UC Santa Cruz scholar receives major new grant to support inclusive community development throughout California

Dr. Chris Benner, director of both the Everett Program for Technology and Social Change and the Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation, is one of the initial partners to receive funding from the recently launched Community Economic Mobilization Initiative.

As state and federal agencies are investing increasing funding in pandemic recovery, infrastructure development and initiatives to address climate change, a collaboration of renowned scholars led by  UC Santa Cruz are working with community groups to ensure equity and inclusion are at the heart of these efforts. 

Dr. Chris Benner — director of both the Everett Program for Technology and Social Change and the Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation — is one of the initial partners to receive funding from the recently launched Community Economic Mobilization Initiative, spearheaded by the Sierra Health Foundation with the support of a range of other philanthropies. 

The Community Economic Mobilization Initiative (CEMI) is a $17.7 million fund, aimed at supporting nonprofits throughout the state of California as they work toward receiving funds and directing federal and state economic development and climate change initiatives. Those strategic goals are to increase opportunities for local community organizations to decide how best public funds are allocated, and diversify who receives those funds.

This initial cohort of 17 grantee supported community partners includes the Action Council of Monterey County Inc., the Central Valley Community Foundation and the Inland Empire Labor Institute, to name a few. Many more grantees will be announced in coming weeks and months. 

Sierra Health Foundation president and CEO Chet P. Hewitt in April 2022 said: “These past few years have laid bare the impact of long-term disinvestment in poor communities…we must do all we can to position community institutions to grow power and create opportunity for the places and populations they serve.”

Although the fund launched only in April of this year, it continues to grow and expand its reach. Benner, his long-time colleague Dr. Manuel Pastor and the national research and action institute PolicyLink will be developing a Technical Assistance Resource Center to support CEMI grantees. 

As Benner explained, the inclusive development issues that CEMI grantees are addressing stem from a “much broader set of issues,” which largely became more visible at the start and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There is a level of vulnerability and precarity that so many Californians face on a normal basis that, when the pandemic came along, just made [those issues] that much harder, and also more obvious to more people” he said.

With so many organizations over the last two years searching for funding to address inequities, economic precarity and health vulnerabilities, it led to the question of: how to best leverage new public funding? That’s what inspired the CEMI funding, Benner says, in an effort to increase the influence of community organizations in the context of funding opportunities.

“There are major, multi-billion dollar pots of state and federal funding that are designed around promoting economic resilience and addressing climate change,” he said. “This is almost a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence these kinds of public pots of money.”

As such, the CEMI initiative has worked with a variety of different funders, including  the James Irvine Foundation, the California Endowment and others. 

Benner said that, in addition, Hewitt wanted to create “a source of technical assistance,” in which organizations could have readily available research and training assistance. That goal led Benner and Pastor to come aboard in working further on the initiative’s efforts.

Over the course of their 20-year partnership, Benner and Pastor have collaborated on five different books in which they’ve addressed the important connection  between equity and economic prosperity. In their most recent book “Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter” (2021), the pair were prompted by the pandemic’s early effects to pull together a comprehensive framework to show that equity is good for the economy. The three main points of their research found:

  1. We should always be talking about “our” economy rather than “the” economy, to remind us that economic activity is organized by people, not created by nature, and thus reflects values, power, and decisions we make.
  2. Our economy is rooted in collaboration and connection as much as it is competition, and when we invest in our mutuality, our economy does better.
  3. Since some people benefit from our current economic structures, to build an economy more rooted in mutuality, we also need to invest in social movements, to help shift power relationships while expanding and diversifying collaborations..

That final point harkens back to the work CEMI aims to achieve, Benner said: shifting the power and economic decision-making in the current system, and recognizing ourselves in the broader sense of connection and mutuality.

Benner and Pastor’s past work has demonstrated across the country the importance of expanding and diversifying collaborations — across city and suburb, racial difference, political affiliation, and linking business, private, public and nonprofit sectors — which allows for better decision-making in regard to resources, leading to better social and economic outcomes. One component that facilitates these diverse networks is data on local economic and social conditions,  said Benner, which helps facilitate dialogue and can bring diverse constituencies together around shared goals. 

Benner’s work in the broader Monterey Bay area helps highlight the importance of breaking through silos, and building cross-sector collaborations. “One thing that’s important to think about, for example,  is the connection between jobs, housing and transportation systems,” he said. “What characterizes our region is we have job centers in the city of Santa Cruz and the city of Monterey, in which the vast majority of people working in the city don’t live in the city.”

That leads to discrepancies in terms of workers in the city contributing to our economy, which builds the public tax revenue, particular in the form of the transient occupancy tax and sales tax, but since they don’t live in the city, they see fewer benefits from public services and aren’t eligible to vote for city leaders. That further elicits a vast discrepancy between the revenue per capita of cities like Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel versus Watsonville and Salinas, and further drives resource inequality.

“It undermines the economic prosperity and environmental resilience for the whole region,” Benner said. “Because we’re underinvesting, all those things that shape economic prosperity don’t get dealt with.”

That’s what makes CEMI that much more imperative, explained Benner. Of course, it’s not the only answer to the unequal economy, he said, but it helps to lift up priorities. Looking toward 2023, that means Benner and Pastor working with the other CEMI partners to create webinars, in-person training programs and the like.

“We need to be thinking about more structural transformative solutions,” he said.