Inviting Communities To The Table

  Community Wealth Building Fellow Yessica Holguin stands in the parking lot of a closed Save A Lot in north Denver. Holguin used to frequent the store while living nearby and sees its closure as a sign of the rapidly developing neighborhood. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

Community Wealth Building Fellow Yessica Holguin stands in the parking lot of a closed Save A Lot in north Denver. Holguin used to frequent the store while living nearby and sees its closure as a sign of the rapidly developing neighborhood. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

by Robert Davis

An unfortunate side effect of gentrification is alienation. As cities like Denver grow beyond their intended capacity community identities become lost. Family members need to work more to survive, church crowds grow thinner, and local pubs become ever busier. 

But there is one organization working to ameliorate this effect — Community Wealth Building Network (CWBN), a co-operative dedicated to elevating capacity for individual communities in Denver to become economically sustainable. 

CWBN is a national movement with bicoastal cooperatives branching from San Francisco to New York. The Network aims to mobilize, facilitate, and coordinate efforts to educate communities about economic alternatives, diversifying economic participation, and creating new jobs within communities. Ultimately, they seek to create a new economic model that keeps economic growth centered within individual communities.

“[The] Network was started by individuals who realized Denver’s growth isn’t helping people of color,” said Yessica Holguin, Community Wealth Building fellow. “The wealth gap in Denver is quite large and continues to grow along racial lines. Monthly expenses continually outgrow wages. We want to provide a new economic concept for local communities being left behind.”

Her statement carries a striking factual basis. National media outlets consistently report that Denver’s economy is thriving with unemployment at record lows and home values at record highs. They’re not wrong, but those statistics fail to encompass the entire story. 

The Colorado Center on Law and Policy detailed the extent to which communities of color are underrepresented economically in their 2017 State of Working Colorado report. They found that both Black and Latinx Denverites experience higher unemployment and underemployment rates than their white counterparts. Median household income for these groups range between 67 and 69 percent, respectively, of white residents.

  Steve Dubb, Research Director at The Democracy Collaborative, discusses sustainable economic growth at the Collective Wealth Building Network conference in 2014. (Credit: Collective Wealth Building Network)

Steve Dubb, Research Director at The Democracy Collaborative, discusses sustainable economic growth at the Collective Wealth Building Network conference in 2014. (Credit: Collective Wealth Building Network)

These are the communities that CWBN discussed in their 2014 conference. The event featured speakers from partner organizations including The Denver Foundation, lawyers, and representatives of universities and hospitals from around the country. Organizers realized there is a growing need for a community-centric organization bent towards helping individuals survive gentrification around the country and came to Denver to collaborate and brainstorm how to make community wealth building a practical solution. 

“If you want to see some of the failures of free market capitalism, come to Denver,” said Patrick Horvath, deputy vice president of programs and director of economic opportunity at The Denver Foundation. “The economy is generally not fair or equitable and has created vast wealth inequality across the country. If the wealthy want to stop building higher walls and taller fences around their properties, it’s in everyone’s interest to make the economy fairer.”

The Network utilizes over 30 local volunteer staff to reach out to different neighborhoods, such as Elyria-Swansea, to figure out what each neighborhood needs to become economically self-sufficient. Each volunteer works with the CWBN fellow to ensure the Network can meet the needs of the neighborhood. 

CWBN takes a two-pronged approach to community building. They focus on both individual contributions like locally owned businesses and utilize what they call “anchor institutions,” such as hospitals and schools, to create and sustain a flow of capital throughout a community.

“Community Wealth Building Network believes that people are the center of the economy. Teaching people how to own their own resources is central to our mission,” Holguin said. “If our approach is not people-centric, then we are completely missing our mark.”

Individuals who join Community Wealth Building Network learn many of the skills necessary to running their own business. Organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union, Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, and The Women of Westwood teach community members technical skills like basic accounting and bookkeeping or business skills like marketing. 

“We strongly believe in the mission of the Network, one that will create a more inclusive economy that works for all in Denver,” said Bill Stevenson, cooperative director for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “We hope this not only develops in urban areas, but becomes a viable way to do business in rural areas as well.”

Through a grant by the Denver Foundation and Gary Community Investments, CWBN is able to fund research costs, travel expenses, salaries, and rent for staff office space. These grants help ensure the mission of the Network can continue, and communities can continually reap the benefits. 

“It’s amazing to see the change in people when you provide them with knowledge,” Holguin said. 

The second prong of Community Wealth Building Network’s approach is to ensure “anchor institutions” like Anschutz Hospital and the University of Colorado Denver continue to thrive while realizing the impact they can have on local communities. 

“We are developing a model where anchor institutions that have been here for 100 years will be here for a next 100 years,” Holguin said. “These institutions can use their dollars as an economic engine for community building.”

Institutions like CU Denver build wealth at a high level. The next step for them is to incorporate that wealth at the local level. CWBN suggests utilizing catering services from local restaurants, hiring community members, and purchasing support services from local businesses as ways anchor institutions can support communities suffering from the public and private divestment, which oftentimes precedes gentrification. 

CWBN is currently working with anchor institutions in various communities toward investing capital into local businesses. By removing middle-man banks, local businesses could avoid taking out predatory loans from banks and thereby stabilize their local economy in a self-sufficient way, according to Holguin. 

  Yessica Holguin is the first hire in Denver’s Community Wealth Building Network. But with expansive connections, she believes the organization will soon grow in size and scope. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

Yessica Holguin is the first hire in Denver’s Community Wealth Building Network. But with expansive connections, she believes the organization will soon grow in size and scope. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

Teaching communities how to become self-sufficient has been a goal of Holguin’s since she graduated from CU Denver with a master’s in business administration in 2004. Since then, she has worked for numerous community-centric organizations, including the Peace Corps and the Denver Scholarship Foundation before becoming CWBN’s first local hire a year ago.  

“I truly believe in this work,” Holguin said. “It’s so much more than activism. We’re providing an economic opportunity for those who are not involved in the process. Instead of waiting for a seat at the table to open, we set a new one down.”

While working as the Country Director for Project Gettysburg-León, a grassroots sister city organization that empowers communities through education and cultural exchange programs, Holguin taught Nicaraguan communities the same principles in León CWBN is providing for Denver communities. 

“There are a lot of economic opportunities for the people of Nicaragua, however, few have enough social or monetary capital to start a business,” Holguin said. “70 percent of the population is under 30 years old and wages are incredibly low in that country. So it’s necessary to teach them how to start and run their own business.”

In many ways, Nicaragua’s economy doesn’t work for every Nicaraguan. That’s where Holguin draws parallels between Denver and León. And after watching the 2016 U.S. elections with her husband in their home in León, Holguin knew she needed to serve her community back home.

“I knew I wanted to help my community, one that we worked so hard to build,” Holguin said. “We couldn’t lose all that we’ve been working for.”

Holguin found her passion for helping to end poverty at an early age. She grew up in Florencia, Colombia, before moving to Denver. 

 “At the end of the day, we communities through (our) principles. And just like a community, we rise together,” Holguin said. 

“Community wealth building starts with every single one of us. We can’t wait for the national system to change, or local municipalities to change. We need to think about our habits and how they affect what’s happening in our communities. We need to remember that we have power to change our communities as well. How we connect with our community, support our community and small businesses, and treat each other is a very important piece of how a community functions. The only way to make this work is if we do it together.” ■