The Problem We’re Trying to Solve

Since late last year, F4DC has been working with individuals and organizations from across North Carolina to frame a different approach to economic development action plan. Over the last 9 months or so, we been thinking, planning and organizing with cooperative business stalwart Frank Adams, workers in NC cooperative businesses, and leaders from a range of economic development groups (the NC Community Development Initiative, Ownership Appalachia, Good Work, the NC Association of Community Development Corporations, and others). Out of these conversations has emerged a vision of a statewide initiative and a set of principles that might guide the work of such an initiative.

On Monday, August 29th, this work stepped up a level, when 54 cooperators, lenders, funders, economic development leaders, and other supporters convened in Durham, at the offices of the Self-Help Credit Union. Titled “Building and Strengthening North Carolina’s Grassroots Economy,” the day-long meeting framed the problem of our stuck economy in a new light and then started to map out a set of solutions based in the idea of nurturing community based enterprises that pay a living wage and are rooted in place, green, and sustainable. Lots of great conversations took place across the meeting, and a consensus started to emerge around the need for a coordinated statewide effort.

Marnie and Ed opened the meeting with remarks that gave some context to the day’s work. Marnie tried to define “The problem we’re trying to solve,” and Ed outlined possible solutions in the vein of Mondragon’s worker owned cooperatives and other place-based business models. In preparing his remarks, Ed ended up writing a much longer speech than was needed at the meeting, but which we think provides a useful metaphor for understanding the relationship between communities and their economies, called “Fish, Pies, the Commons and Economic Development.”

Remarks made by Marnie Thompson of the Fund for Democratic Communities at the “Building and Strengthening North Carolina’s Grassroots Economy” meeting held August 29, 2011 at the offices of the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, NC


The Problem We’re Trying to Solve

North Carolina is facing a huge set of challenges right now. I think everyone in this room is well aware of the lousy state of our economy—the front page of the paper is screaming it most mornings. So you don’t need me to recite a bunch of job loss statistics to prove it to you.

A lot of people frame the economic problems we’re facing as the result of a recession caused by a burst housing bubble, plus a need to increase our global competitiveness. I want us to resist that framing, however, and look at the full complexity of what we’re up against. Because if we don’t understand the problem for what it really is, any solutions we generate are going to be short-term at best and wasteful of the limited time and resources we have to work with.

So let’s try to get our minds around the complexity of what we’re facing. This economic downturn is 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 economic framework that has driven the world toward the greatest wealth inequality ever experienced by humanity.

Yes, we’re suffering through a recession that officially started in 2008. But in truth, our State has been on this path for at least 30 years, competing in an absurd global Race to the Bottom. Our political, business, and social leaders thought they were doing the right thing by pushing a particular kind of competitiveness that would bring jobs to the state: based in low wages, an eager but unorganized work force, relaxed environmental standards, and low taxes.

A few corporations decided to settle here for a while because of these so-called “advantages,” but in any given week, you’re just as likely to read a news story about a company leaving as a company coming, and that’s been true for years: since the mid-90’s, North Carolina has lost more than 400,000 manufacturing jobs. As the Race to the Bottom accelerates, there is always some other town, state, or country willing to sell its land, labor, and quality of life for even less.

No matter how well-intentioned this approach to economic development was, its effect has been to strip wealth from our communities. The result is that North Carolina families and communities entered the recession terribly weakened; even before the recession, the proportion of workers earning less than a living wage had been rising steadily for a decade. Then the recession came and kicked the stuffing out of us.

Declining real wages and job loss are economic statistics that capture one part of the story. Another equally scary story is what is happening to our state’s democratic institutions. When people are unemployed—or scared they might lose their jobs— they become fearful and despondent. Too fearful and hopeless to participate in the life of the community, not to mention more easily manipulated by polarizing rhetoric. This makes it possible for a few powerful voices to dominate political and social discourse.

Worse, this polarization and erosion of democracy is happening at a time when devastated communities need all hands on deck, working together to solve the difficult problems we face. If we want our communities to survive and rebuild in this time of loss and change, we’re going to need the intelligence and caring and hard work of just about everyone.

Sadly, the “old” economy, the one we’re living in now, frequently works to lock people out of opportunities to be productive, beginning with an education system that focuses more on preparing young people to be consumers than to play productive roles. Our political and economic systems, even in the best of times, require structural unemployment, and at all times reward business owners who maximize profits via mass layoffs as they export jobs to cheaper labor markets around the world. The lockout even occurs in the literal sense, driven by the school-to-prison pipeline, which is in turn fed by the for-profit prison industry. To top it off, people are denied access to productive activities through the spoiling or privatization of community resources that are necessary for productivity, like access to clean air and water, broadcast airwaves, and so on.

I am arguing that the old economic approach isn’t working anymore. I am arguing that we need a whole new approach that can create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs across the state, particularly in the poorest and most marginalized communities, while simultaneously protecting our environment.

There is some evidence from around the world and closer to home that we can dig out of the hole we’re in if we nurture a new kind of economy that is deliberately built to be more democratic, more just, more economically and environmentally sustainable, and more rooted in particular places.

My colleague at the Fund for Democratic Communities, Ed Whitfield, is going to describe what this might look like and how we might get there.

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