3 Questions With: Lucas Turner-Owens, Fund Manager @ The Boston Ujima Project
"3 Questions With" is a blog series that was launched in October 2019 by Net Impact, as a way to inspire our network of social impact leaders by interviewing influential members in the sustainability and social impact space. The series asks friends of Net Impact to explore three key areas: "the path to here", "today's impact", and "looking ahead." We hope you are inspired by those featured in this new series. If you are interested in being interviewed for the series or to nominate someone you are inspired by, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, with Three Questions in the subject line.
Name: Lucas Turner-Owens
Role: Fund Manager, The Boston Ujima Project
Currently working on: There are several unique elements of our investment process, starting with the fact that each business we consider for investment has to be named by community members as a business that they love. In order to be admitted to the Ujima Business Alliance, each business must meet the minimum requirement in 36 categories of social and environmental impact. Once admitted, they can apply for investment from the Ujima Fund.
Currently, I am working on creating a report and video that will go out to our membership which outlines the first investment opportunity for the Ujima Fund. The report outlines the business’s mission, team, revenue model, cost structure, and growth plan. It is the job of Ujima’s voting membership to ultimately decide what the fund should invest in by reaching a majority vote with a quorum of 51% member participation.
Today we have over 250 voting members, and I am excited to see how they experience the first investment opportunity to emerge from our democratic process.
Q1: THE PATH TO HERE | Was there a defining moment in your life/career that brought you to this role or company?
"When I was 16 years old I volunteered with a local Boston grassroots organization called Alternatives for Community & Environment. I would stand in Mattapan Square and count the number of high-polluting commercial diesel trucks that drove through our community as a part of a study to see if commercial vehicles were disproportionately polluting working-class communities of color. Unsurprisingly they were, and we were able to convince the city of Boston to pay for air filters to be placed on the fleet of vehicles most responsible for the pollution and bad air quality in our community. That experience inspired me to try and shape policy through real grassroots organizing.
After graduating from college, I moved to Washington D.C. to work as a public policy analyst for a national nonprofit combatting wealth inequality and worked as an advocate for policies that would strengthen the social safety net. After doing this work from 2012-2016, I was hungry for more hands-on work and began volunteering as a one-on-one business consultant for 2 worker-owned cooperatives based in D.C. Following that experience, I came back to Boston in 2016 to begin work as a consultant for large nonprofits, and foundations.
What led me into this role at Ujima was my background and experience, but also my excitement about how Ujima does not make decisions on behalf of community members but instead moves in solidarity with community members. To take the position that the community knows best what it needs and will make the best decisions for itself is a simple premise that is radically unique within our field. Ujima’s members are investors, organizers, artists, educators, and business-owners and collectively each one of them shapes Ujima’s future when they show up to participate and vote in our ecosystem."
Q2: TODAY'S IMPACT | What impact is your company/industry/space creating?
At the heart of the Ujima ecosystem is the democratically managed Ujima Fund. Every Ujima member is given one vote to decide what the Fund should invest in, regardless of whether they are investors or the size of the investment they make. So far, the Fund has raised over $1M and will be invested in small business and affordable housing investments made over the next 5 years.
In addition to the Ujima Fund, the Boston Ujima Project is also doing incredible work. 9 distinct member-led groups work through open meetings each month to advance other components of our work. One such group is focused on mobilizing faith, healthcare, and higher education institutions to shift their spending to local vendors of color who are in the Ujima Business Alliance and asking them to invest directly into the Ujima Fund.
Additionally, last year, Ujima held 4 Assemblies for members where over 550 individuals came out to tell us the businesses they loved, needed and wanted to see replaced in their communities. At these four neighborhood and citywide assemblies, Ujima members also voted on the structure of the Ujima Fund (on specific issues like collateral requirements and the interest rate range the Fund should charge as a lender), as well as the social and environmental impact standards we would use to assess each business.
Aside from the assemblies and weekly open meetings, Ujima also has Black Trust: The Chuck Turner Arts + Lecture series which brings in painters, playwrights, DJ’s, professors, and other professionals to share the stage and share their gifts with the Ujima community. We have also had open mic events and a dance party because this work needs to be rooted in building the new world we want to see, and not only decrying the things we want to see undone.
All of these events, and inroads into the work help to make Ujima a truly member-led organization.
Q3: LOOKING AHEAD | What excites you most about the future of your work?
I am most excited to see Ujima’s members vote on the first investment opportunity this fall. Following that, I look forward to continuing the diligence process with other companies so that I can continue to present new investment reports and videos for our members to engage with. I think the experience of receiving this information and then making a vote, will be a unique and powerful experience of democratic control over something as immediate as helping a business down the street from you renovate their store. To hold the company overview in your hands, interface with the owner by asking them questions, and then ultimately see the impact of your vote on a real business in your community, is a feeling that I am proud to be able to bring to our members.
Lucas Turner-Owens will be leading a session at the 2019 Net Impact Conference in Detroit, MI on Friday, October 25th, called "Community & Collaboration: Assets for Change". The session will explore how organizations are using community capitals to develop assets for positive change by exploring frameworks around human, social, and financial resources. Register today and join this important conversation.