Beats | October 17, 2019

Q&A with Rodney Foxworth: Redistributing wealth, democratizing power and shifting economic control for our Common Future

Amy Cortese
ImpactAlpha Editor

Amy Cortese

ImpactAlpha, Oct. 15 – The median wealth of African Americans is on track to drop to zero by 2050.

The lack of progress on the racial wealth gap has spurred Rodney Foxworth to find new ways to shift capital into economically marginalized communities and help investors deploy capital more effectively.

The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE, which Foxworth leads, has helped channel $150 million into underserved communities and high-impact projects through the community foundations in its network.

“How do we get that to $1 billion? How do we get that to $100 billion?” Foxworth asks. “We have to make sure that we’re marshaling resources and capital to the types of things that will make change in communities and shift and disrupt power dynamics.”

Foxworth, who is co-hosting this weekend’s community capital, or COCAP, conference in Oakland ahead of next week’s larger SOCAP gathering, will unveil BALLE’s new brand and new positioning: Common Future.

As BALLE, the organization built a network of entrepreneurial fellows working in communities from Jackson, Miss., to Renner, S.D. It also facilitates learning circles for place-based foundations and high-net-worth individuals looking to shift their money toward racial justice and rural economies (see, “Rural Arkansas powers an entrepreneurial revival on camelina and biofuels).

Common Future will champion the group’s locally-based fellows as stewards of the work of shifting capital into economically marginalized communities. That will require challenging what Foxworth has called the “fallacies” of impact investing, including incremental change and market-rate returns.

“The urgency is there,” he says. “We don’t have decades and decades to sit on this. There are opportunities to invest right now.”

ImpactAlpha: BALLE was founded 18 years ago to support local businesses.  What’s behind the rebranding to Common Future? 

The name Common Future is meant to do two things. One, acknowledge the fact that when we’re talking about the racial wealth gap, or inequality as it relates to women or rural communities, it is not just a problem that is faced by those particular communities. It’s actually something we need to work on and focus on collectively.

The other element, we find there are a range of perspectives across our network and the partners we work with, yet there’s a common thread in how people care about their communities and how they are looking at equity and inclusion in an economy. And so we’re looking at how we bring them together. 

The other deep consideration is that people of color will be the majority of Americans somewhere in 2040 or thereabouts. When you look at the economic trajectory – if everything continues as it has been, African American household wealth will drop to zero – what does that mean for our economy as a whole? If we’re not tackling this our entire economy will be adversely impacted. 

Finally, we have to acknowledge that the world has changed quite a bit since the founding of the organization. Buying local was more of a fringe concept, it’s now mainstream. And the localism movement did not always include the diversity of cultural experiences and histories that, as we move forward as Common Future, is really central to what we do. 

ImpactAlpha: How does the rebranding and new mission change the work you’ve been doing? 

In 2010 we began working on communities of practice – fellows like Derrick Braziel, Jessica Norwood, and Aaron Tanaka who are pushing the boundaries on what an economy that works for everyone could look like. That will continue. We’ll also go a little more deeply to a variety of stakeholders in places and communities.

ImpactAlpha did a story about one of our fellows in Dewitt, Arkansas. We’re trying to do much more of that, working more deeply with community leaders in a place, working with our extraordinary network of leaders to advance potential solutions and promising models for what these alternatives can look like. 

ImpactAlpha: What are some of these promising models? 

One model is Stephanie Rearick’s mutual aid network in Madison, Wisc., which is a really boundary pushing innovation leveraging bartering and a complex, nuanced set of arrangements based on relationships. Boston Ujima Project is an opportunity for African American and Latinx communities in Boston who are typically excluded from investment opportunities to pool their funds and collectively determine the types of businesses that they will be invested into.

The Runway Project is looking at how the racial wealth gap impacts African American entrepreneurs and  businesses and creating a set of vehicles that allows individuals and institutions to invest in those businesses at the early stages. 

Jessica Norwood: ‘Believe in you’ money for black entrepreneurs

ImpactAlpha: There is a lot of talk about community engagement and sharing of power… do you see much evidence of that happening? 

