Marnie’s Remarks on the Opening Panel at the 2018 EDGE Funders Conference

New Orleans, Louisiana

Good morning! I’m Marnie Thompson, Co-Managing Director of the Fund for Democratic Communities in Greensboro, North Carolina. We’re known for three things: First is our commitment to our region, the U.S. South. Second is our obsession with building broad, democratic ownership of productive assets as a key part of transformative change. And third, we’re known for making a bigger difference than our small size would suggest. That may be because we’re smart, but more likely it’s due to our decision to spend our resources as fast as we can find useful ways to deploy them.

Our efforts at systems change require us to work within three nested levels:

  • At the most local level, we’re the champions, advisors, and funders for about a thousand people in our town who worked together to build a community-owned grocery store – The Renaissance Community Coop, or RCC – in a long-time food desert. Some 35,000 working class mostly Black folks now have access to fresh affordable food, 16 people have good jobs, and the community is starting to take charge of its economic destiny. This local work is key to our foundation’s identity, learning, and credibility about everything else we do.
  • That brings us to the next level – the regional level. Helping to bring that grocery store into existence forced us to confront the need for community-owned capital. This led us to work with other Southern partners to establish a regional loan fund called the Southern Reparations Loan Fund, or SRLF. SRLF makes loans to projects like the RCC – businesses led by African American, immigrant and poor white people that are about rebuilding broken economies in the most marginalized Southern places.
  • But finance is global now, so the Southern Reparations Loan Fund can’t work to repair the South’s broken places in isolation. That leads us to work on the third level – the national level – where we’re helping to build something called the Financial Cooperative. The Financial Cooperative is a decentralized network of cooperating loan funds, all anchored in their particular places, all trying to make non-extractive finance available to the people and places that have suffered the most under the extractive economy. In the last two years, the Financial Cooperative made over $1 million in loans available to 13 projects in 8 places. That’s cool and useful, but the real power of the financial cooperative is that it’s the infrastructure for a new, democratically controlled financial commons. A financial commons that puts the wealth piled up from the stolen lives, land, and labor of the people back under the people’s control, rather than under the control of Wall Street.

Here are some of the lessons F4DC has learned about doing this kind of nested grassroots work:

  • At this stage of systems change nothing comes easy. It takes more time, money, and work than we ever thought. And even so, it is still worth doing.
  • Collaboration at multiple levels is key. One example of how we’re collaborating is that we leveraged relationships we started at EDGE to form a loose alliance of funders and movement partners called Shake the Foundations. Shake’s participants are all committed to moving grants and investments to building this decentralized financial commons, from the grassroots level to the national infrastructure.
  • If we’re serious about systems change, we, as foundations, should seriously consider putting ourselves out of business. But before we do, we need to find someone to take up where we leave off.
    • F4DC is sunsetting; we have less than three years to go.
    • We’ve been able to make an outsized difference because of our structure, small-ness, and accountability relationships. Our nimbleness and discretion over what we do with our resources has gotten joined up with great ideas coming from the grassroots.
    • F4DC’s experience shows that there is an important role in transformative movements for small, scrappy foundations that are willing to spend down quickly and to do so in relationship with people on the ground. We small fry funds can’t do it by ourselves but we can be experimenters and agitators that grease the skids for folks on the ground and pave the way for the larger foundations like Libra and our other Shake partners.
    • Ed Whitfield and I are specifically looking to identify a cohort of small, nimble foundations that want to explore a similar role. If you’re with a small foundation and this idea appeals to you, please email me or grab me so we can talk!

Schumacher Center: Economics, What’s Esthetics Got to Do With It?

Jane Jacobs

This article was originally published by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics.

In her 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, the remarkable Jane Jacobs writes not about economics, but about economic life. She observes economies in motion, not in stasis, and argues that city regions are the heart of that economic life – pulsing, changing, and engaging in “exuberant episodes of import-replacing.”

She worries that the policies of nation states hold back the individualized development and diversification of cities, leading to stagnation and deterioration. She seeks examples of how cities can counter this generalized tendency to decay under the monoculture of a national economy. She finds hope in the cultivation of differentiated form and style. That is to say, she finds it in esthetics.

In the final chapter of Cities and the Wealth of Nations, titled “Drift,” she references a Japanese anthropologist, Tadao Umesao, who “observes that historically the Japanese have always done better when they drifted in an empirical, practical fashion than when they attempted to operate by ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will.'”

Umesao coins the phrase “an esthetics of drift” to describe this characteristic. Jane Jacobs adapts this concept to describe what is required of cities to remain open to the place-based innovation that will foster creative and appropriate new small businesses.

