The first meeting of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project took place this weekend, March 18-20, at the historic Highlander Research and Education Center and it was a great success. There will be much more information posted here in the coming weeks, but for now we want to say how good we feel about the 30+ representatives from organizations from across much of the South from Texas to Georgia and as far north as Kentucky who came together to consider the importance of developing cooperative economics as a part of their social justice work. A temporary steering committee has been formed and will have its first conference call in a week to begin to plan for additional activities to strengthen this part of the movement in the South. As Niqua, a youth member of a worker owned co-operative lawn care business in Atlanta organized by Project South, said on the last of day of the meeting, “I feel like we are a part of history now.”
Facilitating the building of a new economy
Taking advantage of a wedding that I was invited to at Highlander Research and Education Center and a planned to trip to see my mother in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was able to get started on our outreach efforts for the Southern Grassroots Economies Project in late May.
A core group of folks gathered in Black Mountain on the weekend of May 14, to sketch the general outline of this next major project of the Fund for Democratic Communities. Marnie Thompson, Suzanne Pharr, Emery Wright, and I met with the support of Bryan Cahall and Lamar Gibson at a retreat center in Black Mountain, North Carolina for two full days of discussion around how F4DC might involve itself in helping to facilitate the development of democratic economic activity that can make a significant difference in people’s lives.
We got involved in this work following a discussion that Marnie and I had with Suzanne Pharr some months before in Knoxville. At that time, the idea of looking for ways to help people realize their potential to be the productive in the midst of the current economic crisis became central to a discussion we were having about charting a way forward for F4DC. Based on suggestions from Suzanne, we contacted Emery Wright of Project South and Monica Hernandez of Highlander to talk about the potential of planning for a gathering of people involved in community based democratic economic activity to take place in late 2010.
In the course of our follow-up Black Mountain discussion in May (which Monica could not attend due to a prior commitment), Suzanne, Marnie, Emery and I came to see how our projected work meshed with the work of a number of other people from across the country who are involved with what is called “Solidarity Economics”.
We are looking into ways to focus efforts in the US South, centered in African American, immigrant and poor white communities, and also particularly among women, to help create new opportunities and enhance existing efforts to allow people to be productive. Rather than simply being content with redistributing existing wealth, we want to look at expanding opportunities to create additional goods and service to meet human needs
Among the things that inspire this effort are the very successful large industrial worker-owned cooperatives in the city of Mondagon in the Basque region of Spain, as well as growing activities around worker ownership of productive enterprises from South America to the dying factory towns of the US industrial heartland. The movement of community gardens on the one hand and worker-owned factories on the other has the potential of linking with community-based financing from credit unions and collective, cooperatively-based distribution through consumer coops of various forms to form the basis of a new kind of economic activity. We envision this not just be counter-culture activity, as many of the consumer coops are now, but the basis of a new economy that grows stronger as the old economy collapses of its own contradictions, which can be seen in the absurd concentrations of wealth creating increasing disparities in the distribution of the product of working people.
During last few weeks of May I drove 2,200 miles across the South and talked to people in Knoxville, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; Epes, Alabama; and Morganton, North Carolina. In each city, those to whom I spoke saw the promise of linking the efforts that they are involved in via our Southern Grassroots Economies Project.
In the next few posts, I will detail some of the conversations I have recently had with Elandria Williams of the Solidarity Economics Network (SEN), Tamidra Marable of Heifer International, Osagie Idehen and Pamela Madzima of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Molly Hemstreet of the Center for Participatory Change, an Asheville-based organization that supports the work of Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut-and-sew shop in Morganton, North Carolina.