Expert on community building wins a top fellowship

James Johnson-Piett, C.E.O. of Urbane Development.  Photo by Sam Spokony
James Johnson-Piett, C.E.O. of Urbane Development.

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  The chief and founder of a Tribeca-based business venture focused on sparking development in underserved communities — and, currently, in the Two Bridges neighborhood — has earned an impressive new notch in his belt.

Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE, an international nonprofit, announced last week that James Johnson-Piett, principal and C.E.O. of Urbane Development, was one of 16 professionals chosen for its 2013-14 Local Economy Fellowship.

The fellowship is the only one of its kind in North America — including representatives from both the U.S. and Canada — and comprises an 18-month leadership immersion program that allows fellows to share ideas and build networks, while also strengthening their capacity to change their own communities.

“It’s a really great honor, and it’s exciting to be part of this interesting local development movement that’s burgeoning right now,” said Johnson-Piett, 33, who, unlike most of the other BALLE fellows, has already seen his share of nationwide action.

In addition to Urbane’s current work on the Lower East Side, where it is was hired by the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council to help survey and create solutions following the loss of that area’s Pathmark supermarket, Johnson-Piett’s four-year-old company has developed vibrant, locally based food and financing programs in cities like Detroit, Seattle and Newark.

Johnson-Piett explained that, while the entire experience will be beneficial, he’s especially interested in the “community capital” concept that represents one of the key elements of the fellowship.

The idea of community capital is based around creating local work opportunities and sources of money that come from within a particular neighborhood, rather than relying on outside sources, such as large banks or chain store conglomerates.

“It’s about community members investing in themselves,” Johnson-Piett said, “and that’s the main reason I applied to be a part of this.”

He added that, following a recent orientation, the fellowship will begin with a five-day retreat in Northern California in late January. Five other retreats will take place, roughly every three months.

And while he’s certainly going to be taking in perspectives on various other projects, Johnson-Piett noted that the fellowship may provide valuable insight on his work in Two Bridges.

In a previous interview regarding that project, he had stressed that the loss of the neighborhood Pathmark — which was relied upon for years by local seniors and low-income residents — could present new opportunities for smaller local grocery stores to step up and fill that gap.

“Two Bridges is a really unique neighborhood,” Johnson-Piett said. “What I’m hoping is that [the BALLE fellowship] will be a great way to tap into new networks of social-impact funding and other kinds of help, because there’s just so much to be explored within that community.”