“Freedom is a world in which we all have access to what we need” – An interview with Ed Whitfield

Ed Whitfield on From The Heartland podcast with Jesse Myerson

Ed Whitfield was the first guest on Jesse Myerson’s new podcast, From the Heartland (listen here). The following transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ed Whitfield, Co-Managing Director of the Fund for Democratic Communities
Ed Whitfield, Co-Managing Director of the Fund for Democratic Communities

Jesse Myerson: Ed, what is your organizing work?

Ed Whitfield: Right now I’m the co-founder and co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities. We do a lot of work to help communities and social justice organizations build authentic democracy and increasingly we’re doing work in the area of economic democracy. We are trying to find ways to democratize people’s access to wealth so that everyone has the full capacity to access what they would have to have in order to meet their needs and elevate the quality of life within the community in which they live.

We think that the whole democratic paradigm, which is that we are doing things “of, by and for the people,” is an essential feature of how to work for justice in the world. The alternative to doing things “of by and for the people” is that there’s some small privileged group of elites who structure the institutions of power and access for their own benefit and not for the benefit of peoples and communities more broadly. It’s this that we’re trying to break down. I think that’s the essential feature of what it means to struggle for justice.

The other piece of work that I’m working on is the Southern Reparations Loan Fund. This grew out of some work that we were doing several years ago, and up until very recently, with the Southern Grassroots Economies Project. We identified three areas of things that we needed to be doing together along with some other grassroots groups in the South, and some national organizations that supported our work . They were a means of financing cooperative economic ventures, a means of doing education around economic education, around building enterprises, and lastly doing policy advocacy work.

The Southern Reparations Loan Fund seeks to engage in kind of non-extractive lending to cooperative ventures in communities. We try to make sure that we make financing available to the most marginalized communities in the Southern region. Along the lines of radical inclusivity, we want to make loans available to people that regular lending institutions wouldn’t even dream of lending to.

In addition to that we’re looking to maximize the benefits to the communities by doing what we call non-extractive lending where we make sure that the terms of the loans are such that the loan can only be paid back out of the increased productivity of the ventures that we help to finance. Borrowing from the Southern Reparations Loan Fund should never make you worse off than you were had you not borrowed, even in the case of the failure of your business.

That puts us on the same side of the table as the borrowers because we have to work to guarantee that the ventures are successful ventures or we don’t get paid the money back and we consequently aren’t able to lend it to other ventures that are trying to develop. We do a lot of technical assistance in that regard. We’re trying to work in a 14 state area. That’s what we’ve kind of cordoned off as what we call the South.

A lot of people would have 13 of those states and not include Oklahoma. We stick Oklahoma in with the other 13 states to make a 14 state region which is just under one million square miles. It’s a very difficult area to cover and we quite frankly don’t have the capacity to cover it fully. But we are looking for projects in all of those areas.

JM: What is your freedom dream?

EW: You know that’s something I actually like to talk about because I think not many people articulate it very often. To me, people are free when they’re able to meet their own needs, elevate the quality of life and engage in kind of creation of meaning and ritual, in order to have a happy and full life. To me humans are their most human when they are, again, meeting their own needs. We are animals in the world but unlike the other animals that find what they eat on the ground in some place, we tend to cultivate food. We tend to build the machinery required to help make more efficient the cultivation of that food. We breed other animals as food stocks. We develop boats so that we can fish, go out on the water and fish for animal food that is there – for the fish that are available.

Humans engage in labor to meet their needs. The problem is that right now, we live in a world in which it is perfectly legal for a handful of people to own all of the resources that all the other people in the world need in order to stay alive, in order to meet their needs. A few people own increasingly larger and larger plots of land, big developers own huge swaths of land. The land grabs continue. The enclosure of the commons is a continuing process, and they haven’t finished it. So now we hear about gigantic parcels of land in Africa being bought by developers from someplace else, either in Europe or in Asia, which means, again, that it’s legal to own the things that other people need.

So to me freedom is a world in which we all have access to what we need. It has to do with reconstituting the commons, making available to people the resources they need to live. That includes not only the natural resources, the earth resources, but also the created, human-built resources, the machinery, the piles of money that have been invested, that can be converted into research or other things that help, again, meet people’s needs. We want to make the financial, mechanical, built resources and natural resources that everyone needs, widely available. That’s what we mean when we talk about democratizing wealth, that we want the access to wealth to be democratic.

