A student with brown skin and two long black braids is facing away from the camera and raising her hand. In the background, a Black teacher is calling on her.
Image Credit: Katerina Holmes on pexels.com

How do you support people from different walks of life to initiate or continue a learning journey about the theory and practice of a democratic economy—an economy in which ownership is widely shared and in which workers and community stakeholders have a direct say in the decisions that manage our collective resources.

There is a need not only for innovation in artificial intelligence but in cooperative intelligence.

This question was front of mind when, in February 2020, right before the COVID lockdown began, the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, co-hosted an “innovation encuentro.” The meeting brought visitors from Mondragón, the famed Spanish worker co-op network that employs 80,000 people, into dialogue with the local Bronx community, cooperative, and elected leaders for a conversation about cooperation and economic democracy.

One Mondragón delegate made a powerful statement about the task of cooperatives in the 21st century: there was a need, he said, not only for innovation in artificial intelligence but in cooperative intelligence.

But to build cooperative intelligence, cooperative education needs to start at a much earlier age. Such, at least, is the thesis of work I’ve been involved in to create a cooperative education curriculum at the high school level in the Bronx.


Educating for Economic Justice

Nearly a century ago, educator, organizer, and researcher George Counts began to document the intersecting challenges and crises of political, social, and economic life in the United States. Counts wrote during the roaring twenties, a pivotal era of cultural change which came after the 1918 influenza pandemic and was quickly followed by a seismic economic shift and the rise of authoritarianism across the globe. Sound familiar?

Like his contemporaries John Dewey and W.E.B. Du Bois, these observations led Counts to examine the intersections of education and political economy. In Dare the School Build a New Social Order?, he argued that an organized base of teachers and workers could reformulate the economy and, in the process, reshape both the civic and economic training that public education offered. Though it was published 90 years ago, Count’s book remains pertinent today.

Indeed, solidarity economy practitioners and researchers have long agreed that education is key to unlearning and relearning what the economy is and can be. Mondragón, for example, was founded as a technical school that existed for over a decade before its first co-op business opened. However, coherent, coordinated efforts to reshape education toward such economic ends remain underdeveloped in the US.

In my experience as a practitioner and advocate in the field, the solidarity-economy field has focused mostly on higher education, professional skill development, popular education, and community-based adult education, mostly led by small nonprofits or training cooperatives. Some focus on political education, others on business skills, and yet others on working in specific sectors, such as food.

Notably absent is a focus on public K-12 education, which educates nearly 50 million Americans a year. While we don’t need K-12 education to persuade all young people into supporting economic democracy, we need youth to hear that economic democracy can exist.

Aside from these cultural and ideological factors, there are the practical benefits. If you don’t believe that education is essential to building a democratic economy, look at what capitalist sectors do. For example, if you’re a real estate company, you can partner with high schools to hire summer interns. Project Destined, for example, has over 250 corporate partners, and provides a set of offline and online modules that help train young people in real estate development. Ditto for coding and software development.

If you are interested in working in a democratic workplace, you may find work at a cooperative or employee-owned company with resources to train you in democratic management. But most likely you will not have heard of any of this before, much less have had the opportunity for a summer internship in such a democratic organization. Is there a Seed Commons version of Project Destined in the works, and if not, can it be developed soon?

Not only are workforce development and university education required to sustain regional cooperative economies at scale, but this education should begin at an early age.

Creating pathways for educating for economic democracy requires more than curriculum and content. It requires seeding education in diverse educational spaces and developing pedagogical practices capable of building coherent cultures of democracy that align with movement values of cooperation and democracy.

The experiences of Mondragón and of Emilia Romagna, a region in Northern Italy that is also known for robust worker co-op development, suggest that not only are workforce development and university education required to sustain regional cooperative economies at scale, but this education should begin at an early age.

In Emilia Romagna, this pedagogy of democracy is known as Reggio Emilia: a child-centered approach in which “teachers learn with the children and work in a lateral relationship as opposed to a hierarchical one.” In so doing, this early childhood education provides the basis for young people to develop later in life into the active decision makers and co-creators that cooperative enterprises require. In Mondragón, the Ikastola elementary schools operate based on similar principles operating with a framework known as the pedagogy of trust (pedagogía de confianza).

There are some US precedents for this kind of work, such as the “survival schools” of the American Indian Movement in Minnesota or the schools and curricula organized by the Black Panthers and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and 1970s. Summer camps have been a significant part of the cooperative movement tradition and could be again. Nonetheless, building an analogous pathway in the United States remains a key movement task here.

To advance this work, a group of us at BCDI, along with community partner nonprofits, have collaborated over the past four years to develop answers to the question: How can high schools support economic democracy in the Bronx?


An Economic-Democracy Fellowship in the Bronx

In 2019, during my first year working at BCDI, I was trying to identify why an organization or sector might be invested in developing an understanding of economic democracy. My colleagues and I began having conversations with educators, some of which were facilitated by our close partnership with two youth leadership-development and power-building Bronx institutions: Sistas and Brothas United (of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition) and The POINT Community Development Corporation in the South Bronx.

These conversations turned into focus groups with aligned educators, organizers, and youth. The focus groups were organized broadly around issues related to community and school relationships and around creating opportunities for partnership and real-world learning through capstones, projects, and field-based internships. Participants sensed that we were onto something exciting, but we weren’t sure exactly what. After BCDI’s research report outlining a design process of youth education in economic democracy was finished in April 2021, the next step, it seemed, was a collaborative project to address how schools can support economic democracy in the Bronx.