“In its very nature, successful economic development has to be open-ended rather than goal-oriented, and has to make itself up expediently and empirically as it goes along.”

“‘Industrial strategies’ to meet ‘targets’ using ‘resolute purpose,’ ‘long-range planning’ and ‘determined will’ express a military kind of thinking. Behind that thinking lies a conscious or unconscious assumption that economic life can be conquered, mobilized, bullied, as indeed it can be when it is directed toward warfare, but not when it directs itself to development and expansion.”

“All big things grow from little things, but new little things are destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like esthetic appreciation than practical utility.”

Wendell Berry made much the same argument in his historic 2012 Jefferson Memorial Lecture, but he would use the word “affection.” It is lack of affection for community, for place, for people, for land that has wrought such an ugly economy and degraded the countryside and the lives of country people.

Judy Wicks would call it “Love.” (See video below.) Her love for her Philadelphia neighborhood, for her customers and staff, for goats and pigs and chickens, led her to grow the particular business that was the White Dog Cafe, and to shape its particular relations with the farmers who raised the greens and pork served at the restaurant. There will be no chain of White Dog Cafes. There cannot be. It grew from a specific aesthetic, a cultivated affection, and the boundless love of a single woman. But it inspired replication – suggested a form and style – and led to a bubbling up of other “new little” enterprises in the city – a step towards turning Philadelphia into the vibrant, diverse, job generating, import-replacing city Jane Jacobs would wish.

This Valentine’s Day, the staff of the Schumacher Center sends its love to all those entrepreneurs and their citizen partners who have cultivated an “esthetics of drift” in their business approach, cherishing their place-inspired creations, and encouraging multiple episodes of lively imitation.

After Years Without a Grocery Store, Greensboro Neighbors Are Building One Themselves — And They’ll Own It

This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “The New Economy Is Close to Home.”

In Northeast Greensboro residents just want a grocery store.

In the late 1990’s the local Winn Dixie that had served the neighborhoods around Philips Avenue for many years closed down. Winn Dixie and other large grocery chains divided up market territory resulting in the closing of some stores despite their profitability. The loss of this Winn Dixie turned Northeast Greensboro into a food desert.

Continue reading After Years Without a Grocery Store, Greensboro Neighbors Are Building One Themselves — And They’ll Own It

Jessica Gordon Nembhard on the history of cooperatives and the civil rights movement

Jessica Gordon Nembhard
Jessica Gordon Nembhard

Our friend and colleague Jessica Gordon Nembhard will publish her new book, “Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice” in May. She spoke to about this critical, but often overlooked, part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Continue reading Jessica Gordon Nembhard on the history of cooperatives and the civil rights movement

Credit unions face threat from Congress

Don't Tax My Credit Union

Don't Tax My Credit Union

Many more people are members of cooperatives than you might think. There are energy cooperatives providing electricity to people across the country, there are health care cooperatives providing more affordable insurance, and if you bank at a credit union, you are a member of a cooperative! Credit unions in the United States are created as non-profit organizations “owned” by their members, who generally receive better services and lending rates than traditional banks. There is an effort underway in Congress to end the tax exempt status credit unions enjoy. The Credit Union National Association writes:

The bankers want to use the tax reform process – still going on behind the scene, with bills scheduled to be introduced in September or October – as a means to raise your taxes and tax credit unions out of existence in the process.

The American Banker Association has even launched a website and grassroots campaign asking Congress to tell credit unions, “It’s Time 2 Pay.”

Well, we think the 96 million Americans who rely on their credit union every day pay enough already. We know that a tax on credit unions is just another tax on those same 96 million credit union members.

Find out more about this effort at the Don’t Tax My Credit Union website set up by the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). Credit unions play an invaluable role in protecting individual and community wealth – particularly in a period of economic instability. These community-based financial institutions are beginning to invest more heavily in small businesses, competing with bigger for-profit banks. Learn more about this from CUNA at their website, here.

Looking forward to the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy

Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy
Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy
Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy

Here at F4DC we are really excited about the upcoming Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy! This event, held every two years, brings together people from across the eastern half of the United States to learn about democratically run workplaces and cooperative economies.

The conference takes place at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA from July 26-28. This year’s conference them is “Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities:”

Democratic Community Economic Development Through Worker Ownership

We have a voice in our own communities’ economic development through democratic workplaces! Democratic workplaces – such as worker-owned cooperatives – are growing in many ways as a viable alternative to a society that lacks meaningful humanizing jobs and democracy in everyday life.

