This weekend: Building Solidarity Economies in North Carolina through ReWeaving!

ReWeaving North Carolina

People from across North Carolina are headed to Greensboro this weekend for the ReWeaving NC conference. This event brings together people interested in building a new economy based on solidarity, cooperation, and sustainability.

ReWeaving North Carolina

Several staff of the Fund for Democratic Communities are presenting, along with our friends from PB Greensboro and the Renaissance Community Coop. It will be a great space to think and dream and plan together about the North Carolina we want, and have already begun, to build.

Continue reading This weekend: Building Solidarity Economies in North Carolina through ReWeaving!

Ed Whitfield on why the “teach a man to fish” parable is a “mean spirited lie.”

Ed Whitfield at 2013 reRoute Conference

Ed Whitfield spoke on the opening panel of the reRoute conference in Boston a few weeks ago. He used his “water holes and fishin’ poles” metaphor to discuss how the current economic system we operate within is fundamentally designed to prevent communities from developing their own wealth and directing their own future.

You can view the entire panel discussion here, and more from the conference here.

Thanks to Eli Feghali of the New Economics Institute for editing this piece out of the longer panel discussion from reRoute.

Southern Grassroots Economies Project

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.”

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.

USSF 2010 and a Resilient Detroit

US Social Forum 2010
US Social Forum 2010
US Social Forum 2010

The US Social Forum (USSF 2010) was amazing. Inspired by gatherings of the internationally based World Social Forum which started in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil in response to the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the USSF was organized first in Atlanta in 2007 and this second time in Detroit, Michigan. As a gathering of tens of thousands of grassroots activists, movement leaders and public intellectuals, it was much more than any one participant could fully absorb. As one of my friends put it, it was overwhelming.

There were about a thousand workshops during the four and a half day forum. Even the well-laid-out book that described them all was intimidating. But in a way, it was hard to go wrong with so many interesting people and ideas around.

In addition to some exciting cultural work with Cakalak Thunder the Radical Marching Band, the area I focused on was economic justice. I got to participate in an extended workshop on Community Based Enterprises in which we heard from the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), which runs a worker-owned business in New York. ROC is planning to open another worker-owned restaurant in Detroit by October. We also heard from the worker-owned Maryland Brush Company, which is expanding its production to include the manufacture of solar water and electric panels.

But some of the most exciting work we heard about is the collaboration taking place in Detroit, a city that is taking its economic woes as an opportunity to build a new economy on the ruins of the old. Some of the most community-based businesses we learned about (and visited!) include the Avalon International Bakery, Slow’s Bar BQ, and the Spiral Collective.  The dynamic C2BE (Center for Community Based Enterprises), which coordinates collaboration between businesses and individuals who are interested in supporting a healthy new economy in Detroit is also playing a critical role.

The essential features of Community Based Enterprises are simple: 1) a sustainable business that is 2) intentional about its relationship to the community and 3) paying a living wage. There are no requirements that the business be organized as a cooperative, or that it be owned by its workers, nor even that it be all organic. These specifics are part of the mix of how people are working to be intentional about their relationship to community, but none are seen as “litmus tests” to limit the inclusion of businesses that are trying to be wholesome parts of the community’s structure.

Included, however, in the leadership of C2BE are people who have visited the Mondragon Coops in Northern Spain, as well as experts on Employee Stock Ownership Plans. Deborah Olson, the Executive Director of C2BE, is well aware of the esoteric fine points of community economic development, but she is also practical enough to recognize that there are many ways to build business enterprises that enhance the quality of life of everyday people.

One very beautiful feature of C2BE’s work is the type of cooperation between businesses that it inspires. While we toured the Willis Avenue area, I went into the Spiral Coop, a joint business of three African American women comprised of a book store, an art gallery and a fragrances and notions gift shop. When I asked them if they were friends with the Avalon International Bakery down the street they beamed and shared that Avalon had loaned them the money that they needed to get their building on the corner ready for use. The thought that one successful business might loan money to a start-up which would have had difficulty borrowing from a bank in this tight money market was an eye-opener to me. The reason for the loan isn’t just the altruistic desire to help someone; Avalon recognizes that every successful business on their block enhances their own business possibilities. With the encouragement of C2BE to which the Avalon owners belong, the businesses on that block have shared community celebrations that bring more business to the area. It is a synergy that has produced a vibrant and healthy place in Detroit’s largely bleak landscape. Because it is a replicable model, we can look to see a lot of other people in and out of Detroit learning from it.

I am sure that other folks who pursued different paths at the USSF came away similarly inspired by what they participated in and the contacts that they made. Hopefully we can get together in our local areas and continue to share the lessons and the networks so that the Different World that is Possible comes to be along with the Different US that is Necessary.

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.