Ownership Matters|Issue 28
Downward Mobility; Shareable’s Neal Gorenflo; Development Reinvented
- Editorial: The Salvadoran Woman and Downward Mobility
- Interview: Neal Gorenflo on Sharing Economy in Reality
- Commentary: “Development” Rightly Understood
- Books: Maribel Morey’s White Philanthropy
- Ownership Matters Needs Your Support
- Remaking the Economy, June 9: Wage Justice Now!
- A Wary Eye toward Private Equity’s Move into EO
- Weaving Reciprocity: a Good Work Showcase, June 9
- View / Listen to Our May 18 Reader Gathering
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share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkThe Salvadoran Mother and Downward Mobility
I recently read an essay whose title introduced me to a concept I’d never come across before: downward mobility. The author was Dean Brackley, a radical Jesuit priest writing in 1988, during the time of the wars in Central America.
He begins with an encounter he had one night in San Salvador with a mother and her two children, displaced by the war, simply seeking a bed for the night. The look in the woman’s eyes, he explains, struck him so forcefully that he later went home and began to reflect on his life.
In our capitalist society, the dominant form of human community, Brackley suggests, is a ladder. From our early years, we are taught that we must climb this ladder — we must demonstrate our upward mobility. And the higher we climb, the safer we are from those beneath on the ladder — such as the Salvadoran mother. Because many of us live lives not far from precarity, we reach upward for safety. Our clutching after technology betrays our hunger for certitude and predictability, even as the fragility of the world becomes more obvious.
The radical humility of this reflection has a social dimension: it points toward solidarity (and even friendship) with the poor. It can also mean the freedom to lose status as well, beginning to share in the obscurity of the poor, enduring injuries and rejection. The upward progression on the ladder equals riches, honor, pride. The downward progression, Brackley observes, is humility, insults, poverty.
We find it difficult to imagine that the rich need the poor — need their friendship, if not their condition — in order to overcome their own spiritual poverty. We desire a share of actual poverty, Brackley suggests, in order to become friends with the poor, an action which will expose for us the great fraud of the ladder. Now we see the supposed superiority of the great dissolving, as does the supposed inferiority of the small.
What is striking about the movement toward economic justice and the solidarity economy today is the way in which we can see a hunger for a kind of downward mobility among those with privilege, especially younger people. (I’m thinking here of groups like Resource Generation and the Next Egg.) They are feeling the spiritual death which great wealth can bring and, like the marginalized people from whom that wealth was extracted, they too want liberation.
How do we know when we have become friends with the poor, Brackley asks. It is not so much a matter of the things we have. It’s rather the moment when we become comfortable in the homes of the poor and they at home in ours. And the question of whether we have made their cause our own.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkHow Shareable Built a Movement
A Conversation with Neal Gorenflo
Neal Gorenflo is a co-founder of Shareable and served as its executive director for over a dozen years before stepping away a few months ago for a sabbatical year. Based in the Bay Area, he describes himself as a social entrepreneur working toward a more equitable, resilient, and joyful society.
I want to hear about the origins of Shareable but first tell us about your road getting there.
Sure. I’m a Navy brat, which meant we moved every couple of years until I was a teenager. A challenging but also enriching experience when you have to uproot and be the new kid in town multiple times. It gave me an awareness of the wider world, along with some comfort with uncertainty and different social groups. It also gave me mixed feelings about community. On the one hand, I really want it. On the other hand, I’m wary of the pressure to conform that comes with it.
Were you changing countries or just places around the U.S.?
No overseas duty stations. Just Maine, Virginia, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, along with two places in California — Monterey and San Diego. And I spent summers in Massachusetts and Mississippi, since my mom and dad are from there, respectively.
I went to a bunch of different public schools and for college, I went to George Mason University and then Georgetown University for a master’s in Communications, Culture, and Technology (CCT), a new program in 1996. I was in the first class of what might be the first graduate program in the world focused on the impact of the Internet on society.
And when did you begin to think there might be something to talk about around what’s now called the sharing economy?
Well before I got to the sharing thing, I was in the corporate world. I defaulted to that because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. That was the source of much frustration.
So were there some breakthroughs?
Yes, eventually. There were two big milestones.
One breakthrough was catalyzed by asking myself a simple question — what am I truly interested in? This is circa 1995. After some reflection, I realized I was interested in American culture and the just then emerging Internet. I decided to look for projects at the intersection of culture and the Internet. This led to discovering CCT before it started by volunteering at Georgetown’s American Studies Crossroads Project, an online archive of American culture artifacts.
