Productive Justice

The need for productive justice is largely the result of inequitable systems of distribution and unfair structures of ownership that allow a shrinking group of the élite to accumulate socially produced and socially needed production resources in their hands.

  • Productive justice is having equitable access to productive opportunities.
  • Productive justice means not having to beg someone for a job.
  • Productive justice means not having to beg for land to grow food on.
  • Productive justice means being able to provide for yourself and your loved ones—the very young, the old, the infirmed, and the caretakers—with your labor which produces for all.
  • Productive justice means enjoying the dignity that comes from being a productive and needed part of society.
  • Productive justice means being a role model and teacher to the young who follow.
  • Productive justice means being an independent political thinker and actor, unfettered by fear of displeasing elites on whom you might otherwise depend upon.

Productive justice is needed because the current system means that the control of who is or is not allowed to be productive is in the hands of a small group of people.

This small group has enormous power that derives from this control.

This power is literally power over the life and death of others.

This power robs other people not only of their produce but also of their dignity.

By determining who has access to opportunities, spaces and resources needed to be productive, these owning elite control the actions, direction and rules of the whole community.

They use this power to increase their power and wealth.

This system of the few controlling the many has gotten worse, despite all the talk about democracy.

With the elites controlling even what are the choices put before us, it matters little how we chose.

We need to work in the cracks and fissures of the existing structure to expand and broadly/openly distribute productive opportunities while still looking for ways to undo the historical patterns of power and distribution that have resulted in current inequities.

Engaging the public in budget-making processes

Participatory Budgeting Project
Participatory Budgeting Project
Participatory Budgeting Project

In over 1,200 cities, towns and municipalities around the world the public is actively engaged in local budget-making processes. Under the banner of “participatory budgeting”, citizens from South America to the United Kingdom and Toronto to Chicago are creating new methods for financial decision-making in their communities.

These efforts are producing amazing results! Chicago’s Ward 49 is in its second participatory budgeting cycle. Last year’s effort was so successful more Chicago city council members and candidates are planning to launch similar projects in their districts. Politicians from across the political spectrum are finding common ground through the fairly old fashioned notion that the people ought to exercise more direct control over the decisions of their government.

The Fund for Democratic Communities is excited to bring two people who are deeply involved in developing participatory budgeting to Greensboro. Josh Lerner is Co-Director of The Participatory Budget Project, a nonprofit offering support, resources, and guidance to local groups and elected officials organizing participatory budgeting efforts in their communities. Maria Hadden is a resident of Chicago’s 49th Ward and a member of its Participatory Budgeting Leadership Committee.

On May 4th they will present a history of participatory budgeting around the world with an emphasis on the United States. Then, on May 5th, they will lead a discussion for people involved with local nonprofits and grassroots community groups on how to integrate participatory budgeting into their funding cycles. See below for the full event announcements.

We expect these will be exciting, educational presentations and discussions and we hope you will consider coming to one or both of these events. No RSVP is necessary, but if you would like to connect with other folks in Greensboro interested in this, check out the Facebook events page for both events (linked below). Feel free to invite your Facebook friends who may be interested too!

For more information, contact me at pbproject [at]

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Our Money, Our City: Presentation and Discussion on Participatory Budgeting

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Wednesday, May 4 · 5:30pm – 7:30pm
Nussbaum Room, Central Library
219 North Church Street, Greensboro, NC (map)

Cities across the United States face tighter funding environments and deeper budget cuts, and Greensboro is no different. In over 1,000 cities around the world, residents are trying a different way to manage public money. Through “participatory budgeting” they are directly deciding how to spend public budget funds. Chicago’s Ward 49 recently launched the first participatory budgeting process in the US, for its $1.3 million ward budget. Other US cities are beginning to incorporate similar efforts into their budgeting processes.

Josh Lerner is Co-Director of The Participatory Budget Project, a nonprofit offering support, resources, and guidance to local groups and elected officials organizing participatory budgeting efforts in their communities. Maria Hadden is a resident of Chicago’s 49th Ward and a member of its Participatory Budgeting Leadership Committee. They will present a history of participatory budgeting and discuss how Greensboro residents might initiate a similar project here.

This event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served.

Co-Sponsored by: The Fund for Democratic Communities and the Greensboro Public Library

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Using Participatory Budgeting to Engage More People in the Success of your Organization

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Thursday, May 5 · 4:00pm – 6:00pm
Gateway Center Conference Room (Third Floor)
620 S. Elm Street, Greensboro, NC (map)

The economic reality faced by the nonprofit sector today may be the most difficult in decades. As funding sources erode, nonprofit directors and fund developers need to build stronger relationships with existing donors and the communities they work within. A new tool called “participatory budgeting” could help. In over 1,000 cities around the world, organizations have used it to attract more resources and support for their activities. Participatory budgeting engages community members in directly deciding how to spend budget money in cities, schools, housing authorities, and organizations. Residents of Chicago’s 49th Ward recently launched the first participatory budget process in the United States.

