Can We Build a Movement for Structural Economic Change? We Must

Posted by Steve Dubb on April 5, 2016

This July, the New Economy Coalition (NEC), a coalition of over 140 organizations from across North America, will convene in Buffalo for its biennial conference. Called Commonbound, the gathering has adopted the stated goal of “changing the script for how we imagine economic, racial and environmental justice.” Some conference topics include:

"Developing vibrant local economies without displacing communities," "Racial justice, and building an economy where black lives and liberation matter," and "Game-changing pushes for policy and state power to achieve structural change."

A community economic development (CED) conference agenda might not look all that different. Yet even though the NEC conference will surely attract hundreds (two years ago, roughly 700 attended), CED practitioner presence seems likely to remain small. In fact, only one group, PolicyLink, is a member of both the Shelterforce Editorial Board and NEC. It would appear that new economy activists and community economic development still live in largely separate worlds.

At the Democracy Collaborative, we often straddle this line. On one hand, we write regularly about community wealth building (earlier this year, my colleagues Marjorie Kelly, Violeta Duncan, and I released a paper, "Broad-Based Ownership Models as Tools for Job Creation and Community Development" that highlighted how as cities wrestle with the growing challenge of wealth inequality, more and more leaders are looking to broad-based ownership models as tools to create jobs and build community wealth). At the same time, our Next System Project aims to foster the development of political-economic system models that deliver superior social, economic and ecological outcomes. We strive to weave these strands together, convening theoreticians with community activists, particularly those involved in racial justice campaigns, worker cooperatives, community land trusts, and participatory budgeting (a strategy that empowers residents to make decisions regarding municipal capital project budgets). Yet obvious gaps remain.

It's hard to say precisely why it's so common for activists to leave out leaders from community development corporations and community development financial institutions and vice versa. For activists, maybe part of this is the cult of the new. And surely community developers at times discount the critical role of activists.

Yet if CED has valuable experience and knowledge to offer activists and CED leaders believe structural change is needed, then we need to change this.

Bill Bynum, for example, recently advocated here on Rooflines for structural change when he wrote: “We cannot afford to tackle the one problem that fits within our box and cross our fingers in the hope that someone else will tackle the other problems. Persistent poverty communities require comprehensive, coordinated solutions to address the range of challenges that confront their residents.”

There are new practices emerging that, if integrated with existing community development work, might help propel meaningful changeif we work together. Some examples include:

  • Laws that facilitate the creation of businesses with a legally embedded social mission, such as benefit corporations.

These programs, plans, and policies identify just some of the potential to shift power and resources—and thereby reduce poverty—through coordinated state and local policy. In collaboration with the Center for Popular Democracy, Center On Wisconsin Strategy, Demos, Emerald Cities Collaborative, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Mayors Innovation Project, National People’s Action, and the State Innovation Exchange, the Democracy Collaborative has helped launch the New Economy Action Project, what we hope is a step toward building support for state and local structural economic change policies. Hard work remains: many more conversations need to occur and more relationships developed if a truly inclusive movement for structural economic change is to emerge.

(Photo credit: Judy van der Velden via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About the author more »

Steve Dubb is senior fellow at The Democracy Collaborative, a U.S. nonprofit working to build community wealth. He is author of Conversations on Community Wealth Building, a collection of community development practitioner interviews, and, with Rita Hodges, The Road Half Traveled: University Engagement at a Crossroads.

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