the benefits of retrofitting will also simultaneously be undertaken.
“It is an innovative merging of all the different issues where we have traditionally been working in silos,” Sandra explains.
“We have been working on health issues over here, and local workforce, and contractor development over there, and tenants rights issues somewhere else, but this project brings all these issues together while building shared wealth and ownership and collective governance. The tenants will have a say and be part of the decisions made. And we anticipate a lowering of emergency room visits, an improvement in the actual physical health of tenants in these buildings. We will be saving energy and money for landlords and supporting local contractors and workers in the community. For us it is about creating health and wellness in our community in the broadest sense.”
The Healthy Buildings Program is an example of how BCDI works to build partnerships tied into broader strategic goals for the community, including more cooperatively owned businesses. “We hope we will scale the multifamily work and that will create a lot of work for local contractors,” says Nick.
"But we also hope it will allow some of these small contractors to move toward a collective ownership model that could create Bronx-owned, scalable, contracting companies that could be really significant players across the city, and in an open and growing marketplace.”
As Yorman Nunez relates, many local contractors would like to contribute to the health and and well-being of their communities but don’t always have the means to do so. " We believe if we can help them secure larger contracts and grow, those are the practices they will adopt and the things they will do in the community" he says.
“We do need to be addressing issues where people are experiencing pain now,” Nick explains, “but it’s about doing that in a way that is getting at root causes, and building capacities and infrastructure for more transformative development.”
The BCDI Vendor Platform
BCDI is also designing a vendor platform, to be beta-launched in the fall of 2015, that will connect the procurement needs of Bronx-based institutions with local businesses, again, with the goal of nurturing economic democracy and wealth building at scale in the borough. BCDI has interviewed both small contractors as well as large anchors and medium-sized nonprofits to poll their interest in this platform. Initially about 150 small Bronx-based businesses and between three and six anchor institutions will be participating.
As part of this project, BCDI has worked with B Lab and community partners to create a rating system to assess and monitor over time the labor, sustainability, and community wealth building practices of all the companies on the platform. “Many of these small businesses are undercapitalized or don't have access to the right purchasing channels, so can’t meet the standards right now,” says Nick. “If they score low and still want to participate they have to commit to a serious plan for improvement. We will use that as a way to line up existing sophisticated business development services that can work with them to make that progress.” BCDI hopes to establish a Community Innovation Center that will house entrepreneurial, business development, and financing functions to support this effort. Like BCDI, the platform now operates under the umbrella of the not-for-profit Commonwise. The hope is that it will eventually become self-funding, and begin to contribute a sustainable revenue stream to support future BCDI economic development projects.
The new platform represents a more evolved incarnation of an earlier planned incubator for startup entrepreneurial and cooperative enterprises, that fell victim to the winding down of the Bloomberg mayoral administration at the end of 2013. In retrospect, Nick says, that initial setback turned into an opportunity, creating the breathing space for BCDI to conceive a wiser strategy more closely aligned with its regenerative vision.
Under the original incubator plan, BCDI had been looking at building community businesses “by hand” based on a few anchor-institution procurement streams they had identified, a strategy similar to Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives. All along, however, they had recognized the need for a broader framework, but didn’t know quite what that should look like. “Going through that initial process of incubator design got us to think more critically about the idea of establishing infrastructure amidst a broader network,” Nick explains.
“Losing the incubator contract with the City also made us step back and think hard about what it meant to have a holistic economic development strategy that wasn’t just about creating businesses." Nick notes.
That’s where we began to understand the value of starting with building capacity to localize procurement for existing businesses but creating a competitive advantage for those businesses to do well by doing good—and having those standards developed by the community.”
Yorman Nunez, who manages the relationship with anchor institutions, explains that a number of initial obstacles must be overcome to ensure the platform’s long-term viability and scalability. For example, anchor institutions will be initially constrained by existing contracts with outside vendors in their ability to transact on it. And, Yorman points out, the platform must be easy to access and perceived to be relatively low risk to transact on for the staff person responsible for anchor institution procurement who typically must manage hundreds of different vendors and is under tremendous pressure to streamline the procurement process. “They will naturally be inclined to go with a big corporation that can sell a lot of services at once,” Yorman says. “If BCDI can vouch for the local vendor’s reliability, and provide a seamless purchasing portal for them, we believe the institutions will use it, especially if it helps them meet larger institutional goals.”
Again…The Power of Data
BCDI is realizing the power of good data gathering and analysis on this project, as it has for the Healthy Buildings Program, undertaking extensive data gathering and integration from a variety of disparate sources. While time-consuming on the front end, this deliberate process is enabling BCDI to understand all the dimensions, complexities, and applications that will be required of a fully automated digital platform. It will ultimately provide invaluable gap analysis, in particular, insights into opportunities for startups in the case where no local service providers currently exist.
Yorman reports, for example, that the platform will be gathering data from participating anchors about their transportation and delivery needs, needs that might one day be fulfilled by a Bronx-based and cooperatively-owned green fleet/logistics company.
The prototyping process is also providing intelligence about what services small business need to increase their competitiveness, for example, back office and accounting services to provide digital invoicing to anchor institutions. Another service gap identified is the need for financial services products to address the mismatch between the short-term cash flow needs of small businesses and the longer, 120 to 180 day payment cycles of the typical larger institution. Yorman also expects that in time the vendor platform will be a place where small businesses contract, not just with larger anchors, but also for one another’s services.
