Plenary Remarks at SAGE Conference October 13

On Saturday, October 13, 2012 the Worcester Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance held an incredible gathering with more than 100 people. I had the opportunity to kick off the plenary session in the morning to help frame the day. Check out the video of the plenary (also my notes are below) and of a workshop I was part of, Envisioning the Transition to a Solidarity Economy. The entire conference was filmed by a youth cooperative Future Focus Media.

***** Penn’s Plenary Remarks at Worcester SAGE Conference 10/13/12 *****

Good morning. Thanks for having me. I have the easiest job kicking off this plenary, because all I have to do is raise the questions, but I don’t have to answer them. So who here would like to give a big hooray for the solidarity economy? The cooperative economy? Democratic? Cooperative? Generative? Local? Living? New? New and improved? I put all these terms out there, because there has been an explosion of terms striving to describe an economy that many of would like to see created. It shows that we are aspiring towards a whole different way of producing and consuming.

But humor me and don’t say “alternative”. To me, alternative implies that there is a freedom of individual choice (like a lifestyle). It suggests that we can just opt out. It also is self marginalizing.

We’re here today to talk about the transformation of the global capitalist economy. Why? Because this dominant economy is literally killing us. Many describe it as a dual economic and environmental crisis. Let’s quickly review globally:

  • Unconscionable wealth inequality – richest 1% getting richer at expense of the rest of us. Richest 400 Americans own more than bottom 150 million (1/2 of US).[1]
  • Accumulation based on endless growth and unsustainable natural resource consumption is cooking the planet.

But let’s not forget that there are those of us here, perhaps the bottom 30 or 40% (or more in the developing nations) for whom this economy has never worked very well, who’ve never been middle class even if we thought we were. For us, there’s no economy to fix or get back to (like the supposedly booming 90s if you believe the Presidential debates). These crises aren’t new for lower income people, people of color.

  • We’ve been stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. The subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis has caused the largest loss of wealth for people of color in US history.[2]
  • We’ve been dumped on by all the pollution. Even in MA, not the Jim Crow South, studies show that 24 of the 30 most environmentally overburdened communities in MA are communities of color (there are only 34 communities of color in MA).[3]

So, why are we talking about a green solidarity economy? Because we have to. It’s a matter of survival for some of us. For all of us, it’s a matter of creating a world that realizes our values for what is morally right, for living a good life.

But which way or ways forward? That’s the big question. This question is not abstract or hypothetical. We are confronted every day with real projects and policies that are about economic development. One case in point that we have been dealing with in the Boston area is Walmart. Two summers ago, they proposed stores for Somerville and Roxbury. We know that our cities are their next market, and they won’t be going away any time soon

Some of you may have been in involved in anti-Walmart activism. They’re easy to hate because they symbolize much of what is wrong with capitalism – from exploitation of workers and the environment to destroying main streets and exercise of corporate power over governments. But all of us know people who want the jobs (even if they suck) and want access to affordable produce and goods.

The answer isn’t so simple as just say NO to Walmart. Let’s say we fight for 3 years (or more) and are successful in keeping Walmart out of a particular site. What are waiting for next? Would Target or Costco be better? What if Walmart finally comes, and we get a slightly better deal for workers and some community benefits? Will our economy be on a better path?

Did you know that Walmart is now positioning themselves as the solution to food deserts, pledging to open up to 300 stores hiring 40,000 associates in areas defined as food deserts by the USDA?[4] And for those of you into food justice, did you know that Will Allen, founder of the pioneering urban farm Growing Power in Milwaukee, defended his acceptance of a $1 million grant from Walmart in Fall 2011 by saying “Wal-mart is the world’s largest distributor of food—there is no one better positioned to bring high-quality, locally grown food into urban food deserts and fast-food swamps.”[5]

So, are we trapped in this economy and the powers that be in it? Or do we have ideas about a how we might get on a different path – one that we can start to build locally, fight for regionally, nationally, and globally – one that can transform what we have today?

We need shared vision and strategies for our green solidarity economy. I’d argue that our greatest challenge isn’t the vision part. There are plenty of great visions out there. Our challenge is first getting broader shared agreement and belief that a new vision is possible. For many of us, it’s not easy to imagine life beyond the current economy. It seems so far away. It seems like a waste of time to think about a fantasy that can never come true.

But when we start to see things happening that are different, that are pointing in a transformative direction, then it becomes easier to envision what might be possible. That’s what many of you are working on here in this region (for instance ADP’s community economy, Stone Soup, or a recycling workers coop) and what we have much to learn from those outside the US (like Brazil). For some of you here, the vision is already a dream of possibility, as in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and not a pipedream.

Once we start to share in a vision or dream, then the second challenge comes, which is figuring out our pathways to get there. What are the strategies and actions we can take locally to move forward? In the Practical Visionaries Workshop at Tufts, I work with Boston area groups and graduate students to explore the vision. We’ve now started to ask the hard questions, which I think many of us will want to engage with today:

  • How can we plant the local seeds for transformation?
  • How can we spread the dialogue and help our communities share in the dream?
  • What assets and capacities do we already have to build from?
  • What policies and demands for public resources do we need?
  • How do we actually know if any particular project or campaign is adding up to transformation?

I’m not going to pretend I/we have any of the answers (yet). But I will leave you with a few of my thoughts. We need a “both/and” approach. Very few of us are just waiting for capitalism to implode and for the revolution to come. Even if we are, in the meantime, we need to think about working on several fronts at the same time.

First, we need to reform the old economy (and I’m borrowing here from language that the Right to the City Alliance put out last fall in its 21st Century Cities: A Strategy to Win). So, getting a better deal for Walmart workers (or workers everywhere) is necessary. It brings the fight to where people are and helps make their lives a bit better. But we know this is not the end all. We want people in a more secure position so that they can fight for and build the new economy.

Second, we need to sow the seeds of the green and solidarity economy. That means building institutions for community ownership and governance – worker coops, food coops, housing coops. But it’s not just coops; it’s also land trusts, participatory budgeting, community banks. In some cases, we have some of these things in place. In some cases we need to start something new. But these things all need to be aligned and stitched together.

To do this work, it will take a social movement. We need:

  • Community organizing
  • Leadership development and popular education
  • Public policy and resources
  • Economic enterprises and institutions
  • Political vehicles

If we can do all these things at the same time, then maybe we’ll have a chance to make more substantive leaps the next time the housing market falls apart or when the next Occupy emerges.

I look forward to a productive day with you all.

[2] Rivera, A. Foreclosed: State of the dream 2008. Boston: United for a Fair Economy, 2008. Available at

[3] Faber, Daniel and Eric Krieg. October 2005. “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Executive Summary.” Philanthropy and Environmental Justice Research Project of Northeastern University, pp. iii-vi, 1-11. Available at:

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Distinguished Senior Lecturer and Director of Master of Public Policy and Community Practice, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning

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