E92: Los Angeles and Durham Reimagined Through EFOD

Friday, October 2, 2020

This is a fourth podcast in a five-part series focused on equitable food-oriented development. This is a growing movement to promote food projects and enterprises as vehicles for building community wealth, health, and self-determination. With us today are two leaders in this movement, and it is my pleasure to welcome urban planner Rudy Espinoza, the executive director of Inclusive Action for the City in Los Angeles, and community activist and organizer Camryn Smith, the founding member of Communities in Partnership, a grassroots organization in Old East Durham, North Carolina.

Interview Summary

So the EFOD movement as it's called is a systemic approach to wealth building through community projects, and both of you, I know can help explain how capital access and redistribution in low-income communities can build strong, vital and sustainable neighborhoods. So let me ask you both, why does EFOD place such importance on community-led funding, and why is this necessary? And Rudy, why don't we begin with you?

It's a good question. I think that the organizations that have been involved in the development of this field of practice, equitable food-oriented development, came together because they realized that the work that they were doing on the ground in their communities across the country was unique because they weren't simply underwriting loans for new restaurants or food projects. They weren't simply delivering food to people that were hungry. They were approaching their work in a different way. That way was really manifested in their pursuit of building power in changing the systems that kept capital away from their communities. The beginning of EFOD was really these people, these organizations, these leaders coming together to say – hey, you know the way that we're approaching this work is a little bit different. We are recognizing inequality and inequities in our system. We're recognizing that the systems that govern our society need to be transformed. And we want to not only talk about these things, Kelly, we want to practice them. And we want to really demonstrate that in order for us to really build power, and to build wealth in our communities, we need a different structure to build our businesses and to build our communities.

Rudy, you used the word power several times. Can you explain more about how that term is important in this context?

In the communities that we work with, certainly here in Los Angeles, we see black and brown people have about 1% of the wealth that their white counterparts have. And to us, that is a result of intentional design in our systems that has kept capital away from people. When you keep capital away from people, you also keep power away from them. So when I think about power, I also think about resources and making sure people have the resources so they can really exhibit the power that they have.

Camryn, it's nice to talk to you again, and I want you to know how much I admire the work that you're doing in Durham. It's nice to be neighbors. much of your work focuses on addressing policy and systemic inequality for communities of color and materially poor people here in Durham. How does EFOD create community wealth, and can you give us some examples of your work in this area?

Thank you, Kelly. I'm glad to be neighbors as well. Our work is primarily rooted in helping build capacity and also using the tools and the resources that we have to figure out what our community needs. This is being led by people who have been directly impacted by institutional systemic racism. And as Rudy said, a lot of these systems, especially in urban communities in city-centered neighborhoods, there has been intentional divestment that was predicated on the racial makeup of communities. And the divestment that followed brought about unfortunate circumstances for a lot of folks that were directly impacted for multiple generations.

So we believe that community wealth can be recreated again, especially for black and brown communities. We do have histories of when we were not only surviving, but also thriving and our outcomes were far better than they are currently now, even with all the education and some of the technology we have been afforded, We still have worse outcomes in Durham than we did during Jim Crow, and even further back in our history. We believe that the people most directly impacted have their own humanity and their ability to be brilliant, and to be resilient. But we also understand that we need to be given the access to capital, the access to technical resources, and to administrative supports that oftentimes middle class and upper middle class communities and organizations take for granted. It puts a constraint on our community to be able to rebuild and move forward.

We believe that those are the strongest ways for us to rebuild ourselves. We take a multi-pronged approach. We have a food co-op that was created by people that have been directly impacted in terms of their food insecurity. This was a group of people in our community who work minimum wage jobs and oftentimes two and three minimum wage jobs to make ends meet. And who were suffering from consistent food insecurity, had very highly negative health outcomes. As a result of that, we came together, decided that we wanted to create a food co-op with a sole purpose of building capacity, building leadership within the people that are actually running the food co-op.

Now we've had to kick it into what we call is ‘charity mode’ so to speak, because people have had the rug pulled out from under them again in terms of economic stability, which is actually dwindling in Durham. We have had to supply food for people who have been directly impacted. At the same time, we as a team came together and said we are highly vulnerable because we do not own our own food system. We don't own our own land. We don't grow our own food. We don't transport that food back and forth, and how can we, as black and brown people who live in a city-center urban context, connect with food systems because who owns the food systems is able to dictate health outcomes in their own community.

We've kicked it into gear and are formulating a strategy to partner with black and brown farmers, which we have been doing. We have increased purchasing from them for our co-op over 70% since the COVID-19 pandemic. And so we're trying to build a system where we get to know the people that are in the rural context—that we belong to them, and they belong to us. How can we create a system where we're actually funneling resources, we're purchasing our fresh and local food from them?

Young people are wanting to know how food is grown, so now we're interfacing our young people with the farmers so they can actually learn how to connect with the land. So oftentimes people in the city, the connection to land, what we know is oppression. We've been able to decolonize that narrative for ourselves and for our people and actually reintroduce to a whole other generation what it means to be connected to the land. What it means to own your own land and grow your own food and create a system that you can take care of your people and yourselves.