Josh Lerner is Co-Director of The Participatory Budget Project, a nonprofit offering support, resources, and guidance to local groups and elected officials organizing participatory budgeting efforts in their communities. Maria Hadden is a resident of Chicago’s 49th Ward and a member of its Participatory Budgeting Leadership Committee. They will discuss ways to use participatory budgeting to build community trust in your organization, stabilize your funding, and engage more people in your mission.

This event is free and open to anyone with a stake in a local nonprofit.

Marnie’s Remarks at the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits Annual Conference

The 2010 Annual Conference of the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits was recently held in Raleigh. I was asked to serve on a panel called Foundations and Operating Nonprofits Working Together in a New Reality, to contribute information about F4DC’s approach to various aspects of our grantmaking, given the current economic crisis. Below are the remarks I made in response to two questions I was provided in advance of the event. (Believe me, I don’t speak this coherently off-the-cuff!) I tried to fit in as much as I could within the five minutes I was allotted.

How does our work with nonprofits differ from more mainstream foundations?

Ed and I sort of stumbled into starting a foundation because of the opportunity and responsibility that came from my family circumstances. I don’t think if you’d asked us five years ago what we’d be doing in 2010, either of us would have said, “leading a foundation.” We, and the people we work with most closely, are primarily anchored in the world of social justice activism, not philanthropy. To tell you the truth, we’re kind of suspicious about philanthropy as a social change mechanism, and we wonder a lot about the utility of money in transforming society. So one way I think we’re different is that we bring into all our relationships with nonprofits a whole bunch of questions about our role, as well as their roles.

Have we changed any of our grantmaking strategies because of the economic crisis?

Yes, the economic crisis has led us to change our approach to grantmaking in significant ways.

First, the primary source of F4DC’s funds is my father’s estate. The economic downturn has slowed down the liquidation of that estate, and that’s hurt our cash flow. Like all nonprofits, we’ve confronted some hard decisions. We ultimately decided that in the face of economic hardship, our greatest obligation was to move as much money as we could into the community, in the form of grants. To accomplish that, we cut our overhead drastically. We laid off our staff and experimented with being an all-volunteer organization. After eight months, we realized that wasn’t a sustainable way to operate, so now we’re operating with two part-timers. We’ve dropped from three full-time-equivalents to one full-time equivalent. We also closed our office and now work out of our homes, coffee shops, and the public library (a bastion of grassroots democracy!). These changes have allowed us to move up our grantmaking from $50 to $60,000/year to $100,000 this year. We hope to give away closer to $200,000 next year.

Second, we launched a matching grants program that is intended to do two things: 1) leverage every dollar we grant for greater impact, and 2) encourage grassroots groups to build their capacity for self-support. Basically, for projects and organizations that align with our mission, we’ll match dollars raised through grassroots fundraising. Were emphasizing a style of fundraising that was prevalent in the Civil Rights Movement, before there was foundation or major donor money available to that movement. The idea is to focus fundraising right in the communities most affected, because these are the folks that have the greatest stake and know-how in solving their own problems. We’re talking pass-the-hat and spaghetti dinners. Phone ten allies and ask them to each commit ten dollars. Never hold an event or a gathering where you don’t make “the ask,” and make sure that ask is compelling.  These approaches consciously build a group’s base of support and strengthen stakeholders’ level of commitment, building an insurance policy against the day that foundation monies are no longer available.

Third, we see this economic downturn as just one of several deeply disruptive, linked changes that may well portend a level of environmental, economic, and social collapse that will radically alter how we live in the not-too-distant future. Whether we want to change or not, big changes are coming—some of them are here already—due to the intersection of global climate change, peak oil, and the non-sustainable nature of a global, corporate capitalism that has driven the world toward the greatest wealth inequality ever experienced by humanity. This combo sounds scary, because it is. Almost too scary to handle. So what to do?

F4DC’s response to this scary scenario is two-fold. First, we’re more committed than ever to our mission of nurturing grassroots democracy. We’re convening folks to think about what it means to be a citizen in a society that aspires to democracy—surely it is more than voting and paying taxes! And we’re helping the groups we work with to think through what democratic dialogue, decision-making, and action looks like. Being intentional about democracy at the grassroots level prepares communities for collective problem-solving, which is needed as rapid changes descend upon us.

We humans have the capacity to react to scary changes with fear and greed-based responses. We also have the capacity to react with cooperative, reasoned responses. Democracy feeds the latter.

The other thing we’re doing in the face of possible social collapse is exploring ways to nurture sustainable economic development based on cooperative economic models, like those used so successfully in the Basque region of Spain. There, worker-owned coops constitute fully 60% of the employment and have weathered the Spanish economic crisis far better than traditional corporate models.

Closer to home, one of our recent grantees, the North Carolina Housing Coalition, is launching a program of cooperative land ownership for families living in mobile home communities. We’re also partnering with Project South in Atlanta and Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee on an effort we call the Southern Grassroots Economies Project.

We’re looking for ways to nurture what some have called the “Solidarity Economy,” all across the Southeast. Through education, networking, and policy changes, we’re hoping to expand cooperative ventures in housing, manufacturing, farming, and health care. Our emphasis is on the producer side, not so much on the consumer side, because as the old economy collapses and jobs get scarce, people are often denied ways to be productive. Think of all the hardworking students who graduate, and then are unable to find jobs. Think of all the people my age who are experiencing years of unemployment despite looking daily for work. Think of the growing number of prisons, where we warehouse more people every year, particularly men and people of color, locked away from any chance of being useful to themselves, their families, or communities.

