The Ujima Fund launched in Boston in 2017 as an outgrowth of years of organizing for racial and economic justice. Ujima, the first community-controlled loan fund in the US, has raised $1.7 million to date. Ujima is a Swahili word meaning “collective work and responsibility”. The membership of Ujima is comprised of more than 250 working-class people of color living in Boston. As members, they vote on community business standards, neighborhood investment plans, and top community needs. Each member, no matter their level of investment, has one vote. Together, members decide which black-owned cooperatives and social enterprises to invest in, as well as those owned by people of color.
Why did Natural Investments support clients in investing in a fund for which ordinary community members make the decisions? Many impact investments that target communities of color are led by wealthy, white investors and executives. That means the communities that are theoretically served by such funds don’t have a say in the terms of that support; the boards and leadership teams rarely include members of the communities themselves. Ujima Fund has built a model for community governance and accountability that addresses these failings and shifts decision-making power out of boardrooms and into neighborhoods.
In Boston, the median net worth for white households is $247,500, while the median net worth for black households is $8. Racial wealth inequality––in Boston and across the country––is the result of racist institutions and practices, including slavery, sharecropping, redlining, racial covenants in the real estate industry, and racist lending practices. Ujima Fund is working to close the racial wealth gap by shifting both investment capital and decision-making power to those who have been historically excluded.
By shifting both wealth and power, Ujima Fund is a part of an emergent ecosystem of funds that centers community governance and self-determination. Instead of prioritizing the ideas of outside investors, investments are designed by and for the community. Ujima believes that community members perform the best due diligence––they know the reputation of local businesses and can hold those businesses accountable to Ujima’s community business standards. Ujima also knows that members will help the businesses thrive by patronizing them, encouraging their friends and family to become customers, and organizing anchor institutions to purchase from Ujima businesses. Ujima has built an ecosystem of support for social enterprises owned by entrepreneurs of color in Boston to prosper.
At the end of 2019, Ujima’s membership voted to make the fund’s first investment in CERO, a bilingual composting cooperative. But the impact of investing in Ujima goes beyond this one radical social enterprise. Investment in Ujima supports community self- determination and agency. It also builds local governance capacity. Investing in Ujima builds political and economic power for working class people of color in Boston. It’s a significant way to shift wealth and power to repair and democratize our economy.
Photo by Cap Jacqz, courtesy of The Ujima Project