Community Democracy Project to Open Entire City Budget by Mira Luna

This interview is with Sonya Rifkin, co-director and co-founder of the Community Democracy Project, which began in November 2011 in Oakland, CA.

What is the Community Democracy Project’s plan? A participatory budgeting initiative to amend the city charter, which would go on the city ballot for the Nov 2014 election. It would create a direct democratic process for Oakland voters to be directly engaged in decisions around the budget. The platform for decisions and organizing is called the Neighborhood Assembly, which is a forum for education and engagement with the issues. It also allows residents and community organizations to interface with city staff and department representatives.

Residents 16 years and older that have attended at least one Neighborhood Assembly meeting can vote on the budget for allocation of general funds to each city department as a percentage. This will help get young adults engaged in decisions that affect them like parks, police, and after school programs. City Wide Committees, made up of very interested residents, would be established to deal with specific issues and to create proposals for spending discretionary funds that would also be voted on by city residents.

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A New Era Dawns in the US

After almost a year in preparation, we are very excited to say that today, the New Era Windows Cooperative is opening its doors for business.  The Working World has been an extremely proud partner since day one, providing financing and technical assistance to help bring the cooperative to fruition.

Workers Occupy Republic WindowsMost people know the history of this factory, formerly known as Republic Windows and Doors, which was closed in a financial scandal and subsequently occupied by its workers for illegal treatment in 2008. This struggle captured the imagination of the country which was going through its own financial scandal and economic crisis and seemed to suggest we might not have to take our fates sitting down.

In February 2012, the same workers who occupied and won their fight for fair treatment came to The Working World and asked for our help to buy their old factory and re-open it as a worker-owned cooperative.  In August, we invested $665,000 to buy the needed equipment and start the business.  We are now proud to officially open under worker-control.

It has taken an incredible amount of work and dedication to achieve this victory.  To begin, the workers had to fight for the basic right to be at the table and buy the business. They then had to dismantle the old factory, move it across the city to a more appropriate and affordable space, and put it back together again piece by piece.  Each of these steps the workers did on their own, and in the process they demonstrated incredible potential that had never been tapped in their old jobs.

The Worker-Owners of New Era WindowsIn many ways, this is not the story of a few workers, but of all of America.  The old window factory was closed despite being profitable, its workers sent into unemployment despite their immense potential.  As we watch our once proud workforce dismantled and impoverished by forces and motivations not of their own, we ask if these crises present opportunities.  The workers of New Era want to succeed not just for themselves, but for their country, to show that downsizing does not have to be the end of the story, that there is way forward if we take our fates into our own hands.  The possibilities that are flowering within the walls of their new factory has potential to flower across the country.

To the community, we ask your support for worker cooperatives as a viable and dignified solution to our economic challenges; to support finance like The Working World which puts the needs of people and community above that of profit; and in particular, we ask you to support New Era and buy windows made with integrity and pride in the USA.

Browse New Era Windows vinyl replacement windows.

This article was published by the Working World.

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Emilia Romagna – Cooperative Region and Economy

Emilia-Romagna is a region in Northern Italy, situated just below the foothills of the Italian Alps. It is one of the richest and most developed regions in Europe, with one of the highest GDP’s of all Italian regions. The outside world knows the region as the home of high end car makers such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Ducati. Yet what is truly fascinating about Emilia-Romagna is that whilst being one of the most economically successful regions in Europe, it is also one of the most cooperative regions in the world. With a population of nearly 4.5 million, nearly 2 of every 3 citizens are members of a cooperative. Cooperatives represent around 30% of the region’s GDP, making it a fantastic example of a true cooperative economy.

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How to map the new economy in your city by Mira Luna

Groups all over the world are resisting the status quo of profit maximization by putting society’s happiness, health and the Earth first. This work, though, is often overshadowed by big business with its bloated advertising budgets and economic monopolization, which makes alternatives seem insubstantial if not nonexistent.

New economy projects are mostly unconnected, so each one struggles alone rather than supporting each other. One result of this is that awareness remains low.  The US Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN) and its international counterpart, RIPESS, are working to change this by implementing a mapping and economic integration tool to connect groups with one another to build a cooperative, just and sustainable economy.

