(Photo by Flickr user John Sonderman, used via a Creative Commons license)
Soil systems can serve as a sustainable and replicable model for regional place-based investing.
Many of us may have only a rudimentary understanding of the interlocking microsystems that produce healthy and diverse crops — crops that can withstand the stresses of wind, erosion, tilling, and cultivation. Nevertheless, we know that healthy productive soil balances resource inputs and outputs that enable productive growth. We understand the interconnection of the pathways and conduits necessary to move nutrients across an ecosystem to nourish growth, even if we can’t grasp exactly how these resources get to where they are needed most, from undernourished plants to those just beginning to flourish to the tallest and stoutest trees. We also acknowledge the critical role of the insects, birds, and mammals that fertilize, pollinate, and prune plants. We have seen that if we extract the soil’s resources without supporting its replenishment and regeneration, we get premature erosion, landslides, or dust bowls.
Such principles of diversity and replenishment to produce thriving and regenerative natural ecosystems are equally important as we look to inject the social and economic fabric of our communities with equally deep wells of resilience. Such holistic thinking has never been more critical.
The American landscape is littered with disenfranchised communities, both rural and urban.
The American landscape is littered with disenfranchised communities, both rural and urban. While COVID has further stretched many, their lineage tracks decades of extraction and limited investment, isolating social and economic discrimination, lack of political will by legislators, limiting trade policies, and the absence of real engagement by anchor institutions. Yet too often, their challenges are reduced to a narrative of crime, violence, and economic desolation.
A community that often receives this frame is Camden, New Jersey. Over the last 50 years, Camden became known as “the poorest city in America” as it lost a third of its population and 87% of its jobs.
Yet Camden sits amidst pools of tremendous wealth and resources along the northeast corridor, including Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore, and the District of Columbia. Approximately 70% of the wealth in the nation resides in the Northeast. Of the 75 counties with the highest incomes in the US, 44 are located there. Unfortunately, the region’s abundance — money, power, and knowledge — has historically elided Camden. Indeed, just a short ride across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to Philadelphia reveals a divergence between Camden and other Northeast population centers.
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Responding to the real challenges Camden faces, various local stakeholders rallied to spur community regeneration. This includes $2.5 billion in investments committed by public and private actors since 2012. Such an infusion of resources has made a difference:
- In 2020, poverty and unemployment rates were down.
- High school graduation rates were on the rise.
- New businesses were beginning to pop up around the city.
Is this enough?
The latest data shows the median household income in Camden is still just $27,015 (2019), with a third of the community still living below the poverty level. The community still deals with high rates of incarceration, poor rankings among social determinants of health, and limited examples of successful entrepreneurship.
Also, Camden remains isolated. Its reconnection to the resources of this wealthy region — resources that have allowed surrounding communities to prosper — has yet to occur. While some may point to a “lack of community resilience” when viewing Camden, the apparent health of the surrounding areas is illusory. It cannot be sustained over time if communities like Camden continue to be left behind. Just as the effects of soil erosion and nutrient depletion are eventually felt across the ecosystem, so too will the struggle of generations of families to participate in the region’s broader economic life ultimately have an impact that extends beyond Camden.
This raises a critical issue of “equity.” As impact investors, this question is particularly salient as we consider our expected returns on investments. Where are the opportunities for ownership and wealth-building for families who live in the community? Where is the community voice in determining the path forward? How can we shift the systems that perpetuate such generational inequities in the first place?
A new collective is emerging with its sights set on responding to such issues. With a working title of the “Camden Integrated Capital Food Resiliency Fund,” it aims to organize multiple regional stakeholders to deploy assets and resources in ways that spark and sustain community regeneration and model a new way forward.
Levering the power of the food sector, the collective will deploy integrated capital investments in area food businesses to grow community health and economic resilience.
This effort is spearheaded by a collective including New Jersey Community Capital, Cooper Ferry Partnership, local community development corporations, the Campbell Soup Company and Foundation, and the national nonprofit Fair Food Network and its impact investing arm Fair Food Fund, among others.
Levering the power of the food sector, the collective will deploy integrated capital investments in area food businesses to grow community health and economic resilience, including through increased ownership and wealth-building opportunities for Camden families. We do not anticipate establishing a “fund” in the technical sense but rather a networked collaboration of local and regional entities leveraging their respective balance sheets and knowledge and relationship assets to facilitate 20 to 25 investments in Camden and its surrounding areas over a three-to-five-year period.
We hope that local economic participation spurred by this effort will accelerate progress already made and further leverage the billions invested over the past decade. More broadly, by bringing additional resources to Camden, we aim to weave local viability as a key ingredient of broader regional health and resilience.
Community engagement will be a core component of this effort. Too often, well-meaning outside actors make offerings of solutions through their organizational lenses, creating agency conflicts among themselves and, more importantly — conflict with the communities they are attempting to support because of little grassroots engagement.
The Camden initiative will be rooted in a community-based advisory board, which will oversee the constellation of stakeholders and inform how to best deploy resources to local entrepreneurs working to increase economic and healthy food sovereignty. This includes offering balance sheets, tax incentives, grants, loans, equity investments, entrepreneurial curriculum, and policy initiatives. The advisory board will also provide a critical feedback loop for the initiative elevating and informing any necessary adjustments along the way.
In this way, the initiative will resonate with local Camden residents as their engagement will be integrated every step of the way — from design to deployment through and evaluation. While there is nothing novel about a multi-stakeholder model, tethering accountability for outcomes to a community-based group is forward-thinking in shifting institutional power to the community.
We also aim to measure broader community and systems change.
In addition to looking at the impact of the initiative at the transactional level, we also aim to measure broader community and systems change. By looking at such multi-dimensional impact over time, we hope to model how stakeholders can work together to infuse a region’s “nutrients” in ways that support entrepreneur success and spark broader community regeneration and resilience holistically and equitably rooted in community voice.
Impact investment and philanthropic sectors will be essential partners in this work. There are multiple ways to get involved. You can invest in notes explicitly dedicated to this initiative that the various participating financial intermediaries will offer. We are also looking for the necessary philanthropic support to fund the initiative’s business assistance programming, collateral support, and administrative and evaluation.
Whether your focus is social equity, healthy food access, or entrepreneurship and economic development, the Camden initiative provides an opportunity to generate local impact alongside broader systems change. We invite you to partner with us on this as we work together to model a new way of equitable community-driven development rooted in our neighboring Camden with change that will ripple throughout the ecosystem strengthening regional resilience.-30-
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