What Is Our Initiatives Team? Co-Creating Infrastructure for a Just Economy

  • Essential Common Future

Jul 22, 2022 Melonie Tharpe

How we are thinking about building shared infrastructure and tools for those on the front lines of building our work

The work of creating a new economy — one centered on racial justice and increased ownership for all — requires rethinking everything. The daily grind for cooperative incubators, alternative funders, and entrepreneur support organizations can be overwhelming — leaving little time and energy to tackle the systemic challenges and pressures on their work. On top of that, the market is often flooded with extractive models offering so-called solutions, ones that don’t actually help the people these solutions would be meant to serve.

Take for example, app-based food delivery services. During the first-wave pandemic lockdown, small restaurants across the country suddenly relied on these services to continue operations by switching from in-person dining to exclusively offering delivery and pickup. Stories abound of just how extractive these companies can be, charging steep prices to restaurants and customers alike. For many small restaurants, these fees led to huge financial loss — a worse outcome than if these restaurants had simply closed up shop with savings intact. But what if small businesses could collectively own food delivery apps, keeping their overhead low and their often small profits intact?

A similar issue area where the solutions in place aren’t helping, is our childcare economy — a subject we’ve spoken at length to before. Despite childcare costs often being an extremely high expense for parents, an estimated 53% of child care workers use some type of public benefit to make ends meet, and those low wages, lack of upward mobility, and uncertain working conditions have decimated the sector. After massive closures and layoffs of child care centers in March of 2020, many workers have simply moved on from the sector. The resulting lack of care workers means that many children no longer have reliable or affordable care. And while the government has been looking to subsidize care, those possible solutions do not address the structural issues at the core of this sector. But what if care workers could collectively own their centers? What if care workers could increase their wages while keeping overhead low, and providing themselves with a path to growth beyond entry level? This innovative move could provide relief in a sector with slim margins and few good opportunities for profitable financing options, but it isn’t ready to scale yet.

Our Work In Action

Moving beyond the what-ifs, we recently took a hard look at a similar issue in the manufacturing sector. These businesses — which offer high paying jobs without the need for advanced degrees — were once much more prominent in our urban and suburban landscapes, but are facing closures due to ownership retirement and gentrification pressures — turning once job-dense land into high-priced housing.

Together with Urban Manufacturing Alliance (UMA) and Concerned Capital, we asked what if we could find new ways to finance keeping these businesses and jobs in communities that rely on them? What if members of the mostly BIPOC workforce that make up these businesses could step forward to actually own the business and have ready-to-go financing available? Our collaborative identified CDFIs — community development financial institutions — as a key missing piece to this puzzle. And together, we are working on creating a replicable training model to ensure that CDFIs are ready to identify, encourage, and finance worker-ownership transitions. Keeping these businesses open for the next generation of workers and owners is looking to be a good bet for building and keeping wealth in BIPOC communities.

Tools For Equitable Acquisitions in Manufacturing, or T.E.A.M., was co-created by Common Future, Concerned Capital, and Urban Manufacturing Alliance. Throughout building this initiative, our team’s mission was to co-create strategy for the project, identify and secure funding sources to move it forward, research and right-size the approach, and add expertise and additional resources throughout the pilot through 2024.

Co-Creating an Equitable Economy

We know folks already have the imagination and expertise it takes to build what is needed, but that doesn’t mean that they have the time, resources or even mission scope to do it. Common Future has the flexibility and a growing suite of human and financial resources to lift up that imagination and move it to the next level. The Initiatives team at Common Future wants to work with those on the front lines of building a new economy to identify obstacles that are making the work harder, longer, less efficient and co-create solutions that represent infrastructure for the economy we want.

How we’re building a model for this work:

  1. Building big things, things that are desperately needed. The projects we take on are meant to be tools, infrastructure, or pilots that can move beyond the partners we are working with right now. We seek ideas that can be replicated or spread, making everyone’s work easier in this field. While we find many individual organizations and their approaches amazing, our co-creation work is focused on building things that are above and beyond their daily work and requires outside resources and partners to make it a reality.
  2. Working with those on the ground to build initiatives that are by them, not just for them. While our team has the ability to identify issues and roadblocks that keep our sector from growing, we don’t always have the lived experience to build the solution. Co-creating with partners ensures we are lifting up projects that are needed and wanted, and that, with investment, can model a way forward.
  3. Bringing resources, not just “expertise”. There are a lot of think-tanks out there offering ideas and expertise, we don’t want to be one of those. Our work is based on building and testing models that can work so they can be further developed or replicated, not just sit on a shelf. This means our teams have to be ready to roll up our sleeves and do some of the work (research, facilitation, project management, and more) that can move things from ideas to real projects ready to launch. It also means bringing financial resources to the table, investing in these ideas so they can grow.
  4. Amplifying what works, so it can keep working. We want to co-create initiatives that can live beyond Common Future. The ideas we explore and invest in won’t necessarily belong to us, but are instead intended to be adopted or used by our partners and those beyond them who can benefit from our work.

T.E.A.M. is but one of many co-created projects we have launched and will be launching this year. To list a few, Character-Based Lending, and our Participatory Investing Action Lab are well under way, and we are exploring several new initiatives: centering workers in childcare, by exploring ideas to move more power and capital to them in cooperative models, giving them more say in how these jobs should look and how childcare centers should operate; building first-in capital for community-owned real estate by building a fund that is quick to deploy but patient to be repaid, which will allow community-owned real estate developers the time and energy they need to get the project right and focus on the community ownership model, and many more. Over the coming years, the Common Future Initiative team seeks to identify many more brilliant ideas, places where we can identify collaborative needs, and projects that build tools and infrastructure for a more equitable economy. We’re just getting started.


Keep in touch