Partly self-help, partly local mobilization, and partly sketches for future system-wide expansion, community wealth-building ventures are sweeping the nation.
As resistance has grown to America’s widening gulf between the “1 percent” and the rest of the population, something new has exploded in America’s communities; “community wealth building” is an explicit strategy to democratize the ownership of wealth from the ground up. With traditional regulatory and tax-and-spend approaches faltering at every level, the notion that we should create new democratic economic institutions to build wealth, community by community, is quietly gaining traction. We now have the potential for larger and longer-term transformation throughout the nation.
Power for the People
The central idea is simple: people join together through some form of public, community or employee-owned business to meet local needs and thereby regain a measure of local economic democracy and control. Partly self-help, partly community mobilization, and partly sketches for future system-wide expansion, community wealth-building efforts can be found in virtually every region of the country. The range of efforts is vast. Community wealth-building institutions include community development corporations, community development financial institutions, social enterprises, community land trusts, employee-owned enterprises, and cooperatives. All pool capital in ways that create new jobs and anchor jobs in communities.
The efforts also define a new approach to challenging corporate power— a strategy that changes who owns, controls and benefits from the underlying economic wealth of the system. It involves not merely replacing private capital, but displacing it through developing community ownership of business. In other words, profits should flow to workers, consumers or the community—rather than outside investors. And these businesses need to succeed! Increasingly, too, ecological concerns are structured into the very core of many models.
Examples of the new approach are evident around the world, including worker-cooperatives in Argentina; the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh (which, with its founder, Muhammad Yunus, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize); and the Mondragón cooperative network in northern Spain, which employs nearly 85,000.
Non-profit social enterprise is a community wealth building strategy through which nonprofits independently secure resources to meet their missions in the absence of adequate government support. In San Francisco, a group known as REDF (formerly the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund) has helped boost the business activity of 50 social enterprises that have employed 6,500 people and earned revenues of more than $115 million. Three-fourths (77 percent) of social enterprise employees interviewed two years later were still working. Average employee wages had increased by nearly one-third (31 percent) and monthly incomes had almost doubled (90 percent). One of the enterprises in REDF’s portfolio is Buckelew Programs, a mental health agency with 220 employees that provides a continuum of services to roughly 7,000 clients each year and operates three social enterprises, including a green café and a green cleaning service, as well as a staffing service. This year, it intends to open a fourth social enterprise, a fresh-cut produce processing business.