Mapping your community helps demonstrate that “Another World” is not only possible, it already exists. Mapping also can become a community organizing tool – uncovering a reservoir of social assets even in the poorest neighborhoods, which may seed mutual aid and cooperative business ideas – as it did for the Jersey Shore Neighborhood Cooperative. USSEN has a list of communities that have done independent mapping projects, each using its own methodology, criteria, platform and map name.

When developing a map, a challenging question comes up,“who’s in?” Some generally agreed upon principles for solidarity economy (SE) are: solidarity, mutualism, cooperation, equity (race, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, LGBTQ, ability), social and environmental prioritization, democracy, pluralism, and grassroots driven. Most groups will not meet all these criteria. The line can become fuzzy if you don’t have lots of local entities to choose from to populate the map. These principles leave something to aspire and work towards. You may want to do the mapping with local organizations to get a broader perspective and to encourage participation.


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How to make better decisions together by Mira Luna

Learning how to make decisions together is a crucial element of getting along and getting things done with others. It’s wise for your group to learn how to steer your boat together with collective decision-making before you have a sinking ship on your hands. I’ve learned these skills through workshops, readings and from living and working in cooperatives and they have been incredibly valuable to the success of these projects.

Collective decision-making has innumerable rewards. If group members affected by the decision are involved, less conflict will result. If folks implementing the decision are involved, decisions are more likely to be implemented with hard work and enthusiasm, and empowered decision-makers are likely to stick around for the long haul. Team spirit is cultivated by collaborative problem-solving and listening to other’s perspectives.

A strong example of collective decision-making is participatory budgeting which often leads to less contentious, more inclusive budgetary decisions – not an easy challenge. Residents, assisted by city administrators, create proposals through a collaborative process and present their projects. Everyone (including youth and immigrants) votes on their top choices using ballots or dotmocracy – a rank-choice voting system using dots as votes.

Collective decision-making isn’t as much about how we vote on decisions as it is about the process of hearing and incorporating all sides. This process often involves:

  • A well-facilitated discussion of the issue or problem
  • Open brainstorming of proposed solutions
  • Developing refined proposals
  • Identifying concerns about proposals and checking for initial agreement
  • Modifying and making amendments to proposals through compromise
  • Voting to assess unity, concerns or to make further modifications
  • Implementing and evaluating the success of the proposal


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Human Be-in confronts privatized public parks

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park the trend of “privatizing” taxpayer-funded public resources by turning management of them over to private companies was recently confronted by the ghost of an older movement.

Without an official permit from the San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department (RPD), a few hundred people gathered last weekend for a Human Be-in, from September 14 through 16, inspired by the original event that some say spawned the hippie movement of the late 1960s.

This time, however, there was less emphasis on spirituality and mind-altering chemicals because the focus was squarely on recent RPD policies. Read More

By Thomas Pendergast

From Digital Journal

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Homestead Skillshare Festival

Success for BACE, Hayes Valley Farm, and festival participants

The Homestead Skillshare festival was awesome-mazing. If you were there, you probably know that. If you were not, we missed you!
Here is a video from the lovely folks at How to Homestead and some highlights:

Insightful and engaging demos, over 40 skillshares packed into 7 hours.

Community ties strengthened between Hayes Valley Farm, homesteaders from all over the state, and the BACE volunteer collective

Terrific live music with Fog City Brewers, Lea Grant and Nicco Tyson.

Funds raised for the BACE Timebank, while still remaining accessible to people without money.

It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun. Keep your eyes open for the next event!

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Worker Ownership for the 99%

The United Steelworkers, Mondragon, and the Ohio Employee
Ownership Center Announce a New Union Cooperative Model to
Reinsert Worker Equity Back into the U.S. Economy

Titled “Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model”, this new public domain template (available at and offers a road-map primer for competitive and equitable employment creation based on fifty-five years of Mondragon principles put into marketplace practice.

Creating sustainable jobs and sustainable communities requires broadening the definition of societal value beyond “the bottom line” and moving to a more stakeholder-centric economy. Democratic worker ownership principles combined with social and economic justice differentiate the union co-op model from traditional business models, making the union co-op option sustainable and giving it a competitive edge over the long term as worker-owners get to benefit more fully from their hard work and own their own decision-making process and all the fruits of their labors.

