Shifting Power in Chicago
A Conversation with Mike Strode of the Kola Nut Collaborative and Open Collective
Mike Strode, a program officer with the Open Collective, is a writer, cyclist, IT consultant, facilitator, and solidarity economy organizer residing in southeast Chicago whose community engagement work has included ride leadership with the Chicago chapter of Red, Bike & Green; editorial and archival oversight for Fultonia; and co-facilitation of Cooperation for Liberation Study & Working Group. He is founding coordinator of the Kola Nut Collaborative, a time-based service and skills trading platform which promotes timebanking throughout Chicago. He also serves as a current board member for Dill Pickle Food Co-op.
Great to have you here, Mike. You have a long list of organizations you’ve worked with or founded. How about we start with your founding of the Kola Nut Collaborative in Chicago?
Sure. I was trying to figure out what were the possibilities for timebanking in Chicago. I was coming off of the heels of my work with the Healthy Food Hub in the food justice and food sovereignty space. The Kola Nut Collaborative was a discovery point, along with the 2018 Cooperative Economy Summit in Chicago and the discovery of the solidarity economy.
I came to realize it’s hard to tell the story of what timebanking can be outside of a larger shift in thinking about economic ecosystems. That’s when the Kola Nut Collaborative began its initial partnerships, trying to figure out if we can seed timebanking into cooperatives.
It turned out to be very difficult work to sell that message — until the world turned, right? Until the pandemic shift, where suddenly everybody was pod mapping, everybody was timebanking, everybody was engaging in mutual aid.
If I draw a lesson from that period between 2017 and 2020, it’s the same lesson that I drew from the Healthy Food Hub. Be consistent and show up, be where you say you’re going to be every Saturday, with the food, and then people will eventually begin to appreciate the space for what it is, which is more than just food.
And similarly with the timebank. Be consistent and show up, just keep seeding the earth. Because ultimately, there is a moment of social rupture, where the opening for the story that you’ve been hoping to tell is made much broader. And that was what occurred during the period of 2020.
I might have anticipated that people might move in the direction of the timebank platform. But by that time, I had realized the platform was not as important as the practice. And that leads me to another part of the Kola Nut Collaborative work, which is this process called the Offers and Needs Market (OANM), which I learned from the Post Growth Institute, Donnie Maclurcan and Crystal Arnold. And it was right around 2019, when I started using that practice as part of our timebanking member orientations or member meetings.
How does the OANM work?
It’s a strategy which is situated well within an asset-based community development framework. Effectively, you’re taking people through a reflective process to discover the capacities, the skills that they can offer to their own communities. You take those down and then ask people, what are the things that you need from your community? What do you need the support of other people to do? And you write those down.
In two different rounds, an offers round and a needs round, you’re just going around the circle. And eventually what happens is you start to get some matchmaking happening in the room. Ultimately, you begin to see the web of resources, assets, connections that we have surfaced in this space.
And now you could put some of that stuff in the timebank. We don’t always have to meet up to do it — that’s what the timebank is for. So the work post-2020 for the Kola Nut Collaborative has really been seeding that practice. And specifically the big project in 2021 was the Offers and Needs Market Facilitator Network in Chicago, which was moving a number of organizers and other folks in the community through a facilitator training for OANM and then seeding the ground with this practice.
I’m happy to report that we hosted a training last year and recently wrapped up another five week training cycle in 2022. There were between 20 and 25 people in that training which means that multiple organizations and multiple communities will benefit from taking up this OANM practice. While our timebank is still at about the same membership of 200 members, OANM is now being used throughout the city.
Amazing, amazing. Where has this new work led you to?
At the wrap-up of this last OANM training, I was talking to the group about my facilitation lineage. Which includes the Rogers Park Community Peace Circle and Jennifer Viets. After attending several circles, Jennifer invited me to facilitate one, my first time doing that. Then there’s our Cooperation for Liberation Study and Working Group, where I ended up co-facilitating. I had also done some board facilitation with our local Dill Pickle Co-op and with Co-op Power.
