About the Fund for Democratic Communities

The Fund for Democratic Communities is a Greensboro, North Carolina based limited-life foundation supporting community-based initiatives that foster authentic democracy and make communities better places to live. Founded in 2007, we’ve made over $5 million in grants and provided over 100,000 hours in technical assistance to support grassroots democratic efforts, primarily focused in the Southeastern U.S., North Carolina, and Greensboro, our home town.

We’re a small fund, but we’re trying to make tangible progress in building a more just, democratic, and sustainable South before we end operations in 2020. Our decision to sunset, rather than exist in perpetuity like most foundations, allows us to bring more financial resources to bear faster. Recognizing the limits of our time and resources, we focus primarily on two things: 1) building models and infrastructure for the world we want, and 2) supporting institutions and movements that build economic democracy, especially finance and development infrastructure that supports cooperative enterprises and community ownership.

Big Ideas that Guide Our Work

Over the ten years that F4DC has been in existence, a few key frameworks – some invented by us, some shaped by us, and some stolen wholesale from other smart people – have come to influence our thinking and decisions about where we put our time and resources:

  • Authentic Democracy
  • The Spirit, Art, Science, and Habits of Democracy (SASH)
  • Making Communities Better Places to Live
  • Community as Developer (CAD)
  • Resist-Advocate-Do for Ourselves (RAD)
  • Democratic, Just, and Sustainable (DJS)
  • Why Economic Democracy is Essential
  • Big Piles of Money: Where they came from and what they should be used for
  • Reparations and Recreating a Commons of Capital

Below, we write a bit about each of these frameworks. If you learn better from video presentations than from reading, you might want to check out a set of speeches made in the fall of 2015 by a series of “catalyst speakers” who kicked off rounds of deep reflection and discussion at our 2015 Grantee Gathering. Many of the ideas above are woven into the presentations by these folks:

Ed Whitfield, Fund for Democratic Communities: The Power of Ideas and the Idea of Power

Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Member of Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective and author of “Collective Courage:” Democratizing Community Development

Aaron Tanaka, Co-Founder and Director of the Center for Economic Democracy; Senior Adviser for the Boston Impact Initiative: Solidarity vs Solitary

Brendan Martin, Founder and President of The Working World: The Oppression of Debt and the Promise of a Financial Commons

Marnie Thompson, Fund for Democratic Communities: Building a Just Economy One Grocery Store at a Time

Melissa Hoover, Executive Director at the Democracy At Work Institute: Up Against the Wall: The Resistance of Systems and The Swarm

Phillip Agnew (formerly known as Umi Selah), Co-Founder and Director of the Florida Dream Defenders: Moments and Movements

Authentic Democracy

We believe in authentic democracy – where ordinary people come together on equal footings to make decisions and take actions that benefit all involved. We’re not talking about the bought and sold electoral politics that masquerade as democracy in the United States these days, and not the friendly-to-U.S.- business interests democracy U.S. leaders use military might to install in sovereign nations.

We view democracy as an essential basis for building sustainable, effective organizations and communities. Better ideas always emerge in communities where more voices are engaged in debating problems and solutions. And those ideas are more likely to come to life in actual practice when the people who are most affected have collectively studied and decided on a course of action. By engaging more people and more kinds of people in decision-making and action, democratic organizations are able to nurture a constantly replenishing pool of leaders and thinkers.

We think authentic democracy can take many forms, so we would never prescribe “one right way” to build or sustain it. But we do have some ideas about what it looks like when it’s happening: meaningful collective involvement of people in analysis, planning, and decision-making about their future development and the problems that confront them along the way. This means that people work together to address their own problems, rather than seeking outside agencies to solve problems for them. Learning – both learning for public purpose and learning for personal growth – is key to the success of this approach.

The Spirit, Arts, Science, and Habits of Democracy

We think of democracy as requiring the adoption of a certain Spirit along with the Arts, Sciences, and Habits of standing with the whole and being in the community, for the community. We call this “SASH. In the absence of any one of those components, the democratic project is likely to falter. Democratizing wealth requires a thoughtful and intentional approach to the question of how to balance the community’s interests with those of the individual and/or the corporation. This is among our greatest challenges.

Making Communities Better Places to Live

We are keen on making communities better places to live. These days, this is often conceived by politicians as “good jobs, good schools, safe streets.” Of course these are important, but we’re grasping for something broader and deeper: we support community-based initiatives that enhance long life, meaningful engagement, connectedness, and happiness for all members of the community.