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An Introduction to hOur World’s Community Cooperative project Incubating Cooperatives with Time Bank Hours

20 October 2011

An Introduction to hOur World’s Community Cooperative project
Incubating Cooperatives with Time Bank Hours

Portland, Maine is the site of an innovative, grassroots economic project called hOur World. Two of the organizers, Linda Hogan and Terry Daniels, of this job-generating venture explain its origins and how it operates in this video. We need to note at the very beginning of Terry’s presentation he refers to the Depression Era experiences of Oakland’s Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA) and his inspiration reading their history. Since it’s founding over two years ago, JASecon has been circulating John Curl’s original research of the UXA as an example of the development of a grassroots economy during the last major financial crisis of capitalism.

Specifically, Linda and Terry based their new cooperative on a successful 15 year-old time banking community with 800 members, out of which hOur World is building a worker cooperative that utilizes the labor power of the time bank membership to serve the larger community. These two organizations are working together to economically weatherize homes for the frigid Maine winters. As they begin their fourth year of operation they plan to weatherize one-hundred homes in the Portland area.

The clever way that hOur World utilizes the strengths of each institution should be an inspiration and motivate all of us engaged in forging a viable bottom-up economy to imagine other cross-pollinating collaborations.

JASecon’s mission is to present a Big Picture view of the possible economic interrelationships that could benefit the development of community-controlled wealth. In the San Francisco Bay area, the fifty worker cooperatives demonstrate the viability of democratically run workplaces, but given the thousands of traditional enterprises in the area they are practically insignificant. However, if they are incorporated within the entire grassroots economy, an economy that puts “People Before Profit,” then their significance as a democratic model is amplified.

By “incorporated” we mean allied on various projects with, for example, non-profits utilizing volunteers in the expanding urban agriculture movement to create community goods, like food. Bio-fuels Oasis Co-op, for example, besides pumping bio-fuel also sells feedstock for urban poultry farmers. Rainbow and Other Avenues worker co-op food stores might be able to sell urban agricultural surplus to help sustain the plots. Inkworks Press, as another example, offers printing discounts to non-profit community groups.

There are also ways in which the other institutions of the grassroots economy can collaborate. For years now, non-profits have spun off mission-driven for-profit ventures, and further, alliances between land trusts and co-ops – worker, consumer and housing – and credit unions seems a natural development.

The collaboration that Hogan and Daniels developed in Portland will inform a similar project that JASecon has been working on in the SF Bay area with Bay Area Community Exchange. And we believe that their model of leveraging the labor power of time banks with the democratic control of worker co-operatives will inform other communities to develop creative, worker and community controlled enterprises.

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An Economy Turned Upside Down by Mira Luna

While mainstream America is hoping for federal economic reform, some social justice organizations have a radically different idea, and are organizing low-income communities to build a new economy from the grassroots up. Tired of asking for change from the top down, they are taking their economy into their own hands. Social justice organizations, having a strong membership base rooted in community, are ideal spaces to cultivate alternative economic projects, as relationships of trust and solidarity have been nurtured over time through education and a history of taking action for justice. Here are some exciting examples of grassroots alternative economy projects for social justice.

Social Justice and Alternative Economics

Photo of the Greenfield Gardens housing coop via ADP.

Alliance to Develop Power (ADP) is social justice organization based in Massachusetts with a membership of 10,000 low-income African Americans and Latinos. According to Sally Kohn of the Nation, ADP has stated that “at the end of every issue campaign, our goal is to create an institution that our members control.” This a lofty goal for an organization that fights for basic necessities, like housing, on a regular basis. ADP is creating a 1,200 unit tenant-owned housing cooperative, a worker coops to provide landscaping, construction, building maintenance and weatherization for the homes, as well as four volunteer-run food coops for local health food access.

In what appears to be an emerging trend, San Francisco’s PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights) expresses similar goals. Oscar Grande, Community Organizer for PODER, said they “aspire to be ADP when they grow up.” Every year, PODER fights to get City Hall to allocate funding for its economically disadvantaged community. It’s a battle that consumes most of its energy, and in the end the community rarely gets what it needs. This year, PODER moved beyond reactive social justice campaigns to explore the uncharted territory of proactive alternative economics with its members. It leveraged a strong community base to get funding to plan a work force development center in the neighborhood with the membership’s input. Based on members’ interests, PODER is developing an exchange group through BACE Timebank, which members hope will help support their Semillero worker coop incubation project. And the organization is investigating participatory budgeting as a tool to shift power to its membership in the municipal budget-making process in order to fund more community-driven initiatives, like worker coop training programs.

