Panel Discussion – Frontline Leadership to Transform the World
In this moment of unraveling, a new generation of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color leaders are generating creative strategic innovations and interventions to combat extractive economic systems and usher in a Just Transition to a new civilization. In this panel, key figures from some of the most dynamic frontline organizations at the forefront of this movement—Climate Justice Alliance, Movement Generation, and New Economy Coalition—share stories and practices. They discuss how they are working to: cultivate local, loving, living, linked communities; democratize the economy (#WealthBack); restore sovereignty (#LandBack); localize control of wealth (#Reinvest); and restore social and ecological well-being ( #JustTransition). A regenerative economy that restores sovereignty and democratizes our economy is crucial to the future of our planet.
Hosted by Natalia Linares, New Economy Coalition. With: Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, Movement Generation; Doria Robinson, Cooperation Richmond & Urban Tilth; Najari Smith, Cooperation Richmond & Rich City Rides.
This is an excerpted and edited version of the session’s transcript.
NATALIA LINARES: Today we will discuss how a new generation of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color leaders are generating creative, strategic innovations and interventions to combat extractive economic systems and usher in a just transition to a new economy. We will be hearing from folks who are working to cultivate local, loving, living, linked communities, trying to democratize our economy, restore sovereignty, localize control of wealth, and restore social and ecological well-being.
I am a communications organizer at the New Economy Coalition, a member-based network representing the solidarity economy movement in the United States. We exist to organize our members into a more united and robust force to accelerate the transition of our economic system from capitalism to a regenerative solidarity economy.
As we “meet” today, we live in a very challenging time: yesterday, a national single-day record of new COVID cases was set. Hospitalizations topped 100,000, more than double the number at the beginning of November, and while 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits during this pandemic, American billionaires have seen their wealth go up by over $931 billion. In my hometown of New York City, we are projected to lose one of every three small businesses to this pandemic, and over the next ten years, the most significant transfer of wealth in the history of this world will happen here in America. Baby boomers, mostly white, wealth-owning households, will pass down $68 trillion to their millennial heirs. This is a moment during which we will either course-correct and bring fairness to our economic system or fall further into oligarchy and plutocracy.
But we are here to vision together, to consider what an economy that took care of our communities and our planet and that repaired the ills of colonialism and enslavement would look like.
We at the New Economy Coalition believe that a “solidarity economy” is the means to get to a regenerative economy. There are people worldwide working on building this more sustainable, fair, and just economy. Though unfortunately, we are part of an international movement, the U.S. is right now far behind many other countries in building that new economy. Still, we do have a vibrant history to draw upon: there were many vibrant mutual aid societies after enslavement ended and a big black cooperative movement in the 1930s, and many other collective and democratic ownership initiatives in our history.
In many ways, the solidarity economy involves going back to forms of communal life that our ancestors practiced before colonialism and enslavement. The New Economy Coalition includes a broad spectrum of members: worker cooperatives, community land trusts, affordable housing experiments such as housing cooperatives, participatory budgeting projects, revolving loan funds, etc. I urge everyone to check out what we do at neweconomy.net and on Instagram and to get involved if you can. We host an annual conference called Common Bound, and we release a newsletter every two weeks to keep our members and allies informed about all the exciting projects and experiments happening all over the country.
Today we’re going to hear about some inspiring, very local examples of the sort of work of organizing, community building, and seeding of a regenerative economy happening all around the country. We’re going to start with Michelle from Movement Generation, who will kick us off with an overview of how we get to this regenerative economy via the Just Transition framework.
Movement Generation is a highly influential collective; they are founding members of the Climate Justice Alliance and the Our Power campaign. They have been at the forefront of many significant struggles.
MICHELLE MASCARENHAS-SWAN: Thanks, Nati. So good to be with you all this morning, and a shout out to Bioneers. As Nati mentioned, I’m with Movement Generation, with our Justice and Ecology Project. We are also members of the New Economy Coalition as are the other folks presenting today, and we’re all members as well of the Climate Justice Alliance. I want to start by saying that it’s really the struggles and organizing and experimenting done by frontline communities all across this continent that created this movement and this “Just Transition” framework. We at Movement Generation have just had the honor of being able to help to support and curate and provide frameworks that can be shared across communities.
