In January of 2021 Faith + Finance hosted the fourth webinar in the four-part series Building a Loving and Just Economy. This is a transcript of the full conversation* featuring Stuart Yasgur, Vice President of Ashoka, in conversation with Coté Soerens of Cultivate South Park and Stephen Lewis of Forum for Theological Exploration.
Rosa Lee Harden: Hello, I’m Rosa Lee Harden, Executive Producer of Faith + Finance. Welcome today to the last of our series of webinars on building a just and loving economy. We’ve had previous conversations about the deep connections between faith and finance and how people of faith can help re-imagine a new economy with rules that work for all of God’s people, not just the top 2%.
We’ve also had conversations about why it’s so important for us to come together in a place that’s beyond the normal rugged individualism that we sometimes hold so dear, and to work for the common good. Today, our conversation will be different. It’s going to be among some people who are on the creative edge of helping entrepreneurs actually make change for good in this world. That was one of the deep joys of my work at SOCAP – bringing social entrepreneurs who were creating businesses for good together.
Moderating our conversation today is Stuart Yasgur, Vice President and Global Group Member of Ashoka. Ashoka is an international organization that supports and promotes social entrepreneurship and they’ve recently taken a special interest in entrepreneurs of faith. So it’s a pleasure to have Stuart join us for this conversation at Faith + Finance.
In conversation with Stuart will be a dear friend Coté Soerens. Coté is a mom to three boys and grows a huge network of friends, fellow travelers, and thirsty colleagues out of her community-based coffee shop, Resistencia Coffee, in South Park, Seattle. She is also the co-founder of Cultivate South Park, a non-profit that lends infrastructure to neighborhood community development projects. Coté and her husband Tim have an amazing vision about how people of faith can flip the assets of their neighborhood.
And finally, another dear friend, Stephen Lewis from The Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) is bringing to us innovative work that they have done at FTE. They started an incubator for faith based entrepreneurs. Stephen and his colleague Kimberly Daniel have just recently released a very helpful new book, A Way Out of No Way, offering their ideas about how we might approach Christian innovation with a fresh take and a real gift to this space.
I cannot wait to hear what these folks have to say about what’s happening in their world and how they see this space of innovation and faith and entrepreneurs moving forward. So Stuart, I’m going to turn it over to you now. We’re excited to be hearing what you have to say.
Stuart Yasgur: Hello everybody and thank you so much for that wonderful introduction. My name is Stuart Yasgur and I’m with Ashoka and I’m excited to be able to invite you here to the conversation with Coté Soerenson and Stephen Lewis. We’re going to dive right in – there’s a lot of interesting work happening. The format for today is Coté, Stephen and I will each share a little bit about our work. And then we will break into questions. So there’s a chance for everybody, all the participants to ask questions and contribute. So, as we’re having the conversation, please add your questions to the Q&A. We’d love to make it as interactive and question-based as possible. So without anything further, I’d love to turn it over to you, Coté.
Coté Soerens: So, thank you so much, everyone. It’s quite an honor to be in this panel today with such an interesting crowd. I’m just looking at the chat and I recognize some names and places where people are doing really interesting things. There is so much expertise in the people who hopped in. I can tell you a little bit about what we are set up to do here in Seattle.
I live in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, which is the lowest earning, youngest and most Latino neighborhood in the city. We moved here eight years ago with a commitment to becoming part of this neighborhood and part of what aches and also blesses this neighborhood. And when we came in the neighborhood, I need to tell you, it was a living grant proposal. We had a superfund, not a super fund, a superfund; we have the Duwamish River, which is very polluted by industry; we have highways cutting through our neighborhood; our schools are not great – there are a host of things. But there’s also something really beautiful about our neighborhood, you have the main version and then the sub-version of the neighborhood. There’s a lot of civic, energy and other, and a lot of people who care deeply. We are a square mile. We’re very isolated from the rest of the city. So that has created that environment that if you’re here, you have to be here. And that’s why people talk to each other on the streets, which is unusual in Seattle.
So in this particular environment as a person of faith, as a person who does ministry, we really had to start thinking about what financial justice and equitable systems look like here in this neighborhood. And that has led us into quite an interesting journey. We first realized that the foundation of it all, for us at least, was relationships between neighbors. We had this main version of South Park which is, we’re so needy, we have so many problems, but that was very different from my experience. And we thought we needed to create some infrastructure for people to connect and leave out those assets that the neighborhood has.
And one of the main issues that we recognized from the beginning was that if you looked at the built environment of the neighborhood it didn’t really tell the story of who we are. The retail stores were empty. There were no places to connect. So by way of just gathering people that are at home on a weekly basis different initiatives started to come up. And the first one was Resistencia Coffee which we opened in 2018.
Resistencia, our coffee shop in the neighborhood, is not only a love letter to South Park, but also we have been incredibly intentional about how we run this company in a way that actually brings wealth back into the neighborhood. So for example, at some conversation with the same crowd we had dialogue around, well, it’s a coffee shop in a gentrifying neighborhood, and a part of that. And not because we have really also eventually taken on the importance of real estate and importance of access to place and community controlled spaces. So Resistance, we have not really stopped at having all investments for the money to be from the neighborhood. Hiring people from the neighborhood, even if they did not have experience, but we have been intentional and very stubborn about how we are hiring from our neighborhood. We are sourcing things from our neighborhood and we are hosting this space as a community controlled space where we recognize that many entrepreneurs around don’t have access to retail. Therefore they can actually use our space as an incubator to try new products. And it has a lot of challenges to do that, but it is worth it to us because what we wanted Resistencia Coffee to be was not only an accelerator of social capital, but also an example of what can happen within hyper-local economies.
We did not stop there though. Out of doing this accelerator of social capital, a number of other initiatives came about – like the arts collective. We created a community development association, Cultivate South Park, and we have been very intentional. We started looking at real estate in our neighborhood. And currently, I personally have been part of the equitable development movement here in Seattle and part of the equitable development initiative, the board I’m on the executive council of a new PDA, which is their cultural space agency that’s retaining and making real estate accessible for communities of color and in the arts in the city of Seattle, which is as you know, Seattle is a cautionary tale when it comes to real estate.