Self-Employment for the Working Class

La Cocina photo by Jun Belen.

A common path to a living wage and dignified job is self-employment through starting a small business, but this avenue is rarely available to working class women. Catering to this demographic, San Francisco’s nonprofit La Cocina provides food business planning and development, as well as access to costly resources such as a licensed commercial kitchen, a fancy retail space at the Ferry Building, professional advertising, and more. La Cocina incubates a wide variety of small businesses from packaged food producers to food carts, catering companies to restaurants. With an industry average failure rate of 60% even in a good economy, La Cocina gives struggling first-time entrepreneurs crucial support to get a business going without taking a huge risk many of them can not afford.

Worker Cooperative Incubation and Development

Meanwhile, a more communal twist to entrepreneurial development is popping up across the country: worker cooperative incubation programs for low-income folks. Third Coast Workers for Cooperation, a new nonprofit in Austin, is helping start-ups through a through a mentoring and 16 week training program, the Cooperative Business Institute and Co-op for Community Development program. In their first year, it helped incubate a women’s catering cooperative called Yo Mamas, a food cart coop in Houston, and the Workers Defense Project, a construction coop. Operating on a shoestring budget, TCWC uses volunteer but experienced worker-owners and professionals with technical skills to give these new coops a much needed boost.

Green Worker Cooperatives is another social justice organization “dedicated to incubating worker-owned and environmentally friendly cooperatives in the South Bronx.” Their website states, “Our approach is a response to high unemployment and decades of environmental racism. We don’t have the luxury to wait for new alternatives. That’s why we’re creating them.” Green Worker Cooperatives offers an aggressive 80 hour coop boot camp, which includes a combination of training, coaching, and technical support like legal incorporation, graphic design, and website development. IDEPSCA, an immigrant and worker rights organization in the Los Angeles area also incubates green worker cooperatives such as Magic Cleaners, a green home cleaning service, and Native Green, a sustainable landscaping service focused on native plants.

The Cooperative Association Model

Photo courtesy of the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives.

Inspired by the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation of Spain, the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives in the San Francisco Bay Area focuses specifically on one type of replicable restaurant. Their successful chain-like model is responsible for 125 jobs and $12 million in annual sales. Each Arizmendi Coop is autonomous, but receives training and substantial start-up funding from previous restaurants. In return, once the restaurant turns a profit, it returns some of the proceeds to the Association to seed more worker cooperatives. The restaurants share recipes, accounting, legal and other services, similar to corporate chains. True to their social justice mission, Arizmendi hired 4 out of 15 new worker-owners for their new Mission location from PODER’s membership and other Latinos from the neighborhood.

Clementina Paramo, a founding member of Emma’s Eco-Clean in Redwood City. Photo courtesy of WAGES.

WAGES, a nonprofit that started with the mission of “promoting the social and economic wellbeing of low-income women” organizes low-income women of color to collectively own green cleaning businesses in the San Francisco bay area. Over 100 cleaners earn “50-100% more in hourly wages than before” with benefits and business equity, according to Deborah Warren and Steve Dubb in the study Growing a Green Economy for All [PDF]. As former director Hilary Abell clarified in a recent GEO article, WAGES operates on a chain model with a year-long startup phase and three years of significant nurturing. While managed intensively by WAGES in the beginning (governance, finance, administration, recruitment, training and business management) chains become more autonomous over time, allowing workers to focus on providing good service and supporting their families. They remain connected and share professional services after spinning off, and seed new coops from the profits of the collective.

WAGES Training Group. Photo courtesy of WAGES.