Seeking Values-Aligned Businesses, not Just Cooperative Ones
Nurturing cooperative forms of ownership continues to be BCDI’s medium- and longer-term goal. The vendor platform will provide a way to identify existing businesses that are ripe for cooperative conversion as well as a place where new cooperative businesses can be incubated.
But while BCDI will always seek out cooperative businesses for the vendor platform, Yorman is quick to point out that those local traditional businesses for whom genuine community wealth building is a goal will be equally cultivated.
“A lot of the small businesses we work with want to pay higher wages and offer better benefits,” he explains. “They have dreams of creating scholarship funds to help kids in their community go to college.
A lot of these business leaders have these desires but don’t have the means to realize them and we believe if we can help them secure larger contracts and grow, those are the practices they will adopt and the things they will do in the community. That is also a desirable outcome and a measure of success to us.”
Nick Iuviene (center), BCDI's leader of long-term strategy, says the organization is about addressing short-term community needs in a way that gets at their root causes.
"We do need experts in the field to help support the process," says Sandra Lobo-Jost, "but the solutions need to come from the people themselves."
Economic Democracy Skill-Building
BCDI is now administering an ambitious “train the trainers” project for community leaders as a first step to delivering an economic democracy curriculum borough-wide. This program began with training 50 grassroots leaders on economic democracy and now is beginning to develop trainers based in community organizations. For the pilot phase of this program a cohort of 8 organizers and leaders in two community organizations are participating. “This curriculum is helping local residents with community organizing experience develop a framework for participating in a meaningful way in economic democracy,” says Yorman. “I think we will start to see a shift in how community organizing associations do their work and a shift in how these groups fight for change. And we will start to see a lot of ownership dimensions being included in the discussion.” The 10-module curriculum is being filmed and will be available online on an open source platform.
This past spring BCDI also organized a visit with 25 Bronx stakeholders—including representatives of anchor institutions, and civic, small business, labor, and local government leaders—to the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain. It was a unique opportunity—part learning journey part prototyping process—for this diverse group of local leaders to come together and plan together. “We learned from Mondragon facilitators and then we had sessions where we just gathered alone to plan together what can be possible back home,” Yorman relates. “It wasn’t sunshine and rainbows, there were tensions, but they were negotiated productively and powerfully because we had the space to work them through together. The group has stayed together to this day. Now leaders are back here thinking about how to transform their organizations and the conversation is continuing about how to transform the Bronx.”
Members of BCDI, in partnership with CUNY Law, had been working before the Mondragon trip to create a degree-bearing program focused on cooperative ownership to be housed at the City University of New York. Yorman says the opportunity to engage with leadership at Mondragon University has shifted their strategy, causing them to think more holistically about how to build out their curriculum. The desire is now growing to educate the next generation of Bronx leadership, not just beginning at the graduate level but extending into community college level and to the lower grades.
“Mondragon begins this education process in preschool,” Yorman reports. “They have curriculum that gets children to start thinking about what it means to work together, to be in a democracy.
So maybe we don’t want to start at the MBA level, maybe we want to start at preschool. Maybe we want a program at the middle and high school level. Those are the kinds of lessons we learned directly engaging with leaders in Mondragon.”
This past spring BCDI organized a visit with 25 Bronx stakeholders—including representatives of anchor institutions, and civic, small business, labor, and local government leaders—to the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain.
Combining Grassroots Wisdom and Systems Thinking in the Bronx and Beyond
All the work going on inside BCDI is about mining the often-unrecognized wealth of human resources that are housed in the borough of the Bronx. “We are starting from the basis that we may be statistically poor, but we are rich collectively,” Nick maintains. “And we need to find a way to harness that.” That's where the Eighth Principal of a Regenerative Economy, "Empowered Participation," gets invoked.
“In the Bronx,” says Sandra, “we have a history of organizations that have been fighting against bad policy and bad development, but we have not come together and asked , ‘how can we create development through a long term strategy that coordinates planning with all stakeholders—banks, businesses, residents, government?” BCDI’s deep roots in the community and access to cutting-edge academic knowledge bases and resources in urban planning, at MIT and locally, powers these efforts.
Yorman Nunez, far right, leader of education and stakeholder engagement at BCDI, at a meeting with Bronx stakeholders during a trip to Spain to visit the Mondragon Cooperatives this year. “We learned from Mondragon facilitators and then we had sessions where we just gathered alone to plan together what can be possible back home,” Yorman relates.
We asked Sandra what lessons any community could take away from what BCDI collaborators are learning about how to nurture economic democracy in the Bronx. Here is what she said:
“I think at the core of this work are these two pieces—the organizing, and the planning and development. We have been organizing for a long time but we had people coming in from the outside doing planning and development but not involving the community in a participatory way.
Sandra Lobo-Jost facilitating a Bronx community design visioning session.
We believe at BCDI that development and planning should be done by those most impacted. Organizing must be at the core of this vision, of this work together. Those most impacted know the solutions, what needs to happen in their community and what needs to change to create health and wellness in their community.
In any community you have to start with the people and ask them, ‘what is it that impacts you?’ and ‘what do you believe are the solutions to those problems?’ Engage the people and build leadership among them to help create a long-term vision. We do need experts in the field to help support this process, but the solutions need to come from the people themselves. I would say, go to your neighborhood and ask folks, what do you want and need in your community? Then organize them to inform the strategy around long- term planning and development.”
All photos unless otherwise noted, courtesy of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.