Community Organizing for a New Economy

Democracy Collaborative panel highlights transformative work of community-based organizations
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Dave Zuckerman

Earlier this month at Left Forum, The Democracy Collaborative helped organize five panels on a variety of different topics related to cooperatives, sustainability and growing a new economy. The last session of the weekend, “Community Organizing for a New Economy,” offered a spirited conversation around some innovative new work that is helping build a new economy.

Moderating the panel, The Democracy Collaborative’s John Duda framed the discussion by asking how we break out of the paradigm of defending the gains made through community-based movements and instead coalesce that power in a transformative manner. In order to advance beyond “the amelioration of poverty — trying to blunt its effects — to an approach that transforms the structure of the economic system,” Duda suggested, will require a great deal of organizing to realize this transformation and bring it to scale.

Yorman Nuñez and Nick Iuviene spoke about the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI) and the community organizing effort that is integral to the project. Nuñez explained that the Bronx is home to New York City’s third largest commercial corridor, prominent anchors like Montefiore Medical Center and Lincoln Hospital, and the largest food distribution point in the country (Hunts Point). Yet despite these assets, the Bronx suffers from the highest rate of obesity and asthma in the state and remains the poorest urban county in the U.S. Nuñez pointed out, “All that wealth leaks and goes somewhere else. BCDI started with the idea of how do you capture that wealth and channel it to build wealth and franchise for low-income people.”

BCDI is still in its infancy, but its successes to date are notable. The Initiative helped bring together a significant number of community organizations that were not used to working together. It has facilitated conversations and partnered with multiple anchors, including Montefiore, the Botanical Gardens, Bronx Community College, The Bronx Zoo and Fordham College. It has developed a curriculum on economic democracy to train staff of neighborhood organizations and is currently in the process of forming a business incubator. Nuñez noted that these community conversations created an “Aha!” moment when participating organizations realized “we need to make it so that our organizing allows our people to gain ownership over the resources that drive policy change in our community.”

Stephan Edel from the Center for Working Families talked about the successes and challenges in passing the expansion of the “Green Jobs/Green NY” program —an unprecedented $112 million statewide initiative to retrofit one million homes and small businesses in five years. At its heart, this initiative is an effort to transform a nascent energy efficiency industry into a thriving sector of the economy that employs community members and gives the power of overseeing the program’s implementation to community groups. .

In addition to its broad goals, the program is unique because it “specifically tasks the state energy agency with the goal of doing community development,” explained Edel. The process has not been without setbacks, such as a legislative defeat of mandated community benefits in any contract. As a consolation prize, however, local community organizations can chose to implement community benefit requirements by bundling jobs and contracts together to ensure a good wage and community benefit. Edel noted that currently they are organizing to encourage every community organization to engage voluntarily in this process.

More importantly, once these contracts are accepted, they are upheld by the New York Department of Labor. Edel points out that this is the first time in New York State where a state agency has been mandated to enforce a community benefits agreement. “Once you have done the first step of community organizing, there is a place for the state. How can the state can be trained and forced to behave differently?”

The final panelist was Caroline Murray, former executive director of Alliance to Develop Power (ADP). ADP was formed to organize many thousands of tenants in at-risk housing in Massachusetts and help pass the Low-Income Housing Preservation and Resident Homeownership Act in 1990. This law gave tenants the right of first refusal if their building was put up for sale and empowered ADP to negotiate and establish a tenant-controlled nonprofit for nearly 2,000 units of housing. The result was not a traditional cooperative but a community-owned institution.

Murray went on to explain how this ownership allowed them to create a whole new base for organizing. In addition, they created a series of new businesses to meet the needs of residents while employing local community members. When Murray left two years ago, Alliance to Develop Power had $80 million in assets and 125 employees.

Murray stressed that ultimately any project must come from a base of people holding power — from community organizing. Foundation and anchor institution support can be helpful, but without the participation of community organizations and members as key stakeholders, any project — no matter how well intended — will unravel over time. People power is one of three critical prongs necessary to achieve systemic change — Murray pointed out, “we need to have economic power, people power and political power all at the same time.”