So these are very important initiatives, but when it comes to the neighborhood right now, we’re in the middle of a very important transaction. A piece of real estate in the neighborhood that is key to the destiny of a neighborhood. And we are learning a lot about access to capital, access to leveraging for people who have a lot of, like us, we have so many connections, we know so many people. How is it that we can get a mortgage? For example, we are learning so much about how banking is structured and trying to create new entities, new ways to disrupt this so that everybody in the neighborhood can actually engage in investment, in real estate and grow with the neighborhood. And I can think about that for hours. So probably I should wrap it and pass it onto Stephen.
Stephen Lewis: My name is Stephen Lewis. I serve as President of the Forum for Theological Exploration. I’m also a co-founder and the creator of DO GOOD X, which is a 10-week startup accelerator for underrepresented aspiring entrepreneurs who are working at the intersection of faith and social entrepreneurship.
The work of FTE really is about cultivating a new generation of leaders who will make a difference in the world through Christian ministry – teaching and the leadership within congregations and neighborhoods and parishes, et cetera. A few years ago, what we realized is that not everybody wants to be a pastor. Not everybody wants to be an organizer and not everyone wants to do the things that you find typical religious leaders doing. But what we do know is that particularly the next generation is interested in the question of how their faith speaks to the larger issues and conditions in the world.
And so part of the reason why we developed DO GOOD X and this accelerator is acknowledging the idea that people of faith have always been first responders, not only just to the communities, but also in this nation with regards to the multiple ways in which our country has disenfranchised different groups and in the effort of progress, have also left some individuals behind. And so what does that mean for us as people of faith? What is our role? What is our witness within the broader community? And really what we try to think about is entrepreneurship as an extension, to those who want to organize and mobilize on behalf of justice.
And so part of the question then becomes how do you think about the ways in which your values are institutionalized, beyond your organizing and your mobilizing? What are the ways in which people of faith can marry what they bring in terms of the ethics, in terms of their values, with the stuff of organizations and businesses, and actually trying to be what my colleague, Matthew Williams, who’s the president of ITC, the Interdenominational Theological Center, would say prophetic problem- solvers through entrepreneurship – in the ways in which they’re coming up with solutions to long standing systemic issues within their own particular settings, in order to bring more about this new, heaven and new earth that we see John the Revelator talking about.
And so in essence DO GOOD X is trying to address that. But the other thing that we think is unique about what we’re doing is acknowledging the ideas that typically the entrepreneurship eco space is very homogenous and does not bring enough diversity to the space. And oftentimes the people who get funded to do the good work, at least they’re trying to do in the world are really concerned about the needs of the elite few, but there are – time and time – everyday people who are in neighborhoods that Coté mentioned, who are in neighborhoods that look more like in our expression of Black and Brown folks within this country that are doing innovative, creative, imaginative, entrepreneurial kinds of things that are worthy of investment, that are worthy of support, and worthy of people organizing and mobilizing their resources to support these types of entrepreneurs. So we focus on underrepresented, particularly women and people of color, in DO GOOD X because one we’re trying to diversify the field, but two, we also recognize that diversity is a superpower. Diversity is like the pH balance in a nutrient rich soil that allows for creativity and imagination, but also the kind of solutions that benefit more of us versus a few of us. And so in DO GOOD X we’re kind of up to that kind of work and hopefully trying to find the kind of leaders that match and are embedded in neighborhoods that Coté has mentioned.
Stuart Yasgur: Thank you, both Coté and Stephen. Stephen, I’m going to cite you when I quote you that ‘diversity is a superpower.’ I think it’s a potent way of encapsulating a powerful idea. I’ll reciprocate as kind of a panelist/moderator.
My name is Stuart Yasgur. I’m with Ashoka. Some of you may be familiar with Ashoka. Ashoka is the organization that introduced the idea of social entrepreneurship. And I should say, a social entrepreneur for Ashoka is not necessarily someone who’s created a social enterprise, but a social entrepreneur is a person with a system changing new idea that has the potential to change the pattern in society at the regional or continent or wide level scale. And so 40 years ago Ashoka introduced that idea and has been seeking to build that field since. We’re in about 90 countries around the world. And we look at over 10,000 new ideas a year to find the 1 to 200 that really meet that criteria. You may all know and work with Ashoka Fellows. There are now more than 4,000 of them in the United States and in countries around the world. The work that I do at Ashoka, I lead something called the Economic Architecture Project. It’s really based on a couple of ideas that I think might be friendly to a number of folks who are here joining us in the conversation today.
And the first is that markets can be an incredibly powerful tool to improve people’s lives. And the next part of that is that unfortunately markets work extraordinarily well for a very small number of people on the planet, but for the vast majority of people on the planet, our markets are not working nearly as well as they could. And when we see that, when we see that our markets are failing us, we need to recognize that we have the ability, the opportunity, and really the responsibility to redesign the structure of our markets. So when people pursue profit, it inherently furthers the public good. and so our goal in economic architecture is to do for economic architecture what Ashoka did for social entrepreneurship, which has helped build that field.
So that in a short period of time, when we see our market’s failing us, we won’t just have a conversation about how we get more growth with limited levels of inflation. Instead, we’ll start to have a conversation about how do we really redesign it so it works for everybody in our society?
And we seek to do that by working on problems that we think are of historic importance. For example, one of the major efforts we have going on right now is we’re partnering with the Brookings Institution. And I think our co-conspirator in that work, Andre Perry, was here at one of the earlier sessions. (The Economy Is Not Gravity: Understanding The Choices That Shape Our Lives).
We’re looking at the fact that homes in Black majority neighborhoods in this country have been devalued significantly. And very much in the spirit of what Coté and Stephen have shared, the view that we bring to it is that there’s not a single silver bullet solution. Rather there are innovators in communities and approximates across the country who are wrestling with the problem, developing innovative new approaches to it. And what we need to do is to help foster that new generation of structural innovations. And that means seeing innovators where they are in communities across the country, helping you bring together the partners that they’ll need to succeed and helping people to recognize the importance and significance of the work that they’re doing. So that’s an example of how we do this work of helping to build the field of economic architecture.