A lot of times we talk in the course of the work about my freedom dream. That includes some transformation in ownership. That’s because the current concept of the ownership allows for this really absurd situation where people can own what other folk need to stay alive. That means that the people who own those assets have the virtual control of life or death over everyone else and we think that’s wrong.

Again my freedom dream is people being able to meet their own needs, to elevate the quality of life and to create meaning in communities. I dream of a time and place where people think together democratically to come up with the answer to the questions of what shall we do together to build this community.

JM: Where do you hail from and how did you come to your politics?

EW: I am originally from Little Rock, Arkansas. I was born in 1949, so I was eight years old when the President of the United States had to send federal troops there to allow nine black children to go to a high school that I later graduated from. My sister attended that high school before I did. She went there in 1960 and graduated in ’63. I went in 1964 and got out in 1967.

Little Rock is an interesting place. It was once an area where shortly after the Civil War, federal troops were located at the section of town that was built up by contraband, those are people who were being liberated from the system of enslavement, coming to Little Rock. That area later developed into a black business district along Ninth Street and the largest black church in town was there, Bethel AME church that was there, on that corner of Ninth and Broadway.

It was also the scene of a very brutal lynching in 1927, when lynch mobs basically came and took over the whole city, killed a man, drug his body through town, built a pyre on the corner of Ninth and Broadway. Used the church furniture out of the AME church to burn his body on. The mayor and the chief of police left town. They left the town to the mob. According to some reports, at six o’clock in the evening somebody was seen directing traffic around the lynch scene using the charred arm off of the body.

This was the Little Rock that my father grew up in in the late 1920s. He was 18 years old at the time and I learned after he passed away that he had known about that lynching. It turns out that I grew up in a house full of guns which is kind of interesting. Some people wouldn’t know. We used to vaguely talk about the guns as being for protection of the home and I didn’t quite understand what that meant. It wasn’t like we would have thought of shooting somebody for trying to steal something, and we didn’t have anything that anybody would have tried to steal. I never quite understood that until I read that story about the lynching that took place in 1927. It was like, “oh now I understand what daddy was trying to do when he was teaching us all how to shoot and how to be careful with guns and stuff.” They just sat most of the time. We didn’t hunt or anything. I grew up in that Little Rock. I grew up, I would say, in the shadow of Emmet Till.

I grew up in the South, in the 1950s. I was a young person growing up, when these jarring pictures of the mutilated body of Emmet Till had been in the press nationally. My parents certainly wanted to protect me from any such end as that. It’s a thing of teaching children to be careful in a world that was dangerous and highly unjust. From pretty early times, from I guess around the time in the 1950s when I was listening to the talk in a lot of the television shows about Little Rock Central, I had realized that I was going to spend my life doing work fighting in the struggle for justice.

I got involved early on in opposition to the Vietnam War while I was still in high school, probably trying to talk people I knew out of going into the military. I guess I was still in junior high school when I started doing that. Very early on in the war I was an anti-war activist. I became the head of the Youth Council for the NAACP Youth Council for the state of Arkansas. In a regional conference of the NAACP, I tried to get a resolution passed to have civil rights workers declared draft exempt because it didn’t make any sense, to me, that they would be going 10,000 miles away, halfway around the world, to fight for democracy when black people couldn’t vote in Mississippi and Alabama and parts of Eastern Arkansas.

That resolution didn’t pass but it did give me the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about what was wrong with that war. Some of the people I knew from the NAACP told me that this was the first time they’d heard a serious discussion of what was wrong with that war and why they should oppose it. Again, this was many years before Martin Luther King’s Riverside speech in 1967, where he talked about America being the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, but that was certainly true then. It remains true to this day and it’s something that I think people should put a lot of attention to, given that it tends to be a bipartisan part of American politics, that we travel around the world killing whoever we want to satisfy whatever addictions we have for oil or diamonds or whatever else it may be that other people have that we want.

JM: Ed the people you organize, what is the most misunderstood thing about them to the people that are not them?