We’re seeing some interesting things. I look at some of the things that Swift Foundation is working toward by only mandating that they maintain their endowment, which allows for lots of flexibility, and engaging different partners on the ground to help them make investment decisions. This is a family foundation that’s really challenging themselves to work and operate differently.

Another example is Thousand Currents and their fund [which partners with grassroots groups and movements]. If you’re looking at wealth inequality and you’re trying to make a difference on that, you really have to change the way you operate and how you consider optimizing profit and investment. Boston Impact Initiative is a great example of making changes on optimizing on profit and return on investment. [The fund, for example, puts the most vulnerable investors at the top of the capital stack].

We’re seeing a lot of great things happening that have not yet trickled up into the mainstream, where the majority of the conversation is still, how do we get a market rate return? If you look at rural economies and African American and Latinx communities, these are communities that have historically been marginalized and exploited, so if we were to look at a return on investment that was market rate, how can those communities ever catch up? When it comes to mainstream impact investing field, there’s so much room for growth.

ImpactAlpha: Let’s get specific: who needs to step up? Foundations? City governments? Impact investors? Anchor institutions? What specifically can they do?

They all need to step up. There’s such a preoccupation and fixation on the status quo of return on investment. Impact investors have an opportunity to rethink how our economy operates. And right now it’s very much business as usual – a market rate of return without factoring in the historical damage that has not been healed. 

We have to look toward philanthropic institutions to be leaders in this sort of shift. Because quite frankly, if you can’t do it in philanthropy, where can you do it? It requires hard work, and a complete shift in how we think about ROI for our communities. Investment committees need to be more open and challenge themselves to think about what needs to be done to rectify these inequalities. Boards of directors need to challenge themselves – that’s where the power is held. 

The urgency is there. We don’t have decades and decades to sit on this. There are opportunities to invest right now. 

ImpactAlpha: One of the goals of Common Future is to connect wealth holders with community wealth builders. How do you do that? 

We have this remarkable network of individuals doing the type of work to resource, incubate and accelerate on-the-ground enterprises that create the type of wealth required for communities to be strong. On the other side we have this network of foundations that are constantly trying to figure out how they can best put their money into play. One of the things we think about as we step into Common Future is structuring ourselves much more as an intermediary in which we can make direct connections and organize opportunities on the capital holder side to support investment in these inclusive economy-type businesses. 

We’ve begun a process to assess our network in terms of some of the capital opportunities and how we can organize and unlock some of that. We’re also thinking about different ways in which we can leverage beyond endowed foundations and get into the broader capital markets. We’re not there yet but we intend to step into that space where we can work with CDFIs, banks, family offices, a range of actors. 

ImpactAlpha: One role suggested for Common Future is that your fellows serve as experts that can be consulted in Opportunity Zone development. Are you doing any of that now? 

Part of our work at Common Future is repositioning our network as experts that can inform how capital is invested in transformative equitable inclusive models. Our network [can serve as] the consultants and partners on the ground to ensure the capital is deployed in a way that actually benefits communities. We’ve worked with some foundations who effectively look at our network as their on the ground eyes and ears that allow them to most effectively deploy their capital.

ImpactAlpha: What does success look like for Common Future?

We’re big believers in systems change and mind shift. None of this can happen unless individuals and institutions change. It’s not enough to say, there’s $X trillion in the impact space. We have to make sure that we’re marshaling resources and capital to the types of things that will make change in communities and shift and disrupt power dynamics and shift how inequities play out in day to day life. For us on a meta level, it’s about how much capital can we move to things like the Runway Project, to things like Boston Ujima Project. How can we move capital in ways that afford these innovators in these communities to be able to make systems change in their place? That’s a metric that we have to hold ourselves to collectively in this field. That is the goal post. 

Through our Foundation Circle of about 42 philanthropic institutions, we’ve been able to influence conservatively $150 million into local community-based and impactful opportunities. That’s a great start, but how do we get that to a billion, how do we get that to $100 billion? We need to shift capital in ways that allows practitioners and communities to have the sorts of resources that they need to make systems change long term.