I want to start out by reminding us that the root of the word “economy” is the same as that of “ecology.” “Eco” derives from oikos, the Greek word for “home,” and just like an ecosystem, which is defined by the relationships between all the species of plants and animals and natural forces (water, wind, climate, etc.) in a place, an economy is really just about the management of our larger home, our society, and the way we organize our relationships in a place, ideally to take good care of the place and each other. But that management of home can be healthy and sustainable, or, as it mostly has been and is currently, it can be extractive, destructive, and profoundly imbalanced and unfair.
Our struggles for ecological justice are about the reintegration of human communities into the web of life, into healthy, thriving ecosystems rooted in mutuality and mutually beneficial relationships. Any economy has basic pillars without which it can’t exist: air, clean water, sunlight, fertile soil, combined with human labor and ingenuity. In the extractive economy, the current dominant system, the purpose of the economy, whatever the mainstream discourse about it says, is in fact the enclosure of wealth and power for the few. This extractive economy is literally powered by burning things up and extracting resources from the earth and waters and from people. Exploitation of people’s labor is obviously the dominant form of extraction, forcing people to act against their best judgment just to keep a roof over their heads, and even getting the masses of people to buy into a system that promises prosperity but is rooted in unjust hierarchy, white supremacy, patriarchy and consumerism, all myths that are completely anathema to achieving a healthy, living world.
Governance in such a system is heavily influenced by the power of wealth. The richer you are, the more decisions you tend to get to make about other people’s lives, and when people resist this oppressive arrangement, they are often met by force, by police or military repression. But this system is inherently unstable, and it’s pretty obvious it’s teetering, so how do we transition to a system that gives us control over our own lives and communities? By creating local, loving, linked participatory economies based on sacredness and caring, rooted in all of our relations and the complexity of life. We have to realign the economy with the powers of Mother Earth and protect and restore biological and cultural diversity. Work in such a system is not about jobs or production but about the constructive social roles we can all play to take care of ourselves and each other.
In this moment we have to expand our roles as regenerative disturbers of this extractive economy, so we can transform it into something different. We have to build soil as we tear up concrete and liberate our collective imaginations. Decision-making needs to happen at the smallest scale at which it makes sense—at the workplace, the watershed, the “trade-shed” and foodshed. Governance has to become about authentic collective self-determination. There are several different strategies the Climate Justice Alliance uses to organize around. One of them is trying to build a visionary and oppositional economy, to seek to change the rules, change the story, move resources to where they are needed and build a movement of movements. The frontline struggle is about democratizing wealth and workplaces, shifting economic control to communities, advancing ecological restoration and driving racial justice and social equity. One of our initiatives is called Reinvest in Our Power, which aims to reclaim stolen wealth and slow and spread it through community-controlled loan funds and other mechanisms to be able to apply that capital towards regenerative community needs.
NATALIA: Thank you, Michelle. Next up is Najari Smith, founder and Executive Director of Richmond, California’s Rich City Rides and former chair of the Richmond Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He has worked tirelessly to improve bike infrastructure and to use bicycles to unite neighborhoods and communities throughout the Bay Area, including by creating the biggest bicycle celebration in Richmond’s history. He’s also involved in work around Cooperation Richmond, which we’re going to hear more about from Doria later on. Najari.
NAJARI SMITH: So Rich City Rides started as this crazy idea of a young man who thought that he could reach out and connect with community members by offering bicycle repair outdoors, in a park, as a way of getting to know people and sharing with them his love for bicycles. Bicycles weren’t as popular then, and this small initiative was a part of a larger cultural change, a move in many cities towards regenerative transportation, a different way of engaging with one of our most used assets, our streets and sidewalks.
As those bicycle repair workshops in the park became more popular, more people joined in, and some of them started organizing days during which they would care for the park, and big group bicycle rides also grew out of it. They became a weekly activity that we collectively call “Self-care Sunday” or “Community Care Rides.” And from these rides more ideas emerged: they encouraged a different way of looking at the streets. The rides are great outreach. They’re a form of civic celebration that include music and that draw people in. A lot of people wanted to participate but didn’t have bikes, and we wanted everybody to be able to join in, so we found old bikes and refurbished them, and we’ve been able to provide over 2,000 bikes to community members that way.
