The Emerging Just and Sustainable Food Economy in Boston

Innovations for Building Community Wealth and Health and Re-Localizing the Food System

By Penn Loh and Glynn Lloyd The current conventional system of food production and distribution – how food comes to most of us every day — is more fragile than most people think.  In fact it is less sustainable and less safe than ever as we start seeing the results of this century old experiment of the corporate food system propelled by cheap energy in a warming climate. While a minority can choose (and pay for) more healthy and more sustainable food, the majority are stuck with food that is literally making us sick, produced on the backs of very low paid workers, and exhausting soil, water, and fossil fuel resources in its production and transport. Fixing our food systems is not just planting more gardens or bringing more grocery stores into food deserts. It’s about transforming the economy into one that can serve us all, while sustaining the health of people and the planet. While the local and slow food movements are bringing much-needed changes to our food culture, a transformation to a just and sustainable food system will require innovations that can serve the needs of those who need it most. There is an increasing dichotomy – Massachusetts ranked one of the highest states in the nation with a growing gap between the rich and poor.[i]  Amidst some of the wealthiest anywhere in the nation, 11.4% of residents are food insecure.[ii]  A recent study found that 46% of fast food workers in Massachusetts had to rely on public programs – SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit — to meet their basic expenses in 2011.[iii] But in these communities that are lacking in income and opportunities, we also find innovation is percolating — new ways of doing business that just might be the solutions for the majority. Bosotn Food System In this article, we tell the story of the enterprises sprouting in Roxbury and Dorchester, two of Boston’s lower income communities of color. Below are just a few of these ventures and a diagram of how, together, they may be building a more just and sustainable food economy. (Note that the two authors have been involved in launching and supporting a number of the initiatives profiled in this piece.)

  • Youth at Alternatives for Community & Environment are taking over vacant land (some of which has been idle for more than 4 decades) for raised bed gardens tended by neighbors.
  • The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative built a greenhouse on their community land trust, which is now being operated by The Food Project to provide year-round growing space to local residents and organizations.
  • City Growers has pioneered an urban farming model that is proving to be commercially viable, on plots as small as a quarter acre.
  • A newly formed worker cooperative, CERO (Cooperative Energy, Recycling, and Organics), is raising startup financing to provide recycling services and collect food waste.
  • Ground has just broken on the Bornstein and Pearl Small Business Center (developed by the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation), whose anchor tenant will be Crop Circle Kitchen, an incubator for new food processing businesses.
  • The Dorchester Community Food Co-op is developing plans for a worker and community owned store providing affordable and culturally appropriate fresh food.

These sprouts are all home-grown, initiated and led by local residents (mostly people of color), but also partnering with other resources. They are rooted in community building and organizing. Together, they establish more democratic governance over community resources. They span a spectrum of organizational types, from voluntary associations and nonprofit ventures to for-profit enterprises and worker cooperatives. Together they are re-localizing the food system, while also building community wealth and health. They are pointing the way towards how we can build a more just, sustainable, and democratic economy, starting with our food.

History of Neighborhood Struggle

To fully appreciate the emerging vision, you have to start with the reality of the struggles of the neighborhoods. Roxbury and Dorchester are adjoining neighborhoods in Boston, home to about one quarter of Boston residents. They are 75 to over 80% people of color, mostly African American and Latino. They are among the lowest income communities. In 2011, Roxbury’s per capita income was just over half of Boston’s, and more than 35% of households received Food Stamp aid.[iv] With this concentration of poverty, the rates of food insecurity and hunger are probably much higher than the 1 in 9 people in Eastern Massachusetts who are food insecure.[v] Of those served by the food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters, 44% had to choose between paying for food or heat.[vi]  Related to these inequalities in income and access to food are disparities in health. Both Black and Latino residents in Boston (who are heavily concentrated in Roxbury and Dorchester) suffer from worse health. Blacks have 42% higher premature death rates than whites, while Latinos are two and a half times more likely to report that they are unhealthy compared to Whites.[vii] The City also found that in Roxbury, only 25% of adults reported eating recommended daily fruits and vegetables, while the neighborhood had the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease hospitalization in Boston.[viii] Following World War II, these neighborhoods, like many other inner city areas, suffered from disinvestment and neglect. Racist banking and housing policies (“redlining”) further segregated people of color from opportunity. Urban renewal programs and highway building dealt a further blow to these neighborhoods by taking land and in some cases removing residents. Thus, the disparities in wealth, education, and health are rooted in a history of public policies and economic practices that have systematically marginalized whole neighborhoods.  Yet, even with this history of economic challenge, there is a cultural vibrancy and connectedness within these communities. Our communities have more than persevered. The history of these neighborhoods is a story of resilience, resourcefulness, and community coming together.

Innovation out of Necessity

Innovation has been bubbling largely from the people of Roxbury and Dorchester. Numerous local leaders and organizations have taken the initiative, organizing and empowering residents, and forming new institutions to take care of themselves. These have not been limited to nonprofits, but also include locally owned businesses and voluntary associations. Of course, it has also included organizing and demanding a fair share of public resources from government. Innovation has emerged when needed, drawing on the assets at hand. Often times, innovation is seen as the sole domain of the private sector. On the other hand, some look solely to government or the nonprofit sector to remedy historical injustices. In truth, innovation comes from all sectors, in response to compelling needs and spurred by the talent and energy of our communities. Comprehensive solutions must involve government, businesses, and communities and nonprofits. In a world where market competition can be a ruthless race to the bottom, we need all sectors to come together cooperatively to ensure that there are standards in place and the incentives to race to the top. Let us highlight two examples, one in Boston and one in the Basque region of Spain. The local example of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Roxbury illustrates this cross-sectoral comprehensive community-driven innovation model. Across the Atlantic the creation of the Mondragon Corporation models unique enterprises that put local residents in control. By the 1980s, Roxbury and North Dorchester had been devastated by the disinvestment and white flight of the 1960s and 70s. People were literally burning down their homes in order to collect insurance money to be able to move out. More than 1/3 of the land lay vacant – 1300 parcels in a 1.5 square mile area. Residents and community organizations came together to revitalize the Dudley neighborhood and resist gentrification plans that would have transformed the area into hotels and offices serving downtown Boston. DSNI brought together the neighborhood’s Black, Latino, and Cape Verdean residents to develop their own comprehensive plan. They successfully pushed the City of Boston to adopt the plan and to give DSNI the power of eminent domain over a 60-acre parcel in the core of the Dudley neighborhood. They established their own community land trust to take ownership over and develop the vacant land.[ix] Now, almost 30 years later, DSNI boasts the development of over 400 new homes and rehabilitation of over 500 homes. Most of these homes are permanently affordable, since they sit on land owned by the nonprofit land trust. In the recent housing crisis, no homes were lost to foreclosure due to predatory loans or homes being “underwater”; in fact in the entire history of the land trust, there have been only four foreclosures, and in each case, the affordability was preserved because of the land trust covenant.[x] These homes were built with the partnership of nonprofit community development corporations as well as private sector financing.  In addition to housing, DSNI worked to realize many other aspects of their plan, including parks and gardens, a town common, a community center, a charter school, and a community greenhouse. What’s remarkable about DSNI’s ventures is that they arose out of crisis and intense participation of the affected community. They required government policies and resources, which, at times, came only in response to neighborhood pressure. They have had private sector partners and investment. Perhaps most important is that they have democratic ownership and accountability. The residents remain firmly in the “driver’s seat”. A similar story took place earlier, starting after World War II in Mondragon, a town in the Basque region of Spain that had not yet recovered from the Spanish American War.  In this town experiencing poverty, hunger, exile and tension, entered a young priest (Father Arizmendiarrieta) who put forth a new way of thinking about advancing community development through democratically owned local businesses. Unlike the top down, winner-take-all mentality prevalent at our business schools, he promoted a cooperative vision and worker ownership and decision making. They started building from the assets already within the community and then built a network of interlinked enterprises throughout the region. But what is so powerful about Mondragon, is that they have created highly competitive companies supported by sophisticated finance, marketing, research and development that support the local economies within this region and also export superior products around the world, resulting in over 80,000 people being employed in almost 300 companies.  These cooperatively-led and locally-owned enterprises demonstrate competitive advantage in the market place. (For more on Mondragon’s origins and values, see Juan Leyton’s blog.) Both these examples display innovation born from histories of necessity.

Emergence of New Community Economy

Innovations are springing forth from many places. And to the extent that these are connecting with each other, a new community economy is emerging. In our diagram, we show just how this web of collaborations might add up to a transformed local food economy. We caution that this picture is not in full operation now, nor may it play out in the way depicted. But these are some of the pieces to keep developing, while local innovators envision and create what is truly possible.

  • Community Land Trust

The food system begins with the land. Under the community land trust form of ownership, the land is owned by a nonprofit that is governed by a community board for the long-term benefit of the public. Not only can land be used for housing, but also for other public purposes, such as urban farms and greenhouses. Dudley Neighbors Inc., a subsidiary of DSNI, is the formal entity that owns the land on which DSNI developed its affordable housing and the greenhouse. This trust, or another one like it, could then acquire more land in the surrounding neighborhoods for building the urban food system. In fact, the Dudley land trust recently gained ownership over a parcel that had been farmed by the Food Project on a year-to-year lease basis with the City. Now, the Food Project can gain up to a 99-year lease from the land trust to farm the land.

