Community-Controlled Economies Drive Systems Change

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Aug 15, 2019 Harper Bishop

“Just Transition is my religion.” — Lorna C. Hill, Founder and Artistic Director of Ujima Theatre Company

Time and again it has been the radical political imagination of grassroots leaders from marginalized communities armed with the truth of their lived experience who have confronted oppressive systems through building collective power that allows for community-controlled systems to take root. Communities across the country — like Buffalo, New York, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Jackson, Mississippi — are organizing for a New Economy that centers people on the front lines of environmental degradation and economic disenfranchisement (byproducts of a capitalist system that prioritizes profit motive above all else). The New Economy movement has become a cornerstone to building sustainable local living and loving economies, where it is recognized that the people closest to the problems have the best solutions — a belief that we live by at PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing) Buffalo, the organization of which I recently became deputy director of movement building.

PUSH Buffalo was founded in 2005 when the organization’s co-founders and community members began going door-to-door in the city of Buffalo’s West Side to talk to people about changes they’d like to see in their neighborhood. PUSH Buffalo began living into the mission “to mobilize residents to create strong neighborhoods with quality, affordable housing; expand local hiring opportunities; and advance economic and environmental justice in Buffalo” once surveying and addressing the issues within their community. The responses from the community were consistently about vacant buildings and empty lots that caused unsafe conditions for neighborhood residents; and contributed to blight. Additionally, people talked about unaffordable heating bills that inevitably led to gas shutoffs in the coldest months of the year in a city known for its harsh winters. PUSH Buffalo’s origin story alone affirms that community organizing is instrumental in defining bottom-up solutions and, in the instance of PUSH, defining organizational priorities of housing, climate, and energy, as well as the interconnectedness of the issues which have been woven together to create a foundation for a new community-controlled economy on Buffalo’s West Side.

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PUSH Buffalo’s youth leaders leading the climate march to advocate for the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) | Photo by Aaron Bartley
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Oakland-based Movement Generation members and guests touring the Massachusetts Avenue Project with PUSH staff and grassroots leaders | Photo by Carla Maria Pérez

Established in 2008, PUSH’s Green Development Zone (GDZ), is the manifestation of working at the intersection of community organizing, policy advocacy, and neighborhood level redevelopment. The GDZ is a place-based initiative that holistically addresses the needs of residents in 25 square blocks of Buffalo’s West Side (one of the most culturally diverse zip codes in New York State) through creating and maintaining green affordable housing that provides job opportunities for community members in construction, stormwater and property management, and other peripheral property positions. The commercial properties that PUSH owns also provide affordable rents to support values-aligned locally-owned and independent businesses and social enterprises with a commitment to the triple bottom line. The most recent addition of the New Economy Department at PUSH is ensuring that cooperative development, and more specifically worker cooperative development, is intentionally embedded into the notion of an economically resilient community that meets the needs of everyday people, especially those who have been left behind by the current system.

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PUSH maintains a commitment to a just transition from a fossil-fuel based economic system based on extraction and exploitation to a community-driven regenerative and resilient economic system based on living in harmonious relationship with each other and the natural environment. Our partners in solidarity are numerous and span across the globe.

Informally, two such partners reside in BALLE Fellows Emily Kawano and Kali Akuno, both of whom I became familiar with in 2016 through being recruited as a Network Weaver, a position that afforded me the privilege of working with Crystal German (BALLE Fellow ‘14), Eunekia Rogers-Sipp (BALLE Fellow ‘14), and Elissa Hillary (BALLE Fellow ’11) to support the thirty-six newly identified BALLE Local Economy Fellows on their transformative leadership development journeys. Similar in their political analysis and theories of change, they have gained international renown for their approach to just transition work.

