Report Back: Commonbound Conference in Boston June 6-8

The New Economics Coalition held their national conference Commonbound at Northeastern University June 6-8, 2014. I had the opportunity to participate in several panels. Check out the conference site, with some video of plenary sessions.

On Friday June 6, I gave a presentation at the Research Workshop on New Economy on “Emerging Solidarity Economy Initiatives in Springfield, Worcester, and Boston, MA.” Download slides here: Commonbound research slides LOH 6.6.14

On Saturday June 7, I organized a panel “What is the Color of the New Economy”. This session was packed with more than 50 participants. The Bay State Banner reported on this session in the article “Panelists discuss hurdles to building an inclusive new economy movement.” (see below for full text)

Also on June 7, I was a panelist in a session on Community Wealth Building and City Economic Development, organized by Steve Dubb of the Democracy Collaborative and with panelists Tracey Nichols of City of Cleveland and Eva Gladstein of City of Philadelphia.


 

Bay State Banner

Panelists discuss hurdles to building an inclusive new economy movement

Martin Desmarais | 6/11/2014, 11:19 a.m.

The New Economy Coalition’s CommonBound conference this past weekend brought 500 activists, academics and change advocates to Boston for three days of speeches, workshops and talk of new economy strategies for the future. One of the most decisive panels was a discussion on eliminating race as a dividing factor in the economy and social movements.

Led by Tufts University Professor Penn Loh, who is director of the Tufts Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning’s Masters of Public Policy Program and Community Practice, the panel “What Color is the New Economy” attracted a packed audience to the campus of Northeastern University, which hosted CommonBound from June 6 to June 8.

The discussion explored the hurdles to building an inclusive new economy movement with strategies for establishing cross-racial solidarity and for addressing a highly racialized economy.

“Issues around race and racism, particularly here in the U.S. with our history, are very complex and deep and we can’t escape them even if we would like to,” Loh said.

“The question we are addressing is what is the color of the new economy and why does that matter? I am hoping that we can go a little bit deeper because I think we necessarily have to talk about what is the face of the new economy.”

Included on the panel along with Loh, was the Fund for Democratic Communities’ Ed Whitfield, PolicyLink’s Chris Schildt and Brandeis University’s Jacklyn Gil.

A network of more than 100 organizations and businesses, the New Economy Coalition advocates for change to economic and political systems. The term “new economy” has come to symbolize the efforts of groups, organizations and companies to experiment with new ways of doing business, practicing democracy and sharing common resources. Some of the groups supporting the coalition include the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, Demos, Climate Justice Alliance and Shareable.

Loh asked the panelists to highlight the challenges of creating a new economy related to race and racism.

Whitfield, who is co-founder and co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities and a long-time social activist involved in labor, community organizing, and peace work since the 1960s, said that he finds the concept of essentialism at the heart of the matter.

According to Whitfield, it is destructive to try to move forward and create an inclusive economy based on models that have worked in white communities as the best option for communities of color.

“We have to approach matters of race and racial healing and inclusion from a point of humility, recognizing sometimes how little we know about who is in the room or who they are or what those actual set of experiences have been, and not from this kind of essentialist position of we kind of know what is white,” Whitfield said.

He also says it is harmful not to recognize the potential agency and creativity of communities of color to determine what is the best course of action and way forward. He cautioned against what he called “well-meaning progressive folk” who are trying to do the “right thing” by trying to correct matters of race.

Schildt, who conducts research for PolicyLink on equitable economic growth strategies, including best practices for advancing equity in job creation, entrepreneurship and workforce development, said there are three things that need to be considered in developing a new economy in relation to race and racism.

The first is acknowledging that any discussion of a new economy cannot separate questions of race from questions of place and the geographic segregation of people of color, and communities of color from white communities, and oftentimes the way that opportunities are centralized in white spaces. She pointed to examples of this in housing policy, school systems and the establishment of social networks.

The second is thinking about the risk of participation in new economy models for people that have been previously excluded and ensuring security for those who step out of current modes to help develop new ones.