And I’d add one thing that I think might be germane to this topic. I think when we talk about these big, big questions about how to create a just and loving economy they can seem like very big questions. They can get theoretical and they can seem enormous. And they are big questions, but one of the things I want to bring to the forefront is that we can make progress on these questions through actions of each individual stepping forward to make change where they are.
I would point to one specific example which is a problem that’s emerging in Seattle and it’s emerging in Houston, in Washington, D.C. and Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore, and in cities all across the United States. All too often with economic development comes displacement of communities who have long been in those cities who have not just homes, but also communities in those cities and who could most benefit from development, instead are getting displaced as development comes into the city. One of the innovations that we’re supporting through this work is an approach called community land trusts. And it’s a powerful approach which says, look, land is scarce. It is a limited resource. And if we use it as a store of wealth, the price of land is going to go up and it’s going to exceed the grasp of those who don’t have the resources to secure it. But housing is a universal need and needs to be universally accessible. Secure housing should be right for everyone. So how do we actually do this? So what a community land trust has done is actually separate out, for example, the ownership of land from the ownership of buildings. Buildings don’t appreciate at the same rate because buildings are depreciating assets. It enables cities to create secure, long-term, permanently affordable housing in neighborhoods that are experiencing development. We’re starting to see this emerging in Seattle. We’re seeing it in California, we’re seeing it in Houston, D.C., and a number of cities across the United States. It’s a big change. It’s a change in the structure of our market and home ownership. But that change came about because in the 1960s, Black farmers were getting displaced for the land and they realized they needed to push back against it. And so they’re the ones who actually developed this model, informed by leaseholder approaches in the UK. They introduced a new model of land ownership in the United States that’s now taking root and growing in cities across the country. And so I just want to leave with that one last example. It’s an example of the way that individuals, wherever they stand, can step forward to redesign the basic structures of our markets in an important way. So with that I’d like to turn to a couple of questions.
Coté Soerens: I also wanted to bring up questions about spirituality and informing the world, which to me is the base of my ‘how-to.’ Stephen probably you are much better than other practicalities of this question. I did the first one, I just needed the clarification.
Stephen Lewis: Thank you, Coté. We were just addressing the latter question. The ‘why,’ which I think shapes the ‘how to’ is this idea that, even in the pandemic, we, particularly those who are part of Christian communities globally, particularly the United States and where I’m situated here in Atlanta and the south, understand the pandemic as a kind of apocalyptic moment. And in this sense, it is about the unveiling of ‘what is’ – realizing that the American dream and the project has never worked for all of us. And the same thing, the apocalypse is also unveiling what is possible. And so the book of revelation is one of these types of apocalyptic literature, right? And specifically it talks about, and it’s taught, 21st and 22nd chapter, this unveiling of a new heaven and new earth. And that in the middle of this is this image that hearkens back to the Eden story, which is this tree that is for the healing of all nations. And so in many ways I’m thinking about the kind of new heaven and new earth in our communities and our cities. That is possible as Stuart has named, when we all kind of roll up our sleeves and we think about what is beneficial beyond our kind of rugged individualism, but for the good of the neighbor. Right? And so in that sense, when we think about this, this kind of compelling vision of a new heaven and a new earth, when we think about abundant life that works for everyone when we think about it in a juxtaposition to an American project that has never worked for all of us, particularly those who are particularly more dark in melanin and those of us who have low socioeconomic status within this country, this is an opportunity where we all can get involved.
And so many of the entrepreneurs that I’m working with come to this work with an idea and want to, like, they really had this idea that they want to help solve a problem in their community. And one important ‘how-to’ is really around education. How do you educate them? Not only just about business, but how do you educate them on the problem? Because here’s the thing, right? People can have all kinds of ideas. And when I think about ideas, many of my ideas can be fleeting, but what I really want people to be committed to, and invested in, is the issue. Because if you can stay with the issue long enough, you will come up with, or maybe your idea will pivot and evolve and change over time as you learn more about it.
And so I love this idea of economic architecture, because part of, if you’re going to have faith and finance, church folks in general, and Christian people particularly in this community have to become more astute and educated and sophisticated in matters of money, but also matters of economics and economic systems and macroeconomics and microeconomics – not just in terms of a nation state versus what takes place in business, but also how that money happens in communities about production and the ways in which is consumed in interest rates and credit and debit and those types of tax liabilities and tariffs that all impact the way in which we participate in the economic system that we find ourselves.
And so one important ‘how-to’ is really about educating them on the systemic issue in which their problem is addressing or pertaining to, but also educating them on the dollars and cents of economics and what it means to participate in the economy and to be more conscious of the way in which their business will participate in a large economy in hopes of bringing about the kind of good that they want to see. So education is a really important piece to that.
The other thing that I would say in terms of a ‘how-to,’ is really thinking about this idea of how do we help people understand that much of what entrepreneurs have been able to do in this country is not because of their sheer talent or their sheer skill or gifts. Our entrepreneurs have been reading this book by a guy, Chris Rabb who’s a politician, but he was an entrepreneur beforehand. He has this book called Invisible Capital. And his whole thing is about how do you actually make people aware of the ascribed economic capital, cultural, and social capital that is so important to developing businesses. It’s not just about how smart you are. It’s not just about the skill sets. Oftentimes it’s about who you know and it’s about the network and access to resources and exposure that helps a person be successful or not. That’s not to say that being smart, it’s not important. It is, but it’s also recognizing not everyone has pulled themselves up by the bootstrap. It goes back to what you said, Stuart, about these farmers. A large part of it is about the laws and it’s about policy that has privileged and benefits certain groups over another. And so how do you educate people, but also recognize the type of invisible capital that they bring to the table when they’re trying to develop a particular business.
