Change Maker: Katherine Mella, MIT Community Innovators Lab and the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative

The Bronx is home to some of the city’s most important institutions and industry hubs, such as the Bronx Zoo, the Bronx Botanical Gardens, many world-class hospitals and universities, and Hunt’s Point Terminal Market. Collectively, these institutions buy goods and services worth more than $9 billion annually. Certain parts of the borough, like the South Bronx, are experiencing a massive real estate development boom, with investment pouring into the area.

At the same time, nearly one-third of Bronx residents lives in poverty, compared to a 20% poverty rate citywide. The borough’s unemployment rate is 7.5% while the citywide rate is 5.5%. Median household income is roughly $20,000 lower in the Bronx than in the rest of the city ($35,302, compared to $55,191). Although Hunt’s Point Terminal Market brings in more than $2 billion in revenue per year, the surrounding neighborhood is widely considered a food desert. Clearly, the wealth generated by the borough’s many assets is not benefitting the majority of the population.

The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI), a local community-led effort, wants to address this disconnect by bringing economic power to the borough’s residents. The overarching goal of BCDI is to build a more democratic, sustainable, and equitable economy in the Bronx and to develop shared wealth and ownership of that economy among people of color. Economic democracy is the organization’s guiding framework, which calls for collective ownership and governance of key economic drivers by the people most impacted by the local economy. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Community Innovators Lab (MIT CoLab) came on as a core project partner in 2012 and continues to provide planning and strategy expertise.

The Equality Indicators spoke with Katherine Mella, program director for participatory planning and policy at MIT CoLab,  about economic democracy, the progress that BCDI has already made, and what’s in store for the future of the borough.

QUESTION: How did BCDI come about and what are its goals?

ANSWER: BCDI was started in 2011 by a group of grassroots community organizers who were looking for a way to ensure that local economic development was benefitting residents. These organizers realized that they had been successfully fighting disinvestment and had achieved many major policy wins over the past several decades, but these wins weren’t bringing residents out of poverty or improving outcomes for them. The organizers also realized that many of their strategies have historically been reactive, protesting against the types of the development they didn’t want (e.g., proposals for new malls bringing only low-wage jobs to the area). They saw the formation of BCDI as an opportunity to shift their organizing goals in order to build the institutions and infrastructure necessary for the economy they’ve been envisioning for a long time.

Q: What are the key principles that guide BCDI’s work?

A: Two core principles of BCDI are building shared wealth and democratic engagement.

In terms of wealth, we could have 100% employment tomorrow and that wouldn’t end generational poverty. Building shared wealth through collective ownership and collective governance of assets and institutions is a key part of economic democracy. An individual or family may not be able to own a house, for example, but they could avoid displacement by sharing control of land with their neighbors through a community land trust, which can provide affordable rental and ownership options. Another important factor is democratic engagement. It is critical to prioritize engaging folks on the margins and make sure they are actively driving development decisions.

Q: Can you tell me about BCDI’s core strategies and projects?

A: In 2013, BCDI undertook a development study where we analyzed the drivers of the Bronx’s economy. This study has served as the foundation for BCDI’s broader strategy, which is rooted in economic democracy and involves building community-owned, networked infrastructure through asset-based development and import substitution (i.e., a diversified local economy based on replacing imports through local production). This analysis and strategy led to the development of six core projects. Four of the projects are at various prototype stages, and two are still in the conceptual phase.

The first is our Economic Democracy Learning Center, a fully-fledged leadership center preparing local leaders, business owners, and anchor institution executives to shift the culture of leadership to one rooted in economic democracy. More broadly, the center is an education hub—we have an economic democracy curriculum that pulls from existing development models rooted in shared wealth creation and collective governance. Our program director has been leading trainings and just finished up with a cohort of core community-based organizations and their staff. These organizations are the folks doing work on the ground and on the frontlines of incorporating economic democracy into their strategies and their campaigns.

Next is our Planning and Policy Lab (PPL), which focuses on building and carrying out the long-term strategy for economic democracy on the ground in the Bronx. The Bronx has a lot of local expertise across an extensive network of community organizers, and the PPL works with these and other stakeholders to further build and localize planning and policy capacity through conducting research and analysis, co-developing policy recommendations, and developing borough-wide strategies for development without displacement. The PPL is also tasked with coordinating across the core projects and broader BCDI network as well as incubating each project.