Lastly, she said, it is important to understand that this country has had a hegemonic white culture and white narrative that has oftentimes silenced the struggles and the victories that communities of color have had, so that any development forward must fall out of this negative pattern.

“I think one of the main challenges is really creating culturally democratic spaces that don’t just include people of color, low-income people and even those labels, but actually center and create stories and spaces that acknowledge the unique power that these communities have,” Gil said.

The panel also discussed at length the notion of new economy and if the term “new” is truly applicable considering much of what the movement draws on is already out there and existing.

Schildt acknowledged that there are difficulties with the term, “new” and said at PolicyLink they often refer to it as “equitable” economy. However, what she said is appropriate to use the term new for is that the U.S. will be a majority minority country by 2043, and many of the main cities already are, so this aspect is new. Therefore, the economy emerging out of this status would be unlike any that has come before.

“What this means for us is it poses this challenge of what will our future look like. What will 2043 look like? Is this going to be the tipping point that we acknowledge that we cannot say we are going to concentrate access to opportunity for certain groups, but leave out this growing majority? We hope that it is an opportunity to help bring along and — also particularly white people — to acknowledge that we are in this together. We cannot separate our future, our path, from the path of communities of color,” Schildt said.

Whitfield accepted the term “new” but pointed out the paradox it brings.

“We are talking about a new economic situation in which privileged and certain sections of the white community are dissipating, given the economic crisis that is so devastating to so many people,” he said.

Whitfield said he was very encouraged by what he has seen throughout the United States and the growing number of groups and organizations looking to a more inclusive future. The most promising are examining new people exercising new forms of power in new ways, new systems of ownership, and dissipating current concentrations of power.

“There are many alternatives, so I don’t even think there is one way,” he said. “I think there are many alternatives and the good thing about that is that new order, as it comes into being, if it is indeed ideologically diverse, will be more resilient than any of the single things we might figure out how to do.”

Building a More Sustainable, Just, and Democratic Community Food Economy

I had the privilege of making a short presentation at the 2nd annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference on Saturday, March 8, 2014 at Northeastern University. My talk was based largely on the article “The Emerging Just and Sustainable Food System in Boston“. Check out the prezi presentation below or here.

Thanks to the conference hosts for inviting me — Urban Farming Institute, City Growers, and MA

[gigya src=”http://prezi.com/bin/preziloader.swf” allowfullscreen=”true” allowscriptaccess=”always” width=”550″ height=”400″ bgcolor=”#ffffff” flashvars=”prezi_id=7euzxdygstvh&lock_to_path=0&color=ffffff&autoplay=no&autohide_ctrls=0″ ]

Transformative Economic Development: Summary of the March 14th Forum

By Penn Loh and Jonathan Feinberg

On Thursday March 14th, more than 30 gathered for the Practical Visionaries Forum on Transformative Economic Development (see video here). The session featured MIT urban planning professor Phil Thompson and MassINC Research Director Ben Forman. In addition, Aaron Tanaka (formerly of Boston Workers Alliance) and Juan Leyton (formerly of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts) offered first responses.

MassINC’s Transformative Redevelopment Proposal

Forman spoke first about MassINC’s Gateway Cities project, which supports revitalization of 26 mid-sized cities in Massachusetts (such as Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester). Once the bedrock of the state’s middle class, these cities are struggling with poverty and loss of jobs and investment. But together, the Gateway Cities represent about one-fourth of the population in Massachusetts. MassINC’s strategy includes supporting these cities to work together on state education and transportation policy, which is often dominated by Boston area interests.

In terms of the economy, Forman laid out the framework in MassINC’s new report Transformative Redevelopment: Strategic State Policy for Gateway City Growth and Renewal. This strategy assumes that the Gateway Cities can be economic anchors for their regions and that it is depressed real estate markets (where development costs outweigh potential returns) that are prohibiting private investment. Forman noted that these Gateway Cities will likely remain primarily residential and thus will “live and die by their human capital.”

