Ownership Matters|Issue 30
Building Movement Infrastructure; Ellerman on EO and Private Equity; Bringing Up Cooperators
- Editors’ Note: Publishing Change and a New Project
- Interview: Center for Economic Democracy’s Aaron Tanaka
- Commentary: Chautauqua Parks
- Commentary: Ownership — For a While
- Books: Andrew Zitcer’s Practicing Cooperation
- Books: Bill McKibben’s We Are Better Together
- New Majority Capital Founding Community Round
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share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkA New Publisher and a New Solidarity Research Project
A wonderful animating spirit in this first year of Ownership Matters has been our publisher Felipe Witchger. His thought leadership and his enthusiastic support have made all the difference. Felipe and his family will be leaving in a few weeks to visit and do solidarity work in a number of places, beginning with Chiapas, Mexico, and then on to Spain and Italy. We are hoping to publish some of his commentaries on this new adventure.
So our team is now seeking an individual who would like to take on a slightly unusual project: an unpaid role as publisher of Ownership Matters. This position does not require time or involvement in our operations, only an interest in helping us with strategic direction and a level of financial support via a donation.
For more information, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We hope to find a publisher who is not only interested in developing the newsletter further but also in helping to create a collaborative research project called the Solidarity Workshop, slated to launch September 1.
Confirmed Solidarity Workshop partners include the Platform Cooperativism Consortium (New School), Zebras Unite, Shareable, Start.coop, Transform Finance, the Workers Lab, and the MEDLab (U. of Colorado Boulder).
We see the Solidarity Workshop as a public resource for practitioners and funders who want to share best practices and help each other build up the financial/business infrastructure we need at this moment. (A draft of our prospectus is available for viewing here.)
Finally, we’re taking the month of July off for a break, partly to do some strategic planning. When we pick up again (in August), we’ll be eager to reconnect with all you good people once more!
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkTaking Movements to the Next Level
A Conversation with Aaron Tanaka, Executive Director of the Center for Economic Democracy
Elias Crim and Júlia Martins Rodrigues
Aaron is a Boston-based community organizer, economic development practitioner, philanthropic advisor, and impact investor. As executive director of the Center for Economic Democracy, Aaron stewards funding and capacity building programs to social movement collaboratives that advance alternatives to capitalist economics in the U.S. Previously, Aaron served as the startup manager for the Boston Impact Initiative, Boston’s first place-based impact fund investing in Boston’s working class communities of color. Until 2012, Aaron was co-founder and executive director of the Boston Workers Alliance, a grassroots organization nationally regarded for its statewide Ban the Box policy victory in 2010.
Aaron is a former fellow with Common Future, Echoing Green, Green For All, and Tufts Department of Urban Planning, and serves on multiple boards including the Commonwealth Foundation, the Foundation for Civic Leadership, and Neighborhood Funders Group. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Southern New Hampshire University.
Welcome, Aaron. My colleague Júlia and I will be alternating questions today. I’ll begin by asking about something interesting I noticed in your background. Which is that you got started with a combination of activism around prison work and food co-ops.
Right, I was an organizer with the Boston Workers Alliance and the executive director through my 20s. We were predominantly for people who are under- and unemployed, the thinking being that the conventional labor sector was organizing people with jobs. But we had a whole sector of people who had trouble just getting into work.
So I tried to build a kind of political base around that. Most of our members ended up being people who had criminal records and that barrier to employment. A lot of our work was around policy. We helped pass the Ban the Box policy in Massachusetts, which was precedent setting at the time.
But then coming out of that victory, a lot of our members were saying we still can’t get jobs, or the jobs that we can get are terrible. And they treat us poorly. So what else can we do?
And that’s where we started getting into worker co-op development. We had interesting relationships with the recuperated factories movement in Argentina. They had come up to the U.S. and we got to host them. Which meant our members got exposed to the idea of worker ownership.
Also our co-founder, Chuck Turner, who was a city councilor at the time, and one of my mentors, was a longtime Boston-based community organizer. At one point some years ago he worked at the ICA Group, as their education director, so he always had this perspective.
So a lot of inspiration was seeded by Chuck, and the workers in Argentina. And we ended up trying a few different projects. The first one was a vegetable oil collection company, retrieving veggie oil from restaurants and turning it into biodiesel.
That company ended up failing miserably, partly because it was severely undercapitalized. There was the incident with the old truck we found on Craigslist which had an oil spill in a residential neighborhood, with vegetable oil flowing down one of the streets and fire trucks coming out. Which is just to say we learned a lot about the pitfalls of trying to do business without the proper support or planning.