  • Urban Growing

The Food Project, a youth development and urban agriculture nonprofit, is already operating the greenhouse developed by DSNI. They grow enough produce for market to pay much of the operating costs, so that they can offer year-round growing space for local residents and organizations.

City Growers is a for-profit urban farming venture, co-founded by local entrepreneur Glynn Lloyd (one of the authors). They are proving a commercially successful model for growing on plots as small as a quarter acre and operate several sites in Roxbury and Dorchester, including one of the pilot sites in the City of Boston’s urban agricultural initiative. City Growers is looking to acquire more land to support a network of farmers that are being trained by their affiliated nonprofit Urban Farming Institute of Boston (UFI) and apprenticing with City Growers. Again, long-term tenure to land could be achieved through a land trust form of ownership. City Growers is exploring the development of a producer cooperative among the farmers they train, to pool resources and market under one brand.

The Urban Farming Institute –worked with the city to create and pass Article 89, which amended zoning laws to allow commercial agriculture on the city’s vacant lots. UFI is working with New Entry Sustainable Farming Project to continue to train urban residents to become urban farmers.  And UFI has brought together DNI and the Trust for Public Land to move more city land into urban farming

Beyond these larger ventures are numerous backyard gardens and community gardens. ACE’s youth campaign Grow or Die has already taken over 6 vacant sites and built raised bed gardens that are now tended by more than 70 families. A summer 2013 survey of DSNI’s core area found more than 65 resident gardens growing more than 50 types of vegetables and fruits, with some over 40 years old. The report estimates a yield of 4400 pounds of produce from these “backyard” gardens (see blog post here).

  • Food Processing

The produce grown from community farms, greenhouses, and gardens not only end up directly on people’s plates. They can also supply local food processing businesses. City Fresh Foods is a catering company that was founded to deliver local, fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate meals. Part of the reason Glynn Lloyd launched the company in 1994 was to create good jobs for local residents, recycling dollars back into our communities.

Crop Circle Kitchen already runs a successful kitchen incubator in Jamaica Plain, helping new food businesses get off the ground. It will be the anchor tenant in the new Pearl and Bornstein Food Production Small Business Center. Set to open in spring 2014, this center hopes to produce 150 jobs in its first five years.  Recently Crop Circle partnered with a successful chef to purchase and operate a USDA meat packing plant in the heart of Mattapan, expanding the potential to develop a pipeline of local meat products into this burgeoning new local food system.

  • Distribution

How to get food to markets is a key challenge, particularly for small producers. Here’s where distributors come to play a critical role. Right next to City Fresh Foods is FoodEx, founded in 2009 to connect local producers to wholesale markets at a fair price. FoodEx is developing the platform and warehouse and trucking capacity to enable access for local growers to bigger markets.

  • Retail and Consumption

Food finally makes its way to us to be eaten (and hopefully enjoyed). There are a variety of ways that food ends up on our plates, including groceries, restaurants, and cafeterias. The Dorchester Community Food Co-op has been organizing the past two years to launch a member and worker-owned store providing affordable, fresh, and healthy foods and green products. They also envision a space for community education and cultural activities. So far, they have several hundred members (paying $100 each), run a winter farmer’s market and hold a “Fresh Fridays” festival event in the summer on the site that they are planning for the co-op.

In Dudley Square Roxbury, Haley House Bakery Café is a social enterprise that grew out of a social service organization providing a soup kitchen and shelter for the homeless in Boston’s South End. They started their own farm in central Massachusetts in 1983 to supply their soup kitchen. In 2005, they opened the Café not only to provide dining and catering services but also to run a bakery training program for the recently incarcerated and education programs for youth.

Finally, our public schools and other institutions, such as hospitals and nursing homes have cafeterias that can provide locally grown and produced food to local residents.

  • Waste Processing

In a truly sustainable food system, there is zero waste. In ecosystems, wastes (or any organic matter) become food for insects and bacteria, which process this matter back into nutrients that enrich the soil. More and more people are composting these wastes at home, generating rich soil for their gardens. A newly formed worker cooperative CERO (Cooperative Energy, Recycling, & Organics/Cooperativa Para Energia, Reciclaje & Organicos) plans to help local businesses separate their wastes, increase recycling, and reprocess their food scraps. Starting in July 2014, most big businesses and institutions in Massachusetts will have to separate out their organic waste because of new regulations banning such waste from the regular trash. CERO was created by African American and Latino workers who wanted to create their own green jobs. They recently completed a successful crowd-source fundraising campaign so that they can launch a direct public offering to raise startup capital for trucks and equipment.

How To Get There

This vision of a homegrown sustainable and just community food economy is just emerging. Right now, the entities we have listed already employ hundreds, involve the direct participation of thousands, and provide services and goods to tens of thousands more. The impact on food security and health is measurable. But we know that there is still a long way to go to build a sustainable and just food economy that serves us all. So, how do we nurture these roots and sprouts into a full garden? In other words, how do we grow to scale? We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we know that there are key challenges and questions that will have to be addressed. We conclude with this list in hopes that we can engage many others in this vision:

  • How can we identify, nurture, and nourish the innovators, particularly those coming from more unconventional backgrounds?
  • How can we get more people involved to participate in these ventures, organize for supportive public policy and resources, and see themselves as both consumers and producers in this system?
  • How can we better educate ourselves and our next generation to envision this new economy?
  • How can we strategically align government, private, and nonprofit community partners?
  • How can we develop more democratic sources of capital and financing for these ventures?
  • How can we better network the different parts of our local food system, or in business terms “strengthen the supply chains”?
  • How can local neighborhoods retain control while also partnering with others?

Authors

Penn Loh is Lecturer and Director of Community Practice at Tufts Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning, where he coordinates the Practical Visionaries Workshop. Glynn Lloyd is a Co-founder of City Growers, LLC and Chief Executive Officer of City Fresh Foods, which provides economical meals to local schools, childcare centers and homebound elders.


[i] Massachusetts ranked 8th among states in inequality between top and bottom in mid-2000s, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3860).
[iii] See “Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry” UC Berkeley Labor Center and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Oct 15, 2013.
[iv] All data in this paragraph is from Boston Redevelopment Authority neighborhood reports using American Community Survey 2007-2011 estimates (May 2013).
[v] See “Hunger in Eastern Massachusetts 2010” report by Greater Boston Food Bank. http://gbfb.org/our-mission/hunger.php.
[vi] Hunger in Eastern Massachusetts 2010.
[vii] See “Data Report: A presentation and analysis of disparities in Boston” by the Disparities Project of the Boston Public Health Commission, June 2005.
[viii] See “2009 Health of Roxbury Report” by Roxbury Community Alliance for Health, Boston Public Health Commission, and Boston Community Alliance for Health, May 2010.
[ix] For a detailed history of DSNI, see Streets of Hope by Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar (1994, South End Press).
[x] Personal communication, Harry Smith, DSNI Director of Sustainable and Economic Development.

Reflections on the Mondragon Cooperative Model: An Approach to Human Values and Workers Owned Businesses

By Juan Leyton

Editor’s Note: In July 2013, Juan worked with the MIT Community Innovators Lab to lead a delegation of U.S. community and labor leaders to visit the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. This was his second trip. In this article, Juan describes Mondragon’s model and history and his reflections on what we can learn.

The quintessential problem for workers everywhere is that in most cases they have no control over the business they are working for.  Most of the big businesses are controlled by their shareholders and a hierarchical management structure. Thus workers have no say on the direction of the business, and even less in the uses or investments of its profit; at worst, their fate is in the hands of their bosses. There are some socially responsible businesses, and others that base their managerial success on workers participation. However in the end, many of these businesses still face tough questions regarding their profit loss or gains, or when they need to relocate, expand or close down, and for the most part, the workers are left out of any decision-making process. In rare cases, the workers can help to decide what to do with the future of a company; in some cases, they can purchase shares from the company to convert it into an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) –which mainly helps the owners and shareholders.

Mondragon creates a different paradigm based on workers’ cooperatives.  To some extent, the Mondragon cooperatives have tried to tackle the issue of the lack of worker control over a business, and they have done it in the following fashion:  (1) by creating workers ownership over a business, thus transforming the historical relationship of antagonism between the workers and management by creating a joint decision-making process. This has been put into practice through the one worker, one vote policy and by establishing workers representation at all decision-making levels.  (2) They have created wealth in their community by creating and keeping local jobs. (3) They have created a local economy that is unavoidably connected to international competition, but based on a deeper commitment to their values, and their way of being in the world as workers’ owned businesses.

There is a big buzz and interest about cooperatives in the USA today.  In the aftermath of the financial crisis, many people started looking for alternative approaches to business, and worker owned businesses seemed to be the solution for many. However I see two problematic tendencies. First there is still cynicism and skepticism about the community owned business approach via workers cooperatives. Second, there is the tendency to romanticize cooperatives.   Being back in Mondragon for the second time, I realized that there is nothing idealistic or romantic about them, and I also realized that they had overcome very concrete obstacles like financing and education, among others, to make the development of cooperatives a sustainable reality.  However, I think none of Mondragon’s success would have been possible without the infusion and the inspiration of a world view where human values are the foundation for building a different economic dynamic and relationship among people, which has to be reflected in a better quality of life, not necessarily based on material gains only.