As we seek to grow in response to the massive need for workplace democracy, let’s take time to explore how we can best thrive – as individual members, as cooperatives, as communities and as a movement. We can help each other understand just what it means to grow sustainable democratic workplaces. Exploring how to grow healthily is even more important in democratic workplaces for building relationships and solid processes.

Let’s discover together how we can cultivate and maintain our democracy while reaching out to share this opportunity with others!

The conference features great speakers, panels, and an amazing variety of workshops. Check out the official website for more information and, if you’re interested, register today!

Food Co-op Initiative Announces Grant Opportunity

Food Co-op Initiative Seed Grants

Our friends at the Food Co-op Initiative are making grants to new food co-op startups. Below is the press release they issued yesterday:

Food Co-op Initiative today announced they are accepting applications for grants up to $10,000 for development of new grocery co-ops. The Seed Grant program provides a cash award along with proven resources to help organizations achieve success. Food Co-op Initiative advisers will work closely with awardees throughout their organizing process, including making at least one in-person visit to the community.

Food Co-op Initiative’s Seed Grant program is designed to streamline the startup process to foster the maximum number of successful, sustainable co-ops. These competitive grants must be matched by the co-op with funds raised locally. Grants may be used for payment to professional consultants, registration fees and expenses to attend training opportunities, and initiatives supporting member recruitment, capital-raising, community outreach, or other aspects of organizing the co-op.

Food Co-op Initiative was founded in 2010 in response to a continuing wave of interest in establishing new retail food co-ops. The Initiative provides a range of services to the hundreds of volunteer groups working to bring improved access to food and the other economic and social benefits of cooperatives to their communities.

In 2012, Food Co-op Initiative awarded $100,000 to 14 organizations in 12 states. Grants are funded by the USDA, Blooming Prairie Foundation, and the kind support of cooperators nationwide. Applications and guidelines are downloadable at Deadline for applications to be received is August 1st. Awards will be announced by September 1st.


About Food Co-op Initiative: Food Co-op Initiative is a non-profit foundation created to provide resources and support for communities that want to start new food co-ops. Food Co-op Initiative provides support, referrals, and training to help communities nationwide create successful grocery cooperatives.

Prometheus Radio Project aims to “change the radio dial”

The Prometheus Radio Project is pushing for more LPFM stations across the country.

The Prometheus Radio Project has long been preaching the gospel on low-power FM radio stations. In the wake of several natural and man-made disasters, LPFM stations stayed on the air when their larger counterparts were knocked out. In addition, LPFM stations are far less expensive to setup and operate, allowing community groups to launch them and deliver customized programming relevant to the people in their area.

The FCC will open up a “window” for new station application from October 15-29 this year. Prometheus is offering assistance in geting application ready and working through the often-byzantine system the FCC runs.

In the coming days and weeks, they are hosting some webinars to help people get going on these applications. If you’re interested in LPFM community radio, check out the Prometheus Radio Project.

Eliminating food deserts and building community ownership are keys to sustainable development

Steve Dubb and David Zuckerman recently published a great article explaining how eliminating food deserts is critical to developing sustainable communities. This is precisely what the folks in Northeast Greensboro are working on through the Renaissance Community Coop. We are thrilled to join them in this effort and excited about the transformative potential it has for their community, and the city of Greensboro more broadly.

The authors point out that grassroots focused economic development is important – critically important – but that community ownership is equally vital and often times overlooked. They go on to briefly outline other communities using community-owned cooperatives to eliminate food deserts and build community wealth:

One strategy for ensuring community ownership can be seen in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In 2008, community organizations successfully negotiated the city’s first ever Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). As part of this agreement, the Hill House Economic Development Corporation received $2 million in commitments from the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority to help develop the neighborhood’s first grocery store in over 30 years.

Importantly, Hill House EDC continues to own the land on which the store is built, ensuring that lease payments provide earned income revenue for years to come to financially support the nonprofit. Additionally, as part of the CBA, Hill District residents referred by a newly established First Source Center receive first consideration for all hires.

They close by noting that,

A framework for revitalization that includes local purchasing and hiring, employee and community ownership, and anchor institution and community stakeholder support is necessary to guarantee that, over the long term, the community retains control of its important assets.

Ridding communities of food deserts so that the people have access to healthy and affordable food is a cornerstone piece of redeveloping our neighborhoods to be sustainable. Community-owned businesses can play a critical role in this work. Reinvesting money directly back into those communities through democratic processes is equally important. The Renaissance Community Coop is building just such a business and, in the process, re-imagining their community as one that is democratic, just and sustainable.

Read the full article here.