The US Social Forum (USSF 2010) was amazing. Inspired by gatherings of the internationally based World Social Forum which started in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil in response to the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the USSF was organized first in Atlanta in 2007 and this second time in Detroit, Michigan. As a gathering of tens of thousands of grassroots activists, movement leaders and public intellectuals, it was much more than any one participant could fully absorb. As one of my friends put it, it was overwhelming.
There were about a thousand workshops during the four and a half day forum. Even the well-laid-out book that described them all was intimidating. But in a way, it was hard to go wrong with so many interesting people and ideas around.
In addition to some exciting cultural work with Cakalak Thunder the Radical Marching Band, the area I focused on was economic justice. I got to participate in an extended workshop on Community Based Enterprises in which we heard from the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), which runs a worker-owned business in New York. ROC is planning to open another worker-owned restaurant in Detroit by October. We also heard from the worker-owned Maryland Brush Company, which is expanding its production to include the manufacture of solar water and electric panels.
But some of the most exciting work we heard about is the collaboration taking place in Detroit, a city that is taking its economic woes as an opportunity to build a new economy on the ruins of the old. Some of the most community-based businesses we learned about (and visited!) include the Avalon International Bakery, Slow’s Bar BQ, and the Spiral Collective. The dynamic C2BE (Center for Community Based Enterprises), which coordinates collaboration between businesses and individuals who are interested in supporting a healthy new economy in Detroit is also playing a critical role.
The essential features of Community Based Enterprises are simple: 1) a sustainable business that is 2) intentional about its relationship to the community and 3) paying a living wage. There are no requirements that the business be organized as a cooperative, or that it be owned by its workers, nor even that it be all organic. These specifics are part of the mix of how people are working to be intentional about their relationship to community, but none are seen as “litmus tests” to limit the inclusion of businesses that are trying to be wholesome parts of the community’s structure.
Included, however, in the leadership of C2BE are people who have visited the Mondragon Coops in Northern Spain, as well as experts on Employee Stock Ownership Plans. Deborah Olson, the Executive Director of C2BE, is well aware of the esoteric fine points of community economic development, but she is also practical enough to recognize that there are many ways to build business enterprises that enhance the quality of life of everyday people.
One very beautiful feature of C2BE’s work is the type of cooperation between businesses that it inspires. While we toured the Willis Avenue area, I went into the Spiral Coop, a joint business of three African American women comprised of a book store, an art gallery and a fragrances and notions gift shop. When I asked them if they were friends with the Avalon International Bakery down the street they beamed and shared that Avalon had loaned them the money that they needed to get their building on the corner ready for use. The thought that one successful business might loan money to a start-up which would have had difficulty borrowing from a bank in this tight money market was an eye-opener to me. The reason for the loan isn’t just the altruistic desire to help someone; Avalon recognizes that every successful business on their block enhances their own business possibilities. With the encouragement of C2BE to which the Avalon owners belong, the businesses on that block have shared community celebrations that bring more business to the area. It is a synergy that has produced a vibrant and healthy place in Detroit’s largely bleak landscape. Because it is a replicable model, we can look to see a lot of other people in and out of Detroit learning from it.
I am sure that other folks who pursued different paths at the USSF came away similarly inspired by what they participated in and the contacts that they made. Hopefully we can get together in our local areas and continue to share the lessons and the networks so that the Different World that is Possible comes to be along with the Different US that is Necessary.