MassINC recommends a $1.7 billion state program to provide support for transformative redevelopment, primarily to help bridge the development gap in the real estate market. Forman noted that these Gateway Cities alone do not have the expertise or the resources to overcome many of their barriers. Thus their strategy includes building the governance capacity to do the planning. Much of the state money would go towards a redevelopment fund that would be targeted at investments with the highest impacts. Many things have been tried, he said, including building the courthouse, the downtown mega-development, or growing out from an anchor university or hospital. But many more approaches will have to be taken.

Forman acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges is to ensure that these redevelopment projects produce benefits for the people in these cities. He believes that these cities can absorb some gentrification without displacing existing residents because the housing prices are already so low. He also pointed to the difficulty of the politics in these cities, where the elected leadership is not always representative of the growing immigrant populations.

The Cleveland Model

Thompson then took the floor to share an innovative development model being pursued in Cleveland. He was co-author of the recent report The Anchor Mission: A Case Study of University Hospitals Vision 2010 Program. But before getting into the specifics, he shared his thoughts on economy in general. He said that economy in Greek times referred to the household unit (including women and slaves) and was considered the private sphere. But today, economy is coming out of that private sphere into the public. And as a result democracy ought to apply. The challenge is to think about a “public economy”, one in which today’s equivalent of Greek-era women and slaves can have a say.

Thompson then laid out three key drivers behind Cleveland’s anchor institution model. First are the ideas of Gar Alperovitz and the Democracy Collaborative at University of Maryland. They worked with Cleveland leaders on an economic development strategy driven by worker-owned firms. The basic idea is import substitution – locally producing more of what is currently imported. While goods imported from outside the region may be cheaper, production by local worker-owned cooperatives keeps more of the money circulating locally. It can also have other social and environmental benefits, such as lower transportation emissions. Thompson believes that local manufacturing with the advent of “3-d printing” is the wave of the future and could displace the import of goods from factories in China and elsewhere.

Second, Thompson introduced the University Hospitals (UH) motivation to help improve their surrounding neighborhoods. The crime and deterioration of the areas around the hospital were making it harder for them to attract doctors and nurses. The hospital had also suffered from poor relations with the surrounding community. Finally, in Ohio nonprofit hospitals are required to dedicate a certain percentage of their revenues towards community benefits. Thus, the hospital itself had high motivation to pursue a different course that would both improve its image as well as the conditions of its surrounding neighborhoods.

The third driving force, according to Thompson, was Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. He was frustrated that the city could not do more affirmative action and programs targeting lower income neighborhoods. But a private institution like University Hospitals could potentially do even more than the city to promote local hiring and contracting.

The University Hospital’s Cleveland 2010 program included a massive $1.2 billion construction project as well as procurement through the newly launched Evergreen Cooperatives. Evergreen is becoming renowned for launching a series of networked worker-owned coops in businesses serving the local anchor institutions. They have a commercial green laundry, a solar installation firm, and have just opened a lettuce-producing greenhouse.

In the construction project, UH overcame a number of challenges that often stymie local hiring and contracting initiatives. First, UH hired in-house a black architect who oversaw all construction management. They then hired only firms that would also help resource smaller minority and women-owned firms, such as assisting with bonding. UH also established a project labor agreement with the construction trade unions to meet targets for hiring local, minority, and women workers. An independent third party company was hired to oversee and monitor the implementation of this agreement to overcome problems with implementation.

As a result, 90 minority firms got contracts and 100’s were hired from the community. According to Thompson, UH totally changed its image with the community and saw charitable donations go up significantly. One woman in the neighborhood even bequeathed her home to UH.

Thompson finished by mentioning a new IRS rule that now requires nonprofit hospitals to do more to plan for and provide community benefits. This could be more impetus for hospitals to follow the Cleveland model and do more local sourcing for goods. He and the MIT Co-Lab are working in the Bronx and trying to determine how to work with hospitals there. They are also in discussions with Mondragon to see if there are opportunities for Mondragon to open up a cooperative manufacturing facility.