Then, as we tried being a growing cooperative, we got a bunch of community gardening space, with a bunch of our members growing food and distributing it for free to other members. And then, partnering with MassCOSH, an immigrant worker center, and Boston Center for Community Ownership, we ended up starting CERO Co-op, which is a composting business that is still running today.
That was all really instrumental in my own development, as I was transitioning out of the Workers Alliance, and helping start the Boston Impact Initiative, which is a place-based impact investing fund in Boston. BII actually became one of CERO’s first investors.
Notably, CERO Co-op actually did a DPO in 2014. That was the first direct public offering in Boston done specifically for worker co-ops. That opened up the possibilities of having community shareholders. And it opened up my thinking in terms of multi-stakeholder governance of economic vehicles, and strategies to combine community organizing and community ownership to build collective power.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkChautauqua Parks: The City As Commons
Júlia Martins Rodrigues
Boulder is home to the Colorado Chautauqua, a National Historic Landmark since 1898. The Chautauqua Park is an extensive outdoor area — one of the last of its kind — in the foothills of the Flatiron mountains, where people encounter each other daily for leisure, picnics, bouldering, small concerts, and education programs.
Beginning in upstate New York and continuing until around 1930, the Chautauqua movement delivered free outdoor adult education in order to strengthen community bonds across small-town America. Lectures covered cultural, literary, scientific and artistic themes, varying from Christian instruction to a few political reform topics. Popular music, plays, dramatic readings, dance, and other entertainment opportunities for children would complement the education-based approach.
The Chautauqua movement did not quite translate into a true intellectual renaissance, but mainly taught practical skills and promoted a traditional way of life. But our focus here is on the communally organized environment which the Chautauqua events fostered.
Once the most significant live entertainment in North America, Chautauqua was found in nearly every town in the country before gradually fading away. The Boulder, Colorado Chautauqua is a rare example of a Chautauqua Park that has maintained its roots, by promoting film and music festivals, guest speakers, yoga classes, guided hikes, and wildlife educational programs to this day.
The vanishing of the Chautauquas in American culture is the outcome of changes due to the advent of radio and then movies in the early 20th century, combined with the historical process of a shrinking commons in the urban space. In a process we quickly recognize today, leisure and entertainment increasingly became a commodity. Paid diversions run by private enterprises replaced the collective leisure opportunities widely available in the past. Private capital has molded the city through dominant power relations, resulting in the displacement processes brought by the market and neoliberal forces.
Despite the mania for privatization that captures and devalues the commons, we humans are a collective species meant to live in community, belong to something larger, and create forms of life-in-common. The access and use of common spaces allow individuals to meet, engage in joint experiences, and accept mutual responsibility for that shared environment, all of which weaves the social fabric. Commoning practices require taking into account the well-being of others beyond our individual longings.
Chautauqua parks are just one among many tools available for urban commoning. Solidarity cities focus on the community's well-being and harness the transformative power of commoning to steel collective power. Protecting open shared spaces is vital for consolidating the emerging landscape around cooperation, integral development, shared ownership and governance, racial equity, human rights, and commonwealth.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkOwnership — For a While
In April, a new employee ownership organization, Ownership Works, was announced in the Wall Street Journal. The really novel aspect of this is that it is sponsored by Peter Stavros, a major figure in the private equity firm of KKR. They even claim that they are a “movement”:
Ownership Works is uniting the private, public and nonprofit sectors in a movement to expand shared ownership across the business community. Over 60 prominent foundations, corporations, labor advocates, investors, and pension fund leaders have made unprecedented commitments of expertise, resources and influence to increase adoption of this innovative strategy. Together, we’re developing and deploying new models of shared ownership for public and private companies that create financial opportunity for all employees and build stronger businesses in the process.
Private equity (PE) usually operates by buying a company, usually with borrowed money, moving the debt to the purchased company, making a number of changes in the company to increase short-term cash flow (e.g., eliminating R & D departments, trimming budgets, and reducing employment wherever possible), paying off the loan, and then selling the “streamlined” company for a price that represents big profits for the PE firm.
The new ingredient in the Stavros recipe to make the purchased firm more profitable is to establish a broad-based employee ownership program, complete with programs for an ownership culture that have been shown to improve profitability.
What are employee ownership (EO) advocates to make of this new initiative?
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkWhat are Co-ops Good At?
Practicing Cooperation: Mutual Aid Beyond Capitalism (2021) by Andrew Zitcer
Andrew Zitcer has written a fascinating book taking a different approach to cooperation. What if, he proposes, we learned to think about cooperation more as a practice than as an accumulation of businesses with a certain corporate form?
