Like many new organizations, Local Progress sprang from the ashes of a crisis.
In 2012, New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, who represents Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, and Nick Licata, then Seattle council chair, had a phone call about how to deal with the tidal wave of foreclosed homes that had swept the country. A few loosely organized collectives had emerged around the challenge of blight, with some cities trying innovative and legally risky strategies like using the power of eminent domain to seize the foreclosed mortgages. But there wasn’t a place to convene like-minded local officials around that issue — or any other. “It really grew into ‘hey, there should be something like this,’” Lander says.
Rather than creating a new organization, Lander reached out to the Center for Popular Democracy, another young outfit that secured grants to support a few staff members for the project. They first gathered in 2012, at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington. The group has grown — with annual convenings and ones that are more ad hoc, like a forum in support of Seattle’s first-in-the-nation vote to raise its minimum wage to $15 in 2014. The show of solidarity helped. “One thing they said was, ‘make it look like we’re not crazy,’” Lander says, of Seattle’s council.
Many cities have a klatch of liberal legislators who push for higher minimum wages, paid leave mandates, taxes on plastic bags and the like. By putting them in contact with one another and other community groups, Local Progress has in recent years created a policy feedback loop that’s accelerated the spread of new laws in municipalities across the country. In the absence of federal action on many issues, it’s trying to make local government into something that doesn’t just pick up the trash — but solves some of society’s biggest problems as well.