When I think of social change work, the kind that addresses the root causes of injustice, I think about systems. If you are steeped in this work, this is not news. Yet, racialized capitalism wants us to buy into a culture of individualism, for ourselves, but also for the way we understand and relate to policies and institutions. Whether we are picketing Amazon to honor warehouse employees’ right to a bathroom break and fair wages, or navigating the opaque rules of philanthropy to direct the flow of resources towards justice-minded organizations, we are fighting towards connected goals. Though different, they are inextricably linked. If this is true of the systems that we seek to shift, then it is also true of the completely new systems and institutions we want to build and the very movements and strategies that will get us there.
These thoughts were spurred by a learning trip to Jackson, Mississippi, sponsored by the Foundation this past April. Along with three Foundation staff, eight individuals representing our Northside Economic Ecosystem grantee partners*, spent three days learning about local efforts to build a cooperative economy in the city of Jackson. As is the case in our personal lives (well, maybe I will just speak for myself here), focusing on a different city, with different players and a unique history, made it easier to untangle the web of relationships and decisions over time that contributed to creating current conditions in Jackson. In a way, this made space for us as Minneapolitans to see our own local environment from a different perspective and perhaps with a different level of clarity. The trip encouraged us to consider both the opportunities our city of 10,000 nonprofits and foundations has to offer and the challenges inherent therein (not to mention of the dynamics of northern racism).
As you can imagine, one of the similarities we found between our cities and local work is the fragmentation of efforts that, at least on the surface, seem aligned and have the potential to have greater impact together. Fragmentation, as we experience it, can be a purely logistical issue (we are all busy, and building deep, trusting, collaborative partnerships takes effort and time), and in some cases is due to some deeper issues (maybe we have fundamental philosophical differences about where we’re going, what it’s going to take, and who we are willing to partner with to get there).
As an attempt to solve this fragmentation, the Foundation uses the term “ecosystem” to capture the scope and nature of our funding in our economic development portfolio. What we like about the ecosystem framework is that it honors both the important role individual organisms play, and the way they are linked and interdependent. Ultimately, thinking of our work in this context moves us away from an exclusively individualist framework and towards collective mindsets and behaviors.
To understand and internalize the connectedness we all share is to embrace natural patterns of behavior. Yet, even when it seems so natural and intrinsic to our way of being, rebuilding a practice of connectivity is at once simple and more difficult than we might have thought, leaving many of us working at all levels of change frustrated and confounded. What is the connective tissue that can link our actions, strategies and movements together? What does it look like, feel like and sound like? What are the needed elements that can create the balance necessary to achieve effective cooperation?
The truth of the matter is that when an ecosystem is out of balance, then balance must be restored, repairs must be made. Depending on where we sit in the ecosystem, we might not even recognize that we are out of balance because the system is tipping in our favor. Either way, whether fully aware that change is needed or not, the process can feel chaotic, disruptive, unclear, or even extreme (ironically, it sounds like the opposite of harmony).
When we translate these lines of thinking to the work of achieving economic justice, it leaves me asking: “What is off balance about the way our economy functions? What will it take to achieve that balance?” (balance here being synonymous to equity). And more importantly, when we think of living in a community, neighborhood and city where the economy works for everyone, what does it look like?
Of course, the answer to the first question is very complex (and we’ve done a fair share of studying the “problem”), but for me it comes down to shifting our economic systems away from extractive practices. I believe it’s possible to build economies where we can own our own labor (and the resulting wealth it produces). I think it’s possible to shift our relationship to land and housing from a profit driven system, to a values and human rights system. And the way I see it happening, as I alluded to before, is through collective (be it cooperatives or not) practices.
For me, the idea of pooling resources, talent, energy, and money and co-owning property, a business, or a home sound so inspiring. Yet, as we learned from folks down in Jackson, the practice of cooperation is harder than it may appear. What if we don’t agree on the strategic direction of the business? What if I don’t think that your one hour of work is equal to my one hour of work? If we are all partners and owners, who is the lead? Is there a lead? Who is responsible if something goes wrong? If harm is done, how do we practice accountability in a collective way?
I am thankful for folks locally who have bravely stepped into the space of leading efforts to nurture, shepherd, and elevate a cooperative movement renaissance, especially in BIPOC communities. Even with their sustained effort, there is a powerful role to be filled– the connective tissue linking cooperators. How do we create and support this connective tissue?
Visiting with powerful local change-makers in Jackson alongside our grantee partners has left me eager to explore this question and hopefully find opportunities to invest in this infrastructure.
*Elaine Rasmussen, Social Impact Strategies Group; Chris Webley, New Rules; Nkuli Shongwe, Nexus Community Partners; Shiranthi Goonathilaka, Village Financial Cooperative; Warren McLean, NEON; Tasha Powell, Appetite For Change; Tana Hargest, Cooperative Developer, Owner of Dark Matter; Staci Horwitz, City of Lakes Community Land Trust.