Photo: Panel Friday at The Real News. Left to right: Margaret Flowers, Co-founder of It’s Our Economy, Diane Bell-McKoy, CEO and President of the Associated Black Charities; Michael Coleman, Leadership Council member with United Workers; and Jacqui Dunne, author of Rethinking Money: How New Currencies Turn Scarcity into Prosperity. (Photo courtesy of United Workers)
Report on Baltimore Economic Democracy Conference: Building Our New Economy Together
By the It’s Our Economy team
With growing recognition that the economy fails to serve the interests of most people, alternative institutions and processes based on economic democracy are beginning to pop up everywhere. This movement points to what is called by some as “the New Economy.” Throughout the country people are joining a global movement to create structures grounded in democratic control of community wealth – an economy of, by, and for the people. On May 16 and 17, Baltimore took another step in this direction when more than 100 people attended the Economic Democracy Conference.
The Baltimore conference followed on the heels of a similar event in Jackson, Mississippi two weeks prior. The Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference brought people together from many communities across the nation interested in putting in establishing cooperatives and other institutions of economic democracy. In June, a national New Economy conference is scheduled in Boston and in July there will be an international conference on the subject in Mexico. People want greater decision making in their workplaces, communities, and lives and that is what economic democracy offers; it builds infrastructure and institutions that facilitate people participating in the shaping of their own futures.
The seeds of a democratized economy are firmly planted in the United States. More than 130 million residents are members of some type of cooperative, including credit unions. Cleveland is developing a series of worker cooperatives that have received notable acclaim throughout the country – the Evergreen Cooperatives – and other cities are starting to build similar models. In New York City, SolidarityNYC is supporting existing co-operatives and other democratized economic structures while promoting the growth and interconnectivity of more.
The ideal of a country, of, by, and for the people is rooted in American history and co-operative movements have paralleled efforts to transform society throughout our history. A recent book by Jessica Gordon Nembhard explores the connections between cooperative ownership and the fight for civil rights and economic equality.
Community-rooted and -driven processes of decision-making regarding issues like the use of land, the production of food, the management of finances for the public good, and the stewardship of the environment are rooted in old-fashioned democracy. These concepts are not ‘radical’ unless we are talking about getting to the root of the matter. As Ed Whitfield, Executive Director for the Fund for Democratic Communities said, “Economic democracy points to the root of the problems in our economy – people controlling their own lives and joining together in decision-making.”
Several of the speakers at the Baltimore Economic Democracy Conference took part in the Jackson Rising Conference and were eager to share what sorts of conversations are popping up across the country. Over the course of two days, local community members, policymakers, activists, and experts from around the country gathered to envision what a more democratic economy that puts people ahead of profits could look like in Baltimore. The conference, entitled “Building Our New Economy Together,” was comprised of a televised town hall and a day of workshops and the two-day event proved to be a clearinghouse of ideas regarding what communities are doing to resist the outsized power of concentrated capital.
Envisioning a New Economy
The intention behind the event was to create a space to envision what a new economy, created by the people would look like and then creating a roadmap to make it a reality. This work begins by developing a common vision.
As John Morris, Dean of the School of Urban Planning and Community Economic Development at Sojourner-Douglass College noted during the opening plenary of day two, the “masters of the universe” who determine the developmental process have rarely been interested in a vision crafted by the people they intend to “help.” Indeed, according to Morris, much of mainstream local development practice proceeds as if “you can only make Baltimore city sellable by making the black people disappear.” Rather than building a vision from the community, current practice erases the community.
Government, business, and the nonprofit sectors, while seemingly well-intentioned, have proceeded with ideas for economic development that simply do not include the current communities of Baltimore in the picture. How could they when little has been done to engage the community in the process of so-called “revitalization?”
Opening the second day of the conference, Morris and Whitfield helped ground the discussion on the pressing work that is necessary for building a durable movement for economic democracy with local roots. They helped clarify the point that if we are going to develop the power and capacity to meet our own needs, we need to not only develop ways for the community to take part in decision-making, we also need to think of ways to build that sense of community that is necessary to sustaining our engagement with collective decision-making processes.
This discussion led to a break out period where participants were able to attend workshops on a variety of issues including renewable energy; food security; worker-owned cooperatives; non-speculative housing models; as well as ways to democratize money and finance while resisting debt. These sessions provided community members the space to examine alternative models for development that have worked in other parts of the world while assessing what would need to be done to put these projects in place on new soil.
