Centering Frontline Communities & Transforming Public Investment

Communities First Fund is transforming how federal, state, and local governments invest public dollars in Black, Indigenous, People of Color and low-wealth communities by implementing a relationships-first approach to community-driven solutions that centers frontline communities’ leadership, innovation, and priorities.

Investing In Communities To Combat Racial Inequity

Communities First was founded to seize on the opportunity of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Justice40 Initiative, announced in a January 2021 executive order.

Through this initiative, the federal government committed to “delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities.” Therein, the federal government articulated a promise to intentionally direct substantial investments into communities in order to combat racial inequity and advance racially just development.

To fulfill this promise, the Biden administration and its federal agencies and state and local partners must build strong relationships and partnerships grounded in the expertise and leadership that already exists in communities across the country. 
It also must coordinate all of the government and align the breadth of resources at its disposal, especially from the Infrastructure Investment (IIJA) and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in service of their equity goals.

The success of the Justice40 Initiative, and the path toward a future of racially equitable and just development, will be achieved through recognition that communities themselves hold the solutions that best address their needs, and that government must be accountable to investing in those solutions.

Communities First plays a crucial role in actualizing the racial justice values of Justice40 and expanding its potential by creating bridges between communities and governmental planning processes that are often inaccessible to the very people they are meant to serve.

Communities First is leveraging the Biden Administration’s readiness to direct funds to Black, Indigenous, People of Color and low-wealth communities by advancing investments and partnerships in service of community plans, solutions, priorities, needs, and visions for a thriving future.

Communities First focuses on actions that can be taken right now, and with existing and emerging funds and support. 
Our work is immediate and targets federal grant and technical assistance programs to increase capital and non-capital community investments.

Communities First seeks to ensure that:

1. Under-served communities achieve greater economic vitality and resilience by accessing public funding, including COVID-19 Economic Recovery, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and Inflation Reduction Act investments and resources.

2. Black, Indigenous, People of Color communities have the local investment infrastructure necessary to attract philanthropic, public, and private capital to support building community assets.
3. Black, Indigenous, People of Color leadership is centered in decision-making positions within regional, local economic development networks/ecosystems.
4. A racially equitable and justice lens is adopted across multiple federal agencies and their grant programs at all levels.

Our work to achieve these goals includes:

Partnering with community anchoring institutions to identify how the federal grant process should be improved in service of community applicants.
Establishing a community-centered accountability framework to guide federal agencies’ relationships with impacted communities.
Convening cross-sectors leaders, investors, and experts to support communities in stewarding resources in ways that honor community leadership, plans, and priorities.
Counseling key federal agencies on developing new criteria for grant programs that support racial equity outcomes.
Designing and overseeing Infrastructure and Innovation Learning Labs providing a forum for government agency staff and community anchoring institutions to build relationships and collaborate on projects aimed at advancing the federal racial equity commitment.
Conducting research and creating resources to provide BIPOC communities clear pathways to access the flow of discretionary capital from American Rescue Plan, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and Inflation Reduction Act.

Meet the Team

Helen Chin

President, Communities First Fund
Helen Chin is the President of Communities First which is housed at Race Forward and Amalgamated Foundation where she serves as a Senior Fellow. Under Helen’s leadership, Communities First is transforming how federal, state, and local governments invest public dollars in low-wealth and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities by implementing a relationships-first approach to community-driven solutions that centers frontline communities’ leadership, innovation, and priorities.

Prior to launching Communities First, Helen worked at the Surdna Foundation for 13 years, as the Program Director for six years and Program Officer for Sustainable Environments at the Surdna Foundation. She led the program’s work to develop and support Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and low-wealth communities in building accountability, alternatives, and democratic muscle to promote infrastructure development that simultaneously aims to achieve racial equity, and economic, environmental and climate justice.
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Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins

Vice President of Strategy, Communities First Fund
Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins champions public policy solutions that promote economic, social, cultural, and environmental benefits for communities. She is a 2022 Open Society Foundation Leadership in Government Fellow and former public official who applies a transformative justice approach to public infrastructure investment. As a social entrepreneur and partner at North Star Strategies, Stephanie co-envisioned the Communities First Infrastructure Alliance to advance community-centered plans, racial equity practices, and climate resilience principles, serving as Vice President of Strategies. She fosters strategic partnerships to advance federal campaigns, coalition efforts, racial equity, cultural resilience, and climate justice.
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Communities First Resources

Announcing the Communities First Infrastructure Alliance Transformative Justice Fellows

PolicyLink, the Communities First Infrastructure Alliance, and Race Forward's Government Alliance on Race and Equity are excited to announce the 2023 Fellows cohort of leaders who play strategic roles in embedding equitable approaches to local infrastructure investments.
See Announcement →
The American Rescue Plan Act: Centering Equity and Impacted Communities

This Communities First report provides an overview of selected opportunities created by ARPA's historic investments. With collective advocacy, decisions made by state, local, territorial and Tribal government decision-makers and other actors could translate into tangible resources for communities that have historically not received their fair share of public investment.
Read full report →
Read blog post → 

Keeping Communities at the Center of Equitable Infrastructure by Reimagining Risk, Power and Accountability
Blogpost by Helen Chin.
Read blog post → 

White House Releases Technical Assistance Guide to Help Communities Unlock Resources From Bipartisan Infrastructure Law
White House announcement, including the Communities First Alliance.
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Talking Headways: Communities First Infrastructure Alliance

Podcast interview with Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins and Helen Chin.
Listen to podcast →