The cooperatives of Mondragon are located in the town of Arrasate/Mondragon in the province of Guipuzcoa in the Basque Country in Northern Spain.  The town of Mondragon with no more than 25,000 inhabitants is the home to one of the largest concentrations of cooperatives in the world.  Over 120 cooperatives are based here, and together they employ around 80,000 workers under the holding of Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa (MCC), which is the tenth largest business of Spain.  Once you get to Mondragon, you realize that despite it being such a big and complex business enterprise, you are not in a typical industrial city.  A couple of lasting impressions for me were the fact that although Mondragon is a small town, its housing is very densely constructed as people like to use the space efficiently.  I also realized that people like to have a good quality of life. They are not working extra hours or always at work; they enjoy their life.  Lastly, Mondragon is located in a valley surrounded by green mountains and forests, making life relaxing and enjoyable.  I asked myself, how did they achieve such an impressive enterprise?  I realized that their foundation was deeper than just the material achievement.  This trip was a discovery of deeper human values for building communities and new human relations.

The cooperatives are pragmatically immersed in the world of business, where they have to produce and compete like any other business for survival.  If anything I realized that the co-ops from Mondragon still are operating in the world of Capitalism; and they acknowledge that, since they have to strategize for new business deals and innovate all the time.  However, they have found a way for reconciling the traditional business approach with a paradigm shift to workers ownership, profit sharing and cooperation among cooperative businesses, which in my view is a very challenging undertaking.  As I heard the workers and presenters from Mondragon speaking, and observed how the co-ops work, I realized that this trip was not just for learning about the mechanics, successes and challenges of a coop, but a self-reflection about what is driving some people to develop co-ops at this scale.  I realized that I was looking for a better understanding of what are the values driving some people to build such an approach, where democracy plays a deeper role without losing efficiency as the workers are deeply involved in decision-making and ownership of a business.

The first thing you read when you enter in the Mondragon Corporation Cooperativa (MCC) headquarters is “humanity at work.”  This already anticipates what I will find throughout this journey: the Mondragon co-ops are in the world of business, but they are value driven too. This is something rare; how can a business and human values mix together?  However, I also realized this is something we are not used to hearing or even considering, and we have a hard time understanding: how do human values and a profitable business can get along?  Today we are immersed in a paradigm of individualism and competition for profit making which does not take into account human values, since it always put profits first.  How does one stay true to one’s values while trying to stay afloat in the world of business production and competition?

In order to respond to that question, I needed to immerse myself in the thinking of Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta –the founder of the Mondragon cooperatives.  He dedicated his life to social justice, community wealth creation and self-determination.  His believed that workers have the capacity for self-managing business; for him individualism was destructive for communities, and the future was in the idea of cooperation.  He also inspired and started the whole movement of workers cooperatives in the Mondragon valley.  I learned that he was supposed to have been killed by the Franco’s regime; he was a political prisoner after the civil war and was on the list of anti-Franco activists to be executed.  Somehow he was liberated.  At age 26, he relocated to the Mondragon area, where he spent the rest of his life helping to develop the cooperatives.  He was key in developing the base of values for the development of the co-ops with a very pragmatic approach about what do in practice.  Father Arizmendiarrieta says in his Reflections[1], “first come human being then come the cooperatives.”  He emphasized that business should not go before people.  He understood human needs deeply and the idiosyncracy of the Basque people, which helped to gain the confidence of the people in the Mondragon valley.

In the mid-1930s, the Spanish civil war was ending; and Franco took political control of the country.  There was hunger and poverty throughout Spain, and this was also the case for the Mondragon valley.  The Basque people, whose origins are not Indo-European and their language cannot be traced from any contemporary European language, were politically repressed and forbidden to speak their language under the Franco’s dictatorship.  However they are very resilient people –perhaps an important human ingredient for success and survival, as they had to struggle to maintain their cultural identity during a long dictatorship.  Another important aspect is their aspiration to be politically independent and the rejection of any form of paternalism.  Father Arizmendiarrieta says, “knowing if we can live with dignity is what it is all about. Living with dignity means being able to take care of ourselves.  In this aspect, we can not be satisfied with any paternalism.”  The Basque country was economically depressed, yet they had to find a way out for hope and survival by developing economic strategies without losing sight of their identity.  They came up with the formation of the workers industrial cooperatives built on the foundation of deeper human values.  Under the inspiration of Father Arizmendiarrieta, they saw the cooperative business as a mean to a better life, not as end in itself.

The first cooperative (ULGOR) didn’t get started until 1956, which is about 15 years after Father Arizmendiarrieta arrived in Mondragon in 1941.  He spent a great deal of time focused on building educational strategies, starting with a vocational school he founded, which later became the Professional Polytechnic School, and finally became the University of Mondragon.  Contrary to what we tend to do or believe, there was a long period where their only focus was the professional education of the people of Mondragon.  Still today education is at the core of their basic cooperative principles –similar to the idea of a “learning organization.”  During the same period the ideas for co-op development started to ferment, and the education strategies were key for such development.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Mondragon saw the development of their cooperative achieve a higher level.  They developed several other co-ops, with the most important one being Caja Laboral Kuxta (Coop Bank).  The Caja Laboral was the financial institution which was one of the two pillars in the early development of the Mondragon co-ops, with the other being their Polytechnic School. These two pillars formed the base from which the cooperative launched its industrial development, retail and innovation via social entrepreneurship.  In the 1960s their cooperatives mushroomed in the Mondragon valley.

Despite their success, Mondragon had to reinvent itself many times.  Thus in the eighties, they created the MCC which operates as a holding company for the cooperatives.  MCC organizes the congress for all the workers, it develops workforce training for the members, it helps with business development plans, it negotiates new deals and so on and so forth.  Every cooperative has a representative in the MCC governing body, and as a rule, MCC can only make recommendations to the individuals coops on what to do with their business, it can’t mandate.   That way the coops can have both a great deal of autonomy and interaction with each other.  One example of how this is beneficial is when a co-op is not doing well or decides to shut-down their business, their workers can go to work for another cooperative; they are not let go.  A critique is that MCC is concentrating a great deal of information for decision-making, and it might influence how decisions get to be made in the future.

However, there is a question that still is haunting me — can the Mondragon co-ops live up to their original values? It has been 70 years, since Father Arizmendiarrieta first arrived in Mondragon, and about 55 years since they first formed their first co-op.  Today there are around 258 enterprises and entities working on developing some kind of job creation or community enterprise that serves the greater good.  There are around 120 workers owned businesses, and 143 subsidiary companies located in Spain and other countries (they have a presence in 94 countries right now).  They went from having around 25,000 members in 1991 to around 84,000 in 2012. As the number of co-ops increases, membership increases; the question becomes, can they still be a democratic organization? Or what does their decision-making process look like as they keep growing? Keep in mind that for Father Arizmendiarrieta “the key is not the cooperatives but the cooperativists.”  He was warning about not making the cooperative business an end in-itself but a vehicle for a better life in the community.

Yet the question for Mondragon is whether their approach to business and cooperation can survive within the current paradigm of Capitalism; or can they really be an example for economic democracy for the USA.  The Mondragon cooperatives are not exempted from the crisis of European Capitalism; for instance, they had to develop newer strategies for expansion to include non-cooperative business.  On another hand, they had to figure out how to maintain a democratic process, as they expand and experience growth.  Txema Gisola, President of the General Council maintains, “Mondragon considers its core mission to be the production and sale of goods, services and distribution; using democratic methods in its organizational structure and distributing the assets generated for the benefit of its members and the community as a measure of solidarity.”[2] However the question for them is whether Mondragon will be able to remain loyal to their cooperative values, or at least, how they will adjust to the new economic context without losing sight of their purpose.  In fact, some of the new directions for Mondragon like their expansion to other continents is beginning to be a cause for questioning, since it means abandoning the creation of co-ops and creating subsidiaries for Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa (MCC).  Their rationale for this is that it is helping them to open new markets and maintain their local jobs.

It seems to me that the history of the Mondragon co-ops is about resiliency and survival.  Today they are faced with big challenges, coming from many new fronts: (1) the economic crisis affecting Europe has hit Spain badly, where unemployment has been around 26% and higher; (2) Mondragon has been forced to expand internationally for survival, which has led it to affiliate or create subsidiaries that are not cooperatives; and (3) the question they are facing for the future is whether they can remain loyal to their values in practice, given that they are growing in size and have many non-cooperative affiliates under the MCC.

Can Mondragon be replicated in the USA?  There are several attempts underway right now trying to replicate, or at least partner with Mondragon in the USA.  The United Steelworkers developed a formal agreement with MCC to organize their workers into co-ops. Another is Evergreen in Cleveland which has developed co-ops supported by a local foundation and a hospital. Yet another attempt is the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative which is trying to develop a model similar to MCC and incubate coops in the Bronx.

I think some aspects of Mondragon can be replicated or serve as an inspiration for coops.  But I don’t think something similar to Mondragon can be done here.  However, what we can learn from Mondragon is the approach to democracy at work.  I do think we need to pay more attention to their approach to human values and business.  This is particularly true when it comes down to being inclusive with people of color and immigrants, and in terms of gender equity, etc.  I see a danger in trying to replicate Mondragon, as it could be used as only a business model, but ignore that it was a values-driven enterprise in the first place that challenged individualism, class structures, language exclusion, etc.  We ought to build community democratic approaches to business that take into account the issue of race, class, gender and others; and develop community owned businesses based on values for tackling those issues affecting this society.  Then we will be closer to the vision of Father Arizmendiarrieta.