Zitcer is the director of the Urban Strategy graduate program, and an assistant professor of Arts Administration and Museum Leadership at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. He came to this book after noticing that while there are still relatively few worker co-ops in business today, there is actually a good deal of cooperation going on. Which led him to then ask, then what are co-ops good for? And are they good at?
Answer: co-ops are a great antidote to worker alienation and inequality if they also create communities practice around them. He chose four businesses in nearby West Philadelphia — an acupuncture collective, two food co-ops, and a dance collective. (He acknowledges he was more interested in studying the social practice of cooperation than in enterprises which technically qualify as worker co-ops.)
Cooperativism as a practice is an angle I’ve not seen elsewhere, but it’s very fruitful, especially in the way it allows us to focus on enlarging democracy and shared wealth building in a local context. This focus calls up the interesting work of ethical philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre but Zitcer also invokes ideas from John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and J. K. Gibson-Graham.
Drawing on over 100 interviews to create in-depth profiles of the four organizations, Zitcer demonstrates that cooperation operates at four different scales: that of the body (the importance of embodied emotion in our work), of work and organization, of community economy, and of democracy itself.
Indeed, Zitcer argues, co-ops are part of ancient traditions of mutual aid, among communities such as the pre-colonial Native American cultures as well as in the African-American history of susus or rotating savings / credit pools. Today’s co-ops, at their best, still serve a dual role: as enterprises which serve a business purpose (in their focus on external goods) and as associations serving a social purpose (internal goods).
His profile of the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture, for example, illustrates how this collective offers a social return through its offering of low-cost community healthcare which includes a social collaboration with the patients and other practitioners in the co-op. (If you do not yet know what liberation acupuncture is, you will enjoy this chapter.)
What we want, Zitcer suggests, is diverse forms of collective economic practices, rooted in mutual aid, that prefigure the new world we want. His fresh thinking about these difficult challenges is a welcome contribution.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkTeaching Our Kids About Cooperation
We Are Better Together (2022) by Bill McKibben, Illustrated by Stevie Lewis
Júlia Martins Rodrigues
Parents and caregivers within our community share the understanding that we are stronger when cooperating. But how can we start teaching the youngest members of our society about mutualism, solidarity, shared governance, environmental safeguards, and the common good?
Here is a good place to start: A couple of months ago, the environmentalist Bill McKibben published the book We Are Better Together about the power of human cooperation for social change. The book is for everyone, from kids to not-so-young folks, wondering, “How can I significantly enact change?”
The author, concerned about the effects of climate change and aware of our shared responsibility for our common home, registers a clever and straightforward message: “when we work together, we can do incredible things.”
He starts by acknowledging the collective and cooperative nature of human experience since the hunter-gatherer groups, the development of multiple languages and communication up to our ability to harness clean energy from renewable sources. The book guides children through many examples of impactful collaborative efforts capable of positively transforming the world we live in.
The book offers children a simple framework for discovering their humanness and community experience so that from infancy they can develop their personalities and identities cognitively, emotionally, and socially connected to the common good.
Not only does the book carry a powerful message, it also takes us on an artistic journey through colorful, stunning illustrations by Stevie Lewis.
In Case You Missed It . . .
From part one of our interview with Nathan Schneider, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Media Enterprise Design Lab, in the October 5, 2021 issue:
After a generation or two cooperatives tend to become conservative with a small “c,” in a business sense. They focus on protecting what they have, rather than building and advancing and challenging injustice or challenging their members’ expectations. Investor-owned companies at least have an incentive to exceed the expectations of the market. Cooperatives have an incentive to meet members’ needs.
And that has often gotten in the way of being champions for the social change that we really need, as well as tech innovation and business model innovation. This is where cooperatives really have been left behind at a moment when they should shine, being companies which are more about connections among people than about what they can do for individual customers.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkHelping Smaller Investors Create More Small Biz Owners
What if there were a path for entrepreneurs who would rather build on something working than try to grow from startup? What if we had funders looking for BIPOC or women entrepreneurs who would like this approach? Finally, what if anyone — not just the accredited investors — could participate?
New Majority Capital is an impact fund that fits this M.O. with their recent announcement of a unique crowd-funded (on WeFunder) community round from investors interested in this approach. Their vision is to create an impact platform where anyone — accredited or not — can become an angel investor in this kind of business transition and community wealth-building.
Learn more about New Majority Capital’s vision, team and partnerships at their website. A good place to go deeper is the blog, updated monthly.
Article ideas? Submissions? Helpful suggestions?
Contact the editor: email@example.com.
- 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.