One young participant in all this came up with the idea that a vital piece of bicycle infrastructure on top of bike lanes and bike racks, was a bike shop, and Richmond didn’t have a bike shop, so we took this idea and worked with this youth to start the first bike shop in Richmond, but we didn’t just want a standard small business bike shop; it had to embody the larger cultural change toward community and cooperation that the bike rides had.
A number of people who had joined in the rides became advocates for alternative transportation and participated in bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee meetings in the city in Richmond. We took this idea of starting this bike shop cooperative to them, but getting the necessary resources and jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, especially in a fairly low-income city, was a daunting challenge. We turned to the folks at Cooperation Richmond who provide coaching, capital, and connections to cooperative businesses in Richmond, and thanks to their support, the bike shop in Richmond has been going and growing for the past three years, now with a total staff of six.
This experience of working as part of a co-op has generated ideas among our members for other types of cooperative enterprises that would be valuable assets to the community that could emerge, things such as delivery services, local food trucks, etc. Once people work as part owners of their business, they see the advantages of working with each other to build something that’s good for the whole community. They see firsthand that our powers are magnified and manifested when we do things together.
Cooperation Richmond is one of the many local organizations within the framework of a national financial cooperative called Seed Commons (https://seedcommons.org/) that provides capital through loan funds to reinvest locally. It’s a vehicle to reclaim wealth to meet community needs, pulling from the extractive economy to redirect capital into the regenerative economy, to help shift economic control to local communities, democratize wealth in the workplace, advance ecological restoration, drive racial justice and social equity, re-localize more production and consumption, and retain and restore our culture, because cooperative economics is in fact rooted in our ancestral traditions.
At the Seed Commons, we offer really different terms to borrowers than you find in the extractive economy: you make payments when you’re able; you’re not expected to start repaying until you’re making a profit, and we work with you to help develop and nurture the business in all kinds of ways beyond just providing capital. We don’t ask for these businesses to put up any collateral. Also, within the Seed Commons, everything is community governed. It’s the grassroots member organizations that govern the national fund. It’s bottom up, not top down. Every one of the peer organizations, such as Cooperation Richmond, govern the national fund based on shared principles that include productive sustainability, maximizing community benefit, radical inclusion, non-extraction of course, and building cooperative democratic ownership within the member communities.
Back to the bike shop: thanks to hard work and to Cooperation Richmond’s investments, the bike shop has grown and become more profitable over these past six years. I’m one of the founding members of the Rich City Rides bike shop and our commitment is that this is will be a long-term community asset. We’re committed to having this shop here after we are no longer around, not just thinking about ourselves now, but trying to think many generations into the future.
Another important player in this movement is the Climate Justice Alliance’s Just Transition Loan Fund and Incubator, which supports Just Transition projects through technical assistance, non-extractive loans, political education and financial management skills training. And there is constant communication not just about loans and raising capital but also about sharing services, skills and information across these sets of regenerative economic networks. For example, if some people on the other side of the country wanted to open a bike shop cooperative, we would share everything we could about our experience and what we’ve learned with them. Those sorts of cross connections happen all the time. It’s a great model to ensure that community wealth stays and circulates in a community, and the network has been growing steadily.
NATI: Thank you, Najari. Next is Doria Robinson, a third-generation resident of Richmond, California, Executive Director of Urban Tilth and co-founder of Cooperation Richmond. Doria previously worked on organic farms in Massachusetts and then at Veritable Vegetable, a very big woman-owned organic produce distribution company, so she has a lot of experience in the worlds of organics and of food cooperatives. She’s also a certified Permaculture designer who led the development of Urban Tilth’s three-acre farm in Richmond and a Farm-to-Table CSA social entrepreneur venture that now serves 440 West County families each week.