The program at Georgetown set me on a new career path in industry analysis and strategy. One early step on that path was an internship at the National Telephone Cooperative Association where I researched Internet diffusion in rural areas with Dr. Linda Garcia, who a few years earlier had written a groundbreaking report on the prospects of the Internet for the Office of Technology Assessment (a now defunct branch of congress). She predicted how transformative the Internet would be. Just under ten years later, the style of thinking I learned from her led me to believe that the Internet could facilitate resource sharing on an industrial scale.
The other pivotal moment was when I was doing strategy work for a Fortune 500 transportation company, commuting between San Francisco and Brussels, which was initially exciting, but ultimately proved super alienating.
This was circa 2004. Before the transcontinental commuting, I had already concluded sharing could be huge. I was actively networking to refine my ideas about sharing, find fellow travelers, and look for opportunities.
I was part of a social milieu in San Francisco of sustainability buffs, but I found the intense focus on high technology lacking (solar panels, EVs, etc). I thought that bigger sustainability gains could be had by re-organizing everyday life around resource sharing.
Everything came to a head one sunny Saturday morning in Brussels. I left my hotel for a jog along my usual route in a business park. I got to the top of a hill, stopped in front of this warehouse parking lot, and started crying.
I thought to myself, I can’t do this corporate work anymore, I’m lonely, my friendships back home are fading due to all the travel, I wasn’t fully pursuing my passion for sharing, I was going to miss out. I forecasted a mountain of regret if I didn’t change course.
But then things got deeper. My life flashed before my eyes. I realized that a thread connected all my experiences — that I struggled alone to become myself and that it fundamentally didn’t work. On paper, I had some success, but the reality was that after several decades I was an unsatisfactory realization of a human being. Deep down I felt desperate, alone, incomplete, and even shame for my condition.
But what really got me was that I felt that I was far from alone. Perhaps billions of people felt similarly in our modern society. To realize that so many others suffered like I did, and much worse, was overwhelming. I walked across the parking lot to the side of the warehouse, dropped to my knees, and just balled. I shook my fists to the sky and asked God what I should do.
I didn’t get an answer, but I made a vow on the spot to do whatever it took, just one person, to build a life filled with meaning, purpose, and community, and help others do the same. And I knew sharing could help me do this.
Then I literally ran back to my hotel room, emailed a resignation letter and booked the next flight home.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkWhat Development Means Now
Júlia Martins Rodrigues
In the world we want, everybody fits. The world we want is a world in which many worlds fit.— Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional
When the missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas traveled to the Americas in the 1500s, he wrote directly to the Spanish crown, debunking the narrative of indigenous peoples as uncultured aboriginals. Las Casas defended their right to self-governance against conquest and colonization, arguing their communities’ governance was fair and equitable, following rules that often surpassed the European legal standards.
Despite Las Casas’ challenge, the historical narrative that prevailed for ages was Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, placing Europeans as masters of the New World sent by God to bring Christianity and advancement to the “savages.” The disregard for the ancient civilizations and their knowledge rooted to the land is part of what Boaventura de Sousa Santos described as the abyssal thinking that excludes everything that lies outside the dominant socio-political paradigm.
To this day, abyssal thinking continues to guide our perception of the world.
There is a false divide between the developed and the underdeveloped. When we think about progress, technology, and western medicine, the first picture that often comes to mind is the kind of development fostered by the oil industry in the global north. One man, John D. Rockefeller, galvanized a vision of technological advancement based on the petrochemicals he produced, especially those which created new compounds from oil. Plastic quickly replaced other materials and became the base layer of everything perceived as modern and advanced. This new industrial paradigm soon enveloped and controlled the medical industry, marginalizing natural and herbal medicines from Indigenous traditions.
Overall, progress became everything that distances us from the state of nature, detaching humanity from its animal essence — reminiscent of the earlier Christian campaigns against any sort of savage and barbarian existence outside its divine rhetoric. “Progress,” in this view, happens outside of nature.
We could recall that glass manufacturing in Mesopotamia and Egypt was a revolutionary discovery that flourished in the Roman Empire and soon spread across the globe. Over five thousand years later, glass continues to be one of the most used materials, completely recyclable.
However, when the plastic boom happened, it came accompanied by a “throwaway lifestyle,” creating an ingrained culture of disposable items, cheaper to produce and harder to recycle. Both artificial glass and plastic were disruptive innovations, but each carried its distinct footprint over history. New products and materials are constantly invented to optimize production and drive down costs. As long as they keep the shelves full and the market machine running, they often lack more profound reflections on their long-term impact on people and the planet. Not every innovation should be praised, not every novelty should be a sign of development.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkThe Trouble with (White) Liberalism
White Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation’s An American Dilemma and the Making of a White World Order (2021) by Maribel Morey
I want to use this review of Maribel Morey’s first book to talk about not only the excellent social history she has written but also her remarkable new organization, the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences. Not surprisingly, perhaps, these two things are connected.