The BronXchange (BXC) is a marketplace that connects Bronx institutions and nonprofits with local businesses in order to localize their purchasing and ultimately aims to build community wealth over time. It does this by connecting buyers and sellers through an online directory as well as offline relationship brokering and matchmaking; providing shared business services to help small businesses compete for contracts; and encouraging high-road business practices.

The Bronx Innovation Factory (BXIF) is a center for advanced manufacturing. Led by women and people of color, BXIF aims to build entrepreneurship, production, and design capacity so that folks in the community can develop solutions to challenges they know well. This project is in an early stage, but we do have a modest prototype space, with a 3D printer, a laser cutter, and some other machines to get started. We’ve been hosting workshops with youth organizations to introduce young people to economic democracy and help them imagine what they could potentially make at the BXIF. We get support from New York City Economic Development Corporation’s FutureWorks program, and we’ll eventually expand to a free-standing facility that will have shared fabrication facilities, training and workshops, business incubation, and events.

The two projects still in the conception phase are the Civic Action Hub, which will be an organizing entity that connects member-led institutions across the borough to coordinate their advocacy efforts, and the Bronx Fund. The Fund will be an endowment and investment fund that would allow us to be sustainable overall and directly invest in our core partners, businesses, and real estate.

Q: What have been some of the greatest challenges in implementing these projects?

A: Resources present the greatest challenge. We are largely dependent on philanthropy, and we can’t sustain our work with foundation support alone. The Bronx Fund will be a critical tool for us because it will allow us to be more independent and fund our vision at a larger scale. We will be able to leverage that funding to create revenue-generating assets, and these assets will be owned by people on the ground who can ensure those resources meet established priorities.

Another challenge has been hiring for various staff positions for the different projects within BCDI. Our goal is for the organization to be run by leaders from the Bronx who are committed to social justice and to our vision of economic democracy, but it can be difficult to consistently find staff locally who have an understanding of or expertise in economic democracy. We are thinking about how to invest in a pipeline, which is an exciting opportunity. We’ve been working with a lot of young people with interests in organizing and planning, and the hope is that we can set them up for a career in the future. We want to start investing in and building local capacity now so that, over time, more and more people with local expertise and an economic democracy framework are the ones making planning decisions.

Another ongoing challenge is balancing the need to address urgent issues with the need to focus on the longer-term vision. New issues (e.g., rezoning, deportations) are constantly popping up, and organizers need to be ready to react. However, we also need to create the space for working on future goals, like how to think about rezoning in a way that allows residents to stay and thrive in their communities long term. This is particularly hard for nonprofits with limited capacity and resources.

Finally, organizing for equitable development usually happens at the neighborhood or community scale, but our strategies look at the borough as a whole. The Bronx is a borough of 1.5 million people—it could be its own city. In fact, if it were, it would be America’s eighth largest city. We don’t do anything alone—BCDI’s board is made up of local residents and representatives from local community-based organizations, and all of our projects are co-developed and implemented with these core partners and other mission-aligned stakeholders across other sectors. We need an incredible amount of investment and resources to continue working at this level. For a vision this ambitious, it is critical for community partners and other stakeholders across the borough to continuously work together on strategies for building shared wealth and ownership at scale for low-income people of color.


Katherine Mella is the Program Director for Participatory Planning and Policy under the Just Urban Economies Program (JUE). Under JUE, she leads the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative’s planning and policy work alongside grassroots partners. In this role, Katherine focuses on two key areas: (1) community health, leveraging opportunities tied to local and national healthcare system transformation to address the social determinants of health; and (2) development without displacement, convening a core set of community partners across the Bronx to fight back against gentrification and displacement and fight for community-driven equitable development. Katherine earned her Bachelor’s degree from Brown University in Urban Studies and completed her Master’s in City Planning at MIT.

This is a part of the Equality Indicators’ Change Maker Q&A series. This ongoing blog series aims to highlight individuals and organizations who are actively working to increase equality. The views expressed here are those of the featured change maker and do not necessarily reflect the views of CUNY ISLG.