News & Update

Where It’s Going: Local Government Has A Role In Breaking Barriers to Business

As we pass the one-year mark of implementing Truist Foundation’s multi-year, signature small business initiative, Where It Starts: Breaking Barriers to Business, I find myself reflecting on our remarkable journey, momentum, and pride in new wealth-building pathways becoming realities.

Last year, Truist Foundation launched the $22 million, multi-year ‘Where It Starts’ initiative aiming to strengthen small businesses and create career pathways for underserved individuals across the United States with a focus on southeast cities and corridors. Living Cities and Main Street America were named anchor partners in Breaking Barriers to Business by Truist Foundation and received a joint $6.3 million grant to strengthen small businesses. Our complementary signature initiative partners responsible for strengthening career pathways, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), received $15.7 million to address the human capital side of the inclusive economy equation. This partnership with Truist Foundation’s support was a seamless match, as the initiative perfectly aligns with Living Cities’ core values of redressing systemic economic inequity through collaborative, human-centered approaches. Additionally, our policy consultant, Ascendant Global, and evaluation partner, Creative Research Solutions (CRS) have been critical to our work. Ascendant Global spearheaded creating a government economic development program analysis and data profile assessment to maximize the $100,000 catalytic grant that we will provide each local government agency, while CRS brought their deep experience in economic development performance measurement to integrate different evaluation models between Living Cities and Main Street America.

Breaking Barriers to Business spans five cities – Atlanta, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., Nashville, Tenn., and Miami, Fla. The goal is clear: strengthen the systemic relationship between local government business-serving agencies (BSAs) and communitybased business serving organizations (BSOs) to better serve business owners in commercial corridors of color with the access to knowledge capital and financial capital they need to start, preserve, and grow in place.

Main Street America’s partnership has been essential in propelling this initiative forward. The shared commitment to transparency, respect, and accountability has not only fostered a foundational collaboration, but has also allowed for a broader perspective on performance measures of our shared impact on the BSAs and BSOs. Living Cities introduced a set of comprehensive measures to broaden the conversation beyond banking-centric metrics to local government’s role in influencing the way capital, narratives, policies, practices, and power impact commercial corridors. Truist Foundation’s receptivity to our approach was a testament to a successful collaboration, aligned values, and common goals. By increasing the financial, knowledge, and social capital available to commercial corridors in Southern cities, we model the inclusive economic growth and development that will be our nation’s future.

Transparency, a core value in our work, has played a pivotal role in the success of Breaking Barriers to Business. This commitment to transparency is built on a foundation of respect, ensuring that each partner is comfortable asking and exploring difficult questions. It fosters an environment where ideas and challenges are openly discussed, allowing us to navigate the complex landscape of persistent inequities. We know there is not one right way to address inequities — particularly within an ever-changing social, political, and racial landscape — so we must provide space for various approaches to retire trite ideas for innovative, relevant approaches.

Below is a snapshot of key takeaways we’ve learned this past year working in our Breaking Barriers to Business cities:

  1. Maximize existing networks for impactful change. Recruiting local government partners with whom we have existing relationships has proven effective, as exemplified by our engagement with the City of Miami. Building on informal networks, Living Cities leveraged existing relationships with city government officials from the Department of Human Services, while Main Street America had existing work within the Allapattah commercial corridor. This collaborative effort, led by individuals deeply embedded in their communities, emphasizes the importance of maximizing existing networks for impactful change.
  2. Commit to building a shared understanding. Our commitment to building a shared understanding of historical barriers led us to the most significant impacts during a workshop presented by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The workshop, held in Charlotte at the beginning of the initiative, uncovered particular truths and led to unexpected learnings from each city. For example, participants from Atlanta’s Department of City Planning were surprised by the workshop facilitators’ ability to encourage them to consider how their individual perspectives left a deeper impact on the systems they have authority to steer at large. This is a cornerstone of our process that sets the tone with participants in each Breaking Barriers to Business city cohort.
  3. Reject “cookie-cutter” approaches for localized solutions. As a part of our site visit in Memphis, the local government officials knew that small business owners were often confused about the overlap between city and county services. It wasn’t until the team from the city’s Office of Business Diversity and Compliance visited these businesses in person, however, that they understood the true depth of the confusion and were able to effectively address it. These on-site visits emphasized the importance of localized solutions and the need to reject “cookie-cutter” approaches.
  4. Collaboration and conversation can break barriers. Our first round of in person site visits were intentionally designed with a physical visit to the local government offices and the three neighborhoods where the partnering local organizations reside to hold a discussion about barriers. For each visit, we asked every leader of the BSAs and BSOs to stay with us for the entire two days, so the BSAs could hear firsthand context, but also provide context to the BSOs and business owners who were present. During a facilitated discussion between agency leaders from Charlotte’s Corridors of Opportunity initiative and commercial corridor leaders, we collectively identified an area where prior collaboration can prevent misunderstandings in official announcements like press releases. Identifying obstacles together, as demonstrated in Charlotte, highlights the necessity of having the beneficiaries in the room, emphasizing the importance of how collective decision-making even impacts narrative.
  5. Develop feedback mechanisms to address issues. However, identifying systemic barriers is not enough. The next step is supporting cities to develop a foundation for addressing issues. Tools like our Assessment Site Visit Reflection Matrix serve as a crucial feedback loop, ensure accuracy, and foster agreement in recording barriers as well as facilitating community leaders and heads of government to share their perspectives. Here’s an example of this feedback loop in practice in Kaleidoscope, the e-newsletter for The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Metro Nashville Finance Department.

The plan to bring BSAs and BSOs together to discuss identified barriers and develop coordinated work plans is the next key milestone. Breaking Barriers to Business aims to move beyond patching up issues towards building pathways that naturally ensure communities of color are equitably included in the resource allocation of a city government’s priority business development goals. Further, as our partners at Main Street America have held, we seek to guide those resources in support of existing businesses to stay and grow in place. Living Cities’ vision is to redress exclusionary policies and practices that have served as barriers to shifting capital to communities of color. We believe the ripple effect of these positive changes will lead to a more inclusive and resilient economy for all business owners.

This year, we look forward to deepening our work in the Breaking Barriers to Business communities, engaging in work plans and grants disbursements. However, we know our work can expand significantly with more partners. We invite local government leaders and community leaders to be part of this journey, as their involvement is crucial in leveraging additional resources for small businesses and driving impactful change. If you are a leader reading this, do not hesitate to contact me ( and my team to get connected because this work cannot be expanded without you.

We’ve built a strong foundation and are poised for an impactful second year. Together, we are breaking barriers and building pathways to a more equitable and inclusive economic future, one city at a time.

Stay up-to-date on our efforts

Subscribe To Our Newsletter