Throughout the conference, it became clear that communities have access to a wealth of knowledge and experience when they reach across lines of race, place, and specialization. Indeed, this note was signaled at the outset of the conference when, during the televised town hall at The Real News that kicked off the event, Michael Coleman, a Leadership Council member with United Workers said that “Human rights worldwide are intertwined. We must look at the big picture. Come to each other as humans.”
Participants said they had no idea that some of the great work on display in the workshops was even taking place in the city and it was exciting to see so much cross-pollination between advocates of related issues. This was because there was a clear sense that those who came to learn about what their neighbors have been working on realized that everyone was united in the same broader goal: a democratized economy in which the people decide what development and revitalization mean to them.
For that to happen, we are going to have throw off the compartmentalization that the world of policy has used to colonize collective politics. The Baltimore event (as with others held in Jackson and that which is coming up in Boston) was meant to drive home the sense that community means building ties with people we aren’t paid to associate with. We can’t afford to be walled within our own silos.
It became clearer than ever that we have to struggle together across all fronts. If justice is denied anywhere, it affects the whole community.
Food policy and production are intimately connected to the environment and if we have the right to a healthy environment then we need housing that meets that need as well as energy policy that is clean and sustainable. To make sure our needs are met, we have to have responsive mechanisms of governance. But how are we going to have time to stay publicly engaged in all of these issues if we are shackled with debt just trying to make ends meet? If any link in this chain is broken, we all lose.
Those Who Have Lost the Most Need to Lead the Most
And this brings me to the refrain of the conference: the fact that we need to build a sustainable structure that keeps the community bound together and involved in local decision-making. Much of our current political-economic system keeps us isolated and passive, grinding us down to the point where we are reluctant to spend the time and effort required to fight the logic that puts profits ahead of people.
During the closing plenary, Dorcas Gilmore, Practitioner in Residence at the Community & Economic Development Law Clinic at American University Washington College of Law, pointed out that the problem before us is how we work to develop a sustainable structure that keeps us together and involved in constructing new ways to shape our economy and pushing current institutions to act in our favor.
One of the many participants fresh from the gathering in Jackson, MS, Dorcas pointed out that communities there were contemplating the idea of a Jackson People’s Assembly and she opened up to the crowd the idea of whether it made sense to bring together something of that nature here. But, she said, it would be essential to ground any future gathering in the same sorts of values embodied in cooperative work rooted in areas as different in history and demographics as Jackson, MS and the Basque region of Spain.
“One of the values that we will move forward with in Baltimore is that we begin in the communities that are most impacted and we begin with the community members who have been most impacted and that they will lead the way,” Dorcas said. In opening up discussion among the day’s participants, she concluded with the hope that, in future meetings, speakers aren’t chosen because they are an expert in community development. Future leaders should come forward because they have experience in and knowledge of the community impacted by the decisions and because they’ve lost out due to the old ways of doing things.
During the discussion that ensued, participants were interested in developing a structure that would enable people to tie together their fight for economic democracy across all of the different fronts covered at the conference. One participant suggested that we immediately convene another meeting to decide where we go from here. The audience showed their agreement and several enthusiastically volunteered to help organize an immediate next step to build on the enthusiasm and momentum of the conference. One goal is to develop a sustainable organizational model that would build community among the disparate sectors of the city’s economy while also keeping us accountable to each other.
While Baltimore may have a long way to go before an environmentally and racially just vision for the city is realized, there are enough people dedicated to the idea of democratic, community-led development to make that vision a reality over time. By providing a space where leaders could come forward from across the city, the conference was meant to re-energize those leading the fight to address the wealth divide in our city while also re-aligning the values upon which a more just Baltimore may be built.
James Crawford, Jr., a housing advocate in the audience, was energized by the ideas for greater democracy in our economic lives that he heard during the day and said that “We need to take this not just to our neighborhood but to the whole city.” Meanwhile, Nia Redmond, a community leader from East Baltimore who has been struggling with gentrification and waves of community displacement that have taken place in the shadow of Johns Hopkins University Medical Center said, “I have hope today because for the first time I’ve heard some people talk about the fact that those who have been exploited the most need to be in the front of the room and I thank you for that.”
For more information and resources from the conference including videos and slides, click here. As mentioned above, we’ll be meeting to plan our next steps with a group of folks from across the city. If you or someone you know would like to be involved, contact firstname.lastname@example.org