Currently I’m in the fellowship or in the apprenticeship for AORTA, or Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance. But my experience with OANM is now squarely situated as a practice I’m committed to carrying nearly everywhere I go.
I’m seeding it into the New Economy Coalition, the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, and with Timebanks.org where I’m currently serving on the board as well.
And it’s a low lift practice, right? There are lots of solidarity economy practices like cooperative development, housing co-ops, worker co-ops, food co-ops, those are very hard lifts, they take a long time.
But OANM is a small, cultural organizing social practice that we can implement in an hour. And it will change the way that we organize our resources and organize our community assets. So yeah, that’s the important thing for me.
Great stuff. I’d like to go back to two places real quick. First, the moment of the great system shutdown, that period in April 2020 when the highways were empty, the smokestacks stopped, you could see the mountains. And then the second moment, two months later, we had millions of people worldwide, in the streets, over George Floyd’s murder. I’m curious how you put those pieces together.
Yeah, lots of things happening to lots of people throughout 2020. In March that year, I did one of my Ujamaa Hour interviews with Chinyere Oteh, founder of the Cowry Collective in St. Louis, which inspired the Kola Nut Collaborative.
It was about the time we were entering the stay at home phase. In this moment of vulnerability, I was sharing the idea that the social infrastructure we were building could not support us in a moment like this.
And I was feeling like, wow, why couldn’t we catch this thing? And then, there was a moment of realization like, wait, the entire federal, local and state architecture couldn’t manage this thing. How could a lowly time bank coordinator in southeast Chicago catch the world?
And then this moment of vulnerability around the George Floyd uprisings in Chicago, that resulted in several stores in my neighborhood being shut down. One of the interesting things I saw was the Jewel grocery store a mile from my house, closed. But when I walked a bit further, the little corner bodega was still open, still serving food, right?
For me the message was the shift of the entire world, that there’s a racial justice reckoning that’s happening. But the opportunity that’s beneath that racial justice reckoning is in the Restorative Economics framework that Nwamaka Agbo foregrounds, in terms of community governance, community economics, self determination for political, economic, and social power.
And it’s the opportunity to think about how, when power shifts, it’s not just an opportunity to move resources around temporarily, but really think about how we are shifting power and resources back to communities to make these decisions and also to build power. And not just temporarily, to mend our guilt.
So let’s acknowledge there was a lot of guilt money sloshing around in 2020. We want to make sure that people have transformed from that experience.
On the other side of that, I did an interview with LaSaia Wade of Brave Space Alliance here in Chicago. And I posed a similar question to her about the sort of reckoning of this moment. She said, you know, that Brave Space Alliance serves the Black trans community. So hercommunity is still suffering, still marginalized, still on the outside. Maybe some people have had their eyes opened to certain things, but there’s still opportunities to move power, shift our frameworks, shift our dynamics.
Yeah, that’s good. Let me ask you about the new developments in Chicago with the new conversation around community wealth building. What is going on with that?
I don’t want to call it guilt money. Because there’s truly a rethink at the city level about what wealth building looks like. There’s a Community Wealth Building Advisory Council forming and I have applied to be on that council to make sure that there’s a solidarity economy framework and narrative there.
What’s happening now is that the city is trying to conduct a very large experiment to ask, what are the other models we could be funding? The City of Chicago developed a Community Land Trust back in 2005. It wasn’t well advertised or well funded, so it did not generate enough affordable housing for the moment that we are in now.
And that’s the opportunity for us to have different mechanisms of governance engaging and interacting with our communities to design permanent solutions, specifically around housing.
Some years ago Joe Moore, the alderman of the 49th Ward on the far Northside came up with a participatory budgeting plan. Is PB activity still going on? Is anybody talking about PB in the city of Chicago related to community wealth building and community powers?
Absolutely. And let’s remember that it was PB organizers in the city which nudged Joe in that direction. The current alderperson in the 49th ward, Maria Hadden, was a leading PB trainer prior to running for the aldermanic seat. So in that ward, they’ve got the best PB process working because Maria has been engaged in participatory democracy for a long time.