Juan Leyton is a Visiting Practitioner this year with Tufts Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning. He serves in a variety of consulting roles with MIT Co-Lab and with Boston-area nonprofits. He is former Executive Director of Massachusetts Neighbor to Neighbor. He has deep experience in community organizing, community development, and policy advocacy.


[1] Reflections by José María Arizmendiarrieta, Cherie Herrera, Joxe Azurmendi. Published 2000 by Aratza.

[2] Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa “Corporate Profile 2012”.

What is the Color of the New Economy? And Why it Matters

October 12-18, 2013 is the first New Economy Week, sponsored by the New Economy Coalition. These seven days celebrate efforts to build “an economy that is restorative to people, place, and the planet.” Post-Occupy, there has been a growing buzz about what kind of economy we need to address wealth inequality, environmental unsustainability, and lack of democracy. Perhaps this buzz around a “New Economy” will grow into a powerful social movement — one that we desperately need. But whether it does so or not will depend critically on its color (or lack thereof).[1]

new-economy-week-fb-banner

Race has posed core challenges for many progressive movements. In Betita Martinez’s 2000 essay analyzing the anti-globalization movement’s battle against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, she asked how could there be so few people of color “when the WTO’s main victims around the world are people of color?” In a 2011 commentary on Occupy, Rinku Sen answered the question “is Occupy Wall Street diverse enough” by asking a different question: “How can a racial analysis, and its consequent agenda, be woven into the fabric of the movement?”

For those who are inspired by the call for a New Economy, the same questions around race must be asked. Despite the fact that some New Economy leaders are trying to diversify their organizations and working with communities of color, a quick look at the faces of the New Economy reveals that it is still overwhelmingly white. And a further examination reveals an often privileged class perspective that assumes (white) people can just opt out because they have the resources to create new alternatives out of scratch. As the U.S. heads towards a white minority future, there is nothing new about the predominantly white leadership of key New Economy organizations.

So far, the movement appears to be made up of and appealing most to those who are discontented — those who want to and can choose a new economy. But for such a movement to succeed, it must also be led by the dispossessed[2] — those for whom the mainstream economy has never worked, those who need a new economy to meet basic needs.

Greetings from the New Economy poster FULL SIZE

Before dismissing this article as another rant against lack of diversity, let’s address the real question: just why is color important? With Obama in the White House, aren’t we supposed to be post-racial? Doesn’t raising the issue of race just further divide us? Aren’t we all supposed to see ourselves as the 99% now?

On a surface level, image matters. If people of color (not to mention poor and working class whites) cannot see themselves reflected in the New Economy movement, they will not pay much attention, much less be inspired to engage with ideas about transforming the economy. If the movement is perceived as white, then it will be challenged to build a broad multi-racial and multi-class identity.

On a deeper level, race matters because the current economy is deeply racialized. Race and racism are central to how the economy functions, whom it serves, and who pays the costs of obscene wealth accumulation and environmental unsustainability. Race and class in the U.S. are inextricably intertwined, beginning with slavery and Native American genocide and continuing to this day with the struggle of immigrants. In short, how we live in and experience the economy differs drastically depending on our race and class.

Examples of how deeply embedded race is in the economy are not hard to find. Even before the Great Recession white families held about four times as much wealth as nonwhite but that gap widened to six times by 2010.[3] The subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis caused the largest loss of wealth for people of color in U.S. history.[4]

People of color also suffer from historic and ongoing environmental inequalities. Nationally, neighborhoods that host commercial hazardous waste facilities are made up of 56% people of color, almost twice the percentage compared to neighborhoods that do not host these facilities.[5] Even in a liberal “blue” state like Massachusetts, studies show that 24 of the 30 most environmentally overburdened communities in the state are communities of color (there are only 34 communities of color in Massachusetts).[6]

A world where race does not matter may be a noble aspiration, but in a racialized society, race blindness is turning a blind eye on actual conditions and problems of those most affected. Without directly addressing race and the economy, the New Economy movement will be hampered by the same Achilles heel that threatened other progressive movements. The labor and environmental movements, to name just two, had not only racial blind spots and but also outright racist practices.

Historically, many labor unions explicitly excluded all but whites. Even today, there are unions where it remains difficult for people of color to become members. With unionization at its lowest levels since peaking in the 1970s, one of the biggest challenges for labor is whether and how to organize the growing ranks of low-skilled, low wage service jobs – whose ranks are disproportionately people of color and immigrants. Workers who have historically been excluded by labor law (e.g. farmworkers, domestic workers) have come together into a United Workers Congress. These struggles over who is part of the movement and what its goals should be are not just matters of diversity, but fundamentally about the identity of the movement and its basis of unity.

In the environmental movement, an eerily similar story can be told. There were early days where conservation groups were almost exclusively the reserve of privileged whites. It took a new movement, the environmental justice movement, with its now famous letter to the Big 10 green groups in 1990, to call out the movement’s complicity with “solutions” that exacerbated environmental racism and its lack of diversity at all levels. The Sierra Club has struggled over the past several decades with attempts by anti-immigrant “environmentalists” to take over its national board, based on the premise that immigration fuels overpopulation.

While progress has arguably been made on some fronts within both the labor and environmental movements on race, there are still those that cling to race-blind perspectives. In a recent post by Richard Wolff on why the labor movement has declined and making important arguments for workplace democracy and worker cooperatives, there is not a single mention of the role of race and racism.

Nationally, we must remember that the Republican-corporate-conservative ascendancy to power over the last 30+ years was built on a Southern strategy in which poor and working class whites were pulled away from building a class identity with poor people of color. In a May 17, 1970 interview with the New York Times, Kevin Phillips (then Nixon’s political strategist), said “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.” Reagan’s 1982 declaration of war on drugs continued the “strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action.”[7] Progressive movements cannot succeed if we remain subject to these divide and conquer tactics.

So, what color should the New Economy movement be? It would be nice to see the rainbow. But it’s about more than just symbolic representation and inclusion. Addressing race in the New Economy means broadening our perspectives on who are economic change agents and developing strategies that will work for our increasingly racially and class segregated society. Just calling for change to something new is not enough. How it serves the diversity within the 99% must be more clearly defined.

Here in the U.S., we have much to learn much from Solidarity Economy movements, particularly in South America. These movements descend from decades of explicit struggle against neoliberalism and globalization. They have achieved some state power, most notably in Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela.

In the U.S., the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network was born out of discussions at the 2007 U.S. Social Forum. The network defines core principles of Solidarity Economy that include “equity in all dimensions: race/ethnicity/nationality, class, gender, LGBTQ” along with solidarity, people over profits, sustainability, democracy, and pluralism. What Solidarity Economy makes explicit is its basis of unity.

If the New Economy movement is to grow, it must build a broad base and account for the actual racial and class differences among the 99%, not just our commonalities. We must acknowledge the long history of tension and conflict, instead of pretending that we’ve all been on the same side all along. If New Economy does not address these divides, then there may be solutions for the more wealthy and white segments of the population, but not for the rest of us.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of communities of color both now and in the past that have advanced economic principles of fairness, sustainability, and democracy. In the latter 19th century, Blacks, as part of the Knights of Labor as well as their own organizations, were part of developing cooperatives both rural and urban.[8] Civil rights icon Ella Baker spent her early organizing career in the 1930s with the Young Negros Cooperative League, supporting Black communities to develop cooperatives and self help groups. A group of Black women founded the Freedom Quilting Bee cooperative in 1966 in Alabama, selling quilts and then acquiring land for a sewing plant and for sharecropping families that had lost their land because of civil rights activism. At its height, the cooperative was the largest employer of 150 in Alberta Alabama. In 1985, Cooperative Home Care Associates was formed in the Bronx as a worker-owned cooperative made up of primarily Latina and Black women home care workers. It now has over 2000 employees and has become a certified B Corporation.

Today, the green jobs movement is being led by prominent leaders of color, like Van Jones and Majora Carter. Green Workers Cooperatives, led by Omar Freilla in the South Bronx, incubates worker owned green businesses. Also in the Bronx is the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative which brings together community base-building organizations, community development corporations, and labor to develop strategies for the regional economy based on the Mondragon model of cooperatives in Spain. In Mississippi, the Jackson Plan, led by the Malcom X Grassroots Movement and the Jackson People’s Assembly, has goals “to deepen democracy in Mississippi and to build a vibrant, people centered solidarity economy in Jackson and throughout the state of Mississippi that empowers Black and other oppressed peoples in the state.”

In Boston, Black and Latino workers came together recently to launch CERO – Cooperative Energy, Recycling, and Organics. These workers, who were already involved in informal scrap metal collection and a vegetable oil processing microenterprise, were brought together by two community groups – Boston Workers Alliance and Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. After completing a coop academy, the workers developed their own plan for a recycling services company serving the businesses in their own neighborhoods. They are currently raising start-up funds and exploring strategies for developing an eco-energy park in Boston based on processing organic waste into energy and fertilizer.

These examples show that a different economy is being created by people of all colors. Whether it is “new” is not really as important as whether it is inspiring the dreams (think of King’s “I Have a Dream”) that can motivate mass social movements and demonstrate in practice the principles that it preaches. Race is fundamental to understanding how to build this economy. (And with race comes class inextricably intertwined.)