EW: When you’ve been working with marginalized communities, the thing that’s most misunderstood about them by the privileged communities I think has to do with their actual capacity and passion for freedom and independence; their capacity to create meaning and culture is not readily understood. I was thinking about the idea of there being a meritocracy, which is just absolutely not real. This view makes hoarding wealth a virtue and it has poor people being poor out of some collection of vices.

The corresponding part of that would be that wealthy people and privileged folk are wealthy and privileged because they have no vices, and I think that’s pretty patently not true. The best indicator for becoming wealthy is that you have wealthy parents and most of us don’t in fact choose our parents. There’s a lot of stolen wealth that is passed along from generation to generation that probably has as much to do with shaping the contours of the economic distribution as anything else.

I know that while there are counter examples that have to do with people saying well you know, my folks came here from wherever and they were poor when they got here and they worked really hard, saved money and they’ve accumulated this and that. I would want to tell them that this is like somebody who comes into the room, a really good gambler, and he’s gambling at a table that’s loaded down with stolen money. I’m not arguing that the person is not a good gambler, nor am I arguing that they didn’t bring their own stake to stake themselves in the game initially. Nor am I arguing that they didn’t actually win at this table. I am arguing though that if the table were not already loaded down with stolen money that their gains from their clever skillful play would not have led to them walking out of the room with very much. So that as they go out of the room it’s like “You can’t keep that. That was stolen money.” “But I won it fair and square.” “Well of course you did, but it was still stolen money the whole time you were playing for it.”

I think that that’s one of the things that’s misunderstood — that there is this assumption that it’s the virtue of some people that makes them do well. There is little understanding that there is systemic theft from other communities which has left those communities without the kind of compounding wealth that would otherwise be constantly raising their standard of living; that this, rather than a lack of virtue is the broader outline of what shapes the economic distribution that we see.

JM: What is the greatest challenge facing your organizing?

EW: The greatest single challenge is figuring out how to build democracy. You know, people are born into the world and have widely varied circumstances and experiences. People have widely varied interests and passions. People have some basic needs in common but they have desires that are all over the place in terms of difference and yet these different people have a need to at various points come together, think together and decide what they’re going to do together.

It would be unfortunate if everyone thought that they could have exactly everything they want when part of the things that some people want contradict the things that other people want. The democratic challenge is how do you get people to think together in such a way that they can come up with kind of mutually acceptable paths of action to engage in, to do things together, as a community. That’s the challenge. How do we construct that?

To me that construction has several different aspects. On the one hand it’s important to approach it with the spirit of the fact that that’s possible, that is the assumption that we can get together and decide together things that will make sense and be mutually beneficial to us all. But then there has to be a certain art, a type of skillful engagement in it that we artfully do it. And at some point, we sum up our artistic approaches to doing it and systematize it that so that it becomes a science of how to do this thinking together. Then eventually we would do it so much that we develop the basic habit of doing it. I like to think of us needing the spirit, the art, the science and the habits of democracy to be developed and developing that to me is the largest challenge that we have. SASH, I call it.

JM: Lastly Ed what propels you through struggle?

This is all I do, basically. I decided at a very early age that the challenge and the need of trying to make a more just world is where I wanted to put my life energies. That and trying to make music are the only two things I actually do. I don’t have a lot of immediate direct family obligation. I have raised two children but I’m currently not married. I currently don’t have children here with me. I’m able to travel a lot and what propels me is going places and talking to people and periodically seeing a flash of understanding in someone’s eyes that they now understand more deeply and are able to more articulately explain to others a way of understanding what’s wrong with the current system and a path out of it.

I’ve been talking lately to people about the need for us to not talk about how we can all be free at some point in the far, far distance future but how can we begin to build pockets of freedom every way that we can now? You know there’s a concept of let’s develop some liberated zones. Let’s develop a place now where people are making sure that there’s enough food available for everyone. There is housing, clothing and other things that are available to meet people’s needs; where people are encouraged to be productive and part of what they produce is not only the things that meet their needs but also the things that make their life meaningful. So that they have a lot of cultural production going on.

I like the idea of advocating for and engaging with people, to start actually building these liberated zones as a means of having something that’s going to remain standing as this contradictory and corrupt capitalist system crumbles around us. These would become beacons of light for people who are wondering how to avoid despondency. Is there anything we can do differently? And the answer is yes. We can use these as models and build some more things like these. That’s what I’m looking forward to helping engage people to doing and that is what keeps me motivated.

