Rodney Foxworth is the CEO of Common Future, formerly known as BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies). BALLE spun out of the Social Venture Circle community, and its original mission was to create thriving local economies and ecosystems. Today, the organization is re-introducing themselves under a new identity: Common Future, which speaks to the fact that in order to address economic inequality, the racial wealth gap must also be addressed head on. Charting the way forward with new principles, Common Future imagines a future where people, regardless of race, class or gender, can live in self-determined communities that serve their best interests, and where the racial wealth gap can be explicitly addressed. With the belief in a shared future on one planet with joined fates, Common Future invites us to rethink the role of capital and how we can all co-create wealth and prosperity. Read to learn more about the next chapter of the organization:
Tell me about your journey. You mentioned in a previous interview that when you grow up in Baltimore, you are “living the data”. What did growing up in Baltimore teach you about how economy works?
Baltimore is such a big part of me. It is a beautiful place with a lot of challenges: there are astronomical homicide rates, and it is a living example of the failures of our economy. It is a case study on post-industrialization, mass incarceration, anti-black racism, structural racism. Growing up as a young black male was not easy; I had to navigate the police, threats to my life, and living somewhere surrounded by violence.
I attended public schools which were deeply segregated: despite the city having a population of 64% African-Americans, public school students were 90% African-American and 90% low-income. Though there was a sense of segregation, I did not acknowledge that while growing up there, I didn’t see it. I remember being in PRE-K, and thinking that only black people existed in the world. Gradually, I got exposure.
I was fortunate to grow up in a two-parent household with both parents working. But I saw their struggle working 2-3 jobs. I heard that narrative, “If you work hard, things will work for you.” But I witnessed my parents working very hard, and yet, I did not see that adage apply to us. What I saw instead were the sacrifices. But I also witnessed the beautiful things that people did everyday, stitching together full lives despite all the challenges. I walked away recognizing that there’s a tremendous capacity for people, but we need to deeply interrogate and work against the structures that work against them.
As a personal example, during the third grade, I was accused of being unable to read as well as cheating by my teacher. But my mom knew I was an exceptional reader, and I was fortunate that she effectively organized with other parents to confront this teacher. She found out that this teacher was doing this systematically to black boys in her class. It was shocking. But I learned from a young age that I needed to work twice as hard and expect half as much. There was an attempt to marginalize me, and that could have put me on a completely different path. I didn’t know these incidents were systemic at the time, but reflecting back, I am able to see the impact of failing institutions.
What excites you the most about the work you’re doing at Common Future? Is there a case study you can share with us that can demonstrate the kind of impact you’re excited to be making in your role?
One of the reasons I am excited about my role, and our new identity as Common Future, goes back to the mission I have. At the core, I believe that we have a mutuality in our downfalls and successes as people. It’s not just about interrogating systems and institutions, but building alternatives to replace those failing systems with.
We can talk about issues like the racial wealth gap, gender parity, etc., but the reality is that it’s about our collective future. Principally, when we talk about racial wealth gap, we talk about it as an African-American problem, but it’s a problem for ALL of us, It’s a shared problem.
So we are now moving our community to not only think about what this means, but inviting them to co-create solutions and opportunities to grapple with these challenges and look at them from the lens of, ‘we’re all in this together’. Only then can we thrive.
Somewhere around 2040, the US will be a majority people of color country. The US public schools are already majority students of color. The data indicates that if the wealth trajectory continues the way it’s going now, median household wealth for African Americans will drop to zero by 2053. You can be totally self-interested, and not care about other people, but this kind of economy will impact you at some point.
We’re working with some of the most outstanding leaders across the US and Canada that are grappling with these challenges to create models and frameworks that inspire us to work towards an economy that prioritizes all of us, not just the wealthy. It allows all of us to participate in building prosperity, whether you’re a black rural farmer or a white-collar employee in a coastal city.
Is there a formula for building local wealth? How can everyday people participate in building up wealth in their local communities?
The easiest way is to buy local, which is how Common Future started.
Still, there are a diverse number of avenues individuals, philanthropists and investors can take to support wealth building projects. In and outside of our network, we’re seeing a large number of avenues to support collaborative and high impact projects. One of the innovations we see in our network is the Boston Ujima Project. It allows for unaccredited investors to participate in the determination of businesses that get funded. Everyday residents can partake in this process. It involves tremendous community organizing and relationship building. Through this, everyone can have a stake in what happens in their local economy. If you invest in 100K, you’re no more important than someone who invested $10. It is a fundamental re-articulation of importance of capital in this process. Typically, the more capital you have, the more importance you have. But this project rearranges that dynamic. We see these types of models.
Stephanie Rearick of Mutual Aid Networks is helping to change the entire way of using relationships as a form of currency. It’s a networked cooperative that allows all members to share tools, experiences, and resources through activities such as service bartering and common funds (a shared resource pool).
In Oakland, the Runway Project founded by Jessica Norwood, allows individuals and institutions to invest in certificate of deposits from Self-Help Credit Union, providing much needed investment capital for early-stage black-owned businesses.
Investors and funders can be supporting projects like these that are creating new avenues for communities to build and maintain wealth. But for everyday folks, banking locally is a big opportunity to help here. Choosing community banks and credit unions are real opportunities to participate in your local economy. By doing so, you become much more vested in the success of your place.
How do you address local wealth when you’re living in a city dealing with excessive gentrification?
It’s a tough question, and I wish I had an answer. But I reference the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EBPREC) doing incredible work creating pathways to retain what exists in their communities through land trusts and other creative mechanisms. They recognized that there were well-meaning people from the tech industry, for example, moving into Oakland and Richmond for more affordable housing. They saw an opportunity to partner between these folks as investors, and the people who have been living there for years.
What might it look like if there was a more scaled version of that? What if there were opportunities for high net worth individuals to build with, for, and alongside, and investing with, local community? It’s not about maximizing capital, but about a deeper purpose. When you’re investing this way, you’re not looking to maximize your return, you’re investing to ensure that your community is healthy. It requires us to think differently about how we use capital.
Maximizing capital from a financial perspective will displace people, and when you do so, you are destabilizing the entire social fabric of a community. We have a lot of wealthy people in Oakland who have to be mindful to approach capital in a way that retains the soul of the city.
You’ll be speaking on a panel about how non-profits are building the NEXT economy. What does the NEXT Economy mean to you, and what are non-profits’ role in that process?
A lot of these concepts and models about ‘the next economy’ are not new, they’re just not mainstream. Indigenous communities have been working with these models, and now people are borrowing from them. Mutual aid and cooperative economics have a history in the African-American community. I want to acknowledge that these concepts come from the legacy of communities that have not been at the center of the dialogue.
Non-profits as a sector are a tremendous economic driver in the US, and we must rethink our role in the economy much more deliberately than ever. In a recent survey we conducted, we discovered that more than 50% of Black individual felt that nonprofits were least important in determining a community’s economic situation when compared to politicians or even random chance. There is very little faith in non-profits as it relates to supporting people economically. We are at a point in time where there’s not a lot of faith in institutions, including non-profits. We need to remedy that. Non-profits have the unique opportunity to build opportunities for more equitable community development that might exist initially outside of the status quo.
I want to think about how we can create cooperative models, seed community businesses, and demand local universities and institutions to leverage their capital and economic power. Are they procuring from diverse suppliers that support the local economy? Are they investing in companies that benefit community members?
At Common Future, our mission is to support extraordinary leaders to advance what is best for their communities economically, and foster inclusive economy building.