Former Chicago fellow stays to see wealth-building goals become reality July 7, 2022

Former Chicago fellow stays to see wealth-building goals become reality

July 7, 2022

Title: Community Wealth Building Lead

City: Chicago 

In 2020, Nneka Onwuzurike spent the summer embedded as a Bloomberg Harvard Summer Fellow in the City of Chicago’s Mayor’s Office. 

And she basically never left. 

After two additional years working with the city as a consultant, Onwuzurike joined the city in April as a Chicago Recovery Plan Program Manager. Her chief responsibility is to lead Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Community Wealth Building (CWB) initiative to promote models of local, democratic, and shared ownership and control of community assets.  

Lightfoot’s vision came out of her participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in 2019 and was then heavily influenced by the subsequent pandemic and racial reckoning prompted by George Floyd’s murder. 

“Everything that happened probably slowed the work down some,” Onwuzurike says, “but it also really exposed the need for the work. Community wealth building, from a values perspective, is all about solidarity and equity and justice.” 

The most recent development in Lightfoot’s plan is a $15 million pilot project included in her budget submission last November that will invest in models such as worker cooperatives, housing cooperatives, and community land trusts, which enable residents to share equity in businesses and real estate development. The goal, the mayor has said, is “giving historically disinvested communities more accessible and sustainable pathways to build wealth in their communities.” 

Onwuzurike says the city, using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, has launched an advisory council with about 20 community members who are now designing what the pilot will look like. The project is envisioned in three phases: building up an initial community wealth building eco-system; awarding planning and pre-development grants to support CWB models; and then a final wave of large-scale development grants. 

Onwuzurike notes that the community wealth building initiative is very deliberately housed in the city’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice, led by Candace Moore, the city’s first-ever Chief Equity Officer. “I think oftentimes people see community wealth building as a purely economic development strategy and tool,” Onwuzurike says. “For us, it is first and foremost a tool for equity and racial justice specifically.”  

Onwuzurike is on an indefinite leave from a joint degree program at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School and says that while she learned from her experiences in the classroom, there’s no substitute for seeing direct impact on peoples’ lives. “In school, you can do a lot of analysis and research, but you're often not there to actually execute the strategy,” Onwuzurike says. “Being here to actually take it from A to Z has been really exciting.” 

Pro tip: “Your strategy is only as good as your implementation.”