How Can I Make a Difference?
A thoughtful person might ask: How can I make a difference? Margaret Mead famously observed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Here are six things that are exactly the right size for a small group committed to building a new economy, restoring democracy and displacing corporate power.
It all starts local.
1. Democratize Your Money.
Put your money in a credit union—then participate in its governance.
Behind their unexciting veneer of credit unions lie awesome possibilities. Unlike the large commercial and investment banks that were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, credit unions are nonprofit cooperatives that are member-owned. These democratized, one-person-one-vote banks already involve more than 95 million Americans as participant-owners. They lend to minorities and low- and moderate-income families to a far greater extent than do commercial banks.
It’s true that many older credit unions have become very cautious, but it’s clear that collective efforts to direct capital in their communities can work: like lending to renewable energy projects.
Credit unions provide an opportunity for activists to build a nationwide, democratic, localized, nonprofit alternative to corporate finance which will deprive it of the wealth and loosen the stranglehold over our political system.
Move your money!
2. Worker Ownership.
Help build a worker co-op or encourage interested businesses to transition to employee ownership that will adopt social and environmental standards.
Worker-owned co-ops bring democracy and democratic ownership into the economy and into community life. There are many examples of successful co-ops. Equal Exchange’s 100-plus worker-owners, for instance, generate $50 million of annual sales while pursuing an innovative agenda to make international trade in coffee and other food products more ethical. The United Steelworkers, working with the Mondragón Corporation, has proposed a nationwide effort to create unionized worker-owned co-ops that is beginning to bear fruit in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
One of the best examples is the case of Fort Collins, Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Co., America’s eighth-largest brewery. When chief executive and co-founder Kim Jordan sold the enterprise to its more than 400 employees in 2012, she considered the conversion to 100 percent worker ownership a rare opportunity to “have multigenerational impact.” Soon afterward, the worker-owners met to discuss cutting into the company’s near-term profits to power their entire facility with wind energy. “Within a minute or so, we had decided as a group to become the world’s largest single user of wind power,” said Jeff Lebesch, a co-founder.
New Belgium is also committed to open-book management, whereby all employee-owners can review finances and provide feedback. It also became certified as a B Corp, which enshrines in the firm’s bylaws both social and environmental goals as well as profits.
According to Gar Alperovitz and Keane Bhatt, “Conversions to worker cooperatives also confer tax benefits to business owners who decide to sell to their employees. Among employee-owned institutions, co-ops allow for the most democracy.” Namasté Solar in Boulder, Colorado—a $15 million-plus-a-year solar energy services firm – converted to an employee-owned cooperative at the beginning of 2011. Its workers own the firm equally and manage its operations on a one-vote-per-person basis. Having also certified itself as a B Corp, Namasté’s mission consists of creating “holistic wealth for ourselves and our community.” Its worker-owners in their mission statement declare, “We choose co-ownership over hierarchy, democratic decision-making over centralized leadership, sustainable growth over aggressive expansion, and collaboration over competition.” They benefit from transparency of all company information, a 4-to-1 cap on the ratio of highest-to-lowest pay, and six weeks of paid vacation.
Worker-owned companies deserve your support; the more commonplace they become, the easier they become to launch.
3. Local Government: Demand Participatory Budgeting.
Organize your community so that local government spending is determined by inclusive neighborhood deliberations on key priorities.
Participatory budgeting, pioneered in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, is a bottom-up process through which community members collectively decide how their local tax money is spent. In 2009, committed organizers partnered with Chicago Alderman Joe Moore to institute the country’s first PB initiative. Following the example of other cities around the world, Chicago residents brainstormed ideas, developed them into proposals with the help of volunteer delegates, voted on the various proposals, and were then able to direct more than $1 million of the ward’s discretionary funds toward their top projects. Again, according to Gar Alperovitz and Keane Bhatt, “In 2012, the City Council of Vallejo, California, instituted the first citywide process of this kind in the country.
The process contributes to more robust self-governance, greater transparency, better-informed citizens, more equitable access to decision making and spending, and real community building in the neighborhood.”