Aaron Tanaka responds

Tanaka said that he is very excited to talk about how democracy applies to the economy. As an organizer, he said, it is difficult to talk about jobs and a different vision. But that is the challenge that he took on while Executive Director at the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA). Along with some notable project victories like barring questions about arrest records on job applications, BWA helped some of its members start up Roxbury Green Power, a microenterprise that collects waste grease from local restaurants to process into biodiesel fuel. The group also learned about and sponsored talks on participatory budgeting, a process started in Porto Allegre, Brazil, that is now spreading throughout the US to include Chicago, New York City, and Vallejo. The basic idea behind participatory budgeting and other similar projects is the development of processes and institutions for people to directly participate in shaping their government’s budget.

Tanaka views this type of work as part of a search for new, democratic, and participatory economic forms beyond neoliberal capitalism and centralized state socialism, the two most dominant economic paradigms in recent global history. This kind of discussion is especially important when trying to organize communities around job creation, and attempting to explain why any other system is better than the one we have. Tanaka called specifically for a greater need for accountability and enforcement in development policies, and is now working with the Economic Justice Funding Circle to support these kinds of initiatives.

But also, there is a great need for public education around economic democracy. What would happen if anchor institution spending in the form of PILOTS (Payments In Lieu Of Taxes) were to be used in participatory processes? Participatory processes have demonstrated a real shift in people’s relationship to government. What would democratic economic planning look like, where consumers could collectivize their spending power and negotiate directly with producers? Tanaka’s question is, essentially, how do we change the nature of people’s relationship with – and understanding of – the economy?

Juan Leyton responds

Leyton raised some challenges based on his experience with Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, which organizes in a number of low income cities outside Boston. First, he mentioned that we need to deal with the state deficits. New revenues are always tough to raise. We need to figure out how to get the public resources for transformative development: where would the $1.7 Billion come from to fund MassINC’s Transformative Redevelopment plan? Making the income tax more progressive is a first step. But he noted that while Massachusetts’ Congressional delegation is seen as very liberal, our state legislature is controlled by more conservative Democrats.

Another challenge is that the state constitution does not recognize cooperatives, so that would need to be addressed at some point. There is also the issue of Boston versus the rest of the state, confirming what Forman raised about the challenges facing Gateway Cities. This issue is perhaps best illustrated through the transportation debate. Most of the solutions proposed for Massachusetts’ transportation policies focus exclusively on Boston. Holyoke and Springfield have no extensive mass transit, regional transportation authorities are underfunded, and it takes at least an hour to get from Lynn to Boston, a 20 minute drive. The gas taxes proposed to help fund public transportation, moreover, will disproportionately impact lower-income folks who have no option but cars in areas that have inadequate public transportation.

Finally, Leyton asked if we are really ready on the ground to make the deals with the hospitals and other anchors. This is a challenge for us. He thought that we are not really talking about it seriously yet, but the conversation is growing. Even with funding available for workforce development, the combination of unfavorable legislation and a lack of readiness on the ground are hampering potential future work.  He is working with an emerging effort to build a Boston Center for Community Ownership that would help communities and workers develop more cooperative enterprises.

Questions and Discussion

The following is a summary of some of the themes that arose during the questions and discussion without citation to any individual speaker. [Note that the video recording ends before the questions and discussion.]

One main theme raised in the final question session is the relationship between organizing the community and these transformative efforts and how to better connect them up.  One of the major problems identified is in getting the financing to the community organizations ready to do the work. As citizens, we are not trained to see public money as our money, and therefore as accountable to us. This type of shift in recognition may be necessary in transforming debates around resource problems.

However, the real problems are not financial, they are political. There is a real lack of cooperation between community organizations, state government, and unions. Where is the balance between the efficiency of top-down and the validity of bottom-up development processes? The top-down model of Cleveland’s Evergreen coops is still challenged with the difficult transition to worker ownership, leading to a fundamental question: how do transformative enterprises fit into a broader movement building framework?

A New Economy Needed for True Interculturalism

On November 2, 2012, I had the honor of speaking at the symposium “Political Space – Intercultural Intersections in Politics and the Economy,” sponsored by the Tufts Intercultural Practice Group. My opening remarks (see below) helped to make the connection between interculturalism and the economy, challenged participants to think differently about economy, and introduced the basic ideas of solidarity economy. The basic takeaway from this talk is that a genuine interculturalism requires a new economy based on principles of solidarity.

