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

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, Art, Science, and Habits of Democracy (SASH)

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, Justand 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.

Just click on the topics above, to read explanations of what these ideas and frameworks mean to us. 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

If you want to know more about the Big Ideas that Guide our Work, check out the videos below.