Thanks, Camryn. Well, what great examples of what can be accomplished with ingenuity and passion and caring. Rudy, you've done some very inspiring work as well in Los Angeles, and I know that in your work, you've developed a revolving loan fund that supports small and otherwise unbankable food businesses that are owned by people of color. How is EFOD creating community welfare?

You know, Kelly, I don't think that EFOD in and of itself creates community wealth. I think that the idea of this field of practices is developing systems that facilitate people building their own wealth. That's really the energy that we put into the design of some of the initiatives that we worked on in the last few years. It is about us facilitating the leadership and the ideas that already exist in our communities.

I work at an organization called Inclusive Action here in Los Angeles, and we do policy advocacy because we believe that the systems that we currently have are not serving us. And so we need to advocate to change those. We also do a second thing, which is administer economic development programs because we believe that cash is everything around us, and we really need to think about how money moves in neighborhoods and how it helps or harms people.

One of the projects that I have been really privileged to have worked on over the last 10 years has been the effort to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. Over 10 years ago, we began doing some research, talking to entrepreneurs that were building businesses on the sidewalk, and one of the key things that they said was, hey, you know, we're doing this because our day jobs are not enough to take care of our families, but what's happening is we're criminalized. We're getting citations, we're getting our equipment confiscated, and we're getting misdemeanor penalties. What we recognize was that L.A. was one of the only major cities in the country that didn't have a permit system for sidewalk vending. So we worked for years to legalize street vending. We were successful with our coalition in doing that in 2018, and we're still very much involved in the implementation of that policy, but it out of that policy came the economic development intervention. We were hearing from vendors themselves saying, ‘hey, we're working really hard to legalize street vending, but Rudy, this is not enough.’ We have to think about capital because if we legalize street vending, who's going give us a loan to buy the cart that we need, who is going look at us and think that we are worthy of taking on some debt and that we could pay it back. We saw that they were right and we began to work with them to develop a microloan fund that was specifically designed to underwrite loans, to entrepreneurs like street vendors, folks that perhaps were undocumented or, you know, have never formalized their businesses and got their licenses or done their taxes.

And we realize that despite the absence of those traditional measures, that they can take on debt and they can build businesses, and so we built this loan fund. We've deployed a little over half a million dollars in micro loans, the average micro loan is about $8,000. In addition to the capital, we also provide business coaching to each entrepreneur, and it is customized, and it is one on one tailored business coaching because we realize they need support, and it's a little bit different than everybody else. To us, this is equity in practice, and I think that that is why we were excited to be part of developing EFOD because we saw that it is not simply about churning out new loans, it is about meeting entrepreneurs where they are. It is not about them meeting us where we are, it is the other way around, and that's what EFOD talks about. EFOD is really about community-centered approaches to capital into economic development.

You're also working with other community organizations to create a commercial real estate trust. How was EFOD creating community wealth there?

We were hearing from small businesses, especially in neighborhoods that are changing in L.A. Many big cities in the country are facing gentrification issues and displacement issues, and we recognize that a lot of our mom-and-pop small businesses didn't have leases. They were in these spaces for many years and they were on month-to-month leases and their neighborhoods were changing, and without rent control and tenant protections for small businesses, they can be displaced immediately. As soon as somebody else comes and says, hey, I'll pay double the rent that you're paying, the landlord will likely take that deal. Camryn talked about this earlier, when she mentioned that we do not own our food system, which I thought was really moving and powerful. We also don't own the land and we don't own the buildings that we operate, and so the idea was how can we begin to acquire commercial real estate in neighborhoods that are changing? How do we take these buildings off the speculative market and put them in a place where they are protected, and they're driven by community members, and the businesses themselves have an opportunity to be part of the ownership group? In that spirit, Inclusive Action partnered with two other organizations in Los Angeles to establish this initiative called CORE, which stands for community-owned real estate. Last year we acquired five buildings on the east side of L.A., and the goal here is to take these buildings off the speculative market, cap the rents of the tenants there, sign them up for long-term leases, and to develop a system over time where they can join us in the ownership group.

Camryn, Rudy's done a very nice job of talking about some of the barriers for people getting capital to do their work. Is there anything that you would like to add to that from your perspective in Durham?

Yes. Because of COVID, we have fundraised for our Thriving Community Fund, which is geared at entrepreneurs of color. Specifically those who have had a difficult time accessing capital for multiple reasons. Part of the reason or the impetus for this is because we have seen over and over again the cycling of certain people who have access to capital. It disproportionately is going towards white-founding business owners.

But every once in a while someone who receives it is a people of color—one of my co-founders calls it the pipeline baby syndrome. She says that she's a part of that phenomenon of people who their parents have been able to give them access to the right educational systems, such as graduating from Duke or Kenan-Flagler at UNC. A person who now has access to some of those social networks, although not on the same level as their white counterparts. But oftentimes they're held up as a model of what it is to be successful.

