Heart of the World,” Sandra Strait

In NPQ’s latest Remaking the Economy webinar, Lorena Andrade of La Mujer Obrera of El Paso, Texas; Pamela Standing of the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance; and Ellen Vera of Co-op Cincy outlined some of the joys and challenges inherent in economy building in low-income, BIPOC communities. We’ve made the hour-long webinar freely available—and I encourage you to watch it. Here, I share a few highlights, both to whet your viewing appetite and because what these community leaders say merits attention.

Often, with national platforms like this one, there is a tendency to depend on national organizations or academic analysis. Certainly, those sources are important, and I include myself among those who often rely on them. But, as Andrade, Standing, and Vera make clear, sometimes there’s a gap in that mediation process. And it is worth listening for that. Below are a half-dozen snippets drawn from that webinar.

The Struggle to Be

“We were garment workers. They defined us as a garment industry. There is no longer the garment industry. They no longer need us.”

As Andrade notes, the El Paso neighborhood where La Mujer Obrera is based was a product of migration of Mexican workers to the United States to produce textiles. That industry has long disappeared, but the 6,000-member Chamizal Neighborhood persists. A community formed by multinational capital must claim community for itself.

As Andrade puts it, “As we are defending against this thing called progress defined by them, we are also celebrating that our community exists, that we have these relationships.” The group’s work—whether it is supporting social enterprise businesses, supporting community gardens, or battling to remove lead from local schools—builds on this notion.

The Role of Organizing in Economy Building

Vera, who works to develop worker co-ops both in Cincinnati and nationally, is a leading national expert on co-op development. But, as she points out, technical assistance without movement building is limiting. “In our co-ops, we are trying to create the best types of jobs that we can, and if we’re not directly connected to movements that are trying to push up the standards in those industries, there is only so much that we can do.”

Vera adds, “All our co-ops are directly connected to the labor movement. But a lot of the co-ops are also trying to address issues like food insecurity, food justice, environmental justice, and so are directly connecting with those movements. There is a movement around universal childcare. So, I would say we try to tie what we are doing around that as much as possible.”

The Nature of Work

Discussion of the nature of work often centers on automation. But Andrade offers a different take. As she puts it, “One of the things that is difficult…is to have time in our social enterprises specifically to ask questions, to rethink the way that we work. To do it collectively. So, if we have a daycare, it is about providing daycare services, but it is also about asking questions about how we redefine our relationships with our children. What is it that our children need?” Organizing to get resources for formal education in schools is part of this work. But, Andrade adds, “the spirit of our babies is our responsibility. The communities that we create around them. How do we do that as well?”

Andrade also emphasizes thinking of work not just as a place of employment, but also as space to build community. As Andrade relates, “When we are working together in our social enterprises, we are really rethinking what community looks like to us. And more importantly, we have defended a space where we can put those ideas into practice. And that we can see them as a living thing.”

Listening to How Language Lands

At NPQ, we have often written often about financial literacy—see, for example, this very useful list of resources. But Standing makes a powerful case that the term “financial literacy” itself is demeaning to supposed beneficiaries. She advises using the phrase “financial education” instead. As she explains:

I think when you say “literacy,” you’re assuming someone is not literate. That’s something that has bothered me about financial literacy, and it is usually targeted at communities that are overlooked. I feel a woman with three children who is living on a very limited income is probably more financially literate than someone who is making six figures, because they know how to put food on the table, they make sure their kids have clothes, they have a roof over their head, they pay their light bills.

Building on Community History

Standing also offers a positive story of how, amid COVID, the Native American artisan community found a usable history to help artisan businesses survive. Selling art during the pandemic, she explains, was not easy. Most artisans sold their wares at shows. But with COVID “there were no gigs. The conferences, the big art shows, the art fairs, everything just changed. We had to cancel a lot of events we had planned.”

Standing concedes there was a lot of initial resistance to going virtual, but as she notes, “Our people created intricate trade routes. They were here long before that guy named Columbus got lost.… I always say we were the first cooperators, long before the Eurocentric model came out. We were cooperating and working together. We are just creating new trade routes, but they are virtual.” The outcome, she adds, is the emergence of “a different way of doing business that will live beyond COVID. To me, it is another tool.”

Maintaining a Long-Term View

It is hardly an original insight to point out that both philanthropy and nonprofits benefit when grants last longer and have fewer strings attached. But the call for “multi-year operating support” can sound technical. Andrade describes this need differently.

As Andrade observes, “Collective work takes a lot more patience and a lot more time.” She adds, “It’s not always ‘Look at this new business.’ Once you have the business, there is all the internal work and hidden work that it takes to make sure that it is a project that sustains and nurtures community and that is nurtured and sustained by the community as well.”

The value of time and patience, in short, is not to be discounted. Vera, for her part, agrees: Building a democratic economy, she notes, is “not quick work.” Also critical, she adds, is the ability to be flexible: “Trusting that these communities really know what is needed…that’s really important.”