If we move forward race-blind, we remain vulnerable to divide and conquer strategies. We must address our differences in order to build on our commonalities. So, during the first New Economy week, let us remember history and its lessons:

  1. Any progressive movement must build multi-racial and multi-class alliances in order to achieve significant power.
  2. Racial justice must be a core to the analysis of the old economy and strategies for economic transformation. The Right to the City Alliance is just one of the formations rooted in communities of color that is beginning to articulate such an analysis.
  3. We need to open our eyes and see that leadership and initiatives for economic transformation already exist in communities of color. They may not explicitly embrace the New Economy label, and they may not take on some of the more conventional forms. But they are there, and they need to be acknowledged and supported.
  4. Movement leadership needs to actively diversify their institutions and share power and resources.

If the color of our new economy is based on solidarity, it will not be white. What color it becomes depends on how we incorporate a racial justice analysis and build a multiracial leadership and movement.

Penn Loh is Lecturer and Director of the Masters in Public Policy Program and Community Practice at Tufts University’s Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, where he directs the Practical Visionaries Workshop. From 1996 to 2009, he served in various roles, including Executive Director since 1999, at Alternatives for Community & Environment, a Roxbury-based environmental justice group. For critical feedback on drafts of this piece, he thanks James Jennings, Nene Igietseme, Jonathon Feinberg, Cyndi Suarez, Marcy Ostberg, Becca Tumposky, Boone Shear, and Jackie Cefola.


[1] While this article focuses on the racial dimension, there are a number of factors beyond race that will also critically affect how the New Economy movement progresses, not the least of which is how it challenges the power of neoliberal capitalism.

[2] For more discussion of the differences among the 99%, see Peter Marcuse’s blog: http://pmarcuse.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/blog-17-991-the-slogan-and-the-reality-2/.

[3] Annie Lowrey. “Wealth Gap Among Races Has Widened Since Recession,” New York Times, April 28, 2013. Accessed 10/5/13 at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/29/business/racial-wealth-gap-widened-during-recession.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[4] A Rivera. “Foreclosed: State of the Dream 2008.” Boston: United for a Fair Economy, 2008. Available at http://www.faireconomy.org/files/StateOfDream_01_16_08_Web.pdf

[5] Robert Bullard, Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright. February 2007. “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007.” United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries. Available at: http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/2007%20UCC%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

[6] Daniel Faber 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: http://nuweb9.neu.edu/nejrc/wp-content/uploads/executive_summary_2005.pdf

[7] Michelle Alexander. 3/8/10. “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste,” Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelle-alexander/the-new-jim-crow-how-the_b_490386.html.

[8] See Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A history of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. State College, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, forthcoming 2014.

Real Pickles and the Path to a Co-operative Economy (repost)

[Thanks to Rachel Gordon for passing on this post about a western Massachusetts company’s process of converting into a worker cooperative. Original post at: http://realpickles.blogspot.com/2013/08/real-pickles-and-path-to-co-operative.html.]

We are excited to share a few words written by Erbin Crowell, Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and local expert on cooperative business.  Erbin was a huge help to the Real Pickles Co-op founding group as we forged ahead with our transition to a cooperative structure.  He earned his Master of Management: Co-op & Credit Unions from St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and serves on the boards of the National Co-operative Business Association and the New England Farmers Union. He lives in Buckland, MA, with his partner Kristin Howard and their son Elias, and may be contacted at erbin@nfca.coop.


By Erbin Crowell, Executive Director, Neighboring Food Co-op Association

The United Nations International Year of
Cooperatives was celebrated in 2012.

It’s been about five years since I first sat down with Real Pickles’ cofounder Dan Rosenberg at his home in Montague, MA.  As he considered the future of his company, Dan was interested in knowing more about the co-operative business model and its potential for preserving Real Pickles’ unique mission over time.  For my part, I wanted to better understand the perspectives of entrepreneurs like Dan who were uncomfortable with the traditional paths of business succession.  Could co-ops offer a viable alternative for business owners who see success as defined more broadly than just the bottom line?

My partner Kristin Howard – now Real Pickles’ sales manager and a founding worker-owner – and I had recently left Equal Exchange, a worker co-op and pioneer in fairly traded products, where we had been member-owners for a combined two decades.  My experience developing new initiatives within a rapidly growing co-op had been profound on a personal level.  It had also demonstrated to me how co-ops could have a dramatic impact on the economy by working together across the food system.  I wanted to be part of making the experience available to more people, and growing the wider co-operative economy.  This path had led me to studies in co-operative management and work with organizations including the Co-operative Fund of New England, the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops, and finally the Neighboring Food Co-op Association.

A basic challenge for the co-operative movement is that it has been largely overlooked by universities, economic development organizations, and local governments. It is easy to go through one’s academic career without learning anything about this business model, despite the global impact of co-ops. When young entrepreneurs seek out support for starting or growing a business, the co-operative model is rarely offered as an option.  Basic legal and financial support is weak at best.

And yet, co-operatives have succeeded.  For example, more than a billion people around the world are co-op members — more than directly own stock in publicly traded corporations.  Co-ops also employ more people than multinationals.  And in the quest for food security, co-operatives have been recognized as lifeline for small farmers and consumers in the developing world.

In recent years, co-ops have been recognized for their performance during the global recession that began in 2008 and continues to cause massive unemployment, dramatic shifts in wealth and austerity.  Co-ops have proven extraordinarily resilient during this period, preserving jobs, wealth and community infrastructure. And their global contribution to human development, poverty reduction and sustainability led the United Nations to declare 2012 the International Year of Co-ops.

In addition to being driven by a distinct set of values and principles, the co-operative legal structure prioritizes social needs and goals above the accumulation of profit.  Based on the principle of one member, one vote, co-ops are very real examples of the kind of economic democracy that people are clamoring for in the wake of this global recession.

Food co-ops in our region are an illustration of the potential of this model.  For the past three years, I have served as executive director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a network of over 35 food co-ops and start-ups across New England.  These are community businesses, locally owned by more than 80,000 people.  Success is not measured by investor dividends, but by factors such as environmental impact, benefits to members, and employment. Because they are not focused on maximization of profit, co-ops have been innovators in the food system and pioneers in healthy foods, organic products and Fair Trade.

Food co-ops have also been leaders in the re-localization of economies, illustrated by the fact that the members of the NFCA purchase over $30 million in local products each year.  In communities across our region, food co-ops serve as anchors for local producers and as places to experiment with new products.

However, a central challenge for food co-ops, and for the “buy local” movement in general, is that the purchasing power we invest in the local economy does not always stay in the community.  For example, our members and customers have invested millions of their consumer dollars in socially responsible businesses, only to see them bought out by large multinational corporations.  In this sense, local economies often serve as a testing ground for the investor-driven economy. Entrepreneurs create new products and services and those businesses that demonstrate sufficient potential to generate profits for investors are absorbed into this market economy through investor buy-outs, initial public offerings (IPOs) or purchase by a larger corporation.  As a result, the capital, creativity and infrastructure created by local entrepreneurs are extracted from local communities, and the stakeholders who helped create that market value are left behind.

Another challenge for the local movement is business succession.  What happens when an entrepreneur decides to retire or simply move on to something new?  As we invest our consumer dollars in local businesses, are there ways to ensure that those businesses don’t fade away or get sold to corporate interests?  Is there a way to engage other stakeholders — workers, producers, consumers and the wider community — in the mission and long-term success of local enterprises so that they are more sustainable and accountable to the people who depend on them?

This question has been at the root of the co-operative movement since its beginnings.  In response to the concentration of wealth and control that characterized the Industrial Revolution, community activists created a democratic business model, rooted in social values, and oriented toward the meeting of human needs rather than accumulation of profit.  For the first food co-ops, the goal was food security and rooting a source of healthy, affordable food in the community.  For farmers, it was pooling resources to invest in the shared infrastructure needed to compete with larger growers and corporations.  And for workers, it was gaining more control over our work-lives so that a company couldn’t just up and leave in search of higher profits.

Certainly, these goals speak to many entrepreneurs today for whom the ideals of economic democracy, sustainability and human fulfillment are integral to their vision of success.  What has been missing is a roadmap for succession that provides an alternative to the traditional corporate buyout.  Real Pickles founders, Dan and Addie Rose, may have part of the answer.  Five years after we sat down to talk co-ops, their company is on the cutting edge of a trend toward a new way of thinking about the basic purpose and priorities of local business.  For an emerging group of entrepreneurs, conversion to a co-operative structure may be driven by the desire to root their business in the community, to safeguard their mission, or simply to share ownership, risk and reward with their co-workers.  For others, “co-operation” was always what they had in mind – they just needed a formal business structure for it.

This is not to say that there is not an important role for outside investors in this effort.  What is needed is a new way of thinking about this role.  Some have used the term “social investor,” and “slow” or “patient” capital.  Tom Webb, former manager of the Master of Management, Co-operatives and Credit Unions Program at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, has called for something a little more specific: “co-operative capital.”  For Webb, the financial crisis of 2008 and the accompanying global recession has demonstrated the problems of an economic system built on maximization of profit.  “We need capital that is socially constructive rather than destructive and more stabilizing rather than destabilizing,” he writes.  “We need capital that is restrained, limited and controlled and directed to meeting human need rather than human greed.”

