A hand plants round seeds in rows on the ground. In the background, sprouts reach towards a rising sun. To illustrate Seeding Solidarity Economies.
Image credit: RomoloTavani on istock.com

With this article, we begin a new NPQ series, Solidarity Economies: Building Community Power. Coproduced with the New Economy Coalition—a coalition of over 100 organizations building the solidarity economy in the United States—this series highlights case studies of solidarity economy ecosystems that are returning wealth and building grassroots power in cities across the country.

The solidarity economy movement is ascendant! It’s true. Activists, organizers, and academics have been foretelling its rise in the United States for over a decade. But something new is afoot. 

I confess that I am among this group of activists and academics who for years have been calling attention to the growth of solidarity economy practices—and have been largely ignored. Back in 2019, I published a study on what I called “cooperative cities” in which I wrote about how local governments in a dozen US cities create enabling environments for developing and sustaining worker cooperatives. Only a handful of municipal leaders at the time referred to this work as “community wealth building.” The ability to do this study is itself part of the story—had I been writing it before the Great Recession, the number of cities that would have qualified as “cooperative cities” would have been zero.

And yet, so much more has happened since 2019, as this series—Solidarity Economies: Building Community Power—documents. Indeed, it is notable that of the five cities featured in this series—Los Angeles, Buffalo, Oakland, New Orleans, and Washington, DC—only Oakland made my list of the dozen leading US cooperative cities in 2019. 

My home city of Chicago did not make my list either. Yet today, Chicago is one of the leading cities nationwide for cooperative development and community wealth building—an approach to community economic development that promotes local, democratic, and shared ownership and control of community assets to transform our economy to be more equitable, sustainable, and just. In November 2021, the City of Chicago made a historic commitment to using $15 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for community wealth building, investing specifically in emerging and established worker-owned cooperatives, limited equity housing cooperatives, community land trusts, community investment vehicles, and the requisite support infrastructure. The new grassroots-led community wealth building developments speak to the rapid growth of the solidarity economy movement in the United States. 

The drivers of this movement, of course, are ongoing crises. The COVID pandemic and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many other Black people by police officers are surely catalysts. But it is the combination of multiple crises—including climate calamities and ecological degradation; insurmountable household debt; housing dispossession and reckless escalation of the billionaire class; resurgent anti-Blackness, homophobia, heteropatriarchy, and White supremacy amid waning civil liberties—that is driving the collective resistance and increasingly unconventional models of provisioning through the development of locally rooted supply chains and networks of mutual aid. Cooperative formations are emerging in Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities across the country—and, more and more, taking the form of regional solidarity economy ecosystems, as the writers in this series will outline in further detail.  

The Signifiers of Change 

Signs of growth across various solidarity economy facets are ubiquitous. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of US worker cooperatives increased by over 30 percent. This comes on top of tremendous growth in the past decade. Courtney Berner, who directs the Center of Cooperatives at the University of Wisconsin, notes that nationally between 2016 and 2019, 47 percent of all new cooperatives were worker cooperatives, a stunning figure given that only 1 percent of cooperatives in the United States formed before 2010 were worker cooperatives.

Another growth area is the development of community land trusts (CLTs). There are today approximately 220 CLTs nationwide, stewarding the land to preserve affordability for residents, up from approximately 160 CLTs less than a decade ago.

The diffusion of new and innovative models of community-owned commercial real estate is enhancing resident power and self-determination. For example, in Los Angeles, three community organizations partnered with a local community development financial institution to finance the outright purchase of buildings by community-based nonprofits and preserve more than 20 small-business commercial spaces in the city’s East Los Angeles neighborhood. Next City reporter Oscar Perry Abello has documented similar efforts in Oakland, CA; Boston; Philadelphia; Seattle; and Chicago.

This is an auspicious moment for deepening and expanding solidarity economy ecosystems.

Another area of rapid growth is Black-led food cooperatives, which are forming across the country, including in Dayton, OH; Detroit, MI; and the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. These cooperatives—which often have a hybrid model of ownership that includes both worker and consumer members—are creating living-wage jobs while making healthy food more accessible in Black, low-income, and other marginalized communities.

When we take stock of the diverse cooperative enterprises and other solidarity economy organizations that have emerged across the country over the last decade or so, it’s somewhat astounding. In Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, cooperative educator and researcher Jessica Gordon Nembhard connects the seeds of regenerative economies sprouting today to the fertile soil of Black freedom movements. 

As Gordon Nembhard explains, cooperative enterprises historically have grown in number and impact during periods of economic and social tumult. Yet too often they have been thwarted by racial capitalism and its enabling institutions—such as legal frameworks, regulatory environments, finance protocols, norms, and beliefs. The US education system and media tacitly and often explicitly declare capitalism as the only viable political economic system while disregarding ecological boundaries and ignoring the needs of workers, families, and communities.

Solidarity economy principles are not new. They are drawn from our rich legacy of Black liberation and freedom movements.

What Does a Solidarity Economy Ecosystem Look Like? 