****Notes to Penn Loh opening remarks*****

Thanks to the ICP group for choosing such a challenging topic for today.

First, let’s get our heads around interculturalism. Interculturalism is about valuing diversity, as opposed to just managing or tolerating it. The intercultural city enables “people from different cultural backgrounds to mix, exchange, and interact for mutual benefit.”[1] This is a statement that’s easy to get behind in the policy and planning field. But it’s much easier say than to do.

So, let’s see if we can recognize interculturalism when we see it. Is this Interculturalism?

Corporate Diversity
Multiculturalism
Street Interculturalism

Not all difference is the same. With corporate diversity and multiculturalism, difference is only skin deep. What are your reactions to these depictions of diversity? Street interculturalism gets us closer – people are mixing, but how are they exchanging and interacting? This picture is also incomplete. What else would we want to see? Kids together in schools, people going to each other’s shops, playing soccer, celebrating at public festivals. But more to the point: working side by side, participating in community visioning and planning, occupying Wall Street or Dewey Square?

I argue that what it takes to support and create an intercultural city requires understanding the political-economic processes that both create and are shaped by cultural difference. Culture is more than just “steel drums, saris and samosas” (as Julian Agyeman likes to say). It is a system of beliefs that informs how we view the world and our place in it. Political and economic power have a profound impact on shaping belief and cultures. Think of the “consumer culture” that has accompanied the globalization. The economy is a social structure that is both informed by and shapes culture and identity (as much as ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Our relationship to and role in the economy has a profound influence on our identities. Some call this aspect class.

Here’s my provocative contention for today: global capitalism is producing a homogenous (as well as vacuous and alienating) consumer culture exemplified by hyper-individualism, competition, unbounded growth, and a throw-away mentality. This economy is destroying indigenous cultures while marginalizing those of less wealth, people of color, and women. At the same time it has created a dual crisis of economic inequality and ecological unsustainability. We have unconscionable wealth inequality – richest 1% getting richer at expense of the rest of us. Richest 400 Americans own more than bottom 150 million (that’s 1/2 of US population).[2] This accumulation is based on endless growth and unsustainable natural resource consumption, which is cooking the planet. Yet those who’ve profited the most from the unsustainability are the most buffered from its consequences. (Who is suffering the most in the aftermath of Katrina and Sandy?)

But let’s not forget that it’s not just the 1% vs. the 99%. There has been a bottom 30-40% here (and higher abroad) for whom this economy has never worked very well, who’ve never been middle class even if we thought we were. These crises aren’t new for lower income people, people of color. We’ve been stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. The subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis has caused the largest loss of wealth for people of color in US history.[3] We’ve been dumped on by all the pollution. Even in Massachusetts — not the Jim Crow South — studies show that 24 of the 30 most environmentally overburdened communities in MA are communities of color (there are only 34 communities of color in MA).[4]

What kind of interculturalism can we imagine with these economic divides between people? What kind of interculturalism is possible as we undermine the ecological and climate systems that we depend on? We aren’t going to get to any meaningful interculturalism without confronting and transforming the economy – global capitalism. And we won’t get to any deep reform or transformation of the economy without simultaneously creating more intercultural spaces.

Rethinking Economy

So then why do we often separate culture from economy – think about them as separate realms? Why is it so difficult to think about confronting global capitalism? Part of the ideology of capitalism is that the market is a “natural” force guided by iron laws. It feels out of our conscious control, or it is so complex that only economists can make policy about how to guide it. Part of the reason the market has come to rule is because we have come to accept the idea that people are individual utility maximizers. Whether or not we act that way, we believe that enough others do.

Are we trapped? Or is another (intercultural) world possible? Well, to start, we have to rethink and reclaim economy. Lots of folks are starting to think the same way. How many of you have heard these new buzzwords to describe a different economy: green, solidarity, democratic, cooperative, generative, local, living, new, (new and improved). But I’d like to not say “alternative”. To me, it implies that there is a freedom of individual choice (like a lifestyle) — suggests that we can just opt out. It also is self marginalizing.