Back in 2008, Barack Obama gave a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech in which he made a reference to a massive research project by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish sociologist, called An American Dilemma. Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation (a non-profit), it landed in 1944 to almost universal acclaim as the most influential study of race ever produced in this country.
The study outlines the many facets of white discrimination in this period of the 1930s and 1940s: employment, housing, voting, policing, court practices, as well as anti-Black violence (lynchings), etc. Myrdal argues that the latter run counter to American egalitarian ideals and “the American Creed.” He urged use of the federal government to address these issues.
By 1954, the book’s reputation was such that it was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in the language of Brown v. Board of Education as evidence that segregation by race was damaging to Black students. Since then, civil rights scholars have viewed the book as a quintessential study in the way it both reflected and inspired racial liberalism in court rulings on integration, affirmative action, etc.
An American Dilemma does detail levels of structural racism in various aspects of U.S. life and institutions. Yet Myrdal presents these various forms of anti-Black practices and policies as a moral dilemma that white Americans will be eager to correct (particularly, as Myrdal reasoned, among white Americans in the North and the New Deal government, both of which he viewed as particularly moral forces).
The main issue for the critics whose perspectives Morey amplifies is that Myrdal left the agency, speed, and content for progressive change in “race relations” in white Anglo-American hands. Thus Myrdal presents a positive image of white Americans as a particularly moral people, with little pressure for them to prove it immediately or at any speed or content uncomfortable to them.
Even more, the definition of racial equality that Myrdal proposes (assimilation into whiteness) would leave undisturbed white Anglo-Americans’ belief in the superiority of white (and inferiority of Black) culture, institutions, etc. So rather than necessarily challenging white Anglo-American supremacy, Myrdal in An American Dilemma provided means for white supremacy to continue to thrive in the U.S.
Despite the European origins of the researchers, the sponsors were careful to cast the study as a purely American project. Morey, as a careful historian, has done an excellent job unveiling the other influences at work here, especially the Carnegie Corporation’s long-time interest in colonial Africa.
That interest was evident in two studies funded by the president of the Carnegie Corporation, Frederick P. Keppel, both of them focused on African countries whose white imperial policymakers he wished to support through the judicious deployment of social science methods.
What Morey documents in this previously-submerged story is the real motivation at work here — that of reinforcing the white elite’s social control during this period of the rise of Black nationalism (in figures such as Marcus Garvey in the U.S.) and Black consciousness in South Africa.
Thus despite the negative reception of An American Dilemma by the Southern power elites, the book was, in Morey’s words, “an exercise in white Anglo-American domination, helping to solidify rather than to challenge white rule.”
By way of contrast, she offers us what were at the time the subdued but perceptive critiques of several notable Black figures, such as Ralph Ellison, W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Harold Cruse, and others. These more radical observers were mostly unswayed by the book’s hope that merely describing the gap between Black and white societies would suffice to narrow it.
Morey’s book is thus a historical reflection on the rise and use of the modern social sciences, especially their seemingly high-minded but often ideological work in maintaining the Anglo-American racist status quo.
Launched not long before the book’s publication in 2021, the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences (Morey is its founder and executive director) is clearly a kind of response to this history, especially the cultural and racial imbalance between the Global North and South in intellectual work. Board members include scholars Grieve Chelwa, Evelynn Hammonds, and Caroline Shenaz Hossein.
The Institute’s mission is “to enable the scientific output of the Global Majority to play its proper role in the social transformation and development of our shared world as well as the theoretical advancement of the social sciences.”
The Miami Institute has partnered with the Queen Mary Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences to offer a series of workshops called “Reimagining Global Public Goods in the 21st Century.” Registration is still open for the third and final workshop, “Confronting Psychological Limitations,” on Wednesday, June 8, at 11 AM ET.
In Case You Missed It . . .
From our August 10, 2021 issue’s interview with Rob Everts, former co-president and CEO of Equal Exchange
It has absolutely been a strength of Equal Exchange that we have this external mission of helping small farmers stay on the land, of challenging the oligarchs, helping build market share for marginalized small-scale farmers. That brings many people to E. E. and the co-op structure is the icing on the cake.
I want to believe that co-ops in other businesses — that are just making widgets — could do the same. But I believe we have benefitted from having this dual mission, even if fair trade internationally doesn’t have much to do with worker democracy here.
It’s been a fortunate thing and it’s where a lot of our passion is. I don’t think we would be where we are otherwise.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkThis Party is Free but Please Donate for the Refreshments!
The late economist Milton Friedman famously said there’s no such thing as a free lunch — obviously a very limited observation and one which he offered well before we started publishing Ownership Matters! (We don’t think he would have been a subscriber.)
As our tagline puts it, our newsletter remains “focused on the emerging landscape around impact investing, racial equity, and the solidarity economy.”