JM: Thank you Ed Whitfield of the Fund for Democratic Communities and the Southern Reparations Loan Fund. That is it for this, the first episode of From the Heartland. Please let me know what you thought. Give me ideas, suggestions, questions, all that good stuff. Best way to get in touch with me is on Twitter @JAMyerson. The DMs are open. Thank you for tuning in and I hope you’ll listen again next time. So long.

A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations

Back in 2010, co-founder Ed Whitfield and I were acutely aware of the intertwining economic, social, and ecological crises unfolding around us. It struck us that if we wanted to help ensure the survival of humans and other beings on the planet, we might want to dive in wholeheartedly with all the resources of the Fund for Democratic Communities, rather than dribbling a few dollars here and there over an extended period of time. We weren’t even sure how extended a period of time humans really had to sort this stuff out. We decided to spend out all our resources over the next ten years by putting our ideas and money to work in the Southern communities in which they were most needed, at the rate that the communities could productively absorb them.

We’ve found that taking this limited life approach has sharpened our wits, hastened our willingness to understand and confront problems, and moved us to more quickly locate and develop strong relationships with great partners who will outlast us. We were helped in our thinking about sun-setting by the example of the Beldon Fund, a foundation that closed its doors in 2009, and went to the trouble of documenting why and how they did that. I hope this report, by our friends at the Center for Effective Philanthropy, further advances the field, and encourages more foundations to ask themselves whether sun-setting will help them achieve their goals more quickly and powerfully.

A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations

A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations
The limited life approach in philanthropy has received increased attention in recent years. But across foundations, perpetuity is often still seen to be the default, and there is considerable uncertainty about the practice of spending down.


To learn more about limited life foundations’ decisions to spend down — and the ways in which they grapple with several important issues along their journey to pursuing their goals in a finite period of time — CEP conducted in-depth interviews with leaders of 11 limited life foundations.


Resulting from these interviews, this report illustrates the ways in which limited life foundations approach spending down in nine key areas, including investing, grantmaking and strategy, and communications. The research shows that most leaders of limited life foundations choose to spend down because of the belief that it will lead to greater impact. And though these foundations’ leaders wrestle with a similar set of issues in their work, our interviews revealed that there is no one way to spend down.


Accompanying the report is a companion publication of case studies of three of the foundations featured in the report: the Lenfest Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, and Brainerd Foundation.

Nevermind Guaranteed Income, we want the cow

I’ve spent a lot of time lately speaking against the establishment of a guaranteed minimum income as an important policy to advocate. I want to make a few things clear:

  1. I feel the current distribution of wealth is grotesquely unfair.
  2. I don’t believe that those who cannot or will not work should be allowed to starve.
  3. I would be against plans to eliminate or cut the existing welfare system as long as it is needed.
  4. I believe that we should build a community in which everyone’s needs are met.

But, even so, I oppose fighting for a guaranteed income. Let me explain why.

First I want to be clear that it is simply more widely available welfare. Second, it would only help people have more access to consumption without altering anything about how production is organized. Third, it would not alter wealth distribution and ownership. And finally, it would require a new bureaucracy staffed by agents and experts to regulate and allocate this universal distribution of money.

My objections have surprised many people, but I think they are consistent with what I do think is the solution to our economic justice problem. I favor deep democracy replacing the rule of capital in our lives. This would require reparations and the reconstruction of the commons, but this time including the earth and the fungible financial resources that have been created by our labor within exploiting systems.

According to an article in the Atlantic, (The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income, by Noah Gordon, AUG 6, 2014) the guaranteed income proposal isn’t new.

As Frum notes, Friederich Hayek endorsed it. In 1962, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman advocated a minimum guaranteed income via a “negative income tax.” In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Richard Nixon unsuccessfully tried to pass a version of Friedman’s plan a few years later, and his Democratic opponent in the 1972 presidential election, George McGovern, also suggested a guaranteed annual income.

What could possibly prompt such a wide range of supporters?

