Communities First

Communities First strives to amplify community wisdom and solutions so everyone thrives. In deep relationship with community, government and philanthropy partners, Communities First collaborates to centralize the needs and values of impacted communities by providing resources to strengthen community-led and community driven planning, power building and solutions development and implementation.

Context

In the US, race is the primary determining factor for the quality of the environment around you — both built and natural.  Race also is closely correlated to a person’s economic mobility, access to goods and services and pathway to participation — whether that is related to voting in a presidential election or being a player in how infrastructure is built in your community.

Inequity has led to an invisible existence for millions of people, who are living on the margins of society with no voice or access to systems that can alter their circumstances. The deaths of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor brought this reality into the national spotlight and showed us that systemic and persistent inequity in our society is deep and warrants collective action to address.

Understanding that our democracy has systematically failed to deliver upon this promise for so many disenfranchised people, and for low wealth people and people of color in particular due to a legacy of systems that incentivize underinvestment or disinvestment in BIPOC and low wealth communities. The path towards justice must start with building power within these communities first.

The openness of the Biden Administration, the federal agencies and state and local partners lays out the enabling conditions to innovate at the intersection of racial and economic equity and environment. Making progress on the Administration’s visionary racial justice goals, and the Justice 40 commitment will require partnerships among the community thought partners, philanthropic, partners in federal, state and local government and utilities, as well as philanthropic and investment partners, with the researchers and technical assistance community to advance policy and practice that supports community-led initiatives and ownership models to create safe, healthy, just and resilient communities. 

We launched Communities First to leverage our combined expertise, our deep understanding of how communities, systems, governance and capital operate and our broad and rich relationships among these actors to align around a set of shared values and commitments; and serve as the connective tissue to reorient how public resources and private capital effectively support under-invested communities and help them to advance their visions for thriving communities. Creating a healthy, prosperous and just society requires focusing on the “who” - communities most impacted and under-invested and the “how” centering communities as experts and decision-makers, who can set the table for change and put forward solutions. 

The commitment to tackling the nation’s social and economic challenges by the Biden Administration creates a unique and singular opportunity to leverage the resources of the federal government to meet the moment and change the practices and systems of the country to work for every community. In partnership with the federal agencies, Community First will convene a Working Group to identify specific programs and policies that movement leadership can access now to increase the economic and climate resilience of communities, with existing and emerging federal programs. Initially, the Working Group will align with current and actionable policies and legislative opportunities such as American Rescue Plan and Justice 40 to achieve impact now and get the public sector to build the necessary muscle to establish systems that will increase the investment flows to communities.

Amidst racialized systemic disinvestment and under-development, communities want to preserve cohesion while building wealth. Innovative models that hold the community’s vision, allow the community to organize and position them to have ownership over setting the table for driving solutions are powerful levers for immediate stabilization, self-determination, and long-term transformation. How communities envision and account for equitable development and sustainable infrastructure will vary with geography but the goal to fundamentally challenge status quo power paradigms will remain the same and we must be intentional about positioning community expertise and needs if we hope to achieve equitable outcomes. Communities First will foster the enabling conditions for community, government and financial partners to think beyond what they believe they are capable of and radically imagine and build communities that thrive.

The collective breath of this work will take time and patience; the systemic changes we are working toward will have some short-term successes and the real change will come over the long-term. While we will be carefully assessing and monitoring our work, there will be unknowns that will require us to be steadfast in our approach even when we do not have all the answers. It is in partnership, with stakeholders from all the impacted sectors, that we will co-create solutions.

2021 Communities First Priorities

We acknowledge the need for policy action and applaud that this is a focus and objective for many of our peers. For the purposes of our work, we are focusing on immediate actions that will not require legislative action and are within the oversight and existing authorities of the partner agencies to work with and take action on implementation.

The Goals

  1. Ensure COVID-19 Economic Recovery and Justice 40 money and resources are directed to and support greater economic vitality and resilience of under-invested communities.

  2. Support the adoption of a just racial equity lens across multiple federal agencies and their grant programs at all levels.

  3. Ensure communities of color have the local investment infrastructure necessary to attract philanthropic, public, and private capital to support the community assets building.

  4. Ensure that people of color are in decision-making positions within regional, local economic development networks/ecosystems.

Communities First is led by Helen Chin, President of the Communities First and Senior Fellow at Race Forward and Amalgamated Foundation, where Communities First is housed. The Communities First Working group is co-convened by Helen, Kristin Pierre of the Impower Initiative and Taj James of Full Spectrum Capital Partners.