This is an auspicious moment for deepening and expanding solidarity economy ecosystems: the infrastructures, practices, and principles that prioritize people, community, and ecological sustainability. The organizational topography—the number of cooperatives, land trusts, intentional communities, and other tangible manifestations of solidarity—often obscures the essential mycorrhizal network of relationships nourishing and propagating the solidarity economy ecosystem. 

The composition of solidarity economy ecosystems varies across regions. Some may center around an incubating organization, but an ecosystem requires more than an organization. True organizational diversity coheres around a common understanding of conditions, shared values, aligned goals, and belief in the transformative potential of centering relationships, collaborations, and partnerships. This requires that ecosystem organizers build capacity for practicing collective governance, cooperative ownership, community-driven decision-making, and deep democracy. 

Solidarity economy principles are not new. They are drawn from our rich legacy of Black liberation and freedom movements. There are many examples, however imperfect, throughout the world. These range from the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico; to the women’s movement in Rojava in northeast Syria; to Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi. My home city of Chicago also has a deep history of resistance, incredible community organizing, and creative energy—most recently reflected in the election this year of movement-backed mayor Brandon Johnson. Of course, these movements often face intense opposition from state repression and elites who seek to maintain existing inequalities that benefit them.

In terms of characteristics that make for successful ecosystem building, here are two key areas:

  • Networks of support and knowledge development: Successful solidarity economy ecosystems invest the time necessary to establish trust among members as the basis for building networks of mutual aid and support. One way that solidarity economy groups, such as worker cooperatives, have done this is through study groups and education and training programs. As Gordon Nembhard details in Collective Courage, historically many Black co-ops did not launch until they had studied together both about their current conditions and needs, as well as their joint assets and how to start cooperatives. The strongest co-ops offered or required trainings and courses in cooperative economics and management. Additional success factors, Gordon Nembhard notes, include building common supply chains, and developing interlocking co-op associations and federations that connect different types of co-ops—including worker co-ops, consumer co-ops and credit unions. Chicago’s community wealth building ecosystem facilitates monthly working group meetings for emerging and existing cooperative enterprises to build relationships, share resources and insights, engage in collective problem solving, and collectively develop advocacy strategies.
  • Organizational infrastructure: Worker co-ops can be developed in most environments, but places where they are strongest typically have elements of a cooperative ecosystem, “enabling structures and supportive organizations” (55), as Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya put it in Jackson Rising. Though ecosystem elements vary from place to place, co-op developers, technical assistance providers, advocacy organizations, nonextractive finance, education and training programs, public awareness, and other co-ops are common elements. Enabling environments offer co-ops direct assistance and support. Equally important, they provide reassurance and solidarity when operating outside of the conventional logic of racial capitalism seems daunting. Seed Commons, a national network of locally rooted, nonextractive loan funds helps to address the omnipresent gap in access to capital for cooperative enterprises. They describe their work as bringing “the power of big finance under community control” and “building the infrastructure necessary for a truly just, democratic and sustainable new economy.”

This series highlights some of these approaches at play in real time. For instance, Gregory Jackson of Repaired Nations in Oakland emphasizes the importance of two factors: first, the creation of a core group of people to refine practice and develop ideas for developing a cooperative and solidarity economy ecosystem; second, the practice of a visit to Ghana, which grounded the cooperatives in Pan-African values.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Gilda Haas explains how the L.A. Co-op Lab emerged from a study group—in her case, a very small graduate student course she led with three graduate students. Haas also discusses the need to build coalitions, such as linking with Los Angeles’ extensive network of worker justice support centers which focus on meeting the needs of Black and immigrant workers, to construct the city’s solidarity economy ecosystem block by block.

The movement for a solidarity economy in the United States has come a very long way in a very short time.

These themes of relationship building, seeking coalition partners, linking to Black community values, and creating structures of support show up throughout the series. In Washington, DC, M. Felix Macaraeg and Bianca Vazquez of the Beloved Community Incubator discuss the importance of using an organizing approach to cooperative development, grounding the building of ecosystem supports in person-to-person relationships. In New Orleans, Latona Giwa and Susan Sakash of Cooperation New Orleans emphasize the importance of linking to the city’s extensive arts community. In Buffalo, Andrew Delmonte of Cooperation Buffalo emphasizes the importance of building on the Black cooperative history in the city, as well as building connections with co-op, business, and community organizing partners.

The Road Ahead

If you had told me when I published a paper on cooperative cities that within three years the City of Chicago would be launching a $15 million community wealth building initiative specifically to amplify worker cooperatives, community land trusts, and other types of cooperative enterprise, I would not have believed you. The movement for a solidarity economy in the United States has come a very long way in a very short time. 

And yet, far more work remains. Writing last year in NPQ, Esteban Kelly and Melissa Hoover noted that the choices we make over the coming years will be critical to either hampering or catalyzing a democratic transition rooted in worker and community ownership and control. Our challenge, they conclude, is first to assert a vision for the solidarity economy “and aim for embedding it in policy, and then to get to work building the relationships of active, functional solidarity that will help bring this vision to reality.” The stories offered in this series are one small step on this longer path toward transformation—and liberation.