JEI Journeys are a series of Q&As with JEI Fellows about the paths they’ve taken to financial activism and what they’ve learned along the way. For this post, we interviewed Nikishka Iyengar, founder & CEO of The Guild, about prioritizing collective wellbeing, a model for community ownership and the importance of self-care when engaging with collective trauma.
The Guild is an Atlanta-based organization building community wealth and power through cooperative real estate, entrepreneurship programs and access to capital for marginalized communities. Their alternative model for real estate development aims to improve the ability of communities to increase asset ownership, anchor jobs locally and ensure local economic resilience.
NI: Community wealth building is about prioritizing collective wellbeing over individual profit. At The Guild, we do that by building an alternative model for real estate development that enables local communities—especially Black and other communities of color and working-class communities—to collectively own and control assets in their own neighborhoods. In this model, instead of developers and outside investors making decisions for and profiting off of marginalized communities, the communities determine what happens in their neighborhoods and benefit from any development taking place.
JEI: What are you doing that brings something new to the table in terms of community wealth building? What value are you seeing from that?
NI: The Guild is working on a Community Stewardship Trust that is set up to acquire vacant, underutilized assets, or assets otherwise sitting in extractive models, and develop them into community-owned assets that meet the material needs of marginalized communities. The model allows residents within a ZIP code to invest whatever amount of money is meaningful to them into the CST, and through that investment gain decision-making power about what gets developed in their neighborhood. Community investors also receive a financial return via dividends and share price appreciation. Instead of surplus value being extracted from neighborhoods by developers or outside equity investors, it remains within the community.
The CST can acquire and develop assets like affordable housing, neighborhood grocery stores, daycare centers, commercial space for Black-owned small businesses and meeting spaces for nonprofits. It is tasked with managing the long-term affordability of these assets as well as democratizing any financial returns from development.
As we stand up the first CST in Atlanta, we’re already seeing value in giving people an opportunity to experience land, housing and real estate in an alternative, tangible, non-extractive way. We’ve created a container to collectively question status quo assumptions and design different models and institutions that reflect our values and desires for self-determination and liberation.
JEI: What lessons can you share about what it takes to be an effective partner to people seeking to build community wealth? What do you wish someone had told you when you started doing this work?
NI: This work requires you to wear multiple hats, often all at once—from community organizer to capital and resource mobilizer, and everything in between. It requires you to navigate complexity and nuance well. One day you might have to become an expert in investment or tax law, and the next you might have to learn to be a skilled trauma steward and hold space for someone dealing with a traumatic event like an eviction. It can take a lot to balance all of that.
This isn’t to say you have to be perfect at everything—in fact, recognizing that perfectionism is an expression of white supremacy culture and unlearning that trait is also an important lesson. But being an effective partner in this kind of systems change work does require us to be skilled at navigating complexity and practicing emergent strategy.
Effective community wealth building necessitates learning to navigate conflict, which is an inherent part of any relationship. If managed well, conflict can even generate progress.
I wish someone had told me when I first started this work that I needed to learn to take better care of myself. As the world continues to be on literal fire, and structural violence continues to impact our communities, it’s easy to give so much (all) of yourself to this work that you burn out. And burnt-out people can’t build life-affirming institutions.
JEI: What other advice do you have for leaders who want to support community wealth building?
NI: Get clear on your values and double down on them when times get hard and things get uncomfortable (as they often will). Community wealth building is about going against the grain of capitalism in every way. Doing this over a sustained period is incredibly difficult without a clear sense of your own personal values—and your team’s and organization’s shared values. You’ll also need to clearly articulate what principled compromise looks like to you and your collaborators because operating within capitalism will always require that on some level.
JEI: Can you tell me about a project or aspect of a project that you’re proud of? We’d love to hear a community success story.
NI: I’m proud of our recent launch of the People’s Community Land Trust here in Atlanta. Through the PCLT, we’re acquiring and renovating homes, taking them off the speculative market entirely, and turning them into permanently affordable housing for low- to moderate-income residents across the city, with a specific focus on residents currently battling displacement.
Nikishka Iyengar is a systems entrepreneur working at the intersection of finance, climate action and racial justice. She is the founder and CEO of The Guild, a real estate company creating spaces for social change through new economic models focused on community wealth building. She is also the owner of Whole Systems Collective, an impact consulting collective working towards a just and regenerative economy through two key initiatives – the transformation of our financial systems, and climate action through carbon drawdown and responsible stewardship of our natural resources. Previously, as a sustainability consultant at a top management consulting firm, she helped her clients unlock ~$1B worth of value from renewable energy, water stewardship and emissions reduction opportunities. Then, as a product manager at a waste tech startup, Nikishka built software (including artificial intelligence products) to allow companies to uncover waste diversion opportunities within their supply chain and operations. Nikishka was recognized by GreenBiz as a “30 under 30” emerging leader in sustainability. She has a BBA in Finance, a BA in Economics and an Interdisciplinary Certificate in International Development from The University of Texas at Austin.