Subscription is free but we need your support in order to grow!
We’ll be making a further appeal for support by email in the next few days — watch your inbox.
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Upcoming : Thursday, June 9
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkWage Justice, Now!
A Nonprofit Quarterly Remaking the Economy Event
Millions of people in the United States work in jobs that pay them less than the minimum wage. Subminimum wage workers provide many of the services which make our economy run — farming food, delivering goods, and caring for children and the elderly. As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, these jobs are called “essential,” but not compensated as such, keeping workers in a state of working poverty. Struggles for wage justice attempt to fight this by demanding sick leave, better pay, and other protections to shield workers from rising inequality. To do so, they face the goliath of corporate power, which is bolstered by a political apparatus designed to privilege profits over people.
This webinar, moderated by NPQ economic justice editor Rithika Ramamurthy, will feature a conversation between three leaders from nonprofits dedicated to worker advocacy, power building, and fair wages.
The panelists will be:
- Saru Jayaraman, President of One Fair Wage
- Chirag Mehta, Director of Policy and Ideas at Community Change
- Erica Smiley, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice
This event is scheduled for 2 PM ET, Thursday, June 9, and will be recorded. Sign up at the NPQ site to attend or receive further information.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkPrivate Equity Discovers Employee Ownership — A Good Thing?
In a new series from Fifty By Fifty, Marjorie Kelly and Karen Kahn are asking just the right questions upon the recent arrival of Ownership Works, the non-profit coalition of players who have apparently identified employee ownership as The Next Big Thing.
Over 60 prominent foundations, corporations, labor advocates, investors, and pension fund leaders are behind the initiative. The group’s stated goal is to create $20 billion in wealth over ten years for workers who have generally been an afterthought in the business of buying and selling companies.
The question for anyone aligned with the solidarity economy and also familiar with the (shall we say) highly problematic history of private equity’s impact on workers is: where is this project going and for whose ultimate benefit is it?
Here at Ownership Matters, we tend to agree with Andrea Armeni’s view that a door is opening but no comprehensive solution to wealth inequality is being offered. What we do have is a new conversation starting up. Thanks to Fifty By Fifty for giving it some excellent first contributions!
Upcoming : Thursday, June 9
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy link“Weaving Reciprocity: the Good Work Showcase”
Whatever the forces behind the Great Resignation, you could argue there’s also a Great Transition underway in terms of the way we’re coming to view work and the workplace. It could be described as more than just a search for “quality jobs” — it’s a search for Good Work.
To hear about this kind of workplace, we partnered with Zebras Unite, Shareable, and the Francesco Collaborative to create a conversation with worker-owners from several enterprises, all of which align with the principles of the solidarity economy:
- Arizmendi Association
- ChiFresh Kitchen
- Material Return
- Driver’s Seat
- Church of the Holy City
Join our co-hosts Sassy Sassoon (Zebras Unite) and Mike Strode (Open Collective) as they talk with these worker-owners about what’s different when they go to work everyday.
“Weaving Reciprocity,” Thursday, June 9, 12:00–1:30 PM ET, is free to attend, though donations are accepted with your registration for the event and greatly appreciated.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkMay Reader Gathering with Laura Granja & Júlia Martins Rodrigues Available for Viewing
Ownership Matters held a Reader Gathering on May 18, a conversation about community land trusts and cooperative housing with architect and planner Laura Granja, contributing editor Julia Martins Rodrigues and a number of attendees. The recording, made available first in our Editor / Reader Circle, is up for public viewing on the OM YouTube channel today.
Coming in Issue 29, June 14
- Interview: Mike Strode of Open Collective
- Books: Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary
Article ideas? Submissions? Helpful suggestions?
Contact the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Elias Crim, Editor
founder, Solidarity Hall; former business journalist and publishing consultant
- Júlia Martins Rodrigues, Contributing Editor
attorney (Brazil); visiting scholar, law, University of Colorado Boulder; PhD candidate, civil and constitutional law, University of Camerino
- Daniel Fireside, Contributing Editor
founder, Uncommon Capital Solutions; board member, Namaste Solar; capital coordinator, Downtown Crenshaw Rising
- Zoe Crim, Editorial Assistant
B.A., linguistics, Indiana University Bloomington; co-founder Fair Trade group
- Paul Bowman, Design / Content Mgr.
- Felipe Witchger, Publisher
Disclaimer: The content of Ownership Matters is for informational purposes only. Such information should not be construed as legal, tax, investment, financial, or other advice. Nothing contained in these materials constitutes a solicitation, recommendation, or offer to buy, or a solicitation of an offer to sell, any securities. Subscribers / readers agree not to hold the authors, their affiliates or any third party service provider liable for any possible claim for damages arising from any decision made based on information published here.