Driving recovery and inclusion: A Q&A with Joan Nelson, Kristi James and Jessica AcMoody about community economic development

In our first Summer of CEDAM webinar, we had the opportunity to discuss how community economic development can be used to uplift Michigan communities as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. At CEDAM, we believe that economic growth begins with access and equity – and that’s why we placed special emphasis on community economic development through this conversation. We were honored to welcome local leaders in community development to provide multiple angles to the conversation:

Joan Nelson is director at Allen Neighborhood Center, a hub in Lansing’s Eastside that provides neighbors with access to resources that improve their health and well-being; expand their capacity to seize job and entrepreneurial opportunities; and build a safe, sustainable, and thriving neighborhood.

Kristi James is legislative director for Rep. Sarah Anthony, who serves Michigan’s 68th House District in Lansing and Lansing Township. Rep. Anthony’s office’s focus areas include solving the challenges facing Michigan’s small businesses, families and residents by expanding access to quality, affordable health care, equitable opportunities for success, and vital resources to support senior citizens and working parents.

Jessica AcMoody is policy director at CEDAM. She has more than 13 years of experience in state and federal legislative policy and advocacy, and has directed state and federal policy initiatives at CEDAM for the past decade. Jessica’s work focuses on coalition building and advocating for policies that create more vibrant, equitable neighborhoods around the state. This includes affordable housing, tax policy, asset building, and consumer financial protections. 

Moderating our Q&A was Meegan Holland, communications consultant and former mid-Michigan journalist. Meegan has decades of reporting and media experience, having worked in journalism, state government, and as an advocate for small businesses at Michigan Retailers Association.

Here are some highlights from our conversation: 

Q: What are some programs that you feel really helped stabilize your neighborhood 

Joan Nelson: A couple of signature programs are our Allen Farmers Market and Incubator Kitchen. The farmers market came about in the early 2000s. We had been doing door-to-door work to assess needs from the neighborhood, and access to fresh, affordable, local produce came up a lot. We also gauged food insecurity at that time, and found we had a 29% food insecurity rate within about 15 blocks of the center, which is extremely high. About that time, we applied to receive food stamp eligibility, now SNAP, for our farmers market. We were the first farmers market in Michigan approved to receive food stamps. Every Wednesday, we host the farmers market which is also a way to host local nonprofits and reach community members. 

More recently, in 2014, we started our Incubator Kitchen, which provides affordable rental of a professional kitchen and storage, as well as training for business owners in the food industry. We’ve been amazed at the interest in that kitchen. Since 2014, we’ve had about 57 business startups use that kitchen, and 24% went on to open their own brick-and-mortar businesses. Among those, 52% are women-owned, and 43% were minority-owned. It’s been a fascinating process. 

We also recently opened our Accelerator Kitchen, for graduates of that Incubator program. Four of our most successful makers are now in that Accelerator Kitchen, and we’re working on putting together a pipeline for food production and distribution right on our block. 

Q: Kristi, what are some of Rep. Anthony’s legislative priorities to revitalize communities? 

Kristi James: I’ve been with Rep. Anthony since she started back in 2018. She’s always prioritized increasing access to education, higher education, and strengthening our workforce, especially now. Our state is really focused on bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic implications, so we’re really focusing on creating that pipeline of talent to attract and retain talent in Michigan. 

The Michigan Reconnect Program was signed into law last year, and the program went live in February 2021. Since then, we’ve seen thousands of people take advantage of that. The program creates a pathway to tuition-free community college or skilled trade credentials for adults age 25 and older. That could be someone who never finished post-high school education, or someone who’s looking for a career change. 

In addition to the Michigan Reconnect Program, Rep. Anthony reintroduced the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship this year. That scholarship would provide universal access to community college for all students in Michigan, and bring down the cost of a four-year college degree for all low- and middle-income students in Michigan who’s in good academic standing. 

Q: What are some of the community economic development opportunities CEDAM is working on right now? 

Jessica AcMoody: We have a lot of opportunities right now. What we’re trying to do at CEDAM is make sure our on-the-ground practitioners have the resources they need to do their work. One thing we’re focusing on right now is securing funding for the Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund. This is the state-level housing trust fund, which has only been funded twice in the history of the state. Michigan is one of only seven states that does not put some type of yearly funding into a housing trust fund, so we’re trying to secure funding on a yearly basis for that. The governor made a recommendation of $10 million, and we’ve been working with the legislature to try to get that included in their budget.

We also see a great deal of opportunity with American Rescue Plan dollars coming down from the federal government. These will really make an impact on the communities hardest hit by COVID. We’re crafting proposals to put plans into place regarding how to make a long-term impact on communities with these dollars, rather than a one-time infusion of cash. We’re assessing what programs really help deal with inequities in communities and revitalize them around the state.

Also, last session, we had bills introduced that would provide a donation-based tax credit as part of the Community Investment Program. So, people who donate to a local nonprofit would receive a 50% tax credit at the state level. We’re hoping to see those tax bills introduced very soon. 

Lastly, we’re working on some bills around community land trusts, and trying to ease the burden around these around the state. 

Q: Speaking of opportunities, one of CEDAM’s goals is to help citizens gain generational wealth and close the racial wealth gap. Joan, what are some of the programs that Allen Neighborhood Center is offering that have been instrumental in building generational wealth? 

Joan Nelson: One of the core goals of our center is education and capacity building. Most of our programs involve a capacity building element. Our very first program back in 1999, Youth Service Corps, offered job and life skills training programs for teenagers. We offer job skill training pretty routinely, and have been focusing on culinary skills in the last few years. The Culinary 101 program teaches basic culinary skills and soft skills, as well as workers’ rights and advocacy. 

Q: How can community builders help bring their issues to the legislature, and help lawmakers get the job done? 

Kristi James: Sharing personal stories from the community and how bills would change someone’s life goes a long way when we’re advocating for a bill to move through the legislative process. Building a broad coalition of support, whether it’s community centers, local governments, or neighborhood organizations, makes an impact when we’re advocating for a particular bill. And it helps us better understand why we’re doing it and whether we need to make changes. 

Jessica AcMoody: I will add onto that by saying, it’s important to have a relationship with your legislator. You don’t need to wait until there’s an issue that needs to be fixed or a problem to be solved. Reaching out early and letting them know what you’re doing on the ground to revitalize your community is really helpful. So then when those bills do come up, you’ll already have that connection. 

CEDAM has a Housing Resource Coalition that’s focused strictly on affordable housing, and a Neighborhoods and Communities Coalition that’s focused on bringing these resources to communities. If you’re interested in getting involved in these coalitions, please reach out. 

Our next Summer of CEDAM webinar, “Using Children’s Savings Accounts for Economic Inclusion,” will focus on our policy priority of economic inclusion. We’re excited to welcome Bonnie Gettys of Barry Community Foundation, Rep. Julie Calley, and moderator Sarah Hubbard of Acuitas. Register to save your spot here.