DORIA ROBINSON: I can’t tell you just how exciting it is to be here at Bioneers. You know, we’re right across the bridge from where Bioneers usually takes place, and for so many years kids like me who grew up in Richmond just would never have had access to the kind of knowledge that gets shared through Bioneers. And for the last 10 years, we’ve been able to bring youth from here to Bioneers, and it really turned many of them on and got them really excited about many different ideas they aren’t usually exposed to, so it’s pretty exciting for me to be on this side of a panel for the first time. I’m feeling really proud right now just to be able to share some of the positive side of our story here in Richmond, because I think so often, if you have heard anything about Richmond, California, you have heard about our troubles, our struggles. You would have heard about the refinery, the biggest point-source pollution of greenhouse gases in the state of California, five blocks from where I grew up. You would have heard about the huge fire at the refinery in 2012 that actually spurred the development of Richmond’s Our Power Coalition and the work that I’m about to share with you today.
For over 100 years, Richmond has been reacting to the impacts of the extractive economy, in our case the petroleum industry, literally stationed right in our front or back yards, in the very air that we have to breathe. We’ve had very little real control over that impact on our lives, and, as in so many other frontline communities, the extractive industries aren’t actually the only stressors. We’re also dealing with a whole slew of injustices: in economics, healthcare, the legal and prison systems, etc.—a whole collection of injustices that all compound each other, so if we want to be able to solve any of the problems we face, we have to adopt a “whole systems” approach.
When the big explosion and fire at the Chevron refinery occurred in 2012, a collection of organizations that had been organized for many years to fight the refinery, to try to keep it accountable, realized that we needed something more than just reaction and resistance: we needed to actually start to articulate an attractive vision of what we wanted to see in our community, not just what we didn’t want to see, so from a group that had originally formed in response to Chevron to try to make them accountable, including of course for the massive impacts of the fire, we formed the Richmond Our Power Coalition. It brought together a whole disparate group of organizations that weren’t all necessarily Environmental Justice-focused and that had different visions for how our community should grow and develop, how our economy should work, how we should take care of our homes, etc.
We rapidly realized that we not only had to keep pushing to change the rules of local politics, we had to also change the story. For so many years our story has been the story of us as victims rather than us as leaders. Of course, we have to focus on moving the money and getting our fair share of resources, because we’re a very low-income community made up of transplants from the South, black folks who moved up here looking for work, trying to escape the Jim Crow South in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, and immigrants from Southeast Asia and other places, so mostly low-income people of color, and we don’t have resources to invest in the changes that we dream of and need. We have been extracted from for sometimes hundreds of years, so we don’t have the capital we need because it’s been taken from us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start with what we have.
So this collection of organizations here in Richmond got together and asked: “OK. How can we not only fight and vision but also start to actually create the economy that we need right here right now?” We had been doing so much work already to fight what was bad in Richmond, even moving forward to start talking about decommissioning the refinery. We know that petrochemicals are reaching the end of their life journey here on Earth, and what will that mean for us being the home of one of the biggest refineries in the state of California? What is that toxic legacy that we should start thinking about now so that when there’s a transition, we can transition in a just way, not just in terms of the direct extractive economy and of resources and energy, but also transitioning away from all those other forms of extraction, such as the way we’ve been treated by the criminal justice system?
And, also of course, we have to do a lot of things at once. We have to keep struggling to change the rules so that we can lift our communities up. We have to fight for healthcare for all, for the rights of nature, to fully enfranchise the vote, for participatory budgeting, for creating a public land policy which allows for unlanded people, like most renters, low-income people in urban centers to gain access to public land and to be able to actually transform their situations and build the infrastructure that they need to thrive.
Changing the story requires action on many fronts, including using communication tools such as podcasts to speak first to ourselves to tell our own story differently, to take back our story from the kind of dominant media that tells us we’re victims, that we’re not capable, that we don’t have good ideas, that our ideas can’t scale, and to retell our own story from a place of power, from a place where we know our own capacity and history and what we could be capable of if some of the systemic, institutional barriers were moved aside.
And we have a large list of concrete solutions that this community is either in the process of putting into place or planning to put into place, from Cooperation Richmond to Rich City Rides (which you just heard about) to a new Richmond land trust that will permit us to create housing that isn’t subject to the commercial housing market, so we can address gentrification and houselessness in an equitable, just, fair and loving way.