Our economy suffers from the fact that communities are not having their needs met and the quality of life equitably elevated by all. Neither the self-regulated market nor the intervention of government has been successful in doing this to the satisfaction of the many. The lack of purchasing power of working class people is a factor in the cyclical crises we face. The few who are privileged within and dominate the existing system induce others to believe that rather than oppose their domination and exploitation, we should instead struggle to emulate the rich and then all of who are worthy could be successful and take care of our responsibility to others. We are also told not to bother to understand how we got into the situation we are in, but rather forget the past and look ahead to the future.

Reparations and the cow

Those who argue the loudest for letting the past go are those who continue to benefit from the disparity. Their call to forget the past is a call to allow them to retain their unearned privilege, pretending that they deserve it.

I’m reminded of a story that I was told by Rev. Bugani Finca who was involved in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation work. A black South African, Tabo, confronted a white man, Mr. Smith, who had disrespected him and stolen his prize cow. With the prospect of amnesty for telling the truth, the white man admitted to having done what he was accused of, recognized how horribly wrong it was and asked for forgiveness, saying that he was truly sorry. Tabo was visibly relieved for having an opportunity to confront his oppressor and get an apology. They shook hands and embraced. As Mr. Smith, stood to leave, free, with his amnesty, the black man called out to stop him. The white man turned back with a questioning look on his face, not sure why he was being stopped, Tabo, the black South African, asked him: “But what about the cow?” Mr. Smith was visibly angry: “You are ruining our Reconciliation,” he shouted, “This has nothing to do with a cow.”

That is the question we must ask to all those who say that the past is long gone but still retain ownership of the herd produced by that old cow. We won’t forgive and forget until we get the cow back. But just suppose that the Mr. Smiths in the world make a counter offer: “I’ll tell you what, why don’t I just give you a supply of butter?” “The hell,” Tabo might reply, “If you give me back my cow, I can give you butter!”

Guaranteed income is a supply of butter. More than that, it makes two assumptions, both of which I think are false: It assumes that the government can simply pay out the money without having other negative consequences for the economy as a whole, and it also assumes that there is a rational amount of money and process for its allocation that experts can figure out and apply fairly.

What I do believe to be true is that with Labor being the sole creator of value, there is no place for the money to come from but out of the social surplus, either as taxes or reduced wages. There is a political and economic price to be paid that cannot be avoided. I also have a healthy distrust for decision making by experts. Typically, in spite of their declarations and the veneer of objectivity, they are guided by the class interests of those deeply entrenched in, and benefiting from the status quo. I have never heard that there would be a deeply democratic regulatory process to work out the details of a guaranteed. . If you would like to see how hard this is to implement, look at this article by someone deeply involved in efforts to make this work about 40 years ago.

What I do think we need is reparations, the democratization of wealth, the recreation of the commons and the outlawing of theft and speculation. I think that communities must become their own developers through broadly democratic planning any democratic access to non-extractive financing. The details of how these things are done is the content of many more pieces. But the key is democracy and expanded opportunities to be productive rather than enhanced consumption. We need the cow back, not just a supply of butter.

Finally, I want to say that even though some conservative economists and politicians have found guaranteed income something that they support, there is widespread opposition and a serious political struggle would need to be mounted to attain that end. I would hate to see us squander that much of our energy, resources and time on what would objectively be a giant welfare system.

Dara Cooper, a good friend of mine ended an email to me with this quote:

We can even produce more than we need. Unfortunately, because of lack of organization, we still need to beg for food aid and has kept us thinking that we can only be beggars who need aid. We must produce more because the one who feeds you usually imposes his will upon you. -Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso

This is why I oppose guaranteed income “…the one who feeds you usually imposes his will upon you.” We have enough of that already.

Reparations: How are We Doing it?

At the CommonBound 2016 Conference in July, I had the honor of working with Aisha Shillingsford of Intelligent Mischief on a strategy session about reparations. We had about 80 people attend and participate in a very interactive session that Aisha and I facilitated. This is the result from that session that Aisha has put together. It includes some of the materials that we shared as well as the design process that was used. As you will see, the group was divided into smaller groups that were highly engaged in proposing what became a long list of concrete steps in multi-faceted reparations activities.