With support from the City of Cleveland, University of Maryland, the Cleveland Foundation and $5.8 million dollars in grants and loans, Evergreen Cooperatives created three large worker coops focused on solar energy, industrial green laundry, and urban farming. Evergreen intentionally hires from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, in particular people coming off welfare, recently out of jail, or having other barriers to employment. The wages are good for the laundry industry and worker-owners are expected to build equity in their businesses, which could yield $65,000 over eight years of investment. One of Evergreen’s coops, Green City Grower Cooperatives, has acquired 10 acres of urban farmland, a packing building, offices, green energy, and the “largest urban food-producing greenhouse in the country” in an area that could be called a health food desert. Crucial to the success of their cooperative start-ups is a revolving loan fund, the Evergreen Cooperative Development Fund, supported by 10% of their cooperatives’ annual pretax profits, reports Warren and Dubb. Being part of a larger, successful association also helps secure business loans, which can be difficult for coops.

Worker Coops for Local Job Creation

Other cities with skyrocketing employment such as Richmond, California are showing interest in emulating Evergreen and Mondragon. The Mayor of Richmond recently went to Spain for a study tour of Mondragon and hired a Coop Developer for her office. Worker coops are increasingly seen by legislators as being a serious avenue for long-term, local job creation.

Since worker coops are owned and managed by workers, there’s no worker exploitation, excessive executive pay, or inordinate investor returns. Therefore, worker coops can provide more stable, living wage jobs with benefits and equity than conventionally-modeled businesses, according to the Canadian Ministry of Industry and Commerce. Coops can adjust salaries in lean years, typically have flexible and favorable long-term financing, and are less likely to lay off or close up shop for the sake of profits. They are also more likely to take care of the local environment and their patrons because they need the support of their community to survive.

However, as PODER’s members quickly realized, without initial support from nonprofits, government or foundations, starting a worker coop can be an overwhelming, almost impossible challenge. The long-term benefits of these social justice missions are clear. Local governments and community foundations need to step up to the plate and support these social justice organizations’ new and innovative job creation model.

Nonprofit Co-production

On the nonprofit side of the economy, co-production — a philosophy and practice that incorporates cooperative principles — is being integrated into service provision. Co-production refers to the inclusion of service recipients in the design, decision-making and delivery of nonprofit services. Normally, there exists a chasm between a privileged class of professional service providers and their clients.

St. Louis’ Member Organized Resource Exchange (MORE) thinks and does things differently. MORE is “shaped and operated by the…same individuals it exists to help,” reported Louis Wright in a Case Study of MORE. Residents of East St. Louis are trained to help provide community childcare, education, eldercare, healthcare and social work support to each other while being paid in Time Dollars and then train others to do the same. As one resident put it, “finally, I can ask for help without feeling like I’m asking for charity, because I earned it. I helped somebody else and now I can buy service with my Time Dollars.” Residents provide community needs assessments, offer direct services, serve as community resource people for neighbors on their blocks, and design new service programs with the support of staff, sometimes becoming staff themselves.

Local Government Participatory Budgeting

Photo of the Chicago participatory budgeting vote by Austin Smith, courtesy of Gapers Block.

Change is brewing on the local government front too. While residents of other municipalities around the country complained about city budget cuts this year, Chicago’s 49th Ward let its residents directly vote on their Ward’s capital budget. Residents, including undocumented people and youth, held neighborhood assemblies, formed issue committees, created proposals and directly voted on budget proposals. It’s a drastic departure from corrupt back-room business deals and poor people left begging for crumbs from a budget that’s already been decided. Even the process of designing the participatory budgeting process is controlled by the residents themselves from the bottom up.

When describing his experience of participatory budgeting to San Francisco legislators, Chicago’s 49th Ward Alderman showed what his budget looked like before and after the process. The budget graph showed an astounding increase in diversity and creativity of funded projects with community participation. Through this process, he realized he only had a tiny piece of the picture of what his community needed and what they could come up with through collaboration. Bottom-up budgeting processes may be slower, but if they get the right results, they are surely worth the time and effort.

A New Path to Economic Freedom

Folks at the bottom of the economic pyramid are not only finding ways to individually climb the path to realizing the American Dream. They are building ladders for others and organizing to flatten the pyramid, sharing a collective dream in which no one is left out and everyone is happier because of it. It is also becoming increasingly obvious that for most poor folks, the only way up is together. What would the economy look like turned upside down? As these experiments demonstrate, it might look a lot greener, more cooperative, participatory and fair.

This article originally appeared in Shareable.
Shareable is a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of sharing

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