Lawmakers who have embraced participatory budgeting have found it to be enormously popular with their constituents across the U.S. and the world, so educate and encourage your city council member to take the plunge into direct democracy.
4. Democratic Development.
Build community power through economic development and community land trusts.
Unlike corporate developers, a variety of nonprofit organizations manage the ownership of real estate in ways that promote inclusive and sustainable use. The structure and mission of community development corporations, community land trusts and housing co-ops allow them to democratize the stewardship of land.
Community Development Corporations (CDCs) are community-based organizations that anchor capital locally, usually in low-income areas, through the development of residential and commercial property, ranging from affordable housing to shopping centers and even businesses.
Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit entities that operate in more than 200 communities and have helped produce close nearly 10,000 housing units of low-cost housing nationwide by taking land off the market and placing it in a trust. Most CLTs lease homes to residents but they can also be dedicated to agricultural use. And by retaining the majority of the equity gained over time, the trust is able to continue to more community empowerment and economic justice.
5. Public Money for the Public Good.
Organize to use public finances for community development.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, some cities responded to organized constituents: they made an effort to keep municipal money circulating locally in ways that help build the local economy. “It makes sense for local governments to move some of their money from Wall Street to Main Street,” observes John Trull of the Northwest Credit Union Association, who helped facilitate the program.
Over the longer term, grass-roots momentum is beginning to build around the ideas of shifting state finances away from for-profit banks through the development of public state banks. Activists have been pushing for legislation in many states that would replicate key features of the Bank of North Dakota, a successful public bank founded in 1919. The bank leverages $5 billion of deposits from taxes and public funds, and partners with and backs local banks, which then offer loans to small businesses, farmers and college students. In times of economic hardship, the Bank of North Dakota injects credit into the state economy, providing a countercyclical cushion; it also returns millions of dollars of profit annually to North Dakota’s general fund.
In California, organizations like the Public Banking Institute (PBI) have begun to advocate North Dakota-style public banking options as well, given that the state’s taxpayers pay millions in interest on bonds and loans for their infrastructure needs. PBI’s Marc Armstrong observes that if “California had had a state bank, we could have used the state bank credit to fund virtually all of that debt at very low cost.”
Many experts believe that it’s only a matter of time before the next financial crisis hits. Public banking is a very conservative as well as progressive concept: Public banks and credit unions weathered the last crisis much better than private banks, benefiting the communities they served as well.
To build a financial sector that works for the public good, start organizing at the city, county and state level to make sure public money flows through community or publicly owned.
6. Democratize Energy Production and Create a Green Economy.
Get involved in public and cooperative utilities.
On average, customers of Public utilities pay 14 percent less than customers of private utilities. One obvious reason: there is less waste and excessive spending; CEOs at investor-owned utilities earn 25 times more than their counterparts at public companies.
In California, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District—one of the ten largest public utilities in the United States—now supplies more than 24 percent of its retail energy sales from renewable sources and expects to reach its goal of 37 percent by 2020.
In Boulder, Colorado, grass-roots activists and the local nonprofit New Era Colorado Foundation have been campaigning to create a new public utility for the city so as to pursue renewable options more aggressively and reduce carbon emissions. In November 2011, two ballot measures narrowly passed that would allow for “municipalization” —the legal process whereby the city can form its own public utility company and purchase the infrastructure of the existing private provider, Xcel Energy—all in spite of Xcel’s massive effort$ to stymie that process.
This year, Xcel Energy pushed new ballot measures to reduce government debt, limiting Boulder’s effort to move forward with the process. In response, residents have turned to supporters across the country and the world through a crowd-funding campaign that has generated massive solidarity for their precedent-setting effort. “If we can do it, maybe other communities will start wondering what the millions they pay in profits to their power provider can do in their city,” concludes the nonprofit. “If we win, we trigger a national model that can be replicated across the country.”
Participate in your utility co-op’s elections to push for innovative green strategies like those taking place across the country. Organize in your area to press your local government to municipalize private energy.