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Reconnecting to the Economy: A More Hopeful Present & Future

Joe Bowling, Co-Director of Englewood Community Development Corporation

Sometimes, the distance between horror and hope can be measured by just a few steps.

Last month, inside an old Indianapolis industrial building, 30 neatly arranged boxes of lettuce were ready for local restaurants. They were part of the first commercial order to be filled by our community’s newest social enterprise: a hydroponic farm, now growing a dizzying array of produce while employing chronically underemployed neighborhood residents.

Beyond our doors was another story. On that same day, shots rang out. Employees fell to the floor as bullets ripped into the restored building façade and shattered windows. More than 200 shots were fired. An officer was hit. A young man was killed, his blood in the street.

These kinds of terrible and beautiful things happen side by side in communities all across the country. Deadly divisions are on the doorstep. Estrangement from place and from one another is rampant.

Now is the time to be constructively critical of traditional economic development. Mistrust of political and economic institutions is at an all-time high in both urban and rural contexts. Neighbors and citizens feel like changes are happening to them, not for or with them. Traditional economic development efforts, conceived and implemented in places far removed, have not delivered benefits evenly or to the people who have needed them most.

To paraphrase Baba Dioum, a Senagalese environmentalist:

  • We won’t save places we don’t love;
  • We can’t love places we don’t know;
  • And we don’t know places we haven’t learned.

To really love our home communities, we must know what makes them distinct and what unique competitive advantages they have. True care compels us to dedicate ourselves to that understanding--as students, practitioners and leaders of place-based economic development.

Local residents know our places best
In my community, more than 500 diverse neighborhood leaders have come together to envision a different future through grassroots quality of life planning in partnership with LISC.

Problems, like gun violence, remain. But progress has taken a firm hold. Neighborhood-based organizations are coordinating the IndyEast Promise Zone, which is engaging thought leaders and partners throughout Central Indiana. Residents like Valerie D. have risen from homelessness to homeowner to community leader. New immigrants, like my friend Carlos, are opening new businesses. An environmentally contaminated property has been remediated and become the state’s most environmentally sustainable apartment building. Blighted industrial corridors are being reconnected to regional economies. Thus far, more than $150 million worth of reinvestment has resulted directly from our grassroots planning and neighborhood-based implementation. And we are nowhere near finished.

Call to Action
Place-based economic development strategies like these value local persons, assets, resources and knowledge first, while simultaneously supplying tools for change and growth in communities.

LISC’s National Leadership Conference is a chance for those of us who care about place-making and social justice to find new ways to leverage local strengths. Engage one another in dialogue about what has and has not worked, and be inspired by grassroots strategies for sustainable development and increased opportunity for all.

This type of sustained, sensitive, asset-based work is all too rare. Perhaps now, more than ever, communities need to walk this new and hopeful path together.

Joe Bowling is Co-Director of Englewood Community Development Corporation in Indianapolis. He spoke about local approaches to economic development at the 2016 LISC Leadership Conference. See his LISC Talk here.

Posted in Commercial and Economic Development

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