Victoria Hewlett (Yale College ’19) arrived in New Haven knowing she was interested in community organizing and developing a more sustainable, just, and community-centered economy. Before transferring to Yale College from Northeast State Community College in Tennessee, she had worked on a team research project on Appalachian economic history and public health. That project culminated in a community event, entitled “Community Garden Symposium: Building Visions for a Healthier Appalachia,” that brought together dozens of local food enthusiasts to share ideas, get funding advice from regional grant providers, and learn locally successful community gardening strategies from one another. “That project really got me thinking about community economic development,” she says. “I got excited about doing that kind of work, although I didn’t know much about it yet.”
Once she got to Yale in 2016, she set about trying to learn more. Early on, she started attending a speaker series on social entrepreneurship that took place at Yale’s School of Management, hearing different perspectives from this rapidly evolving field. At the end of the series, she took part in a brainstorming session, and found herself wanting to talk to a mentor about what she calls the “very vague, messy idea” she had about how she might be able to explore and contribute to robust, sustainable community economic development. Cass Walker Harvey (former managing director of Tsai CITY) pointed her to Ony Obiocha, who was then running A Happy Life, a social-enterprise coffee shop. In a meeting at the coffee shop, they talked through Hewlett’s goals and bounced ideas around. A few semesters later, Obiocha — now working at Tsai CITY — reached out with an opportunity: a student job that would involve researching and creating a project or program around community economic development.
For Hewlett, this was a dream opportunity. As she began to research, she says, “I found this whole world of solidarity economics, cooperatives, community wealth-building…it was a world of ideas that really resonated with what I was originally interested in.” From there, the next move was clear: “Let’s take these ideas and share them.” Partnering with Kate Cooney at the Yale School of Management (who was running a course on the subject), along with Yale Law School and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Obiocha and Hewlett launched spring 2019’s Inclusive Economic Development Speaker Series. The series brought people working within a wide range of community economic development models — from participatory budgeting programs and community land trusts to worker cooperatives and green policy initiatives — to campus, drawing audiences that included both Yale affiliates and New Haven residents working in diverse fields.
For Hewlett, the ability to spend time exploring the world of inclusive economic development, and then to bring perspectives from this world to broader audiences, has been “extremely fulfilling work.” She adds, “This job was the thing for me at Yale — being able to do it all was just amazing.”
This summer, she had a chance to continue her exploration. Among those attending the Inclusive Economic Development Speaker Series was the team from the New Haven Legal Assistance Association’s Community Economic Justice (CEJ) Unit. Following the conclusion of the speaker series, Hewlett interned with the CEJ Unit, an opportunity supported by Tsai CITY’s Social Innovation Internship program. Read her reflections on her work and what’s next.
Brimming under the surface of mainstream political dialogue is a struggle taking place in American cities and communities for influence over the future field of economic development. The outcome of this struggle will do much to contribute to the 21st-century reorganization of the American political economy.
New Haven has a rich history with economic planning. It was the first post-colonial U.S. city whose urban layout was fully planned. In the mid-20th century, it was one of the nation’s focal points for the federal Urban Renewal program. Today, a new wave of development is hitting New Haven in which private real-estate investors are buying up property to develop urban centers for luxury housing and retail. Through much of this history, the beneficiaries of development agendas have primarily been the city’s local elite, major businesses, and major institutions. Meanwhile, working-class, low-income, immigrant black and brown communities have been set aside to make room for those plans.
The fields of economic development and community economic development (CED) today are struggling to come to terms with its troubling past and forge a new direction which aims to develop economic resources which work for all people, regardless of income, race, ethnicity or social class. The right-wing policies of the Trump Administration, however, are coming head-to-head with the growing popularity of such models.
Proponents of Trump’s approach suggest that low-income neighborhoods need capital-rich individuals to invest into those neighborhoods in order to provide jobs and economic opportunity. Critics point to the many historical examples of development agendas that promise “economic opportunity” but end with displacement and exploitation, especially of low-income, black, brown and immigrant communities.
At the heart of the divergence between Trump’s approach to economic development and the models being propagated within the CED field is a question of community power over economic affairs. Should local economic development be largely driven by the capital-rich real-estate industry and wealthy individuals, or should grassroots associations and local residents have more democratic control over how capital is invested in their communities?
There are major decisions along these very lines being made every day on a hyper-local level in cities and communities across the nation. The urgency of this issue is belied by a relative lack of discussion about the nature and consequences of local politics in comparison to those of national politics.
New Haven’s story gives us an inspiring example of fighting the power of wealthy private individuals to cash out on investment opportunities without accounting for the harm to impacted communities. The city’s history of grassroots resistance to the impact of a real-estate industry-influenced piece of federal legislation has much to teach us about a vitally important issue in American politics that deserves considerably more research: community power in the organization of local economies.
This Social Innovation Internship was generously supported by the Yale Club of New Haven. Learn more about Tsai CITY’s work here.