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How U.S. Communities Are Advancing Economic Opportunity for All

Rachel Korberg - Former Associate Director, Economic Equity Opportunity

How are communities tackling poverty and inequity, and improving economic opportunity for all?

This is the question posed by our Communities Thrive Challenge, a $10 million Rockefeller Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative funding opportunity to support and scale successful, community-driven approaches that improve economic opportunity for low-income and financially insecure people and communities across the United States. More than 1800 local nonprofits, businesses, and policy groups responded from all 50 states, D.C., and four of the five populated territories. And their answers were inspiring, speaking to a diverse range of strategies to confront the systemic, deep causes of poverty and inequity and improve lives:

  • A company in Montana is investing in low-income entrepreneurs who struggle to access traditional financing, helping them to grow their businesses and achieve financial security.
  • A group in North Carolina is reimagining the labor movement by organizing and financing factory workers to buy out factories from retiring owners and then convert them into employee-owned businesses that may pay higher wages and provide greater benefits.
  • A partnership between an education nonprofit, a government entity, and an advocacy network in Los Angeles is converting a juvenile detention facility into a vocational training center that provides transitional employment to youth who are involved in the criminal justice system.
  • A nonprofit in rural Maine is helping people who are recovering from opioid abuse to rebuild their lives and ultimately connect to good jobs.

We have just wrapped up peer-to-peer review, in which every applicant was asked to review and score five other applications. This is a critical part of the process both because it gives community leaders’ voices in the decision making and because it means that every applicant—even those who do not ultimately receive funding—will get invaluable feedback from their peers and connect with applicants doing similar work in other parts of the country

Next, 85 organizations will move on to Round Two where our Expert Panel will review their applications. Our Panel is a brilliant, diverse group of leaders, including Professor Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard University who studies economic mobility; Ms. Fatima Goss Graves, the President of the National Women’s Law Center; Mayor Mitch Landrieu, former Mayor of New Orleans; and Ms. Janet Murguía, President of Unidos U.S., a nonpartisan advocacy organization for Latinx people.

The Challenge will ultimately conclude in November with the announcement of 10 grantees. Each will receive a $1 million grant, technical assistance to scale their impacts, and a national platform to tell their stories.

Prior to formally launching the Communities Thrive Challenge, we visited 11 communities across the U.S. Our goal was to help ensure that the realities of community-based businesses, nonprofits, and policy groups—especially those outside of large, coastal cities—informed the Challenge. In each community, we were honored to attend a workshop hosted by the local United Way and United Way Worldwide and to meet with local leaders and organizations. Despite the tremendous geographic, demographic, economic, and social diversity of the country, we found at least three common lessons in nearly all of the communities we visited, whether we were in Buffalo, New York, Jackson Mississippi, Anchorage, Alaska or elsewhere:

  • Communities succeed when big and small business, government, nonprofits, researchers, faith leaders, organizers, and others are all at the table working together. This type of collaboration doesn’t happen overnight and requires mutual trust, tough conversations, and an investment in coordinating infrastructure. We saw real momentum and positive change where a strong social fabric existed and felt its absence where it did not.
  • There is a hunger to do bolder, more ambitious state and local policy work, but limited funding is available. Community-based organizations find it easier to raise money for programs and direct services than for policy or advocacy. Some community leaders expressed concern that even the best programs are band-aids for bad policies. We witnessed a deep fatigue from many direct service providers who feel they are forever in bandaging mode rather than having the resources and power to get at the root causes of the injury.
  • Equity must be at the center of efforts to advance economic opportunity. In nearly every community we visited, we heard a strong, clear call to prioritize racial, ethnic, indigenous, and/or gender equity. We were especially impressed by the many business and government leaders we met who were making both a moral and economic case for closing the racial opportunity gap.

At a time when many are not optimistic about national policy solutions, all of us at The Rockefeller Foundation feel incredibly inspired and hopeful about the progress that communities are making on the ground—and often with too little support. While $10 million is a small sum compared to the scale of the issues that communities are facing, it’s important to us to hear directly from those who are working to address these challenges every day on the ground and to ensure that all our future work and investments are informed by their concerns, lessons learned, and hopes.

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