Photo by Arun Geetha Viswanathan on Unsplash

On March 17th, NPQ’s economic justice desk hosted a virtual roundtable discussion about how to build the culture that is needed to sustain support for a solidarity economy. We have written extensively about the solidarity economy at NPQ because the concept is central to achieving economic democracy and collective flourishing.

This conversation was inspired too by a recognition that without a shift at the level of culture, a society organized around a solidarity economy will not be possible. Culture, as Howard University law professor Harold McDougall has noted, is fundamentally about how people solve problems. The neoliberal order of the past four decades may be fraying, but achieving a just transition requires not just new policies, but a shift in culture—from a dominant hyper-individualistic culture to one that sustains community.

The roundtable conversation began with presentations from three speakers—Dr. Gar Alperovitz, Rev. Ronnie Galvin, and Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard—each of whom addressed what culture-building work must occur to realize a solidarity economy. Alperovitz, in his remarks, asked the critical question: “What are the economic institutions that can nurture community?” Gordon Nembhard followed with the observation that culture change work must be rooted in the notion that “we’re all exalted beings who are trying to make things better for ourselves, our families, our communities—and we’re doing it together.” For his part, Galvin called attention to centering the concept of ubuntu, the notion “that my freedom and my humanity is caught up in your humanity, that my liberation is your liberation, if we can convince more people of that, then we might be able to build a basis or a culture of solidarity.”


Roundtable Responses

For this conversation, NPQ gathered a wide range of solidarity economy leaders and thinkers. Participants included Emily Kawano, a cofounder of the US Solidarity Economy Network and codirector of Wellspring Cooperatives; Nwamaka Agbo, CEO of the Kataly Foundation; A-dae Romero Briones, director of programs of Native American Food Systems at First Nations Development Institute; Mwende Hinojosa, director of communications and strategic storytelling at the Sustainable Economies Law Center; Penn Loh, senior lecturer in urban environmental policy and planning at Tufts University; Lakota Vogel, executive director of Four Bands Community Loan Fund; Elizabeth Castillo, professor of organizational leadership at Arizona State University; and Laura Flanders, host of the Laura Flanders Show, which covers the solidarity economy.

The open discussion ranged across many topics—from the concept of community to labor and its liberation, crisis and apocalypse, participatory democracy, wealth accumulation and redistribution, corporate hegemony, and reparations. What follows are some of the key insights and contributions from roundtable participants, each of whom approached the question of culture from their own unique perspectives and based on their own work in the field.


Culture Shift

“There are a lot of different communities and lots of different kinds of cultures. There are cultures nested inside of cultures nested inside of cultures.” Kawano explained. “But one thing that gets spread so seamlessly and subtly is a culture of capitalism— individualism, consumption, defining worth by work and by property, or that shiny car. I love the idea of culture and community being a choice of survival and liberation instead.”

Briones picked up on this theme, noting that in some ways the crises that capitalism creates generate the seeds of an oppositional culture rooted in solidarity. “One of the most beautiful things about capitalism,” she observed, “is that it only supports a very small portion of our society. So, I don’t think it’s about rebuilding something other than capitalism, because capitalism has done that for us.”

Many groups across the globe have had to find ways to survive in spite of the dominant economic system and have done so successfully, she continued. “I think there are so many communities that are serving capitalism that have had to create their own economies already when you weren’t looking. Indigenous communities have always been here, so it’s not like rebuilding anything—we’re here. Migrant communities, Black communities, all the people that have been left out of capitalism are creating their own economies already. We are creating different ways of operating outside of the accumulation of wealth because capitalism did that for us.”


Confronting White Supremacy

Agbo shared that her approach to the solidarity economy comes from her work as an organizer. “Part of the culture that I am interested in unpacking, with those that I do electoral organizing with, is the understanding that democracy is about voting, that democracy is about the government. We don’t have a culture of democracy being about governance, which is about showing up as an active, daily participant in your community. And that’s because the history of the United States is one of white settler colonialism. So, we have an oppositional force that is our target that we’re organizing against, and we’ve gotten really well practiced at having a shared understanding of the root problem, root causes, of how we got to such deep levels of inequality.”

“One challenge that organizers face is that there isn’t a clear path to isolate root causes and create new solutions. We have yet to have a practice of the root solutions of how we get out of here,” Agbo declared. “We do have an external [target in] white supremacy, the nation-state, all the things that seek to hurt and harm us. But then we also have a target, if we will, that is our own individual capacity and willingness to show up and participate, in not just identifying the solutions but actively building them.”