In fact, some of the most successful contemporary co-ops have relied on this kind of capital to grow their businesses.  Equal Exchange and Organic Valley, for example, offer investment opportunities for non-member individuals and organizations.  This capital is constructive in that it is driven by social and environmental impacts as opposed to maximization of return; it is restrained because investment shares are non-voting, with control remaining with the membership; and it is stabilizing in that share value is based on cash value rather than the theoretical market valuation employed by the stock market and employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), rooting wealth in the community.  Over time, many have insisted that investors would not accept these limitations on their influence and returns.  And yet, year after year these co-ops have had little trouble attracting sufficient capital to support their growth.

What is particularly exciting about Real Pickles is that they have demonstrated a model in which people can invest in the conversion of a privately held business into a co-operative enterprise.  Essentially, investors are using their financial resources to secure a business within the local co-operative economy, as opposed to the market economy.  This represents a compelling shift in our conception of what is possible.

Over the years, food co-ops across the Northeast have invested substantial purchasing power in the success of local businesses like Real Pickles.  And I am proud that the Neighboring Food Co-op Association has been able to play a small part in the transition of the company, becoming an investor in Real Pickles as part of our vision of “a more healthy, just and sustainable food system, and a vibrant community of co-operative enterprise.”

On a personal level, it has been inspiring to work with the member-owners of this new co-op in this process.  In my role as the first staff person for the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops, I began to see the importance of co-op led development and the potential of peer-to-peer collaboration in supporting the success of co-operative enterprises.  While my primary work is now with the NFCA, there is a clear overlap in the vision of our food co-ops and that of companies like Real Pickles.  Moving forward, my hope is that co-ops and local entrepreneurs will be able to see the potential in this kind of collaboration in growing the co-operative movement in our region.

Dan Rosenberg and Addie Rose Holland have not only chosen an inspiring path for Real Pickles.  They, along with the other founding member-owners of the Real Pickles Co-op, have laid a path for local business succession and the transformation of individual entrepreneurship into what would be more accurately described as co-opreneurship: creative economic development with the goal of strengthening economic democracy, sustainability, and community wealth.

The Progressive Struggle to Save Capitalism (repost)

Check out this op-ed piece by Boone Shear and Stephen Healy, first published in Truthout on October 23, 2012. Both are involved in the Worcester Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance and organizers of the October 13, 2012 conference.

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Regulation and reform might eventually manifest a kinder, gentler capitalism, but we’ve seen how hard it is to regulate the very people who have the most money and incentive to change the rules back in their favor. What if instead, we came together to build an economy entirely different from the one we know now?

In his most recent book, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz incisively details the policies and practices underpinning the extreme levels of inequality in the United States today. In doing so, he provides a rationalist foothold for progressive politics. In Stiglitz’s view, social and economic policies that might redistribute wealth through regulation, taxation and social welfare programs are not simply the right thing to do, they are good for the overall health of the economy. There is a great temptation amongst progressives interested in social and economic justice to leap on this cunning display of Nobel reasoning – to see in it a pragmatic argument that advances our moral commitments. While we can certainly learn from Stiglitz’s masterful analysis of the problem, succumbing to this appealing logic of reform would be a misstep for those of us who are interested in broader visions of a just or sustainable economy.

In his book, Stiglitz trenchantly recounts how fiscal regulations and tax laws have been both relaxed and strengthened in ways that have allowed rich investors and corporations to gain enormous wealth and influence over electoral politics, the legislative process and the ideological framing of public debates. These policy changes and related political influence are, of course, mutually reinforcing. The greater the concentration of economic and political power, the greater the ability of a small group to create policy, shape the ideological landscape and recondition people to accept social conditions as natural or commonsense. The facts on the ground bear this thesis out. As has been well documented, inequality steadily increased in the three decades leading up to the economic crisis through policies that moved public resources towards the interests of private capital, drained state and municipal public coffers, undercut union organizing and expanded market logics to all aspects of our lives. What’s remarkable is that these transformations went largely unchallenged, were tolerated, or were actively embraced.

Also Read: Occupy Wall Street: A Gift for the Economy

Today, however, the commonsense and acceptance of these neoliberal policies and practices is crumbling. After the violently abrupt impacts of the economic crisis, and thanks to subsequent responses of social movements in Wisconsin and Occupys everywhere, there is broad agreement that social inequalities are too great and the economy is too harsh. We are in a clear moment of possibility. The question now is what to do about it. What kind of change do we want?

For progressives, an already invigorated resistance to corporate and elite power is gaining more urgency, as the political right seems primed to double down on a narrative that explains social conditions in terms of individual behavior: If there is inequality, it is precisely because there are few who are (white) man enough to take responsibility for themselves and far too many who are content with sitting on their ass and doing nothing. This gambit is being pushed most clearly through the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney – Mr. 1%, as the AFL-CIO has dubbed him – with his ideologue counterpart Paul Ryan, plan to escalate the assault on the remaining social fabric by, for example, recasting forms of universal social assurance – Social Security and Medicare, for example – as forms of dependency. The Republican economic platform is so completely disconnected from the everyday lives of the many, many people who are drowning in debt, who are living paycheck to paycheck, who have lost their jobs or their homes, who are subject to institutional and individualized racism, that it is difficult to understand their position as anything but a callous, vicious assault on individuals, families and communities.

Rationalizing Resistance

Against this callousness, Stiglitz’s argument enters as an articulate defense of a robust public sphere, regulation of the economy and just taxation. End the war(s)! Defend the public! Resist austerity! Increase taxes on the wealthy! Fight against corporate greed! Stiglitz says “YES!” in relation to all of these political positions, but not for the usual associated moral reasoning. Instead, Stiglitz argues that the degree of inequality we are presently experiencing is detrimental to the optimum functioning of the economy. Creating a more level playing field through government intervention will result in more efficient markets, more people actively competing against each other for jobs, more economic growth, and higher rates of wage-labor employment; it will make for a recovered, stronger, more robust capitalism.

Against the right’s framing of economic inequality as the “natural” and “inevitable” consequence of people’s individual choices, Stiglitz argues we can make social choices that restore or extend more opportunity to all. Stiglitz wants to reminds us that anyone’s ability to “move up” depends upon a society that helps allow this to happen. A progressive politics then, wedded to a Keynesian economic platform of regulation and reform, will benefit all stakeholders – the poor and the wealthy; financial investors and the unemployed; owners, managers and workers. From his perspective, this allows the capitalist economy to work for everyone because we’re all in it together.

On a certain level, we agree with Stiglitz. We are all in this together; we are all part of the social body, of society. The capacity for individual achievement and individual responsibility rests on the quality of connections that individuals have with other people. Even President Obama stated as much in a speech last summer when making the argument that economic success is inherently a social endeavor – a speech that produced his decontextualized and much-abused sound bite, “You didn’t build that.”

There seems to be a consensus emerging amongst the so-called “liberal left” around this seductive frame. Like Stiglitz and other Keynesian economists, many liberal-left thinkers and activists appear to believe that there is a reconcilable, even easy, relationship between social well-being and market capitalism. All that is missing is the administration of policies that can redistribute wealth and create a new New Deal to grow the economy. From our perspective, this is a curious line of thinking, and one that progressives should worry about. In our eagerness to resist corporate governance and elite power, in our desires to oppose inequality, just what sort of political project might we be attaching ourselves to? What is it exactly that we are struggling over? A general feature of capitalist production is that it creates a distinction between social groups as a supposedly “natural” part of the production process; a sleight of hand takes place, and class differences and inequalities are forged. Profits – and the political and cultural power associated with them – are moved away from workers and brought under the control of owners, whether an individual capitalist or a board of directors, who appropriate that wealth and are able to use these resources to create policies, practices and beliefs that benefit their interests. Workers are separated from the value and power that they produce. For us, it is this separation, between people who produce the wealth and those who receive it, that defines capitalism – and the social inequalities that capitalism produces – as a matter of fact. If we invest our efforts in a struggle to save our current economic “system” we choose to empower a set of practices that generate the very inequalities – in wealth, in political influence, in the capacity to frame social reality – in the first instance (and compel us to engage in political struggle).

Thank you sir, may I have another?!

Taking the long view of history, we might see today’s crisis – and the political struggle over how to resolve it – not as an anomalous set of circumstances, but rather as a normal and integral feature of an economy that encourages and prospers on crisis after crisis.

This essential component of capitalist production is given historical-ethnographic shape in anthropologist Pem Buck’s 2001 tour de force, Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky. Focusing primarily on the interplay of racism, gender relations and class, Buck argues that there are historical moments of possibility, often in relation to economic crisis and restructuring, when people begin to question and challenge the nature of society and their place in it. These “forks in the road” – she cites Bacon’s Rebellion, the Farmer’s Alliance, the civil rights movement, among others – mark locations of possibility for new ways of living together, for new collective ways of producing stuff, for sharing resources, for changing the nature of our economy. These social movements can begin to connect people of different races and different communities together. They have the potential to aim for something deeper than a more “equitable condition”; they have the potential to fundamentally transform the very conditions under which things of value are produced and shared.