In the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Durham, those are the types of people of color who receive access to the funding, to the technical support, to space. These people become well-connected, they're introduced into certain social networks and business networks that can actually propel your business and make it more sustainable. And what we're saying is we want to bust the pipeline. We don't think it should be predicated upon class, and who you have access to, and what school you were able to go to, or what school you were not able to go to. We believe it needs to be predicated on one's ability to manage a business. It be able to understand the systems as they are in place, and to be able to support and love and use their business as a part of a nurturing system in their own community. For the benefit of everyone, not just for the wealth-building strategy of one individual only. And so we like to think of it, while people are building individual wealth, because it's a both/and from our perspective, we also like to look at it as building collective wealth as well. CIP, along with four other organizations and faculty members at NCCU have been working to formulate this strategy and we'll keep you posted as we progress moving forward.

What you're both saying is so powerful and what I'm hearing is power in ideas and principles. And I'm hoping each of you might give a few more examples of the type of businesses that people are opening in communities and Camryn, you mentioned that food co-op previously, but what are some of the other things that people are doing related to food and economic development?

Durham is been dubbed the foodiest city in the South for quite some time, which has brought a lot of well-deserved attention, I think. But it has also created a lot of the disparity. A lot of African American businesses that traditionally we had, 40 and 50 years ago that were a staple in our community, over this past 20 to 30 years have disappeared since. So I think there's a re-emerging of black entrepreneurship where people are trying to start the same mom-and-pop-type corner store businesses. They're trying to start catering companies. We have more and more African American folks who have been trained in culinary arts, and so they're coming out with their own types of fusions, folks also that are creating their own products to have value-added products on store shelves. We've seen people come up with their own farmers' market systems, CSA boxes, trying to actually connect farmers out in the rural counties. Specifically targeting buyers of color to try to heighten their awareness on the responsibility that we have to buy black and brown. And now we have cooperative collaborations that've come about with groups of black and brown women entrepreneurs who are coming together to try to not only build their own individual businesses up, but bringing in farmers, people that know how to do the value-added food systems, people who want to produce and sell baked goods, and things of that nature. They're trying to build a collaborative. There's a lot of brilliance bubbling up in the midst of all this uncertainty, so it's really great to see

Thank you, and Rudy, can you give us some more examples of things in Los Angeles?

Yeah, the stories and the examples that Camryn just shared with us—she used the word brilliance, and I think that that's really what our systems should be designed to do. To highlight the brilliance that already exists. There isn't anything special that we're doing necessarily. We're not building the businesses ourselves. We're just facilitating brilliance that already exists.

Our loan fund and the work that we've been doing, we work with a variety of different businesses. I'll share one story that comes to mind because EFOD focuses on food. A couple years ago, there was a client that came to us, and he was a street vendor. He was selling tacos at farmers' markets, and he was doing that for many, many years. He came to us because he was seeking a loan to move into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. He had identified an opportunity to do that, but he needed the capital and he was struggling to find the capital in traditional places. The story behind this is a couple actually, it's Ivan and Rafaela, and they've been married for a long time. We learned that they had a restaurant many years ago, and they basically diluted all their assets because one of their kids wanted to go to college. Because of immigration status at that time, they were going have to pay a ton of money, thousands of dollars to help their daughter who was accepted into a university to go to school. So they made the decision to essentially put everything behind their daughter to help her get to school. They did, she was able to graduate, and then she came back and they were basically trying to rebuild. They're like, okay, how do we get this done again? They were working out of the farmers' market. They were able to get a loan through us. We helped them get into this brick-and-mortar restaurant, and recently, Ivan came to make his monthly payment. He said, hey, I think there's an opportunity to buy the building that we operate in, and to me, I was just so inspired by this guy. This man works really hard. His wife is such a fierce leader in the family and they are totally building this. And it's like so inspiring to myself and to my team because we're simply just observing and facilitating resources for them, and they're doing everything. And I wonder how many more Ivan and Rafaelas exists in our neighborhoods that don't have the opportunity. Don't have the connections, and they have the same brilliance, to borrow Camryn's word. That's just one example that I'll share with you.

Rudy Espinoza is the Executive Director of Inclusive Action for the City and an urban planner with a passion for neighborhoods, entrepreneurism, and financial empowerment. He specializes in designing and managing place-based initiatives, identifying profitable investment opportunities in low-income communities, building private/nonprofit partnerships, and training the working poor to participate in the socio-economic revitalization of their neighborhoods. Rudy holds a Masters Degree in Urban Planning from UCLA and a B.S. in Business Administration.

Camryn Smith is a proud resident of Old East Durham and a community activist & organizer. She has been serving in place-based development work for over 18 years both stateside and abroad. Camryn is a founding member of Communities In Partnership, a grassroots community organizing and education group based in Old East Durham. As Executive Director, she oversees and assists in developing community-based education processes, community development, and implementation and organizing for addressing policy and systemic inequity for communities of color and materially poor peoples within Durham. Camryn’s focus centers around social determinants of health and the intersection of economic development, gentrification, displacement and housing, and food access/justice.