Hinojosa touched on a similar theme: “The dominant culture that we all share, but is mostly unspoken, is white supremacy culture. That is the air that we breathe, the water that we’re swimming in. For some of us, it’s apparent; for most of us it is not apparent. We’re speaking about capitalism, but the culture behind capitalism is white supremacy culture.”

White supremacy, Hinojosa added, needs to be dismantled for other cultures to take its place. “We need to unlearn this culture and remember our other cultures. Because I personally feel like once [white supremacy] culture is uprooted and removed, we all have our own indigenous, ancestral ways.”


Redefining Wealth

“In the language that we speak,” Vogel, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux nation, began, “we don’t really have a definition for what wealth and what racial equity means. Those aren’t words that our community uses to describe itself.” Part of the work of Ford Bands Community Fund, the community development financial institution (CDFI) that she leads, has been to develop a new collective understanding of the term wealth by “talking to our elders and asking, truly, what it means.”

Working against capitalist forms of value is one major struggle that Indigenous lending institutions face, she clarified. “I’m constantly combating the financial industry about equity investments, collateral, and things that are needed to be brought to the table.”

Vogel shared that her tribal nation’s definition of wealth could serve as a central tenet of a solidarity economy: “Our culture has always been about how much you can give back to your community, and that’s what wealth of an individual and a community was judged on, not about how much you could hoard and bring to the table for your individual self.”


Learning Solidarity

As befits a discussion on how to establish the cultural basis for a democratic economy rooted in solidarity, many of the speakers addressed the question of how to build a culture of solidarity directly. For Castillo, one critical aspect of creating a solidarity economy is what she called “humanistic management”—which basically means treating workers like whole people. “How can we put dignity and care at the heart of everything?” she asked.

Part of the difficulty in making this shift, Castillo acknowledged, is that capitalist culture is fundamentally opposed to both dignity and care. “The culture that we’re grounded in right now is a culture of fear. And the genius of the market economy, besides having built itself on physical enslavement and caging of people, gets people, gets us, to build our own cages right now through fear of loss.” We should still, Castillo emphasized, “expand our consciousness so we can imagine… new ways of being, doing, and relating to each other.”

Loh, echoing a point that Briones made, saw both a culture and practices of solidarity emerging out of the struggle for survival. “Those practices have been in place because of the conditions that people have had to live in,” he observed. For Loh, “solidarity in all relations” is a principle that can guide action in the present, even amid the fear and violence of the present. This means that practicing solidarity every day is a key step along the path of the larger project of economic justice and liberation.

Flanders focused her remarks on the practicalities of solidarity in the economics sphere. “I don’t know if we’ve done enough to make sure that we’re figuring out how we procure and purchase from other like-minded operations,” she noted. Citing cooperative models such as Mondragon, a federation of worker cooperatives based in the Basque region of Spain, Flanders observed that the cultural independence of Mondragon and the movement of which it is part fuels the federation’s economic ability to sustain itself—and vice versa.

Flanders pressed participants to do more. She observed that even as she leads an independent media outlet dedicated to promoting the solidarity economy, she still deeply depends on multinational global corporations, such as Google and Facebook. There is a need, she noted, to build “a different set of practices and relationships.” But to achieve that, she cautioned, “a whole bunch of us, myself included, would have to get very real” and act by “jumping ship” from those corporate relationships and consciously starting something different.


Building Cultures of Solidarity: A Few Takeaways

In the conversation, a few key themes stand out. One is that solidarity economy culture building work is taking place in communities today. As Briones reminds us “the people that have been left out of capitalism are creating their own economies already.” A second theme is the importance of radical imagination and education—of learning and unlearning. And education, to be effective, must start when people are young; at one point in the discussion, for instance, Gordon Nembhard mentioned the importance of teaching the values of solidarity to children in kindergarten; don’t wait until the university! A third theme that came through loud and clear throughout was the importance of building and maintaining a vision of liberation.

In short, the discussion was hopeful, even as the barriers posed by white supremacy and capitalist culture were fully acknowledged. Culture building is not easy work, but the good news is that there is a lot to build on. As Loh said at one point in the discussion in “any space we’re in, we can be practicing solidarity. And we should be, [through] a culture of care that values other people and does not otherize people.”