By the fall of 2021, this idea solidified into a “fellowship” model. As part of this fellowship, a group of students would participate in a non-credit program, with each student receiving a stipend to participate in a “study group.” Fellows would attend study sessions, participate in field trip site visits, and offer reflections to inform future youth democratic-education program development.

We held two info sessions and invited educators and students to hear about our plans. We then created an application for schools to apply to the fellowship, with one educator as their representative “fellow.”

In January 2022, student recruitment began, with the goal of recruiting a total fellowship group of two or three students from each of five participating Bronx-based public high schools, allowing for a group of up to 15 student fellows. Each would be paid $1,400 over nine months, with a total of about 80 hours of work over course of the fellowship.

As we recruited, it was necessary to use terminology that would be intelligible and interesting to high school students, who might never have heard of economic democracy. Even the word “fellowship” was challenging. We used references to the Lord of the Rings trilogy to explain how a “fellowship” differed from an internship. Joining the fellowship meant making a commitment to learning and working together to understand how local high schools relate to Bronx neighborhoods. In flyers and school visits, our organizing group emphasized the goal of crafting school curriculum to reflect community interests and the opportunity to learn more about the Bronx community. Despite these efforts, when students showed up the first day, many admitted that they didn’t understand what fellowship work would entail.

To navigate a program that did not take place in the typical classroom setting, fellowship activities were organized into three chunks, taking place over the spring semester, the summer of 2022, and into the fall semester of the following school year. This lengthy time period was meant to allow time for reflection and digestion of new concepts and to create space for adjustments to the program over the course of the pilot. The fellowship combined both classroom-based learning and a considerable number of visits to area cooperatives.

As the fellowship wound towards its third and final phase in August and September 2022, we collaborated with Rebellious Root, a worker-owned cooperative of multi-racial feminist facilitators and creatives that specializes in designing participatory feedback processes, to help our youth fellows synthesize what they had learned. At the end of the fellowship, students were encouraged to reflect on what the fellowship had led them to think or wonder about and what they wanted to do in their schools or communities as a result. Their reflections reinforced the value of what I call coherence, or integrated, learning. Curriculum, in short, was only one piece; curriculum embedded in daily practice had the most impact.

The students’ takeaways are summarized in a report that they created, but it’s worth highlighting some of what they emphasized, as well as what came up for the educators. Students mentioned wanting to invite parents and community members to the school to learn about home healthcare co-ops, credit unions, and cooperative housing. They imagined integrating economic-democracy concepts into financial-literacy curricula and deepening their knowledge of Bronx history, including its history of cooperative economies. They mentioned creating school entrepreneurship spaces to encourage students to learn about cooperatives and develop their own school-based cooperatives. They imagined creating clubs that would integrate community and social action with learning about economic democracy.

Teachers and students alike raised the possibility of internships with cooperatives and other forms of work-based learning integrated into school curriculum. One teacher created her own mini-curriculum in the spring, drawing in part on materials from the fellowship.


Key Takeaways

Elsewhere in the US, other groups are also developing economic-democracy curricula and youth programming. Repaired Nations has developed a work-based learning program for youth in Oakland. The Industrial Commons in North Carolina is working to build out workforce education and internships, and to develop K-12 curricula for their efforts in cooperative, equitable regional economic development. Another recent example is the Emancipation for Economics curriculum developed by the Center for Economic Democracy. And NPQ itself has written about additional online educational resources. Across the country, there are college classes, certificates, majors, and so on.

There are many options to build out education for economic democracy and more than enough work to go around. Organizing that work into a coherent set of pathways, however, remains challenging.

One lesson that emerges from our work in the Bronx is that developing relationships with educators and young people, hearing about their needs and concerns, and integrating their voices into curriculum development can lead to better outcomes than creating a ready-made curriculum for teachers.

Project-based learning helps educators and students to learn by doing—and create tools that are relevant to their context. This creates valuable community-school relationships and organizes the learning environment in such a fashion that it not only makes education for economic democracy a part of public education but one that inspires young people to learn and dream.

The below text box, generated by sticky-note comments from fellows in the program, illustrates how, in real-time, students can provide direct input into co-designing curricula that are meaningful to them and their communities.

How/Where Can Students Practice Democracy

  • Circles/Advisory
  • Regular student meetings with school leadership teams
  • Assemblies
  • Discovery groups, cross-class groups for discussion
  • Student government
  • Give students more chances to vote on changes throughout the school
  • in student consul meeting or leadership teams
  • Student voice committees
  • Students choose/direct what thy learn about
  • Students get trained to run stuff like classes (with supervision and care, of course)
  • Students get training on peer mediation and run peer mediation

We were fortunate that the Bronx is home to multiple worker cooperatives. But economic democracy can be taught in any community. Perhaps there isn’t a worker cooperative in your community, but there is likely a credit union. Bring union representatives in to teach the basics of banking and finance. Their visit can double as a quick introduction to credit unions and financial cooperatives.

Field trips were the biggest winner for us in our fellowship program as the theory of economic democracy became real and concrete when fellows heard and saw cooperative housing communities, workplaces, and credit unions integrated into the neighborhood fabric of the Bronx and New York City.


Next Steps

Our next steps will be based on the priorities of the community organizations, educators, and young people who created the pilot program. This fellowship may not be replicated exactly, but it will inform future efforts. A published report on what we learned is available here.

In the meantime, a small group of individuals from BCDI, along with MakeWith, a consultancy, and movement partner organizations are trying to move the idea of pathways for economic-democracy education forward at the national level by engaging in a multi-year field initiative to learn about where cooperative work is happening, to share information about cooperative-economy efforts more widely, and to help build something bigger and more powerful together. The time is right to advance this work in a coordinated, productive fashion.