And then lastly, I would just say another ‘how-to,’ is really thinking about how you help entrepreneurs emancipate their emaciated imagination. Too often in communities, particularly religious communities, they’re bombarded with so much that is coming at them. They don’t have breathing space. They don’t have breathing space to be able to take a pause and to imagine what could be possible because they’re dealing with, particularly within communities of color, they’re dealing with flesh and blood matters – matters of life and death. And so part of this is about how you help church people, particularly those who want to do the type of entrepreneurial innovative work to broaden their imagination. And to broaden imagination oftentimes means that they have to be dislocated from their own center, right? To be at the margins of other worldviews and perspectives and to be a student and learning. And that can help broaden the imagination, but it also can expose them to what’s already happening in their neighborhoods that they are unaware of because the people that they have not considered to be neighbors, are their neighbors. And so the more that we can actually expose them to a broader diversity, again, that becomes the rich soil by which we can help broaden their imagination about what’s possible. To do the type of economic architecture that I think you are talking about and what Coté is mentioning in her work, it requires a kind of, not just prophetic imagination, not just kind of pastoral imagination, but it requires a kind of economic imagination. And to have that kind of imagining, we have to be able to see from different points of views and perspectives that are different from ours.
Coté Soerens: Well, Stephen, I like where you’re going with that. There seems to be a whole theological shift away from what I understand to be the more traditional evangelical theology that was so popular in the nineties I grew up with back in Chile. But in going to one of the questions that was posed about ‘how-tos’ to me, this whole notion of entrepreneurship and shifting economic landscape has everything to do with spiritual discipline. One of the greatest gifts that my husband has given me is this operating question that he asks all the time, what are God’s dreams for this neighborhood? As you know, I’m curious, I’m enthusiastic, I care about so many things. Actually adopting the neighborhood as my, the place where I actually care about. I care about so many things, right? A Renaissance woman, but focusing all that energy and imagination in a particular place, that to me has been the first step into achieving anything. Because when you are focused in this particular place, first, you can take more of a permaculture type of approach where somebody’s project entrepreneurship can nurture somebody else’s attempt to do something big.
The second piece of why faith is so important to this work is that when you ask what are God’s dreams for the neighborhood? You get into the business of doing things that are actually newsworthy and innovative. Personally, it’s interesting for me how that has shifted my imagination. It’s like, okay. We set up the business and Resistencia is the darling of impact investing and local social capital markets. And we could have ended there. Like, oh great we did that, let’s just rest and it was not possible. If you’re constantly thinking about if you have got dreams for these neighborhoods, like, okay, what are my dreams for this neighborhood? Everybody has a roof over their head. That people are not afraid of being outside. That the youth have good places to be. And there is this notion of abundance, actually God is doing the work. You’re just joining it. The spirit is moving and your spiritual practice is to discern, where is the spirit moving? How can we be the hands and feet of Jesus in this particular place. Right? And that posturing, I think, is incredibly powerful because it de-centers you from the story and you become somebody who’s just trying to facilitate things right, alongside other people who are also trying to facilitate things. And it creates a more collaborative environment that is actually perfect for entrepreneurship. The newsworthy component is, okay, we can do the nonprofit. We can do the thing, but what is actually innovative, what is actually daring, is actually messing with economic systems. What is the crazy thing that no one thought about? And the crazy thing that no one thought of comes from people who are struggling in poverty who need solutions, they need crazy solutions. They need people to take risks on their behalf. So that is what the daring thing comes. Nobody thought about just giving us zero interest loan, but that’s what they can do. And I love them. So I want them to have that, but that comes from being in the neighborhood and in relationship. And the other is, it’s newsworthy. It’s actual good news and good news in the sense of the gospel. What is good news for these neighborhoods right now? In South Park it is the ability to stay in the neighborhood. People love this neighborhood and they can’t live here anymore. They can’t afford it. So what is that daring solution?
I love what you were saying, Stuart about the community land trust. We’ve gone a little in a little different direction. I personally love it when everybody gets to make money. My problem is not that people make money, I just want everybody to be able to make money. And the biggest problem for our neighbors particularly immigrants and people of color is the access to intergenerational wealth and creation of assets. So I actually have been more positioning myself to be able to play the game in a way that we can make everybody else access it. So we have a neighbor in Georgetown who is doing very similar work, but in a nonprofit way. And we had this conversation once about, hey is this first wave feminism or white feminism in like owning the land and not owning the land and whatever. And he actually did say something like, so I think the reason I’m going about it as a nonprofit is because I’m a white guy.I’ve seen people on this side of the river actually like this might be the only opportunity they have to own any asset that they can pass on to their children. And that matters to us. It’s like, okay, you need something to pass onto children. We have something to pass onto our children, but you don’t. So how do we create the entire system in a way that is actually meaningful to you?
So then we take examples around the country, for example, the Community Investment Trust by Mercy Corps in Portland. They do have this system. Mercy Corps owns this commercial property and they allow like, I don’t know, 5% to 10% of the property to be owned by people in the same city code. And they get a dividend. It’s a little bit like REI co-op, you get a little dividend at the end of the year. We thought, okay, that has good skeletons, but it’s not daring enough. We want the neighborhood to own the neighborhood. So we’re in the process right now of exploring the idea, and this is to create what we’re calling the Barrio Trust. We are in the process of pulling up the funding and the timeline that we need to acquire this really strategic property in the neighborhood. It would be very easy for us as a nonprofit to own it and call it good. We put it in the neighborhood and now we’ll develop it in affordable housing, whatever, but that is not what our neighbors have been saying. What our neighbors have been saying is that they want access to own the neighborhood collectively, to have a say in where the neighborhood is going, how many parks we have, what amenities do we have? What we’re trying to create is a structure where self-fund residents are eligible to be part of the Barrio Trust and own the property in a much more significant way than we have in other parts of the country. And again, that might be a crazy thing. It’s been difficult. It’s been difficult to find legal help to make that happen because it hasn’t been done in that way before, but it’s daring and it comes from love for my neighbors and seeing like, okay, from their perspective, this is the one shot.
And another thing that I want to contest a little bit is this notion of church people and the neighborhood, like you were getting at Stephen. Church people are our neighbors too.
Stephen Lewis: Sometimes they’re not though.