Let’s try a quick exercise: when you think about “the economy”, what comes to mind? Market, wages, stocks, … If we define economy as all the diverse activities that meet our material needs, then we see that the visible/dominant economy is just the tip of the iceberg.

Ken Byrne, http://www.geo.coop/node/722

Take a moment to think about and write down some of the non-market activities that you are engaged in that are part of the diverse economy. Even in this room, we see that there is much that we do in the economy that we don’t even see as economic activity. These represent economic activity based on different values (not individual utility maximization), that draws on cooperation, democracy, sustainability, equity, and solidarity. Are any of these also cultural or intercultural activities (that subvert the dominant or support marginalized cultures)? Babysitting, volunteering, gardening, trading skills/time, …

The critical questions are:

  • How do we more consciously and strategically cultivate these other economies?
  • Can these other ways be surfaced and scaled up?
  • At what point might they challenge or be coopted by the dominant economy?
  • How can the diverse economy support interculturalism and vice versa?

The Local Challenge of New Economy

There are good reasons why it’s not easy to imagine a new economy. But nonetheless there are opportunities and challenges that we are confronted with every day at the local level. So, let’s ground this discussion with a real-life example.

One case in point that we have been dealing with in the Boston area is Walmart. Two summers ago, they proposed stores for Somerville and Roxbury. Though the initial plans are now shelved, we know that our cities are their next market, and they won’t be going away any time soon. Some of you may have been in involved in anti-Walmart activism. They’re easy to hate because they symbolize much of what is wrong with capitalism – from exploitation of workers and the environment to destroying main streets and exercise of corporate power over governments. But all of us know people who want the jobs (even if they suck) and want access to affordable produce and goods.

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

Did you know that Walmart is now positioning themselves as the solution to food deserts, pledging to open up to 300 stores hiring 40,000 associates in areas defined as food deserts by the USDA?[5] And for those of you into food justice, did you know that Will Allen, founder of the pioneering urban farm Growing Power in Milwaukee, defended his acceptance of a $1 million grant from Walmart in Fall 2011 by saying “Wal-mart is the world’s largest distributor of food—there is no one better positioned to bring high-quality, locally grown food into urban food deserts and fast-food swamps.”[6]

What then are we left to do? We don’t like the Walmartization of our economy and culture. But as long as they are around, Walmart ought to do better for workers, community, and environment. Is there an opportunity here to start envisioning a different future: an intercultural solidarity economy?

Visions for a New Economy

Building a new dream is happening. I’m talking Martin Luther King’s version of “I have a dream”, not a pipedream or utopian fantasy. We can point to real projects and places, where they are moving in a transformative direction – towards a solidarity economy.

How many of you have heard of Mondragon? Since 1950s, built a network of >100 worker cooperatives, with almost 100,000 worker-owners, building car parts and appliances to running their own business school, bank, and one of largest grocery chains in EU. Have you heard about the South American countries that have ministries of the solidarity economy to help support and grow a new economy (most notably Brazil)? Who’s heard of Cleveland’s Evergreen Coops? Started just 4 years ago and modeled on Mondragon style coops, they are building a network of worker owned businesses that can serve the area’s universities and hospitals. They now have a green laundry, solar/weatherization company, and lettuce greenhouse.

In the Practical Visionaries Workshop at Tufts, I work with Boston area groups and graduate students to explore the vision. We challenged ourselves last spring to try to envision what would a local economy look like without Walmart. First, we looked at the implications of Walmart bringing in their global supply chain and sucking resources out of our communities. Then, we tried to imagine a more localized economy with more local production and more collective ownership, that together as a network can start to get to scale.

Boston with Walmart

Boston no walmart

These are all examples of trying to envision and build a new Solidarity Economy.