We are not content with continuing to make the case for reparations nor sitting and waiting on the federal government to listen to reason and take seriously our needs and demands. While the struggle for federal acknowledgement and action should continue, we were able to talk about what we can do now, and why we need to do it. The session made use of facilitation and design processes that were helpful in drawing from the energy, knowledge and passion of the assembled group. While, this is not a final statement on reparations, I hope that it will spark further thinking and discussion as we continue to build power and work for what is needed.

We endorse the Movement for Black Lives’ Policy Platform

Vision for Black Lives Banner

The Fund for Democratic Communities is excited to endorse “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice”.

M4BL Policy Demands
M4BL Policy Demands

As a thoughtful response to the violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, it is a work in progress that has already achieved a level of profundity beyond the more piecemeal lists of demands of the past.

It is a product of a collective process involving over 50 organizations representing several thousand of Black people nationally. It is transformational, recognizing the systems that are the root of the problem. It is clearly international in scope, anti-capitalist in orientation and deeply rooted in marginalized Black communities.

We applaud the energy and clarity of those involved in collaboratively articulating this vision.

Greensboro wraps up first Participatory Budgeting cycle with successful vote!

The Fund for Democratic Communities congratulates the City of Greensboro on a successful start to Participatory Budgeting!

The Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC) is thrilled by the success of Greensboro’s first Participatory Budgeting (PB) cycle. Our city is the first in the South to launch this innovative program to directly involve residents in the annual budgeting process through a transparent democratic process.

City residents proposed 675 ideas across the city. Volunteer budget delegates worked with City staff to turn these ideas into concrete project proposals. Over the course of a two week voting period 1,123 Greensboro residents voted on projects to be carried out in their Districts.

F4DC Contributed to the first year’s PB process with a grant of $30,000. We are excited about the future of this process in our city!

Here are the percentages of voting by District:

  • District 1 – 20% of voters
  • District 2 – 27% of voters
  • District 3 – 11% of voters
  • District 4 – 29% of voters
  • District 5 – 12% of voters

PB Voting Results

The following projects are listed by Title, Estimated Cost, Votes.
For more information on the following projects, please visit http://www.ideasgreensboro.org

District 1 – Total $95,000

  • Bus Shelter at Glendale and Randleman, $11,000, 119
  • Crosswalk at Vandalia and Randleman, $20,000, 113
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 100
  • Traffic Turn Lane Randleman and Glendale, $12,000, 98
  • Updated Equipment in Woodlea Acres Park, $8,000, 90
  • Bus Shelter at Lake Field & Vandalia, $11,000, 87
  • Shade Cloth Covers at Warnersville Pool, $15,000, 84

District 2 – Total $89,000

  • Crosswalk with Pedestrian Refuge Island for Safe Crossing of Phillips Ave., $6,000, 193
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 166
  • District 2 East-West Bikeway Improvements, $18,000, 145
  • Playprint Peeler Recreation Center, $7,000, 131
  • Shade Cloth Cover at Peeler Pool, $15,000, 129
  • Shade Cloth Cover at Windsor Pool, $15,000, 127
  • Greensboro Four Dudley Alumni Mural, $10,000, 124

District 3 – Total $98,000

  • District 3 Bike Lane Improvements, $30,000, 85
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 85
  • Latham Park Emergency Call Box, $10,000, 73
  • Crosswalk Lawndale & Lake Jeanette, $10,000, 64
  • Mural Bellemeade/Greene St Parking Deck, $30,000, 54

District 4 – Total $99,000

  • Bridge Repair at Greensboro Arboretum, $20,000, 205
  • Spring Garden & Howard Pedestrian Crosswalk, $20,000, 180
  • Walker Avenue Bridge Railing, $30,000, 165
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 165
  • Walker Avenue Painted Walkway, $5,000, 146
  • Crosswalk Elam & Camden, $6,000, 129

District 5 – Total $90,000

  • Historical Welcome to Greensboro Sign, $35,000, 92
  • Hester Park Emergency Call Box, $10,000, 85
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 71
  • Playprint Trotter Recreation Center, $7,000, 65
  • Weatherproof Stone Game Table, $20,000, 62

The Next System Project at Left Forum 2015

From The Next System Project:

We are in an era when systemic critique of the economic and political institutions of the United States is poised on the edge of mainstream consciousness: the realities of a changing climate, an irrationally destructive financialized economic system, a long and steady historical trajectory concentrating political power along with wealth, and a monstrous apparatus of prisons and policing are becoming impossible to ignore. How can we consciously come together around this opportunity to offer a coherent vision of what a “next system” might look like? How can such a vision work to orient and inspire concrete actions to begin building the world we want to see?


