New equity initiative to invest $5 million over three years in St. Paul

Thanks to a new national effort, St. Paul organizations will receive $5 million over three years to invest in equity initiatives based on community feedback.

The Partnership for Equitable and Resilient Communities, or PERC, launched last year to start a collaboration with four cities that are committed to advancing racial equity and justice locally and have strong community organizations to steward funding. The initial cities chosen for the funding are Cleveland; Durham, N.C.; Selma, Ala.; and St. Paul.

Acooa Ellis
On Jan. 11, 2023, the Partnership for Equitable and Resilient Communities announced Acooa Ellis as its new executive director. (Courtesy of the Partnership for Equitable and Resilient Communities)

Susan Thomas, president of the Melville Charitable Trust, one of PERC’s founding organizations, said PERC emerged as she and other nonprofit leaders observed a lack of federal COVID-19 relief funding going to support local communities, especially communities of color.

“I had like a kitchen cabinet of people that were just all of the collective understanding that the people who are most impacted are not included in the decision-making about how federal dollars are spent,” she said. “How can philanthropy play a role in providing that kind of platform upon which all different initiatives, efforts, funding streams, current and new can fit and how people can come together around the community table and align those efforts and use federal dollars to do that.”

Local leadership

Acooa Ellis, a St. Paul resident who formerly served as senior vice president of community impact for Greater Twin Cities United Way, was named PERC’s executive director last month.

Ellis also co-chaired the city of St. Paul’s Community-First Public Safety Commission, which led to the creation of the Office of Neighborhood Safety, in 2021 and co-chaired the governor’s task force on housing a few years ago.

Ellis said she was drawn to PERC because of its approach that allows the chosen cities to decide themselves how the funding would best serve their residents.

“They were coming into the conversation assuming that communities knew what they needed,” she said. “Our sole mission is to create really smooth pathways for those communities, particularly leaders in the Black, Indigenous and Latino communities, to picture the resources necessary to lead very full, fulfilling lives.”

Organization also sets the initiative apart. Ellis said PERC requires cities to outline what they want to accomplish before taking six months to develop specific plans for investment, a process that will wrap up in June.

“It’s really flipping that planning model backward and not defining the activities at first, but defining the end goal at first, defining the population at first,” said Ellis. “Then layering on the different activities, initiatives, funding streams that are needed to advance and achieve that result.”

Public funding streams

To implement each city’s initiatives, PERC has looked to public funding streams such as the federal American Rescue Plan, hoping to receive dollars that haven’t been spent by state, regional or local governments to provide economic relief from COVID-19, Thomas said. PERC aims to make direct impacts on the cities it serves by allowing local governments’ expertise on their residents’ needs to shape how funding is spent, she said.

While participating cities will develop their own individual goals, they will regularly meet to share results and strategies to build on each others’ successes. The cities had their first training on Jan. 26, during which they imagined “big picture” goals, discussed strategies to bring about change and anticipated challenges along the way, Ellis said.

Muneer Karcher-Ramos, director of the St. Paul Office of Financial Empowerment, said Mayor Melvin Carter and other leaders’ commitment to eliminating wealth and achievement disparities puts St. Paul in a strong position to make major strides with PERC’s support.

“We’ve been doing things, from guaranteed income to children’s college savings accounts, that really align with the vision of PERC, and it obviously takes partnership with government to make that happen,” Karcher-Ramos said. “I think that the approach of PERC is saying that it doesn’t take one entity alone, and instead, we’re better off together. And if we want scalable impact, it’s going to be about transcending institutional boundaries while focusing on our results.”

The Rondo Community Land Trust was chosen to manage and administer PERC’s funding in St. Paul and will work with other local organizations, including Model Cities, the West Side Community Organization and Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers, to include community perspectives in decision-making about how the money will be invested.

The Rondo CLT has been working since 1993 to build wealth within the Rondo neighborhood by developing affordable housing and commercial spaces. The development of Interstate 94 in the 1960s displaced many residents from the thriving, predominantly African American neighborhood, creating long-term social and economic impacts on many.

“Our theory of change (presented to PERC) was really focused around the concept that land holds political and economic power and that we’ve seen really great outcomes for the folks that we work with in St. Paul and broader Ramsey County by really anchoring land in community ownership, thereby driving down prices that prevent folks from owning homes or having stable housing as a cornerstone to more prosperous lives,” said Elizabeth Coco, deputy director of the Rondo CLT.

Community priorities

Coco said the organization’s mission is at the core of what they hope to accomplish with the $5 million from PERC over the next three years. As far as specifics go, they’re planning to hear from residents they have worked with in the past as well as leveraging the community relationships of partner organizations to determine how to best invest in those who need the most support.

Aside from funding some of the Rondo CLT’s existing initiatives, Coco said the money could be used to develop new pilot projects or support other important organizations that work to build resilience through improving outcomes for communities of color.

“At the end of the day, I think everyone wants a safe and stable place to live,” said Coco. “Folks want livable wages that are family-sustaining. We want agency in our lives. I think to the extent that those things are already happening at Rondo CLT, and assuming they align with community priorities, I would suspect that that’s what will come out of the work.”

For more information about PERC, go to