Unfortunately, that’s not the state of PB throughout the city, where the process is suffering under the weight of alderpersons who are not really interested in participatory democracy in a very deep way. So they tend to underfund the PB process, even if they get around $1.3 million a year in discretionary funds.
I know of a PB process that’s run in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side. There’s one in Englewood that kind of operates on its own. And one in South Austin. So the PB process sometimes ends up being split into different smaller pots.
I’ve heard Maria comment about PB, it’s not just that we win, it’s how we win. And the PB process is not the biggest transformation we can make. It’s what happens when we participate in these democratic forms, learning how to make decisions together, how to do deep democracy at a very hyperlocal level.
In my mind, the entire city needs to be doing PB, not just the local elected officials. I’m talking about communities that need a PB 101 throughout the city so they can understand its power.
Great. Let’s talk about your work with the Open Collective Foundation.
I started with them in June 2021 as a part time program manager, and that was on the heels of about twenty years of a corporate technology career. But I originally became involved with Open Collective because the Kola Nut Collaborative needed a fiscal sponsor and they were the most receptive to what I wanted to do. So they began hosting us in January 2020, just before the stay-at-home orders came down and mutual aid groups began spinning up.
And that led us to think about how we should be moving money around. Is it via PayPal, Cash App, Venmo? Or could it be something else?
This economic system makes it very hard to move money from one person to another in a way that’s equitable and fair. So with this problem in mind, I began on-boarding local groups to Open Collective in 2020.
When the program manager role came around in 2021, it seemed like a natural fit for the organizing I was already doing. And my technology interests.
My role is to support the onboarding process, so really getting groups clear about what are the values of Open Collective Foundation. There’s also their platform side, which is Open Collective, Inc.
It’s a really interesting foundation — they push outside the usual boundaries.
Yes, it’s a radical fiscal sponsor. And a lot of programs that we have spun up are in direct response to groups that we host.
As I was starting up, they began to think about making a pivot from being a fiscal sponsor that was accidentally discovered by mutual aid groups in 2020 to being intentional about building infrastructure — financial, legal, and technical — for the solidarity economy. They fill a critical gap in terms of those projects that don’t need a 501c3 yet, they just need a place to pilot new programs.
So fiscal sponsorship is our only role. We’re not simply a nonprofit that’s lending out our capacity. This is the only thing we do. And it’s allowed us to put a deep focus on what these groups need — programs like grantmaking, cash assistance, liability insurance.
Here in Chicago, we’ve got the Chicagoland Food Sovereignty Coalition and the Northwest Mutual Aid Coalition which we’ve been able to support with leasing warehouses, for example. If you don’t have cold storage, you can’t move or maintain large volumes of food for your community.
And there’s our transparent budgeting capacity. So this all helps groups to live into their values, transparently, democratically in a participatory way. And you have the infrastructure right here to allow you to do that — very immediately.
What a terrific project. You’re growing the back end of the solidarity economy. You can tell a new group with a great idea, just sign up and we’ll help you figure out how to get on the road.
So is there a way you can support for-profit operations like worker co-ops?
Yeah, definitely. We had a bunch of cooperatives come to us, asking if we could fiscally host them. But a cooperative is a for-profit endeavor. So a 501c3 would not be the appropriate legal entity for them.
But lots of cooperatives are running social mission endeavors. So we have an educators cooperative out west, wanting to run community based education programs. They didn’t want to do that as part of their for profit business. So they just moved it over to Open Collective Foundation where they can fundraise, receive grants into it, do all of that, while keeping the other business separate.
There’s also cooperatives that are in pre-development stage, when there’s all sorts of learning and education needed. If they don’t have much in the way of infrastructure, they can take the project into Open Collective until they’re ready to launch the business.
At O.C., we’re evaluating the possibility of spinning up a new fiscal sponsor that could host for-profit cooperatives. And, you know, there’s a lot to think through about what that looks like, but we’d have to figure out which 501c status fits for that. When the infrastructure is focused on the solidarity economy, we’re able to quickly adapt and evaluate needs to find an appropriate solution.
Great stuff — thanks for your time, Mike.