Coté Soerens: Yes and this speaks of a higher problem with extractive economies and consumerism and the religious life. So thus going back to the spiritual practices of locating oneself and being in a neighborhood where you actually need to be accountable to and responsible for. Cause yeah, driving to hear an amazing preaching ceremony, whatever, and going back, is one thing. Being in embedded in a neighborhood where, if a better address doesn’t work, my neighbors are really mad at me, I’m going to have to move. That puts me in a very different position as far as how I need to go about the work, how we need to go about the work. I would encourage everybody to look into ways in which they can live out their faith and follow Jesus where they live, where they’re at. Because I feel that that brings a level of accountability that the church needs right now. More of that at parishcollective.org.
Stuart Yasgur: Coté, thank you so much for pushing back and challenging. It brings to mind that I may have unintentionally said something that is not what I intended to say. I think one of the things that’s remarkable about CLTs or other alternative ownership models, like the kind you’re talking about, where people can own the neighborhood is it’s not to say, okay, let’s create a space where people engage with each other outside of the market. Those are important. They are critically important.
Coté Soerens: I didn’t mean that in response to your project.
Stuart Yasgur: Ok I was just underlining this point. Part of it is how do we think with the creative imagination to redesign the market so that ownership is actually ownership of your neighborhood, it kind of is a means also for expressing voice and in sharing in neighborliness with your neighbors of what do we collectively want this to form? How do we want to form this and using empathy to understand who the others are in your neighborhood and how you’re going to work together and doing that. I think those are important themes in the work that you mentioned.
Coté Soerens: Personally, I think it informs all of it. I think that Jesus was pretty clear around what social justice looks like and what reconciliation looks like and particularly what love of neighbor looks like. So it’s been interesting because getting into more, again, I’m talking from the perspective of somebody who moved to the states 16 years ago. I should not be messing with commercial real estate right now. I’m not a real estate agent. I’m just a random girl who just is fresh off the plane, basically. But I don’t think I would get into this line of thinking or in this situation if it wasn’t for wanting to see what God’s dreams look like, you know? And it’s hard work and it’s disheartening sometimes. You have all the hopes and dreams of a community wrapped up into a transaction and it doesn’t go through.
And also the ability to create community around a common dream. The majority of people that I share life with in mission in the neighborhood are not of faith. The people who are very engaged every day and when it comes to community. So one of the biggest challenges in South Park is that there is no space for community right now at this moment. There is not a big room where youth can gather for example, and also, well, also there is the pandemic. But even then you know, like an arts class, like we can’t do it there is nowhere to go. And at some point, our friend was hosting one of those spaces and she had to leave because of lack of income for an event space during the pandemic. But she was also very upset because the landlords were being very unfair to her, and truly, I think, unnecessarily. I’m so sorry, English is my second language guys, you may have already noticed. They were being hostile with that person basically. So at that moment, we’re all hurting because we love the space. We have experienced so many moments together, collectively in this space, around the arts and bringing community. And she is incredibly hurt. And there is a racial justice component to this whole interaction that it’s like, she wants to go out to the press and she wants to take these people down. And at that moment, we were like, hey, we have to be disciplined because we want to buy this building eventually for the community. It’s not as strategic for us to do that. And it was really interesting for us to come up collectively with a common language around spirituality. We all prayed that day about this building and what it meant to the neighborhood. And we came together in prayer and I, in a way, had to become a pastor that had to take more of a pastoral role in that interaction and hold the space for prayer and for encouragement in a time that was very difficult. And our lives and our livelihoods were at play. It was an important sacred moment. And we had to facilitate it again from the spirit. So that’s, I guess what I’m trying to say is, is there is no scenario in which I would be in this situation if I wasn’t a Christian.
Stephen Lewis: Yeah faith and spirituality plays a really important role. But I also know that those words and terms mean different things to different people. So, you know I’m not sure what the person is asking. I don’t want to assume that I know what the person is asking in that regard. But if it’s a question of do we get together and pray and do Bible study and that type of thing? No, we’re not a church. But that’s what spirituality means. I think that doesn’t take the expansive way in which spirituality is involved and engaged in our work. I mean, we use Jesus as a model who is in constant conflict with the powers that be. Oftentimes what I say, is Jesus was a young adult, born to a teenage mother of low socioeconomic status who was at odds with the powers that be. And so in that sense to be followers of that kind of revolutionary author of our faith is the calling to also not only just be to call to power, the truth or whatever, but it also means about – how do you build businesses? How do you build community? How do you shape and form people in ways that are reflective of what he taught and what he was about?
And so for us, one thing I keep coming back to is this idea of neighbor. And so I’m thinking about, for instance, this passage in Luke that talks about the good Samaritan. Jesus, he’s talking to one of the lawyers and they ask him, so how do we inherit eternal life? And Jesus asks, ‘what’s written in the law?” But there’s a piece that comes next that we always skip over. And it says, how do you read? Because oftentimes how we see shapes the way that we read scripture and also shapes the way in which we embody the life of faith, how we see. And for us, we acknowledge that God has preferential treatment. God’s starting point is with the least among us. God’s starting part point is with the disenfranchised. God’s starting point is with the under-resourced and the undervalued. That’s my reading. That’s how I see it. And so when we think about entrepreneurship, how do we embody that? God’s starting point is with women and people of color. God’s starting point is those who do not receive the majority of venture capital. God’s starting point is the ones who can benefit from the resources that have been codified for the elite few to be given to the least among us to be able to address the issues and the concerns within the Jerusalems within our own community with the people who are considered to be underserved.
So in that regard, spirituality is a very important component of what we do. Not just as identifications, but also it shapes our worldview and our imagination about justice. And about peace and about the access of abundant life for more of us. And so, just as an example, if you value abundant life for all, and I’m working with someone like Coté, who says we want to figure out how does all own this neighborhood? One of the ways to do this, think about how can we re-imagine ESOPs – employment stock options – and put that together with REITs, where we actually then think about how all the land and property within communities are set up in some type of REIT that then the community has some type of re-imagined ESOP where everyone, not just employed, maybe it’s not an ESOP maybe it’s inside with a neighbor’s own stock in the real estate, by which all of our properties sit on. That’s something that we can do within our kind of economic structure as it is. But all of that is based off of, not only a theological value, but a spiritual value of abundant life for everyone, holding all things in common. Those kinds of things.
