Chris Webley is a man of his word. A few years ago, he committed to the community of North Minneapolis that he would use his influence as a real estate developer to bring value to the community. So since 2015, he has worked alongside the community to start NEW RULES®, a communal marketplace which combines co-working, retail, and event space to create new opportunities for the people who use it. We had the chance to chat with Chris about the importance of challenging the rules set before us and modeling the reality we wish to see in the world.
September 10, 2020
Could you tell us about how NEW RULES
We got started with NEW RULES® back in 2015. We define ourselves today as a real estate collective that’s anchored on the North Side of Minneapolis. We’re focused on taking unproductive and under-looked buildings in black and brown neighborhoods and redeveloping them in participation with the community. As a real estate developer, I’m aware of the industry norm of being extractive and a whole bunch of other negative words that usually follow it. I didn’t want to follow that path. So early out of the gate, my philosophy as a developer was that that the community has the answers. What we built a process around is being able to extrapolate the needs of the community and prototype solutions for how to address those issues. So back in 2015 when we bought the building, we invited the community in and—for over a year—had a series of conversations, interviews, and data collecting. In 2016 we launched what we called a communal marketplace, which combines share workspace, retail, and event space. Everything from the pricing, the business model, and the look and feel of the space has all been co-created with the community.
Where did the name NEW RULES come from?
A big reason for starting the company was wanting to model a new set of behaviors for the community. We wanted to start to change the rules—the narratives—that were usually set for the people here, and create new ones. We wanted to build an outlet for other Black and brown people to create and have access to creative spaces. A big part of buying your own building is creating an ecosystem around you working in tandem. So when we created the concept of the communal marketplace, and it was about figuring out how to remove barriers of the community that they identified for themselves. We used the insights from our ongoing conversations with the community and started to ask ourselves—How do we remove those barriers? How do we help enable community members to do what they’ve always been wanting to do? That wasn’t the current narrative for this community, so we set out to create a “new set of rules,” and got to work.
What inspired you to step into real estate development?
I had a friend who was younger than me who got into real estate development and very clearly thrived in his lane. That showed me it was possible to pursue this as a career. As a Black real estate developer, I didn’t really know it was attainable until I saw someone younger than me do it. So what inspired me was the lack of representation in this space—I wanted to do it myself and show others what’s possible.
I think that we community folks own the responsibility to create the world and narratives that we wish to see.
Your work in real estate development also intersects with entrepreneurship and community engagement—why is that important to you?
I’m a Black person who grew up in a Black neighborhood, so for me there’s a natural affinity for wanting to reach back into my community and show up. But I think we all have to participate in community no matter what our race, color, creed is. I think we all have to model and chip in and roll up our sleeves. For some of us it’s writing a check, for others it’s installing floors, for another person it’s helping with social media. But in order to have an impact, it has to go beyond real estate development, because that ecosystem is part of something bigger. There are people who are trying to find their passions and achieve peace of mind financially. I want to help people achieve those things, and that's seen in how we’ve structured the workspace of NEW RULES to allow each other to tinker with one another’s passions. I call it the Noah’s Ark model: Two of everything. We have two lawyers, two illustrators, two shoe makers, etc. It's about about how we bring everyone into the same house, so they can share space and resources and inspire others to follow the same route. That can’t just be done through real estate. It takes a communal effort of everybody chipping in and engaging with entrepreneurship and community engagement to accomplish that.
What do you think sets NEW RULESapart?
We are unconventional about how we partner with people. We think outside the box in how we can be the best partners to each other. And we don’t shy away from the not-so-pretty parts of partnership. In any relationship, there are uncomfortable conversations that need to occur in order for change to happen. I’m an engineer by trade, so it makes sense to me that what you put in is what you get out
Marginal changes will get you something marginally different. If you want drastic changes, you have to do something drastically different.
We're on the frontlines of economic development, business enterprise, and community building—all aspects of society that are in need of a rehaul. So at NEW RULES we’re not afraid to put in the hard work in our partnerships so that we deliver value to the community. Even though this side of partnership isn’t easy, it’s necessary for sustainability.
What do you hope is different about North Minneapolis 5-10 years down the road as a result NEW RULES being part of the community?
There are so many parts to what I want to see. Aesthetically, I hope there’s a lot of sustainable and beautiful housing and buildings that we’ve either developed or had a role in helping develop. I hope we’ve even helped other Black developers navigate that process. I would also love to see the neighbors who are my neighbors now, still be my neighbors. I don’t think we can do development without honoring those who were there before. So I would expect my neighbors are still my neighbors in 10 years. I want to see a bunch of flourishing small businesses that we’ve helped incubate have their own brick and mortar shops. I hope the community is continuing to create and there are more Black forums that help other businesses get started. Right now, we are making spaces geared towards creatives. But what about the person who wants to become a plumber or mechanic? What does an incubator space look like for them? We still need more resources for people who are looking to learn a trade and skill, and I hope people can learn from what we’ve done and start to multiply it.
What are you building?
The ultimate goal we’re working toward is a liberation of humanity, or a return to our humanity. That the end goal. It’s not about building buildings or making money or teaching people how to be business owners. It’s about humanity. Having love for one another. Having that be modeled in our behaviors. I’m modeling my love for people and humanity through building buildings and providing space and resources for the community. But we need everybody participating in that work so that we can return to our humanity. Right now, there’s a lot of competition and this idea of scarcity, when I actually believe we live in an abundant world.
I think our communities are abundantly filled with resources—whether they’re spoken or unspoken.
So the end goal is returning to our humanity, and with humility, I hope that shows in our work and inspires others in how they show up and participate in the community
What drives you to get there?
Honestly, my promise to the community drives me. I’m a man of my word first. That’s what I tell people all day, every day. I sign contracts all the time, but I tell my lawyers that they don’t mean diddly squat to me. I’m a handshake and look-you-in-the-eye kind of person. My word, my bond, and my commitment to the community is what drives me in continuing to do this work. One of my mentors has a saying, “If not us, then who?” I resonate with that. If it’s not me or our team, then who is doing the work? Because the truth is there isn’t not enough of us. That’s what drives me. The commitment that I set out for because my word means that much to me, and those are the values that I stand on.
Photo Credit: Awa Mally - NEW RULES Member