Policy Corner | August 4, 2022

‘Policy entrepreneurs’ are scaling up local innovation to drive inclusive growth

Amy Cortese and Dennis Price
ImpactAlpha Editor

Amy Cortese

ImpactAlpha Editor

Dennis Price

ImpactAlpha, Aug. 4 Bree Jones had been working as an equitable developer in West Baltimore for just a couple of years when a local legislator familiar with her work asked her what he could be doing to help developers like her working to restore distressed communities.

“Well, there’s the appraisal gap,” she replied, referring to the large differential between the cost of renovating an abandoned building and the lesser amount a bank will appraise the finished building for. The legislator asked her to write a draft bill that he could run with. 

“I was googling, ‘how to write a bill,’” recalls Jones, the founder of Parity, a nonprofit developer that buys and restores abandoned homes by the block and keeps them affordable. The bill she drafted, modeled after the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act in the doomed federal Build Back Better plan, was passed unanimously by the Maryland Congress, although the governor has declined to appropriate funds to it. 

Building a coalition to advocate for the funds to be appropriated is one of the issues that Jones will work on as part of a new policy entrepreneurship incubator created by the nonprofit Common Future. Jones is one of four “policy entrepreneurs” selected by Common Future to join the program.

“I never thought of myself as a policymaker,” says Jones. “But I am always trying to look at the root cause of the issue.”

Jones’ company aims to renovate and preserve for the community 200 homes a year. But her bill “has the ability to create thousands of additional homeownership units across the state,” notes Jones. The impact could be even broader: She has been flooded with requests from other states looking to preserve affordable housing for longtime residents and stave off speculators. 

Policy can be a powerful tool to mobilize capital and action for inclusive growth. But most policy is cooked up by well-funded think tanks and corporations. “Economic policy is due for a refresh,” says Lauren Paul of Common Future, a nonprofit focused on addressing economic inequality. New voices can bring innovative ideas to policy circles. “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Paul told ImpactAlpha

As the Biden-Harris Administration prioritizes inclusive growth, Paul says groups like Common Future want to ensure that community leaders have a say in how those public investments are made. 

The policy incubator, she says, will give entrepreneurs and activists with deep knowledge of an issue a chance to focus on developing policies that can broaden their impact and lead to innovative policies.

The entrepreneurs – Trevor Smith of Liberation Ventures, Keneshia Raymond of the Tucson Urban League and Roque Barros of the Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation, in addition to Jones – will each receive $50,000 over the next year to develop their ideas.

Community leaders like the ones in Common Future’s network, she says, too often don’t have time to think about policy. “Every time we’ve ever opened space and given folks permission to think about policy, the quality of their ideas is truly incredible.”

A steering committee including Dalberg’s Marcus Haymon, Pacific Community Ventures’ Bulbul Gupta and Liberation in a Generation’ Solana Rice helped shape the program. 

Narrative power

As part of the incubator, New York-based Smith will mine the resurgent U.S. reparations movement for narratives and stories that can inform a policy framework for legislators to use when addressing racial and economic disparities. 

“A lot of folks understand reparations as an economic project,” Smith told ImpactAlpha. “What we’re trying to do here is have folks understand that yes, it is an economic project. But it’s also a cultural and political project.” 

Reparations policies are making progress in states from California to New Jersey and cities, including Evanston and Tulsa. “Reparations isn’t going to be passed in D.C.,” says Smith, who writes the newsletter, Reparations Daily (ish). “It’s going to come to D.C. from the grassroots.” And that means being able to tell stories that shift cultural mindsets and ultimately culture, he says. 

The Surdna Foundation-alum has helped build Liberation Ventures to fund and support the upswell of organizations contributing to the advancement of reparative policies, such as Color Farm Media, the L.A.-based production company co-founded by writer-actress Erika Alexander that elevates underrepresented voices and narratives. Liberation has deployed $1 million to at least a dozen organizations. 

Distilling and amplifying the lessons of the grassroots efforts, through what Smith is calling a Reparations Narrative Lab, is key to action nationally, he says. 

“When folks in D.C. realize, ‘my city is obsessed with reparations, there’s a real reckoning happening there,’ they’re going to have no choice but to pass a reparations bill and have the country finally recognize its history and transform it for the better.”

Blue sky

Since its merger with the social impact incubator Uncharted last year, Oakland, Caif.-based Common Future has been “doubling down on field-defining interventions and potentially transformative solutions,” explains Paul. 

“We believe that these four folks are leading field defining interventions and we want to organize the support around them so that they can do their thing,” says Paul. “Not just for the sake of the specific community that they’re representing at the moment, but because we think there’s a lot of scalable potential there.”

In Tucson, where there are few resources for marginalized communities, Raymond, with the Tucson Urban League, will work on building a land trust and advocate for reforms at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

Policy fellow Barros has gained expertise in democratic decision making along his career, most recently running the Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation in a rural, immigrant-heavy part of California. Barros “sees a lot of potential to codify what he’s been doing and share it with a broader national audience,” notes Paul. 

Back in Baltimore, Parity’s Jones has an ambitious slate of policy work. Her Maryland bill would provide funds to close the appraisal gap, which is particularly large in marginalized communities. She’s also working on some “blue sky” policy ideas, including applying a rezoning tool called overlay zones to help prevent gentrification and extractive development. 

“How that’s going to work, I have no idea,” she says. “It’s just a crazy idea, but I’m going to be using my time with Common Future to explore if somehow it’s feasible.”