So those are just some of my initial musings as I think about the question around spirituality, because it is important and I think people should not shy away from it. But I think also the community and religious leaders have to learn how to be polylingual. They gotta be able to speak and they have to be the translators and interpreters and be able to speak, not just in their own language, but they also got to be able to speak in the language of the market and the economy and also understand what the translation of that is. So one of the things I’m thinking about for instance, public policy is about legislating values. Yes, it’s concerned about the future, but it’s about legislating values. So all of those folks on the Hill who are writing all these different laws, whether it’s about monetary spending, et cetera, et cetera, all those things are value laden. And so my question is how do Christians become think tanks for these types of legislations around how do we have values of abundant life? How do we bring the values of the love of neighbor. What if our economic system was built, not on rugged individualism and about how we can extract and be able to gain more of consumption, but an economic system that was built on the value of the love of neighbor versus the love of self. I mean, can you imagine what that would mean in terms of labor and production? Can you imagine what that would mean in terms of a livable wage?
So to me, those are the ways in which spirituality and faith get incorporated and built into the work of, not only just entrepreneurship, but also in larger systems that are responsible for navigating and creating and legislating the values that we say that we care about, or don’t.
Stuart Yasgur: That is great. As an aside, I realized we have got to send you a paper we did that looks at REITs and alternatives and community ownership, (and includes) an inventory of the models that are happening in the United States and Europe. If that is one of the questions that you have, we should send it to you because if it’s fodder for the work that you’re doing, that would be fantastic.
One of the things you talk about, because you’re talking about seeing, and people, people need to be able to see differently and use different language differently. And you talked about kind of emancipating the imagination, which is a remarkable phrase because I think one of the challenges people have sometimes in the economic realm is that the language of economics brings a normativity with it. Or it appears to, and it can be difficult for people to maintain a focus, both on the more substantive, important human values, as well as how the economic systems operate and how do we operate within that common system. Sometimes people take for granted the structures of our markets and they think, well, this is just how the world works. And then they try to work within it, as opposed to realizing that these are structures that we create, we design them and we could design them differently. And we need, we as a collective need to say, what value should our market serve and how do we design our markets? So that it actually realizes those values to the greatest extent possible.
Stuart Yasgur: How do you and your work help emancipate the imagination – to help people see just how much change is really possible?
Stephen Lewis: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, we were constantly trying to do that now. Part of it is about exposure. I mean at the end, what I think is at the heart of DO GOOD X is metanoia. It’s a shift in the way we see, think, and act in our approach to business, but also how we shift the way we see, think and act as it relates to our own invisible capital or capital that we have that has been invisible to us. How do we engage in the work of metanoia in our neighborhoods and our entrepreneurial development? That seems to be core, I think for us, as we think about expanding people’s imagination.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Asia Marie Brown, but she wrote a book a few years ago that is about emergent strategy. And one of the things she talked about was, she says we have a crisis of imagination. And part of that I think is looking at this idea. She says we are in imagination battle and she’s talking about in a larger kind of social justice context, there’s something in the psyche in the broader community of America, the imagination, it makes it possible that a Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and all these folks that have been slayed through malice means because they were considered to be a threat. And so, part of what she mentioned is this idea of, oftentimes she feels trapped in someone else’s imagination. And what we got to do is engage in, we had to break out of those types of prisons. And the only way that we can do that is when we relinquish investing in our own self-interest. And what that means is that you gotta be able to be in spaces that are different from your. Coming back to the story of the good Samaritan, none of these folks wanted to help the Samaritan, but then you find this person who does or whatever. And so part of it is like, how do you put yourself in the perspective? How do you have empathy? Not just, not just how do you have empathy, but how do you embody that kind of empathy that allows you to see from a very different perspective, socially, economically, religious theologically, et cetera, et cetera, that then grows a third way or another way about what’s possible that you hadn’t been able to see before. And so part of this is about if to do that you have to be able to get entrepreneurs, at least, outside of their own comfort zone. To say it another way, you have to move people beyond their degree and level of certainty. I had this business that I worked, that I’m, that I’m working on. I have this idea that I actually want to do. I think I know how things actually work. Oh, do you now, and then what you do is you expose them to other people and perspectives that help shift with what they thought they knew. And maybe start to surface their own mental models and assumptions that operate just below the surface of awareness, but are the driving factors about why they do what they do, why they think, what they think and how they act, how they act all that is a kind of metanoia that requires again, the diversity of perspectives and worldviews to help you see what you can’t see.
And oftentimes we can’t see it is because of our own formation and our socialization within this country. And so the more that you can get the right together with the left; the more that you can get middle-class and wealthy white folks with poor people and folks don’t look like them; the more that you can actually help people see and have to try on different languages and perspectives and interpretive kind of analysis will help to expose and help to balloon the imagination that’s possible.
But our imaginations are emaciated. I mean, they really need to be watered and nurtured. And I think that’s one of the benefits if someone like Coté and others bring from another country, because sometimes they can help us see what we can’t see because we are like the fish in water. And so the question is, how do we value that kind of diversity? How do we value that kind of diversity and see that kind of diverse perspective in worldview, not as a threat, but as something that’s important for our own learning and our own growth and our own possibilities about what really is possible.
Coté Soerens: I feel that there is also a component of technical knowledge that needs to be more socialized. Because back to one of your questions, to the ‘how-tos,’ right? So I think that just maybe a little bit in this conversation, if I was to agree that the economy needs to change for example, Carrie was asking, how do we reconcile collective ownership with the accumulation of private wealth? Really important question. But to me, a lot of this has been learning the menial technicalities of LLCs and how powerful they are for real estate. And one of the reasons that I think probably I have started so many entities of different kinds is because I really love understanding these tools so that I can socialize these tools with others. So if somebody wants to start a business right now, I’ve started so many so I was like, yeah, this is how you do it. Don’t sweat it. I really hope that two years from now I’ll be like, sure you just start a community investment trust. This is how you do it. It’s a no brainer. I’m just curious. So for example, as we get more bold in making change happen, we do need knowledge on those infrastructures. So for example, when you approach and they really want to help you get that piece of land that they really want to help you. That there is that whole conversation of like, well, but what are the terms? Are you asking for a bridge loan? Are you offering me ownership? And to me it’s been part of the richness of these communities and these dialogues that we can just grab the phone and somebody will say like, let’s just operate as a loan at three years at 5%. That’s actually great.