Who could possibly be opposed to making communities better places to live? Well, pretty much no one – until hard choices have to be made. The fact is that the quality of life in communities is often given short shrift when budgets run short or when bigger profits can be had by focusing on the financial bottom line. This is why we keep talking about making communities better places to live, and why we’re concerned about the question of “better for whom?” We’re focused on the people who already live there, especially poor folks and others who have been marginalized. We keep seeing communities being remade under forces of gentrification that are intent on making communities better places to live – for some supposedly “better” people who will move in once the community gets “cleaned up” or otherwise improved. While we recognize that communities are dynamic and populations change over time, we want to see improvements made for the current constituents in each community.

Community as Developer (CAD)

We believe it is possible for communities to democratically come together to create economic structures that meet their needs and provide ever-increasing community wealth, making communities stronger for generations to come. We call this “Community as Developer,” or CAD. This is in contrast to most economic development, which relies on professional developers and investors who enter into a community with the motivation of making a profit. True, some developers/investors may sincerely wish to make communities better places to live, but the need to make a certain rate of return through ongoing ownership of (or the sale of) the developed asset gets in the way of communities developing into the kinds of places their residents actually need and want. That’s why we actively explore new forms of community development that put communities in the driver seat – and the ownership position – in almost every project we connect to. This can lead to a much higher likelihood of building communities that are democratic, just, and sustainable. And, beyond steady-state sustainability, the CAD approach leads to increasing community wealth/value (accrued from the input of human labor), which in turn leads to a better quality of life and more equitable outcomes.

Resist – Advocate – Do for Ourselves (RAD)

At F4DC, we have developed a theory of social justice movements that see them as having three fundamental components that are related to three aspects of power: Resistance (R), Advocacy (A), and Doing for ourselves (D), or RAD. We look at RAD as a way of categorizing the basic work of communities, organizations, and movements. Resistance work is necessary for our survival. Any power that can hurt or crush us can and must be resisted. Any power that can be diverted to assist us in meeting our needs and satisfying our desires can and should be directed. This direction of power is Advocacy. Advocacy allows us to make the best use of the concentrations of power outside of ourselves. The third aspect of power is the fact that we ourselves can wield power. It is the understanding that not all power has to be in the hands of others. It is the realization that we too can have human agency and provide for the things that we need, as well as do many of the things that we want. This drive to use and build our own power we call Do for Ourselves.

It is our observation that many social justice movements in the United States, particularly since the Civil Rights Movement, are deeply committed to Resistance and Advocacy but show less interest in the possibilities of what we can Do for Ourselves. That’s why F4DC supports Resistance and Advocacy work, but the bulk of our time and resources are focused on Do for Ourselves work.

Democratic, Just, and Sustainable (DJS)

Back in 2011, between reading about the Right to the City movement and visiting an up-and-coming grassroots group called New Virginia Majority, we got a steady exposure to three words that have really wormed their way into our thinking about the kind of economy and society we are trying to build: Democratic, Just, and Sustainable, or DJS for short. Of course we used those words all the time before 2011, but using them all together to describe what we’re shooting for helps us work with others to envision where we’re going. It’s our contention that we progressives have to do a whole lot better on this envisioning thing. We’re pretty clear on what we need to resist, but have a harder time pointing toward where we’re heading. Talking with folks about what would make our city more democratic, what would make it more just, and what would make it more sustainable has spawned many great ideas as well as a more broadly shared picture of the future we want.

Why Economic Democracy is Essential

F4DC is striving to leave a lasting legacy in marginalized working class and poor communities in two reinforcing areas: participatory democracy and sustainable, cooperative, ecologically responsible economic development. By tying these two areas of work together, we are seeking to democratize wealth and anchor it in a network of community-controlled commons. We tie participatory democracy and economic development together because economic power is intimately linked to political power: people invariably use their economic resources to influence politics, culture, and society. Thus, you cannot have authentic democracy in a context of vast economic inequality. And the only way to seriously tackle economic inequality is to democratize the ownership of the productive resources that generate wealth.

Big Piles of Money: Where they came from and what they should be used for

If we want economic justice, we have to talk about finance capital: the Big Piles of Money that are moved around to pay for land, buildings, machines, raw material, and human labor. All for the purpose of building the infrastructure and enterprises that keep humans clothed, housed, fed, entertained, and healthy. More and more, a second purpose has been interwoven into the first: making more money and building up more power for those who already control the Big Piles of Money.

At F4DC, we believe those Big Piles of Money are a resource that should not be controlled by the 1% of the 1%. Rather, they should be under the democratic control of communities, invested to take care of people and planet. It was people’s lives and labor that created the Big Piles of Money in the first place, so it makes moral sense for the people, in their communities, to be the ones who control it. And it makes functional sense too: We’d get more just and sustainable results. People in communities wouldn’t just think about their immediate needs; they’d think about the needs of their children and grandchildren.