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Emily Kawano | Photo by Harper Bishop

An economist by training, Emily Kawano served as the director of the Center for Popular Economics from 2004 to 2013 and is currently the co-director of the Wellspring Cooperative Corporation, which is developing a network of worker owned cooperatives in underserved communities in Springfield, Massachusetts. Wellspring’s model started by building on Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperative anchor institution model. This approach recognizes the purchasing power of anchor institutions like hospitals, colleges and universities, as well as nonprofit organizations. Wellspring has identified anchor institutions as the single largest employer and purchasers of goods and services in Western Massachusetts, totaling over $1.5 billion a year with less than 10% of that spent in Springfield proper, and little being spent in the working-class neighborhoods immediately surrounding many of the region’s anchor institutions. A far too common story, anchor institutions too often reconcentrate wealth using public dollars instead of redistributing it and deeply investing in the communities who are most impacted by their presence. However, this helps to build class solidarity and presents an opportunity for organizations like Wellspring and others committed to economic, racial, and social justice to organize people around their own self-interest. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

Through building a network of worker cooperatives that are owned and controlled by community members from neighborhoods adjacent to the anchor institutions, Wellspring is able to fulfill the anchor’s purchasing needs for the benefit of the many, not the few. In addition to the anchor institution approach, Wellspring has two other strategies of co-op development:

1. Fostering and supporting bottom up co-op development through a Co-op Boot Camp developed in partnership with the Workforce Training Program of the Springfield Technical Community College and

2. looking for co-op conversion opportunities in which owners of conventional businesses sell the enterprise to their workers.

Wellspring is also working to build a supportive co-op ecosystem in Springfield and as well as through new statewide co-op/solidarity economy organizing work.

The primary goal is to seed community and economic resiliency through generating and retaining community wealth, promoting collective ownership and democratic participation, providing living-wage jobs to lift people out of poverty, and, most importantly, turn a top-down economic development model into a bottom-up, one that is emblematic of the New Economy and is what a just transition is predicated on.

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Kali Akuno | Photo by Harper Bishop

Cooperation Jackson Co-Founder and Executive Director Kali Akuno has been advancing “the struggle for democratic rights, economic justice, self-determination, particularly for Afrikan people in the Deep South, and dignity for all workers” over the past several decades in Jackson, Mississippi. The mission of Cooperation Jackson is to advance the development of economic democracy in Jackson, MS, by building a solidarity economy anchored by a network of cooperatives and other type of worker-owned and democratically-governed enterprises. The work of Cooperation Jackson was borne out of the Jackson-Kush Plan, or J-K Plan, which is a blueprint for Black self-determination and economic democracy in the South. The three major tenets of the plan included:

1. People’s Assemblies, a concept rooted in the Black Liberation Movement, for the express purpose of building power outside of the state.

2. A network of progressive political candidates to challenge the current two party system; and

3. a local solidarity economy that would imbue cooperative economics “that promote social solidarity, mutual aid, reciprocity and generosity” into every sector and part of society.

The solidarity economy put forth by the Jackson-Kush Plan, and Cooperation Jackson, also name specific tactics that are familiar to both students and practitioners of alternative economic systems: credit unions, housing cooperatives, urban farming and community-supported agriculture, as well as advocating for policies that strengthen, not undermine, workers’ rights, forward the cause of clean and renewable energy, and engage youth in participatory planning processes.

From taking back the land and establishing community land trusts (CLTs) to incubating worker and housing cooperatives, Cooperation Jackson’s mission and Kali Akuno’s agenda is explicitly political. Conservatively, Kali and the original authors of the Jackson-Kush Plan have been building a base and organizing for a just transition for over 25 years now. And although their strategies dictate that their work be deeply rooted in place, their theoretical underpinnings make it clear that in order for collective liberation to ever be a potentiality, global capitalism must be dismantled block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, place by place.

I’ll leave you with one last value that is difficult, but we try our best to live into every day at PUSH: “When it comes to turning our community around, we’re all in this together.” The same can be said of our economy and our world. It’s going to take all of us committed to building economic, political, and cultural power for a just transition to create a new community-controlled economy that includes all of us. How that happens is through acknowledging past harm (starting with recognizing that the U.S. economy has been built on stolen land and stolen labor), centering those communities who have been — and continue to be — most impacted by that harm, and then organizing with an intersectional analysis in love, struggle, and solidarity. After all, it’s either all of us or it’s none of us, welcome to the New Economy, powered by people.


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