Okay, great. Once we had the boom, we were able to raise the capital for example. So there is this black box when it comes to land and when it comes to business that I feel it’s very powerful to socialize and be willing to be a student of these little details. I know it’s menial. I mean, it sounds boring, but at the end of the day, I think that that’s the perspective that I have brought as an outsider, is to understand, wow, this country really has laws that allow for entrepreneurship. One of the reasons I left Chile was because there wasn’t room for somebody like me. Entrepreneurship is not really a thing in Chile. Much less women doing anything daring. So I came to this country and I realized, oh my gosh, the cowboy can make as much money as he wants to. And thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, the 200 years of prophetic work by Black communities in this country we’ve been able to claim to the reality that that is for everybody, right. So that we can take advantage of that for everybody. Right. There, I agree there is, there is a balance there. I’ve also seen in communities of color, people who have gone over this as a social justice crusade, but at the end of the day, it’s for themselves, and that’s fine, more power to them, but it’s, it’s a little different than the collective growth of a community and flourishing of a community and it’s necessary, but it’s always a dance.
Stuart Yasgur: You know, you were saying that it seems like it might be kind of mundane point, but I think it’s actually, there’s a profoundness to an important to it, which is that too often finance and real estate, especially cause some of the numbers get big and it’s, it’s cloaked in technical terminology in ways that give real credence to the experts and the experts have grown up in maintaining the system the way it is. And so it can be a real barrier for people to come in and say, okay, now I’m going to be an agent here and decide what my community’s going to look like, what this ownership is going to look like. I think there’s a really powerful stance also, having the courage and the confidence to be able to go into a place as a person who was learning, not the knower, but the person who’s learning, the learner to say, okay, these are just pieces that I can acquire to be able to undertake, to achieve the results that I want for myself, for my community, for my family, whomever, it might be. So I think that’s a really powerful example even more than any specific technical knowledge, is that ability to learn quickly, how to carry these things out.
Coté Soerens: You figure it out.
Stuart Yasgur: And that is central to an entrepreneur.
Coté Soerens: And then you started learning that maybe the thing that you thought was necessary… I ran into one of our friends, Curtis Brown,who said that we need to create a leveraged fund. And I’m like, whatever it is, move on. Let’s talk about the next thing. And as we are trying right now, for example, to hold this property for the neighborhood and we got him wanting to like, how do we finance this? Like, oh my gosh, we don’t have leverage, hey Curtis.
Those are little things, for example. At the cultural space agency we have our constituency of like, I don’t know, 14 people in the council who, when we were submitting an offer, they were like, yeah, but are we on the hook to raise some money? Like, are we going to be in that? No guys, you’re not going to be in that. You know, like little things that enable a whole group of people to take action on.
Stephen Lewis: No, I think you’re right in that. I think the other, I want to underscore the kind of little black box in terms of the kind of technical knowledge. I mean, part of what we are at least trying to do with DO GOOD X, is to democratize that business, not that business knowledge, and make it more accessible to a wider kind of cause folks. The way you can go and Google this and you can Google that, but someone has to codify that. And even though there may be a number of different financial instruments that you could possibly use to finance something, why pick one over the other, what are the pros and cons, the advantages and disadvantages. And so, I think you’re right, Coté, trying to democratize access to that kind of technical knowledge is important.
But the other piece I want to say too, is that there’s some things, Stuart, that are just structural barriers to do the kind of work we’re doing. Which is one of the reasons why you have B corporations. But you know, the way that the corporate structure and the kind of tax and IRS are set up, businesses are designed – legally structured to maximize shareholder interests. So unless you get into a B Corp, and then you actually have a B Corp, you have the resources to stay up with all the legislation and management to make sure that you’re in compliance. So those are the things that we can reimagine and restructure very easily.
But I think also too, in terms of imagination, like part of what we need are neighborhoods, churches, and church leaders who are willing to be fugitives to the status quo. The status quo says, things have to be, as they always have, because this is the way it is. This is the way it has to be and say, how can we work within the system, but not be other system?
I mean, we all – none of us – are going to escape capitalism, right? And none of us are going into reimagine and change it to be something different overnight. But there are ways in which neighborhoods and neighborhood churches can come together and think about the ways in which they think about the production and think about consumption of smaller resources.
There’s a way in which they could leverage, you know blockchain technology and Bitcoins to create these types of microeconomies to actually build small laboratories where people can actually see and experiment and try on new things to see what’s happened. Because part of what I think is that we need also new laboratories for experimentation to actually see a thing and what works and what doesn’t work, and to be able to work those things out versus trying to get it all figured out in our head and then write some policy cap of a legislation and to see what might work out.
So how do we, again, shrink these big, massive things into small manageable kinds of experiments that we then can partner with one of Coté’s neighborhoods and say, let’s try this or let us figure it out. We need to be all working more, I think, together then to work within our own particular set, because we all have pieces of the larger puzzle that I think will help benefit abundant life, human flourishing and the wellbeing for all.
Stuart Yasgur:: I think that’s a really good point in that entrepreneurship is not a theoretical exercise, right. You know where the goal is, you don’t necessarily know where all the steps are to get to that goal because it hasn’t been done yet. And you’re creating something new. You need to be able to try and fail and try again and redesign. One piece though that I would, from my own perspective, call out. And this is part of the story of the CLTs is as we experiment, wherever we stand, that we do so with an eye to the structural change that could be brought about, because that’s an innovation that started with farmers in a rural context. It’s not if you thought, where’s an idea that’s going to come about, that may change the way we deal with property ownership at large scale in major American cities, it’s not the place you would’ve thought it was going to come from, but they pushed themselves to think beyond, okay, how do we just improve the situation to ask, okay, what’s a structural change that we can start to enact?