And at my home organization, Urban Tilth, because Richmond has so many food deserts, we are working to create a local, just food system that reconnects the urban core with a whole hub of small family sustainable farms that actually need access to markets and are themselves under threat from urban sprawl and development. We’re having a lot of success reconnecting the rural to the urban, creating far more sustainable nodes of local food systems and food exchanges. We’re creating a hub in North Richmond, one of the worst food deserts in our town, where people can access fresh, healthy whole food that has been grown in a sustainable way locally, and bring it straight into their homes to help reduce the incidence of so many preventable chronic diseases that afflict our communities because of poor nutrition and unhealthy air and environments. We are mobilizing the physical tools we have so we can be more resilient.
We’re also talking about creating an energy commission, so we can have more control over our energy sources and build a local distribution network, actually governed by a local commission made up of community members. Another big vision of Cooperation Richmond is to take our main street that has mostly been boarded up for many years. The coming of malls and big box stores destroyed the small businesses there, so we’d like to take back those boarded-up buildings and create more cooperative enterprises that, like Rich City Rides, can be places of inspiration and connection. We are ready to re-imagine our public squares, grocery stores and laundromats, and use public land to create community-based housing initiatives that we need so that the people we grew up with, our elders, some of whom are now living in a ditch in our parks, have a roof over their heads.
We also know we need to work on creating resilience hubs, which is something the Asian Pacific Environmental Network has been spearheading here in Richmond. We know climate change is already here and some of its effects are not reversible, so we need to create plans to be more prepared and resilient when crises hit, since, as a frontline community, the impacts hit us first and worst.
Another really important component of local control has to be a public bank. So often in progressive arenas, people don’t want to talk about money, but money is at this point in history a fuel we need to make and sustain the changes we desire. It’s imperative that our community consciously, pro-actively interacts with the granular details of the economy and finance, of banking and lending and resource and capital redistribution, so public banking has to be a part of what we build.
Of course, this last year has been so challenging. The pandemic has been transformative. For Urban Tilth it has meant that we had to shut down our education and outreach and community engagement programs, but it has also meant that we could hyper-focus on what we could do, which is grow and distribute food. Throughout this whole crisis, we were able to triple our distribution of produce and get it to families that most needed it, keeping them out of long lines at food banks so they could stay home and be safe. We served our seniors and our disabled, bringing food right to their doors, and we were able to keep some of our young people employed doing this work. We were also able to nurture the relationships we had already started to create with our local farmers. We never stopped. We never went down. We never had to pause. Our networks for food were never empty. We had abundance and we had a model that we had been creating for the last 10 years that we were able to scale up pretty rapidly in response to the pandemic.
The biggest lesson we learned was that we need to keep scaling it up. We need to keep growing this model because having these flexible local systems in place can permit us to serve our community during a crisis and keep people employed during that crisis. These are exactly the kind of solutions we need—resilient systems rooted in right relationships and right practices on the land, which includes supporting farmers who already are committed to sustainable agriculture. Land is a big part of our focus at Urban Tilth, and we are not alone. There are a number of different organizations, collectives, networks that are looking at the need to move land back into the hands of the people. There’s a great quote that I ran across recently when I was reading Monica White’s fabulous book Freedom Farmers, about the role that black farmers play and have played over the years in the United States in justice movements. Black farmers and black-landed peoples have played critical roles for movement support. Land is ultimately the basis of all independence, and of freedom, justice, and equality.
There’s only so much you can do to change the conditions of your life if you have no land to call home, if you have no home base. If you’re just moved from place to place to place, you don’t have a place to create that store or business or cooperative. Land is central to transformative change, so in Richmond we’ve been working on this farm for years, but we’re in the process of buying this land from Contra Costa County. It’s currently county-owned land. We’ve made it a community-run hub of healthy food, healthy activity and movement building. It’s a place for people to gather, a place for young people to come and transform their minds and get introduced to all different kinds of ideas and practices, from composting toilets to organic farming to healing herbs, but we need for the community to own that land to have the security of knowing we can’t be driven off it.