However, Buck argues that, rather than taking paths towards fundamental transformations, the roads that we have historically chosen have primarily led to limited social and economic reforms, some redistribution of wealth, or access to civil rights, for particular social groups. These reforms and new social configurations benefit some. And, along with state oppression, they work to quell unrest for a while. Enough people are satisfied that they go along with the program. Enough people believe the stories that explain social inequality. But, as more wealth is extracted and social antagonisms grow, the next crisis emerges.

Economist Rick Wolff helps to explicate these dynamics in his film lecture “Capitalism Hits the Fan.” In response to the Great Depression, a series of significant political and economic reforms were made in the middle decades of the 20th century that led to a not insignificant redistribution of wealth up through 1970s, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, government investment in public works, and a host of regulations on corporations, trade and private capital. The story today, Wolff says, is that “If we just re-regulate [and reform], then we can return to the good old days.” But there is a critical point that is missing from this equation. Wolff asserts that while there were indeed significant reforms and redistribution after the Great Depression, the basic form of capitalist production was left in place, allowing the boards of directors of private corporations to take and control the profits that are made by workers. Wolff incredulously explains, “To regulate is to impose limits on a group of people … with every incentive to undo them and all the resources needed to realize their incentives!” And this is precisely what happened.

In our view, the present moment really is about the 1%’s income and control over much of the wealth that has been created by other people. Amidst increased poverty, inequality and insecurity – and with the best government assistance money can buy – the 1% has been posting record profits since the “recovery” began in 2009. The rest of us seem to be somewhat unsure of how to address their return to good fortune. One half of the 99% wants to see even more deregulation, lower tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, and the privatization of all remaining components of the so-called welfare state. Their hope is that if we beat down those who are not paying income taxes, the welfare recipients, and long-term unemployed, (in their imagination) we will get a society that is productive, where all work hard, and where everyone gets what they deserve. The irony, of course, is that many of these advocates are precisely the sorts of people that will be punished by the very proposals they advocate. It’s not simply that they are satisfied with a set of reforms that “give a little,” as Buck puts it; they are truly saying, “Thank you sir, may I have another!”

But isn’t it also the case that Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and the progressive establishment offer us a different version of the same beating? To be sure, a promise of ending two wars, the implementation of a more progressive tax policy, closing corporate loopholes, and ending government munificence would allow us to put the public sector back in better shape – or at least move us off the edge of a fiscal cliff. But following Wolff’s arguments above, even if all of these changes were somehow able to be implemented, they elide the underlying set of economic relationships that automatically structure economic and political inequalities.

From our perspective, it is telling that team Obama has allowed the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest, for the investor class, for the “job creators” to remain in place as a fiscal stimulus. At best, we can see the actual practice of his administration as one of playing to populist concerns while caving, at every turn, to the interests of the 1%. It is easy enough to read Obamacare not as a true health care reform, but as a generous subsidy to insurance companies. Team Obama may regard these concessions and compromises as the realpolitik of our age, but their actual function is to preserve the present economic order just as surely as the TARP bailout, passed under the Bush administration, suspended the rules of capitalism in order to save capitalism. All of these maneuvers are caught up in exactly the logic Stiglitz articulates (without the progressivist veneer): they are all attempts at restoring the efficacy of capitalism. Perhaps this is a beating of a different sort, where we are deluded into imagining there is a huge difference between the two teams, what they advocate and what sort of future they are leading us towards. In our heartfelt and noble efforts to fight against inequality and for more opportunity for all, aren’t we also fighting – just as hard as those coming from the right – for the continuation of the same relationship between workers and owners that creates inequality in the first place? Aren’t we, just as unwittingly, joining with the radical right in a project of self- flagellation, of pleading for continued abuse – “Thank you sir, may I have another!”

What can we do to move past this ongoing struggle over different iterations of capitalism? Buck argues that historically, possibilities for new forms of social organization are scuttled when particular social groups are given enough relative wealth and privilege that their own exploitation doesn’t seem as bad. They acquiesce and consent. One very important project for progressive politics, then, is to build a powerful movement across race, class, gender and progressive interests; a broad left politics that can forge solidarity between different social groups. But we wonder how these alliances, in the long term, are even possible, if we are unable to expand our political horizon beyond making demands on the state for reforms, beyond a politics of redistribution that might help more people, for a time, play in a game that is always rigged to create more inequality. As we can see from Stiglitz’s thesis – that less inequality is good for capitalism – there is an easy relationship between progressive politics that struggles for social justice and the structuring and maintenance of social and political inequality. Unless we aim to address the foundational structures of capitalist enterprise, we will be forever engaged in a struggle that, from either side, is fighting to hold those very structures in place.

A Politics of Possibility

Just over a year ago, Zuccotti Park became the locus for a seemingly motley mix of dissidents: anarchists, students, environmentalist, feminists, labor organizers, community organizers and activists of all stripes. What was exciting and important to us was not only the rise of a new class imaginary that revealed a shared – though not equivalent – struggle, but also that this articulation of the interconnectedness of progressive-left struggles called the very nature of our economy into question.

The field of possibility opened wide. People could imagine and desire beyond the limits of what is “known” to be politically possible. This new imaginary, it seems to us, was rapidly enclosed by both derision of the movement and concomitant support of state suppression by the political right, but also by the progressive left whose desires for reform are contained within a project to fix capitalism – let’s fight for more jobs, better wages, more money for college, less corporate power, new energy technologies, so we can have a better, more equitable capitalist economy.

But, perhaps Occupy has already done its work. Perhaps desires for a noncapitalist world have been here all along. If we avert our gaze from the struggle to save capitalism, if – for just a moment – we can stop staring into the sun, we might begin to see the increasing numbers of noncapitalist alternatives all around us. Institutions and community members in Cleveland, Ohio, are experimenting in using the in-sourcing of institutional demand for services as a basis for economic development. The Cleveland Foundation along with major hospitals and universities have been using their aggregate demand for clean linens, food and power to start local businesses that create employment opportunities for people in Cleveland’s depressed neighborhoods. The difference is that these jobs are built on the Mondragon model of worker-ownership. Rather than the wealth accruing to an individual or a board of directors, the rewards (and risks) are distributed across the entire group of worker-owners who make it possible. The Evergreen experiment was launched in 2009 and has given birth to successful enterprises, with more in the works. The success of this approach is already being followed and imitated in other cities throughout the country, including our home state of Massachusetts.

In our own local communities, other efforts at different scales are taking advantage of what has come to exist from previous crises in other areas to build something new. The Valley Alliance for Worker Co-Operatives, VAWC, in Western Massachusetts, is a group of worker-owned businesses which are attempting to use their association to promote the cooperative model by lending support, expertise and funds to start up new cooperative ventures over the past half-dozen years. Many of these businesses in VAWC were started decades ago and have long experience with turning a profit and surviving downturns. As they have built their alliance, they have been working with a local university, UMass Amherst, to develop a curriculum around cooperative businesses.

The Alliance to Develop Power (ADP) in Western Massachusetts is a base-building community organizing group with an interesting twist. In addition to running campaigns for policy reform -immigration, housing, green justice and so on – they have been working to build a “community economy” that includes cooperative housing; a worker-run, community-owned maintenance and landscaping company; and in current, development, a series of community-owned bodegas that will connect local farms to food deserts. The profits from ADP businesses stay in the community organization and are used toward more organizing campaigns, community-building initiatives and more alternative economic development.

Given the successes of Evergreen, VAWC and ADP, we wonder, along with many others, if other elements of a cooperative, alternative economy, legacies from past struggles, could be leveraged to build something new. Wisconsin’s study of the cooperative landscape produced an arresting visual image of all the credit unions, power co-ops and granges in the United States. What if these organizations – some of them remnants from the populist movement of the 1800s or the reforms of the Great Depression – were pressed into service to provide capital and support for the expansion of the worker- and community- ownership models in many different industries (something that was always lacking in the United States). What if these models were extended into communities and places that have been historically deprived of capital, redlined and subject to extreme policing?

What we like about this approach is that it isn’t asking for another beating; it is building something else. While Occupy got our attention, what is required is sustained effort to engage in the deliberate thinking and acting required to build an economy that works for the benefit of all. These sorts of cooperative economic practices that are attentive to the actual needs of people and communities, and that do not just expand for expansion’s sake, may be precisely what is required to build and organize around an economy that has any hope of living within the bounds of natural reality.

For those of you who are in New England, particularly in Massachusetts, we would like to invite you to help reflect on, organize around, and build these new economies by attending the 2nd Annual Worcester Solidarity and Green Economy (SAGE) Conference on October 13 at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. This conference brings together activists, organizers, academics, students, workers, the unemployed and community members in general to continue to build a progressive politics that sets its sights beyond the false promise of a more gentle and sustainable capitalism, and instead looks towards a horizon in which people collectively make decisions around working conditions, profit, investment and consumption.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Stephen Healy

Stephen Healy is an assistant professor of geography at Worcester State University and is a member of the Community Economies Collective. His work explores the relationship between subjectivity and economy through the lens of Marxian and psychoanalytic theory.

Boone Shear

Boone Shear lives with his five-year-old daughter Rose. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the anthropology department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His current research investigates economic subjectivity and possibilities for non-capitalism in relation to green economy happenings.

Alternatives to Walmart?

Having harvested rural and suburban retail markets, Walmart is now ploughing new ground in cities with their smaller urban groceries. From Los Angeles to Chicago and now in Boston, communities are debating over Walmart. On the one hand, residents of economically struggling neighborhoods (often also food deserts) want jobs and access to affordable groceries. On the other, Walmart has become identified with everything that’s wrong with the global economy: workers exploited, environment trashed, local businesses destroyed, and governments paid off.