Moderated by Keane Bhatt, The Next System Project

Blood, Bones, and Dirt

Earth, photographed by Voyager 1.

Adapted from the opening plenary speech at the Jackson US Social Forum People’s Movement Assembly on Just Transition and Economic Democracy. The image above is of Earth, photographed by Voyager 1.

This big, wet, ball of Dirt, spinning as it floats through space with the Sun shining on it was all that we had and all that we needed. At one point we all had access to it. We didn’t make it, we were born from it. Some call it Mother Earth out of respect, but we must all respect the wet warm earth as the source of all. Over the years we engaged our labor with the earth and made things to meet our needs and elevate the quality of our lives. We built shelter, made roads, planted food, developed science, developed agriculture, created tools and refined and improved them constantly. We discovered things we reflected on our lives and our needs and our communities and developed the core of information that we passed down generations at a time. We stored food and goods for later days and future generations. All that we made from our living labor, that I call Blood, is the value that living labor alone can create, and once made, it is dead labor, Bones, in service to meeting our needs and elevating the quality of life.

So that is all there is — Blood, Bones and Dirt. Living labor, dead or past labor, and nature—the earth. Once, the earth belonged to us all, but it is now “owned” by a few who exploit its resources and determine the conditions for its use. That same few “owners” appropriate all of the dead labor that they can, particularly the dead labor that is used to enhance the productivity of living labor. They own the community’s wealth that was generated by the labor of us all. That is the system that we live under. Where this ownership of the Bones and Dirt confers enormous power to a few people in the world whose interest is not in meeting needs and elevating the quality of life, but rather their interest is in increasing their degree of ownership and control; their wealth and power.

This system, where nearly everything on earth is owned by someone, means that the access and use of everything is restricted by an owner. While this may make sense for the product of our individual labor or for personal items like toothbrushes, clothes or even jewelry, it makes no sense for large expanses of land nor the technology, tools and factories for production that are needed by everyone for all of us to have opportunities to be productive. These things that were socially produced and that are needed to enhance the productivity of labor have been appropriated as the private property of the owning class. That type of ownership is neither natural, inevitable nor beneficial for the majority of people. It is the product of centuries of theft backed up by creative legal structures and outright violence. It is only by maintaining a system of coercion and violence that the majority of people can be kept away from the product of their own labor the Bones and the access to nature, the ball of Dirt that is the basis for all that we have.

The resulting system means that people who are able to be productive and can produce more than they need to consume, allowing for a social surplus that continues to enhance our lives are instead left idle and despairing. Those who are capable, ready and eager to work to provide for themselves, their families and their communities are prevented from doing so because the owners are unable to make as much profit from people working as they would like to make.

Another by-product of this system of ownership is the extraction from nature at unsustainable rates that leads to ecological devastation and the ruin of the earth’s capacity to provide for human and most other life.

The call for A Just Transition is the call to give us back our Bones. Give us back the huge pile of wealth that we have created so that we can use it to be productive, to meet our needs and the needs of our community for generations to come and live in harmony with nature. These Bones should form the framework on which we build with the materials from the earth, the Dirt, to make all that we will ever need. But instead they are used to box us in, to dominate and control our lives as even more value is extracted from our labor.

But we must also understand Power. It is the capacity to convert your dreams and aspirations into reality, to shape and control the unfolding of events. There are three aspects of power: The concentrated power of others can crush you, and it will crush you if you don’t resist it. So we build resistance struggles to survive. The concentrated power of others can possibly help you, if you direct it and advise what is needed. And so we build advocacy movements to direct concentrated power and wealth in ways it can be useful. But we don’t always have to accept the existence of concentrated power outside of us that we must Resist or Advise. We can be the power of our own lives if we build the necessary structures and institutions to meet our own needs and elevate our own lives. We can be power by Doing for Ourselves. Resistance, Advocacy and Doing for Ourselves represent three aspects of how we relate to power that can be found together in different proportions. As long as oppressive systems and concentrated power exist, we will always have to do some Resistance and Advocacy work, but we need to remember that the goal is for us to organize ourselves to be the power within our own lives and communities. We must create the world we want to live in by doing for ourselves.

