How to… organise a community wealth building summit

In April 2016, a group of residents in Poughkeepsie, New York, organised a summit that brought together more than two hundred citizens and organisations to discuss how community wealth building models could be implemented locally.

Justine Porter, who organised the event, has written a paper to share information and learning from the event and to help other towns and cities plan their own community wealth building summit:

A D.I.Y. guide to planning a community wealth building summit

In spring 2015, I sat in on a lecture from Ted Howard about the Democracy Collaborative and their work alongside the Evergreen Cooperatives.

As a resident of the small city of Poughkeepsie, New York, Ted’s words on the need for an inclusive approach to economic development rang true. Poughkeepsie has a population of just over 30,000 people, a poverty rate of nearly 30%, and an unemployment rate creeping towards 15% (though closer to 20% for Black and Hispanic residents).

While listening to his case studies on the Evergreen Cooperatives, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the challenges in Cleveland and the challenges in my city. As in Cleveland and other cities across the country, Poughkeepsie struggles to close its poverty gap despite a tremendous amount of resources.

I left that lecture wanting to look into how I could start implementing community wealth building in my own community.

Let me take a moment to tell you about the resources in my city. We have:

  • Five colleges
  • Two hospitals
  • Three large music/event venues
  • Our city government offices
Our county government and judicial offices
  • A wealth of non-profit organisations
  • A vibrant arts community

Despite major economic anchors and a Main Street with an active business community, as in many communities across the country the term ‘economic development’ too often just means business attraction.

What if we redirected economic development dollars away from business attraction and into opportunities to grow or create local businesses that serve local anchor institutions?

Business attraction approaches to economic development often lack inclusive strategies to create opportunities for unemployed members of the local workforce, and are overly reliant on attracting outside dollars. While there are certainly cases out there in which business attraction has worked, numerous studies have shown us that economic development dollars are better invested in serving current city residents, rather than potential future ones.

My questions were: how can we take the 30% of our city that lives below the poverty line and connect them with jobs that pay living wages? How can we cut our unemployment rate and our poverty rate by 10%? 25%? 50%?

Trying to find answers to these basic questions leads to more concrete questions about the resources that could be most easily redeployed, and the unnecessary barriers to local prosperity that can most easily be removed:

  • Are local hospitals and colleges able to hire from the pool of unemployed city residents?
  • What jobs are currently open and could those jobs be filled by the local workforce?
  • Are local anchor institutions and business able to buy more locally?
  • Is public transport limiting what jobs people are and are not able to hold within the city?
  • Could economic development dollars allocated for business attraction be redistributed to help Main Street businesses grow to hire more employees?
  • In regard to all of the above, where is the low-hanging fruit? What can we address today and what can we plan to address in the future?

The more questions I asked, the more questions that I had. And the more that I talked to community members, the more I realised that every single person in our city wants to solve these problems but no one person, organisation, or government can make that change alone: turning a city’s economy around involves everyone working together.

And then this question hit me — what if I was able to bring together community members, business owners, decision makers, students, activists, farmers, employees of colleges, universities, nonprofits, and anyone else who would come, and spread the word about community wealth building, provide some really inspiring examples and then start a collective conversation about how to make it happen?

What if, through an event like this, I could get someone who works in HR at a university or in purchasing at a college, and a founder of a business to all consider how to integrate the economic wellbeing of our city residents into their day-to-day operations?

The Poughkeepsie Community Wealth Building Summit

Over the course of eight months, I organised the Poughkeepsie Community Wealth Building Summit with the help of a planning team and the support of a number of local organisations.

The event brought together community leaders from anchor institutions, government, businesses, nonprofit organisations, and community interest groups to:

  • Learn about models of inclusive economic development that have been successfully implemented in other cities.
  • Engage in discussions about how such models could be applied to Poughkeepsie.
  • Consider how each aspect of an organisation (from HR to purchasing to marketing) and each kind of organisation (whether a hospital or a pizza shop) can play a role as an agent of economic revitalisation.
  • Identify, connect, and empower individuals and organisations who are allies in the movement to implement an inclusive model of economic development.

So, did it work? What were the outcomes? 

Over 200 people participated in the summit, including community, nonprofit, and business stakeholders, as well as interested members of the general public.

The agenda incorporated a welcome from government officials, an introduction to the community wealth building model, case studies from other communities, an overview of the current state of anchor institution involvement in Poughkeepsie, and break-out sessions on how community wealth building can apply to different anchor institution departments (hiring, purchasing, food and dining services, etc.).

There were a number of positive outcomes from the summit:

  • Conversations continue on how to implement alternative models of economic development — the need for a different approach and a name for that approach has been seeded throughout the community.
  • The community has taken ownership of the event and numerous groups have made requests for specific workshops or goals for the second annual event.
  • Mass Design, a human-centric design firm, offered its services free of charge to any anchor institution wanting to bring programmes to Main Street. Vassar College is exploring moving staff housing to Main Street.
  • A group of representatives from city colleges is working to create a class that students from each university can take together.
  • As a result of this event, the event organisers have easier access to community leaders and community groups. This means
 that future discussions and projects will gain traction more easily.

The decentralised model that we adopted in organising the summit involved putting the knowledge and tools into the hands of representatives from each organisation so that they could incorporate changes within their own sphere of influence.

Plan Your Own Summit!

Here’s an outline of the steps to help you get your own event off the ground.

– Do your research

Planning a summit on this model, whether you’re calling it community wealth building or something else, means that you need to have a solid grasp on how the model has worked in other communities and ideas for how these models can be applied within your community. Look for case studies that are relevant to some of the challenges in your city.

– Start throwing the idea out there. Gauge interest & make friends.

If you come at people with a lengthy presentation on economic development and why it should be this way and not that way, you’re going to lose attention.

Start simple and tell a story. Talk about a specific case that you identify with and how you want to explore doing that in your community. Listen to needs that are identified by others. Learn about existing projects that you may not have known about.

– Identify your allies.

For those who are really on board (and there will be many), ask them if you can continue to bounce ideas off of them as you move through the process.

– Start to think about your agenda.

By identifying specific issues through these conversations that are important to your community members, you’ll be able to build an event agenda that is relevant and engaging.


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