  • Economy rests on nature and the creation that we are gifted with.
  • Includes the work of reproduction (often seen as women’s work).
  • Multiple forms of exchange, including market.
  • Emphasis on cooperation and community.
  • More democratic governance at both political and economic levels.
  • Surplus is redistributed and reinvested democratically.
  • This is an economy that looks at our world as sharing the plentiful, not competing over the scarce.
Solidarity Economy

This is a different political-economy that values and is built on a foundation of biological and cultural diversity. Perhaps it’s an economy that is not just much more suited for, but necessary for building truly intercultural cities.

As policy and planning professionals, there is much work to do: creating spaces, fostering democratic participation, supporting community building, and building an economy that works for all people and the planet.


[1] THE INTERCULTURAL CITY: What it is and how to make it work. Introductory document for cities participating in the Pilot Phase of the Intercultural Cities Programme, Joint action of the Council of Europe and the European Commission. January 2008.

[3] Rivera, A. 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.

[4] Faber, Daniel and Eric Krieg. October 2005. “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Executive Summary.” Philanthropy and Environmental Justice Research Project of Northeastern University, pp. iii-vi, 1-11. Available at: http://nuweb9.neu.edu/nejrc/wp-content/uploads/executive_summary_2005.pdf

Mel King: Practical Visionary

On Wednesday October 10, 2012, Mel King shared his wisdom with a group of 100+ students, faculty, alumni, and friends at the Colloquium of the Tufts Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP). On this special evening, Mel — one of our great practical visionaries — reflected on a lifetime of building community power and working for social and racial justice. He responded to questions from several UEP folks (Fran Smith, Tracy Brown, Lenz Bayas, and me) about public education, the role of universities and policy and planning professionals, community development, and electoral politics. Click here for the video of this remarkable session (thanks to videographer Ryan Nichols).

Mel King was born and still resides in Boston’s South End. He has been a teacher and youth worker. He served as a State Representative for 10 years. His historic Boston mayoral campaign in 1983 launched the local and national Rainbow Coalitions. He founded the Community Fellows Program at MIT Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning, where he was Adjunct Professor for 25 years. The Mel King Institute of Community Building was launched in 2009 in honor of the major role he has played the community development movement. Mel is the author of Chain of Change and co-editor (with James Jennings) of From Access to Power: Black Politics In Boston. He continues to direct the South End Technology Center at Tent City.Mel was recently named as the inaugural winner of the Edward J. Blakely Award, presented by the Planners of Color Interest Group of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning for his extraordinary service towards greater social justice in urban planning and development for communities of color.

Mel greatly influenced me as a young person, while a student at MIT. When we were trying to get the university to divest from South Africa, he was the one there encouraging us to stand for what was right and to see that each generation has a mission or calling to better things for the next. When we were protesting the militarization of technology and research, he urged us to think differently about technology: Low Tech is High Tech. Technology that serves human and community needs is high tech, not just the pure processing speed of our computers.

Mel offered many insights. Several that stood out to me are paraphrased below:

  • Self definition is the first step. Don’t let others define you and your community. You have to define yourself first on the road towards social justice and community development.
  • What we are working for is a “new and informed humanity”, not “equal opportunity in a dehumanized society.” (From Vincent Harding’s book There is a River.)
  • The innovation we need is “technology of the hearth.” Technology comes from the earth. In that word is “art” which is the technology and “ear” which means listening. Really listening means a willingness to change. When you listen in this way to someone else, you affirm their humanity.
  • Our work is like “pulling the pig’s tail.” If you pull it, it can straighten out, but if we let go, it goes back. The victories that were won in decades past need to continue to be worked on, as there are forces that are pushing the other way.
  • We need to treat every child as if they were our child. In the Boston debates over school segregation and student assignment, this is the attitude that is needed.

Plenary Remarks at SAGE Conference October 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to a productive day with you all.


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

[3] Faber, Daniel and Eric Krieg. October 2005. “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Executive Summary.” Philanthropy and Environmental Justice Research Project of Northeastern University, pp. iii-vi, 1-11. Available at:
http://nuweb9.neu.edu/nejrc/wp-content/uploads/executive_summary_2005.pdf