And that North Richmond Farm Project is one of many land acquisition and asset-building initiatives that the Richmond Our Power Coalition is taking on. We’re also thinking about our transportation systems. We need to create safer places and safer ways for people to get around. A lot of our people have limited access to what they need. If you don’t have a car (and a lot of our people don’t) and it’s really unsafe to walk because there’s no sidewalk, your quality of life really suffers, so we’re doing working with our local government agencies to create greenways, green transportation infrastructure. And we don’t just want to come up with projects that we get some outside agency to come in and build. This project is based on having a training program that trains local young people from North Richmond and San Pablo who aren’t on a college track to do green infrastructure installation and maintenance as a just transition job. We need to be designing projects that create the opportunities that our young people, adults and families need to thrive. We need to be directly employing them in their own liberation, in the improvement of their own lives and communities.
But I have to return to the truth that none of these visions can become real unless we move the money. Since the inception of the United States resources and capital have been extracted from the hands of the Native people and out of the labor of the bodies of stolen African peoples and out of the bodies of other low-income folks who came over as indentured servants and later immigrants and into the hands of the few. We need that capital moved back into our communities, communities such as Richmond, impoverished coal country communities in Kentucky, Native communities in Alaska and across the whole continental United States, so that we can actually create the change that we need. You cannot create change from goodwill alone. It’s just not real. It’s not what happens. It’s not possible. You can do a lot, but you can’t create the depth of change we desperately need.
And you have to have sufficient resources so that you don’t set yourself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy of funding something just enough to fail. That happens far too often, so in Richmond we’ve created a Just Transition Fund that’s housed by one of our local community foundations to encourage people to support this ongoing work and put money into this fund so that we can build that bank, so we can transform our downtown, so that we can create community solar projects and solarize our seniors’ homes, so we can do the things that we need to do to transition our local economy in a just and equitable way.
And I have to say that I’m just so thankful for visionaries like Kat Taylor, who are in a privileged position of finding themselves with great wealth but also absolutely want to do what’s right. Kat Taylor has this amazing initiative called the Good Life Giving Pledge. She has pledged to give back one-third of her wealth before the end of her lifetime, and she’s started by donating a million dollars to Richmond Our Power Coalition as well as a collection of other projects across the United States. And she’s looking for others to do the same, in our case to find four other people to do what she’s done, so we can have a seed fund of five million dollars to begin this transformative work in Richmond. That is the scale and the type of moving the money that we need, even on a larger scale, to make the impacts at the pace that we need to answer the call of this moment, the call of climate change and climate justice, to begin to address the depth of the need of transformation that we have.
But how do we capture people’s attention? How do we do this work? How do we get people to start to work locally everywhere and then connect our movements so that we’re not working in silos, so that we’re not so hyper-focused on our place that we’re not also seeing the larger global picture? That is the last part of the Just Transition framework—organizing a movement of movements, so that we’re not just working in our silos but connecting initiatives across sectors and communities and regions so that we can reinforce and multiply the power of our work. We need to convene community and regional and national and international people’s assemblies so we can keep activating our communities and sharing our best ideas and strategies. Low-income people of color who have been disempowered for so long are a sleeping giant. If enough of them come together in an organized way, their voices, energy and life-force can transform the world.
That’s why we created the Just Transition Institute, where people can go deeper and learn the truth about our economic and political systems. We have to do a lot of unlearning. Our educational systems are mostly abysmal, especially the public education system, and this is from someone who deeply believes in the principle of public education. Our system has for the most part done a massive disservice to low-income people by not equipping them with the tools they need to thrive, so we have to create our own institutes where we can start to provide an accurate political education, the deeper understanding that our people will need, if we are going to be able to take back our power. Part of that is obviously voter engagement. We need to vote consciously at all levels, but especially locally, because a lot of the decisions that affect our daily lives are made there. We need to get more folks and more communities and collectives and groups to become members of frontline organizations and networks such as the Climate Justice Alliance, The New Economy Coalition, Movement Generation, Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the It Takes Roots “alliance of alliances,” the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Right to the City Alliance, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, etc. The more the most savvy and progressive organizations can coordinate and cooperate, working locally but strategizing nationally and internationally, the better chances we will have of achieving genuine transformation.
This is, I believe, the recipe to make the changes that we need to keep life going on Earth. Thank you.
NATI: Yes. Thank you so much, Doria, and Najari and Michelle. We now have time for a few audience questions. The first one is: “With so many small businesses going under now because of COVID, how much are you seeing and leading a regenerative response that could bring many of them back as cooperatives?”