Reparations and Recreating a Commons of Capital

Much of the U.S. conversation about reparations tends to focus on explaining why reparations are warranted for people who have suffered because of brutal, violent, and exploitive repression, especially Native Americans and the descendants of enslaved Africans. At F4DC, we don’t actually spend too much energy on the justification for reparations – it seems somewhat obvious to us that reparations are warranted, needed, and deserved. We’re more focused on figuring out how to do reparations.

As you read through this website, you’ll see that we’re deeply connected to something called the Southern Reparations Loan Fund. We named the fund the Southern Reparations Loan Fund because we are about repairing the damage done to our Southern people and communities by the extractive economy. An economy that is rooted in genocide, theft, despoliation of the earth, slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day corporate exploitation. The harms done have had terrible effects on individuals, but they were done to whole communities, with broad justifications that dehumanized whole groups. These were and are community harms, and they require a community response: Communities working together to solve their own problems by creating sustainable solutions that raise the quality of life for all. SRLF is just one part of a nationwide effort to recreate a commons of all the wealth that has been built on the back of human lives and labor, a “Commons of Capital,” if you will.

Explanation of our Grantee gathering and link to the videos re: Big Ideas That Guide Our Work

Our History (Click here for a longer version of this history)

F4DC was founded in 2007 by Ed Whiitfield and Marnie Thompson, two life-long street activists and hell-raisers. In all the community-based work we did, we saw something missing — people just didn’t have enough experience with actual on-the-ground democracy, and because of that, many worthy initiatives failed. When Marnie was offered the chance to start a foundation using proceeds from her father’s estate, she asked Ed to join her, and they quickly decided to put nurturing authentic grassroots democracy at its center.

After a rocky start, we refined this vision and began focusing on a body of work that we’ve tried to deepen through to the present day. In 2010 we made two key decisions: 1) F4DC would sunset within 10 years, consciously ending by the end of 2020, so that we could bring our resources to bear more quickly and in a more concentrated way, and 2) We began to focus more closely on economic democracy, cooperative economics, and community-driven economic development.

We’ve stayed true to our commitment to authentic democracy, and in 2010 launched a new form of grantmaking that we thought was more consistent with that emphasis: grassroots fundraising matching grants. We’ve made hundreds of these grants, and we believe the participating groups are stronger not for having taken F4DC’s grant funds, but for having entered into an accountable relationship with a wider group of their constituents. Our Office Administrator, Mildred Powell, has primary responsibility for these grants.

By 2010, we’d also noticed that in the face of economic crisis and ecological collapse, people were showing a real appetite for building local economies for long-term survival and sustainability. This sharper focus put us into new conversations and relationships, which became the seeds for projects like the Southern Grassroots Economies Project (launched in 2011 with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, among others) and the Southern Reparations Loan Fund (SRLF, launched in 2015, as an outgrowth of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project). Nurturing SRLF into a network of Southern place-based loan funds that can bring much needed capital to the South’s most marginalized communities is a major part of F4DC’s current work.

At the same time, we were looking for ways to put what we were learning into action locally, and in 2011 we offered our services to community leaders in Northeast Greensboro, who’d been working for years to attract a grocery store to replace a Winn-Dixie that had closed down in 1998. This began our partnership to build what has become the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store, or RCC, which opened for business in 2016, partly financed by SRLF. We continue to work in partnership with the RCC, thinking of it as a kind of “home base” in a larger landscape of potential for community-directed economic development. F4DC staff members, especially Organizer Sohnie Black, work weekly with local leaders in Northeast Greensboro to try to bring that potential to life.

The RCC is just one example of the tens of thousands of community and worker owned enterprises that will be essential to building a new economy that is more democratic, just, and sustainable. And this new economy is going to need access to lots of non-extractive finance capital. That realization led F4DC to its next big project: partnering in a national effort to build the infrastructure for a new, democratic financial commons, through a vehicle now known as the Financial Cooperative. It’s a decentralized national infrastructure for cooperative lending and non-extractive finance that makes capital available to communities that need it most, at terms that strengthen the businesses and their communities. SRLF is one of 14 member loan funds of the Financial Cooperative, where we all benefit from the shared services, learning, and capital we can leverage by working together.

F4DC has been around for 11 years, and has two more to go. Because of our deliberately limited lifespan, we try to use our resources for capacity-building and seeding our ideas with others who will carry on the work after we’re gone. Besides working with the RCC, SRLF, the Financial Cooperative and our other grantees, we also try to articulate what we’re doing and why in the wider world of philanthropy. The best example of this is our role in co-founding and leading an initiative called “Shake the Foundations.” Through “Shake,” we’re supporting foundation program officers and trustees to use their positions to make field-building grants and investments in building a new values-driven, community-based financial commons.

When we’re gone, we’ll see how well this whole scheme worked 😉