Because there’s a migration kind of path for structural change to emerge that goes from small, citizen-led innovations to policymakers, to city, state, federal level including financial institutions, new financial products. All of those players will eventually have to come in, but they need something to respond to. And the social entrepreneur who gives themselves permission to think that they can change the structure of our market is, is where it starts and many, many times. So I think that’s an opportunity.
Stephen Lewis: And the other thing too, is that it’s not even all entrepreneurship, right? I mean, the pandemic has forced even churches, as well as other entities to re-imagine place in terms of work or how we build community or in a religious context, even how you do church and Bible study and all those types of things. And we’ve been doing this for two years, right? And so the market will respond just to innovation. Not everything has to have a business model. Not everything has to be about building a particular business. Some things won’t be able to have those, but they need to be done. And so I just wanted to offer that because I think that’s also important too, that sometimes the innovations that you do within your neighborhood, whether it is some community cooperation or it’s some kind of addressing an issue like a food desert, can then solicit the kind of response that’s needed to address a larger kind of systemic issue within the larger system that you may be trying to address as well.
Coté Soerens: I mean again, it sucks to be an underdog in the system. On the other hand, there is a little bit of grace, for example, in the initiatives I have started that I couldn’t access certain sources of funding for example. Like when I was thinking about starting Resistencia, I was thinking of a startup loan. And then I realized that does not exist. And I started learning that is not a thing. And we had to think more innovatively about funding. We pay just enough now, like now that you know, the stakes get a lot higher and we’re not raising $165,000 to start a business, we’re raising $6 million for a very strategic piece of real estate. I’m more familiar with different arrangements and more tolerance of risks. And that to me is not only a blessing, it’s been a blessing, but also it is the ground where innovation can grow around where disruptive systems come from. And I love that opportunity. I love that. Maybe I’m being overly received, but I love that our solutions have not come from the usual disruptors that are made for other people.
Stuart Yasgur: I think it’s absolutely right. As you know, all too often entrepreneurs, when they want to do something new, they have to invent the methodology also. And when they do that, well, it kind of actually enables them to go further.
Coté Soerens: I’m actually grateful that a large percentage of our neighborhood, for example, is undocumented migrants. And that presents us with a set of challenges that also – it forces you to think pretty widely about, well, what is the role of the blockchain? Ok that is decentralized. Maybe we need to learn more about that on behalf of these neighbors.
Stuart Yasgur: I think that’s a really good point. We’re almost out of time.
Coté Soerens: I am just very enthusiastic about these movements of people who are thinking outside the box in the name of Jesus. It’s encouraging to see a teacher get a glimpse of the projects represented and the attendees by way of their questions in the chat, for example. I’m encouraged to see the nomination of executives and pastors and people who have access to assets and expertise to be part of these conversations. It’s a fun thing to think about as far as how to pour new wines in new structures. We are living in a very exciting time. We’re having to rethink everything in them and have brought this community together around thinking in this way. It’s fantastic.
I’m also missing DeAmon Harges, who was also supposed to meet with us (today). I feel his absence right now. He’s been incredible – working in Annapolis as well with his neighbors so just naming him as a friend. Thank you.
Stephen Lewis: Yeah, I’ll just close and say that I agree, Coté. I think we’re living in very exciting times. When I think about the Christians’ first innovation, it was the church. It was a way in which those deacons and other leaders asked – how can we come together and actually help the widows and those who are marginalized within our community? And from there the church has sprung and has evolved over time. And I think there are people who are trying to find new ways to actually be. And so I just wanna encourage everyone who’s listening to say that it is possible to do things differently.
And I would just say three things right quickly that you can do really easily. First is that I think all of us, we have to divest from our own self-interest. We have to divest of our own kind of livelihood and our own excess, particularly here in this country, for those who are middle-class and upper-middle class, et cetera. That is something that I think if we’re going to embody or think about the ways in which faith intersects with finance and the ways in what the church can do, we have to be able to divest from our own self interest.
I think we have to invest in lobbyists, politicians, economics policy holders – and in those who can help educate us, but also help us think about the kinds of leaders who were working on behalf of those farmers in the 1960s, that kind that put the types of policies in place that benefit more of us versus a few of us.
And then thirdly, what I would say is that I think we have to invest in community center enterprises. What are the kinds of businesses that attend to wellbeing and strengthening of the community, because the stronger that the community is to support those businesses, the better those businesses will be in supporting those communities and beyond.
And I think, finally, what I would say is that we had the model and honor the ingenuity of fugitive innovators, those who say I’m going to be a fugitive to the status quo. I’m going to create an alternative way of experimenting. And that way will lead on to way, with methods and procedures for the others that will come along. We need to be able to see that. We have to be able to model that. And we have to be able to invest in those kinds of leaders. So we need to be investing in folks like Coté and the kind of entrepreneurs that Ashoka is engaged in – everyday people who are trying to make a difference with what they have as they try to live a life of meaning and purpose for the betterment of all.
Coté Soerens: Let’s see, we’re speaking, Stephen. I was thinking there’s nothing about the entrepreneurs who kind of are fugitives from the status quo. I was thinking, oh, there’s nothing more punk rock than that. But then I kept thinking, I dream that in 10 years, somebody will say like, whoa, there’s nothing more Christian than that. As in like taking risks as a spiritual practice, and rethinking things and being bold seems like a really great calling.
Stuart Yasgur: That is a wonderful kind of closing sentiment. Thank you, both Coté and Stephen, I’ve learned a tremendous amount and it’s definitely food for thought to rethink things.
Thank you both for taking the time to share your stories and the work that you’re doing. Thank you to Faith + Finance for hosting this conversation. It was amazing to see just how many people joined the conversation. And in some ways it would have been great if we actually had a large collective conversation with everybody, because there was so much insight on the call as well. So thank you all. I really look forward to working with you as we seek to redesign the way our markets work so that they work for the benefit of all.
Rosa Lee Harden: I knew that was going to be a lot of fun. All three of those folks have so much to say about this space and are so energizing. Don’t you think? So, thank you so much to Stuart, Coté, and Stephen. I look forward to being in touch with you all again soon. And in the meantime, if you’d like to subscribe to our newsletter or to keep up with what we’re doing at Faith + Finance, join us at faithfinance.net. We look forward to seeing you there. Thank you.