In New York City, where I’m based, an initiative called Owners to Owners was launched this past week. The city government will directly be supporting the transition of some aging baby boomer businesses into worker cooperatives. In our world, it’s a very exciting development that New York City is taking that on. It’s being led by some of the groups you heard about today, such as Seed Commons, and other groups such as the Working World and the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops. By the way, if you’re interested in that, go to the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops website: you can plug in your zip code and see what worker co-ops exist in your area right now.
DORIA: In terms of Cooperation Richmond, what we saw with Rich City Rides, for example, is that during the pandemic our cooperatives saw more business than normal, and I think it’s because people look at them as more than businesses. They look at those cooperatives as community connection points. Rich City Rides was giving out food. It was one of the places where the school district was giving out meals during the beginning of the COVID crisis. Worker-owned cooperatives can play a really different radical role in a community, and I think that our community members recognized that, and they supported those businesses even more through the crisis.
NATI: Another question is: “What are important key strategies in moving the money?”
MICHELLE: The number one thing is to organize. Wherever you are, organize there. We had a success this year in which the Universalist Unitarian Assembly made a big investment in the Seed Commons. Folks in the higher echelons of leadership of that congregation organized and got a result, and we hope that it will help create momentum, so active Unitarians in many places will in turn organize within their local congregations and their families and make other socially positive investments and get active in other ways. So, wherever you are, organize, that’s really important, but ideally you want to do it in such a way that you are creating what we call “permanently organized communities,” not just responding to shocks that come our way, but building the resilient, long-haul systems and institutions that can help us make the kind of deep shifts we need.
NATI: One last question: “What is your relationship to local government? What do you need from city and county governments to do to help?”
I will plug the New Economy Coalition’s publication, Pathways to a People’s Economy, which offers to any interested city or county or state government officials a policy vision of what they can do to help us get to more worker-owned businesses, more community-owned power, etc.
DORIA: One thing I think people and communities really need from their local governments is for local governments to believe in the power and capacity of local people. Much too often local governments look outside of their communities for places to invest, for contractors, for experts. They’re not used to thinking about investing in local residents and in the vision of local people. Their ideas of economic development are to try to attract national chains, big box stores, corporate offices, etc. Too often they look at local residents who’ve been organizing for change as a nuisance. That that has got to change, and to make it change, we have to organize and elect responsive leaders.
NATI: I wish we had more time, but we hope that you will all plug in with us on our social media and websites, and get down with your folks wherever you are. I want to thank Michelle, Doria, Najari and Bioneers and the Bioneers community for having us. Frontlines to the Future is where it’s at.
Doria Robinson, a 3rd-generation resident of Richmond, California and Executive Director of Urban Tilth, is a co-founder of Cooperation Richmond, a worker-owned cooperative developer and local loan fund. Doria previously worked: on organic farms in Massachusetts; at Veritable Vegetable, a women-owned organic produce distribution company; at Real Food Company; and at Mixed Nuts Food Co-op. A Certified Permaculture Designer, she also led the development of Urban Tilth’s 3-acre urban farm in Richmond and the Farm-to-Table CSA social entrepreneurial venture that now serves 440 West County families each week.
Najari Smith, Richmond, CA-based founder and Executive Director of Rich City Rides, former chair and still member of the Richmond Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, has worked tirelessly to improve bike infrastructure and to use bicycles to unite neighborhoods and communities throughout the Bay Area, including by creating the biggest bicycle celebrations in Richmond’s history.
Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, a member of the Movement Generation (MG) staff collective who has been on its planning committee since 2008, has worked for the last 25 years building movement vehicles for frontline communities. Prior to her work at MG, she co-led the Center for Food and Justice, the National Farm to School Initiative, Rooted in Community, and the School of Unity and Liberation. Michelle was also a founding co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and the Our Power Campaign and was recently named an Ashoka Fellow (2017-2020).
Natalia Linares, Communications Organizer at the New Economy Coalition, has over a decade of experience as a cultural organizer, artist advocate, and publicist working to amplify voices from traditionally underrepresented communities. In 2010 Natalia founded Conrazón, an agency for artists and creators invested in new paradigms of heart-centered economic justice in the performing arts and media.