When we understand that all real value is created by human labor, we have beautiful new ways to understand the world. That does not mean that everything that we find valuable is created by labor. As we have said, this big wet ball of dirt has everything that we work on with our labor to create value. Think of air and diamonds. Few people would think of buying air. We don’t need to because it is here for us to use. If we go without it for just a few minutes we will die. It is absolutely important. On the other hand, gold and diamonds can be avoided all together for your entire life. No one would die without them, (although many people have died for them). But their value lies in the large amounts of human labor that go into their discovery, retrieval and “prettification”. Gold and Diamonds will continue to be exchanged for much more than air and water, not because they are more useful, but because they are embodiments of more concentrated labor.

The whole world of money is an abstraction of, and a reflection of the world of values created by labor. Money serves to measure, store and facilitate the exchange value. Anything that can be used to do this, whether it is stamped in a piece of metal, written on a piece of paper, encoded on a magnetic strip, on a piece of plastic, or just kept as accurate accounting records in a reliable and secure place is money. The world of money enhances and reflects the world of values that are being exchanged. Finance can be thought of ais the general realm of money. At one point in time financial services developed to help people do very specific things that made sense to do. The process of trading over long distances was made easier by money, using accounting, credit and finance rather than trying to carry pineapples and mangoes to the folks who had wool and meat. Something can be bought or sold at great distance and over long time delays from where it was produced allowing people all over the world to share in the bounty and productivity of the earth without wandering all over the globe.

The rise of financialization, has however, taken these conveniences to levels of destructive absurdity. In these times people buy and sell money itself along with gambling on the possibility of unknown future events then buying and selling the speculative possibilities of the future. No one really needs a derivative, but the amount of financial activity tied up into trading abstractions that are not needed, have no use value whatsoever and are only bought and sold in order to buy and sell more of them at a later time, or take advantage of those who bet the wrong way is obscene. The collapse of the housing market connected to securitized cash flows based on mortgages which were themselves predicated on constant, never ending inflation of housing values is an example of the damage caused by financialization gone wild.

But proper financial work is an opportunity to access the Bones and Dirt needed for our labor to be fully productive. This is why we are building the Southern Reparations Loan Fund for the development of sustainable cooperative enterprises that are democratically owned and democratically controlled. This loan fund is based on three principles:

  1. It is Radically Inclusive. That means that you can’t turn down folks because of who they are. They can be Black, poor, previously incarcerated, queer, trans have bad personal cred histories and still they are qualified to access credit for building cooperative community enterprises.
  2. It seeks to Maximize Community Benefit. That means that it will not waste financial resources on projects that are not able to be sustainable and productive, but also that that it will not simply preserve the financial assets by not risking them on meaningful projects with the potential for great community benefit.
  3. It seeks to be Non-Extractive in its lending. That means that it does not seek to take more out of a community than it helps to create and puts in, nor will it take anyone’s house or their previously accumulated business and personal assets.

These three principles make the SRLF different from other loan funds, even those that claim to help folks who have little access to finance. The others will do all three of the things that SRLF will not do. They will turn you down for who you are, preserve rather than risk their assets on community benefits and take your house.

Finally I want to make a point about reparations. Forty acres and a mule was a unit of production, not a unit of consumption. It had nothing to do with the “forty acres and a Bentley” that some think is the modern equivalent. A mule could help grow its own food, feeding itself and your family. A Bentley only helps you spend more money. We think that by building this type of financial entity, we honor the spirit of those who, following their forced enslavement, called for reparations as an opportunity to be productive, as a way to be in control of their lives as producers rather than mere consumers. They asked for Bones and Dirt. We still struggle to make this a reality.

Brooklyn community crowd-funds bail money

Brooklyn Bail Fund

Criminalization of poor people is nothing new. One of the forms it takes is to assess exorbitant fees, harsh penalties and in some cases jail time for minor infractions. The blog post linked below highlights a new approach to dealing with one aspect of this problem. It’s important to note that the author of this piece brings attention to the fact that this approach is a NOT a solution to the larger systemic issue is of criminalizing poor people.

Read more here