What is the meaning of the term “solidarity economy”? Because my graduate research is focused on the US solidarity economy movement, I often find myself answering this question in conversation with people from various walks of life.
I usually respond by emphasizing that the solidarity economy is a framework to network and expand existing alternatives to capitalism. To make the idea more concrete, I share examples of these practices, such as worker-owned cooperatives, community land trusts, community-supported agriculture, and mutual aid networks. I explain that these practices share a set of values, including solidarity and cooperation, equity, participatory democracy, sustainability, and pluralism.1
While this brief explanation seems to get people’s minds whirring with new connections, I have undertaken a longer journey to reach my own understanding of the solidarity economy.
The Economics of the Korean Diaspora
I was born in Los Angeles to Korean immigrants, and my understanding of economy is rooted in the collectivist traditions of my heritage.
As an ethnic studies PhD candidate, I have approached my study of the US solidarity economy movement with the understanding that it is not a new formation. Rather, it is rooted in modes of survival forged by the communities most impacted by the violence and exclusion of the capitalist system.
I was born in Los Angeles to Korean immigrants, and my understanding of economy is rooted in the collectivist traditions of my heritage. My parents grew up in agrarian poverty during the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. In the 1980s, my dad’s side of the family immigrated to the US, following my uncle who had received a visa to work as a tae-kwon-do instructor. When they first arrived, my dad worked as a gas station attendant, while my mom waited tables and assembled parts at a factory in downtown Los Angeles.
Our family depended on immigrant survival networks and cultural practices such as rotating credit circles to save for their future. Shortly after I was born, my parents were able to open an auto repair shop in Koreatown and buy a house in the suburbs, which they chose for its good public schools. Although our financial situation fluctuated and my parents did not have health insurance, my sister and I grew up with access to many class privileges, especially when it came to our education.
But our family’s struggle to realize the “American Dream” came at a heavy cost. We did not have the knowledge or tools to understand the support that my dad needed when he fell into a deep depression as he struggled through the isolation and shame of debt and unfulfilled dreams. Just as I was beginning my senior year of high school, my dad ended his life.
Unlearning the Economics of Racial Capitalism
That same year, I was introduced to the study of economics. The teacher, a white man, would decry the evils of socialism at the start of class each day and had a “Communist” flag on the wall that read, “The beatings will continue until productivity improves.” He rigorously indoctrinated us into the core principles of capitalist economics—that society is made up of self-interested individuals, each maximizing their own interests under conditions of scarcity.
[In college,] essential aspects of life—such as community, collectivity, and care—were rendered as nothing more than ‘deadweight loss.’
When I entered college, fully funded by financial aid, I decided to major in economics and became enchanted by the idea that we could use equations and graphs to determine society’s most efficient outcomes. But I struggled with the fact that essential aspects of life—such as community, collectivity, and care—were rendered nothing more than “deadweight loss.” We never uttered the word capitalism in our classes, or socialism except as a failed idea. I did not see Marx on an economics syllabus until I studied abroad at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina.
At the same time, my college ethnic studies classes introduced me to an alternative vocabulary with which to understand the world and gave me permission to draw upon my lived experiences as a source of expertise.
I also began to understand how my immigrant community’s grasp on the American Dream, however tenuous at times, was contingent on the extraction of resources from Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities within a larger system of racial capitalism. I learned how mass incarceration maintained systems of racial domination rooted in slavery, and that the myth of meritocracy was contingent upon the disposability of those most marginalized by the country’s unsustainable economic system.
After graduating, I explored different avenues of social change work, including public interest law, nonprofit social services, and tenant organizing. I also spent a year in South Korea, joining protests against the construction of a naval base in Jeju and volunteering with the Korean House for International Solidarity, a Seoul-based nonprofit which advocates for the rights of workers of multinational corporations.
In 2014, I began a PhD program in ethnic studies, during which I intended to learn to research in tandem with my activist commitments. Once a graduate student, however, I quickly learned that my graduate program was designed to professionalize us to become competitive academics who would vie for scarce tenure-track professorships.
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Solidarity Economy Through an Ethnic Studies Lens
I first learned about the solidarity economy during graduate school, through the US Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN).2 From multiple researchers and educators within this network, I learned that the term, solidarity economy, emerged from movements in Latin America and Europe in the 1980s and 1990s to build networks to support existing alternatives to neoliberal capitalism.3
Learning about the solidarity economy was a lifeline, at a time when I felt overwhelmed and disempowered by the totalizing nature of academic critique, which seemed to relegate possibilities for social transformation to an abstract future after the revolution.
My ethnic studies perspective also helped me identify needed challenges to the evolving discourse of solidarity economy in the US context, particularly around the relationship between race and property. While solidarity economy efforts often idealize collective ownership as a solution to capitalist exploitation, ownership in the US economy has always been structured by racial and colonial domination.