People long to be productive, to be useful—it seems to be part of our human makeup. So let’s start to build a new economy where that urge to create, to make, to be part of the solution, is taken as the premise. That’s what the Southern Grassroots Economies Project is all about.

Critical Democratic Education is Child Centered and Community Owned, Based and Controlled

Given the situation in Wake County with the struggle over public school diversity policy, I thought it would be good to reprint this document which outlines some reflections I have been sharing with people on the issue of diversity and how it relates to democratic practice in education.  Please share any thoughts you have.  There needs to be a vibrant discussion that goes beyond the good people/bad people – diverse/segregated – resources/no resources type of thinking that is much of the current discourse.

(0) All children learn all the time unless there is a serious and rare neurological pathology (brain damage or deformity).

(0a) Education should foster the development of the whole child into a healthy, meaningful, engaged, informed, empowered/powerful and capable adult through being a healthy, meaningfully engaged, informed, and nurtured child.

(1) Standardized tests are not good means of assessing the full range of human development children are capable of and which is needed by the community.

(1a) Real world evaluation is pluralistic, multi-dimensional and recognizes the complexity of the world as well as the value of the divergence of the interests, talents and needs of children.

(2) Children develop best when family and community guide their development with access to adequate resources.

(2a) Resources can be shared fairly if there is a social commitment to do so. Directly fighting for that social commitment is better than backdoor approaches at equity through external advocacy. (“Money will follow the white children.”) We should fight for what we need.

(2b) Community should set the education agenda — not courts, not corporations, not government. Only this way can the necessary social critique be present in the classroom along with an ongoing evaluation of teachers, curriculum and resources/facilities.

(2c) Parents and community should be directly involved in the selection of teachers and curriculum as well as maintenance, expansion and replacement of facilities and materials.

(3) The most important factor in education is building relationships. No teacher is expert on every subject that may be of interest to their students. But teachers should be infectiously enthusiastic and good at learning. Mastery of material should be augmented with external access to resources and expertise.

(3a)The importance of modeling the excitement and possibilities of learning, encouraging, motivating and nurturing students can not be overestimated.

(3b)Neither expertise in subject matter nor expertise in teaching technique can substitute for the damage caused by negative messages sent to [taught to] vulnerable children.

(4) Desegregation had various motivations as well as good and bad results. Analysis of those struggles should not oversimplify them negating their complexity and richness.

(5) Separate schools are not inherently unequal, but segregated schools that exclude some category of children based on assumed inferiority, whether innate, acquired or cultural, are morally odious. The difference between “separate” and “segregated” needs to be understood as well as the incredible educational achievements that were made even under conditions of segregation.

(5a) Local plans that are coercive to parents and community, ignoring their desires and shunning their involvement and input should be examined closely to see if the social end that is being promoted justifies the abandonment of democracy.

(6) Equality is a difficult concept to define precisely given differences in the needs, interests and abilities of children and the multi-dimensional nature of education. We should seek to guarantee the provision of appropriate and adequate resources and support.

(7) The key to literacy education lies in the importance of “reading the word” to facilitate “reading the world.” For students to make the effort to learn to read well they would have to find reading liberating and empowering. When students tell teachers the curriculum is boring we should listen and change. Either teachers should make a better connection of the material with the student’s lives and interests or change material.

(8) We should value and validate student’s humanity and their day to day reality as the important first step toward building nurturing, empowering relationships and toward developing engaging, stimulating and challenging pedagogy.

(9) Phrases like “avoiding racial isolation” have become coded passages for assumptions of inferiority as they are applied to some groups and not others. Isolated white groups are often seen as normative with little need to avoid their establishment. Much of the language around the achievement gap calls on other groups of students to reach their level on what are often culturally biased metrics.

(10) “Voluntary” as used to describe Seattle and Louisville plans simply means non-court mandated but carries the connotation of freedom for community. Racist segregation plans were “voluntary” in that same sense, coming generally from the legislative bodies and school boards rather than the courts. The Topeka, Kansas plan in 1953 was voluntary, but no one calls Jim Crow education policy “voluntary.” In the discussion of the Seattle and Louisville plans “voluntary” is used to imply “reasonable” to prevent the discussion of their content.

(11) Minority students should be allowed to be in the majority in some schools if some natural neighborhood patterns or desire of the students involved and their parents creates such conditions. To disallow this is as inherently bad is to place an unfair burden on black children and families as it implies that something is wrong those who are not allowed to be concentrated. Sometimes the concentration of minority groups as majorities within institutions will create the only opportunity them to feel normal and just be students. In addition it increases the opportunity for leadership positions and participation on the broadest range of extra-curricular activities which are also part of learning. The motions toward separation initiated by blacks like the rise of the black church after emancipation were often based on such reasoning.

(12) We should remember that most of the arguments against the recent Supreme Court ruling would also be arguments for the elimination of historically black colleges and universities as well as black churches and civic groups.