Walmart’s entry into cities raises vexing questions for community revitalization and development. If you think Walmart will eventually come, then how do you fight for a better deal for workers and the community? If you just say no, then what are other development possibilities? This latter question is the one that a community-university partnership recently started exploring. This article shares some of the learning from the spring 2012 Practical Visionaries Workshop, which brought together 20 organizers from Boston area community groups and graduate students from the Tufts Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning.

We took on this bigger question because it’s the one that rarely gets asked in the heat of battle. But it is the question that must be addressed if, in the longer term, we are to move towards a more just and sustainable economy. Many of the community partners were equivocal about waging intensive campaigns against Walmart, though some are involved in the ChangeWalmartMA coalition. If Walmart ultimately prevails, then the best prospect after several years of struggle would be slightly higher wages and perhaps a package of other community and environmental benefits. If Walmart is defeated, then the community is still left no better off than it was before. Worse yet, if you successfully keep Walmart out of one location, it still may end up in the neighborhood next door. (Though Walmart recently abandoned plans for stores in Somerville and Watertown, it still is looking for sites in Greater Boston.)

Thus, we felt that it was time to begin answering the question of alternatives to Walmart. Unfortunately, despite best efforts, there are not many examples of community economic development that have significantly reversed the tide against lower income communities. What are touted as best cases are often not much different from a Walmart or other big box store: mixed-use commercial developments with an anchor tenant, often a national chain (think Stop and Shop or Target). Some of these developments have been vital additions to communities. But are they creating good jobs? Are they generating shared wealth that recirculates locally? Are they leading to transformation of an unjust and unsustainable global economy?

Envisioning a New Community Economy

As we began exploring these questions, we found that we lacked the language to even talk about other models. In part, this difficulty stems from the dominance of free-market ideology (often called neo-liberalism outside the US). In part, we had trouble because we have put our own community organizing work into a box of civic engagement; we rarely think of local organizing as shaping “the economy”, which we perceive to flow down from the national and global levels.

Therefore, our first step was to better understand the existing (or “old”) economy. By looking at the 60 years since World War II, we started to grasp that there is a relationship between how the economy works (and who it works for) and public policy and politics. What we have today is not inevitable due to technological progress or “natural” market forces.

While we are told in fairy tale style that capitalism has triumphed over all alternatives, we felt the need for new stories about the economy, as we are not all living happily ever after. These new narratives are also frameworks to help us understand the differences and similarities between development models. What makes Walmart better or worse than another national grocery chain, from the perspective of workers, the community, and the global economy? Perhaps one pays better wages and benefits, helping stabilize families and community. But perhaps both still suck profits out of the neighborhood back to corporate headquarters and shareholders.

We found that we are searching for the same things as many others across the globe that some are calling a new economy movement. The Occupy movement helped open up more space to imagine life beyond the current economy. In Latin America, Canada, and Europe, there are already well developed networks and emerging governmental strategies to support the social or solidarity economy – one that doesn’t operate solely for private profit, but based on cooperation, mutual support, equity, and sustainability.

The new economy is not a singular and top-down vision, but a set of diverse but interlinked practices that can sustain us materially and spiritually. The economy is not just what’s sold in the marketplace, but also the gifts that we give, the caring for family and friends, and the food we grow for ourselves. It’s not just about having a job, but a livelihood. It’s not just making more things more cheaply while exhausting our Earth’s resources and causing climate chaos; it’s about bringing economy and ecology into one circle. It’s not just about choosing an alternative lifestyle, but doing what’s necessary to survive and thrive.

Emerging Models

We found inspiration in the many places outside of the US that have been cultivating a new economy. Launched in 1956, Mondragon in Spain has built a network of more than 100 worker-owned cooperatives employing more than 80,000. In Argentina, we learned about the workers who occupied their factories and took them over when the economy collapsed in 2001. In Quebec, we were inspired by the formation of a social economy network in the late 1990s, which with labor union partnership created its own investment fund to support nonprofit and cooperative businesses. A number of South American countries, such as Brazil and Venezuela, have national-level secretariats for the solidarity economy, providing technical assistance and investment funds.

While the movement outside the US may seem light years ahead, we also discovered that the seeds of a new economy are being sown right here at home. Some of these efforts are more recent and consciously about laying the foundations for a new economy. However, some are decades old, even if they don’t yet see themselves as part of a new economy. Here in Massachusetts, we can point to a number of well established worker cooperatives, such as Equal Exchange, a worker owned fair trade coffee company and Red Sun Press. We also have large numbers of socially-owned housing developments, where tenants have significant level of ownerhip control. In Springfield, the Alliance to Develop Power has leveraged tenant ownership of 4 housing developments to build their community economy. Perhaps the best case from Boston is the community land trust established by Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in 1988, where they took control over a swath of vacant land and have since built several hundred units of affordable housing as part of their “urban village”.

The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland have gained much attention for launching several worker-owned cooperatives serving the City’s universities and hospitals. So far, they have launched a green commercial laundry, solar-installation/weatherization company, and commercial greenhouse producing fresh lettuce. With significant support from City and institutional leaders, this initiative is fashioning itself after Mondragon, aspiring to build a network of 10 cooperatives with 500 worker-owners in the next several years.

Evergreen has inspired a number of similar efforts in cities across the US. We had the opportunity to learn directly from two such initiatives – one from Springfield, Massachusetts and one from the Bronx. In Springfield, the Wellspring project has brought together anchor institutions and community partners with University of Massachusetts and the Center for Popular Economics to plan for launching a food hub and green building business in the next year. The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative has also been in planning mode for more than a year, with key community groups, a labor union, and MIT CoLab anchoring the process.

Then What?
As we were learning and being inspired, we also drilled down into the specific question of how to envision alternatives to Walmart in the Boston area. A group of five masters students completed a major report, guided by our community partners, entitled “If Not Walmart, Then What? Envisioning a Different Paradigm for Local Economic Development in Roxbury and Somerville”. The first half of this report tells the stories (in popular terms) of the local economy with Walmart and with a new community economy. The second half frames out a systems alternative to Walmart and sketches out the possibility of a food cooperative in Somerville and a community-owned organics repurposing facility in Roxbury.

Perhaps the biggest lightbulb moment for our exploration this spring is that an alternative to Walmart is not simply a different development on the same site. Walmart doesn’t just bring a new store, but a whole global supply chain, with goods produced across the country and world. A different paradigm starts with thinking about the regional economy and what can be produced here. Thus, we started to look not just at where food is sold but where it is grown and produced. We also looked at what happens to energy and waste flows. The possibility of turning organic waste into fertilizer and energy inspired the idea of an organics facility in Roxbury. In short, we needed to look more holistically at the system.

This exploration is only a beginning. As inspired as we are by efforts such as Evergreen, we also have major questions about how these models are coordinated with community organizing, policy change, local democracy, and building community power. In the end, we have even more questions than answers. But we know that there will have to be work on a number of fronts, including:

  • Popular education – the work of redefining the economy has to proliferate to the streets. This is tough work, but community organizers are looking for ways to connect short-term campaigns to long-term vision.
  • Assessing assets – we already have a lot to work with, but it often goes unrecognized and synergies left untapped. Mapping of existing businesses, residents’ skills, and community-controlled institutions will be critical.
  • Demonstration and pilot projects – functioning enterprises, even if not perfect, are important for showing that other economies are possible. They are also fertile learning grounds for how to build our own solidarity economy.
  • Public policy and resources – a new economy will need public support in the form of policies and resources. Policies should start to tilt the playing field towards the new economy while curbing the worst practices of the old economy.
  • Coordination – the new economy can bring together many partners who have not traditionally worked together, including community groups, unions, environmentalists, local businesses, social investors, and anchor institutions.

Look here for future posts related to the new community economy and our partner efforts here in the Boston area.

Justice + Sustainability = “Justainability”

This piece summarizes how I started using the term “justainability”. I have spent my entire professional career since the early 1990s working at the links between “sustainability” and “justice”. Sustainability defined in only environmental, non-human terms seemed too narrow. Social justice absent an ecological view was likewise unsatisfying. For me, “environmental justice” was where these two concepts could come together fully, and that is why I have spent so much of work in this area with groups like Alternatives for Community & Environment. I have often said that “environmental justice” and “sustainable development” are two sides of the same coin. Julian Agyeman, in his 2005 book Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice, laid out a Just Sustainability paradigm that fuses these two concepts even further.

So, if these two concepts are so closely interrelated, then why do we have to use two words all the time to describe it? In January 2010, I had an opportunity to do some reflection and sharing with the MIT Community Innovators Lab Mel King Fellows. It seemed like we were all using the two words to describe our efforts, and I was simply getting tired of having to say “just and sustainable” over and over. It occurred to me that if these were really one concept, then we should have one word. After playing around with a few options, the word “justainability” seemed to roll off the tongue right.

Can we imagine a “just” future in which we have trashed the planet that sustains us? Can we imagine a “sustainability” in which racial and economic injustices continue? In either scenario, wouldn’t there be instabilities, either social or environmental, that would be unsustainable? Now the more I use the term, the more I think that it can be helpful in attempts to communicate a just sustainability paradigm. Help me spread the word!