In “Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl Harris demonstrates how the US judicial establishment categorically disqualified Indigenous claims to land from the “rules of first possession and labor as a basis for property rights,” while reducing the selfhood and labor capacity of enslaved Africans to extensions of white property. Harris argues that law has constructed whiteness as a bundle of exclusive rights, including the right to own property, and into a form of property itself, whose value is expected to grow over time.
Growing Institutionalization of the Solidarity Economy Movement
Since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of activists and organizations in the US have come to identify with the solidarity economy movement, seeding new organizations, funding strategies, and public sector initiatives and becoming more closely integrated with economic justice platforms in electoral politics. As the movement becomes more institutionalized, it risks recentering whiteness as property in its efforts to build a post-capitalist economy, rather than understanding racial justice as central to any efforts to transform capitalism.
My research collaboration with the New Economy Coalition (NEC), a US-based nonprofit coalition of over 200 member organizations, has been an important part of my journey to understand the solidarity economy movement. The coalition has evolved since its founding in 2012 toward a solidarity economy vision that aims to center the leadership of frontline communities.
Between June 2020 and July 2021, I collaborated with a group of NEC staff and organizers based in different regions of the US to collect case studies that would inform NEC’s strategic shift toward a “regional solidarity economy ecosystems” framework.4 NEC left the meaning of “regional” open to multiple interpretations: ecologically by land, climate, or watershed; politically through borders and voting boundaries; economically by markets and shared material conditions; or culturally, by our traditions, ethnicities, and migration pathways.
I learned an incredible amount from this collaborative process and from the many organizers who shared insights into the different challenges and opportunities they faced as they worked to grow their regional solidarity economy ecosystems. I also realized the limits of my understanding of the informal and relational dynamics shaping these ecosystems, and how my research privileged efforts that take place through formal infrastructures, such as nonprofits and cooperatives. Together with NEC staff and other research partners, I sought to be honest about the limitations of this research and frame our findings as a tool for ongoing collaboration.
Efforts to institutionalize solidarity economy on a national scale may occur out of a desire to resource and grow the movement, but they can also recenter those with the most capital and status to define the term, while erasing the formative work happening in spaces that are removed from institutional status. As an academic, I had to confront my own complicity with research practices that extract knowledge from marginalized communities and organizers in ways that disengage that knowledge from an ongoing process of collective transformation.
Telling the Story of What Is Possible Now
The solidarity economy is one of many ways to describe how efforts for systemic transformation can be grounded in present relationships—based on genuine trust, solidarity, collective theorizing, and practice—rather than credentials or capital. Even though my next step feels undefined, as I transition out of academia, my purpose has never felt clearer. I know I’m not alone as I find many others who are engaged in developing alternative structures to support the necessary work of researching, teaching, and healing our economy. Collectively, we are experts of the economic systems we are struggling to survive, and we all have a part to play.
- My understanding has been informed by the US Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN), which defines solidarity economy as “an alternative framework for economic development grounded in practice and the following principles: solidarity and cooperation; equity in all dimensions (race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc.); social and economic democracy; sustainability; pluralism (not a one-size-fits-all approach), puts people and planet first.”
- In preparation for the first US Social Forum in 2007, Emily Kawano, then Executive Director of the Center for Popular Economics in Amherst, MA, brought together a committee of activists to organize a track of workshops focused on the solidarity economy. Many of the organizers had first encountered the solidarity economy during the world social forums, the first of which took place in Brazil in 2001. Following the workshops, participants agreed to draft the beginnings of a permanent solidarity network, USSEN, which would serve as the US representative for the RIPESS (Réseau intercontinental de promotion de l’économie sociale solidaire, “International network for the promotion of social solidarity economy” in English) network, which had formed a decade before.
- Luis Razeto in Chile and Jean-Louis Laville in France are widely credited with coining the term in an academic context, although the framework is grounded in a much wider network of practices envisioned and led by those most impacted by capitalist exploitation.
- Thank you to NEC staff Tori Kuper, Anand Jahi, and Eli Feghali for working closely with me to design and carry out this research project, as well as all the people and organizations who made this research possible through their feedback, interviews, survey responses, and ongoing work to realize a solidarity economy, including (in alphabetical order): Kelly Baker, Adriana Barraza, Yoni Blumberg, Ivy Brashear, Ariel Brooks, Salena Burch, Mario Ceballos, Andrew Delmonte, Sona Desai, Shavaun Evans, Eli Feghali, Sachie Hayakawa, Cassia Herron, Julia Ho, Emily Kawano, Nati Linares, Abdiel López, Ashley Miller, Jeff Olson, Francisco Pérez, Martin Richards, Derrick Robinson, jean-huy Tran, Leila Tamari, Chris Tittle, and Zen Trenholm.