Community Wealth: Building the Field, Building a Movement

By Sarah Trent

This is the first in a two-part series featuring Local Economy Fellow Steve Dubb and his work with The Democracy Collaborative. Below learn about Steve’s journey to Localism and community wealth building, along with the data that drives his work in social justice. In part two, read a mini case study of The Democracy Collaborative and learn more about the innovative organizations and projects their work supports. Don’t miss the recorded webinar Steve moderated earlier this month featuring Hilary Abell (Project Equity) and Andrew Delmonte (Buffalo State Small Business Development Association) on Scaling the Development of Worker-Owned Cooperatives.

As Steve Dubb surveys the groundbreaking work being done across the country to build an economy that works better for more people, he compares our time to the lead-up that came before other social movements. These periods by and large have been left out of the history books, but were crucial to each movement. “We’re living in a period that is pre-historical,” he says. We’re in the building phase, laying the path on which history can arrive.

Quoting Gar Alperovitz, author and co-founder of The Democracy Collaborative where Steve is special projects director, he references the civil rights movement: the real heroes of that movement, he explains, were the civil rights workers in Mississippi in the ’30s-40s. “We don’t remember their names, but their work was vital.”

The 1960s movement that history remembers and associates with Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others, would not have happened without this earlier work, Steve says. “What was the breakthrough moment? You could argue it was the Montgomery Bus Boycott King led in 1954-55, or maybe the March on Washington in ’63, the bridge in Selma in ’65, or the freedom riders in ’61 – it’s hard to say.”

“At some point, the civil rights movement became something that people outside the movement saw as central to what was happening in their country.” Coming back to the present, he says that “despite some visible moments like Occupy, we’re really in a prehistorical stage.”

We have no real way to predict when that history-making moment or series of events might emerge, Steve says. What we can do is build the relationships, institutions, businesses, and organizations that will make that tipping point possible.

Protests and Politics

Steve’s personal history has its own series of tipping points, shaping him from a young activist who grew up steeped in labor and politics (Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, was a frequent guest at the Chicago apartment of his great grandmother; he attended his first political protest in a stroller; and was distributing campaign literature before he even knew what it meant) to a man who has devoted his life to researching, developing, and supporting community-based forms of business ownership as a strategy to build wealth, especially in low-income communities of color.

Among those transformative moments is a spring 1986 protest at U.C. Berkeley: “I was beaten by police with nightsticks. I wasn’t particularly unusual, that’s just what they were doing. They arrested as many as they could fit in two busses – they only had two busses – and they just beat everyone else.”

That protest and others like it made political impact, Steve says: in the summer of 1986, in response to California government pressures, the U.C. Board of Regents voted to divest holdings that did business in South Africa.

“I got to see both the state – the police – acting,” Steve says, “and also the power of popular suasion to actually change politics.”

From his undergraduate program through his PhD, Steve studied economics, politics, labor unions, and globalization, but, he says, “while my career benefits from some of those studies, it’s fairly unrelated to them. Rather, it’s related to what I was doing in my spare time in housing co-ops and worker collectives.”

There is, he adds, “a commonality in terms of fighting for economic and social justice that really animates all my work.The goals of economic empowerment and equality are more constant than changing.”

Building the Field

Today, Steve’s role at The Democracy Collaborative is focused mostly on field-building: using research, networking, coaching, and more to document, support, and develop community wealth building strategies across the U.S. and Canada.

Looking back at the last decade, Steve says much in this field has changed. One indicator, he says, is that The Democracy Collaborative no longer needs to put the term “community wealth building” in quotation marks.

In 10 years, the mechanisms for building wealth have shifted profoundly: in 2005, Steve says, “real estate prices were going to go up forever.” So in community development, the idea was you built wealth by owning a home. “I remember people at conferences talking about ‘the democratization of credit.’ What they were really talking about was subprime lending. Historically, communities of color were denied credit through redlining and blatant racial discrimination, and after the passage of the Community Investment Act in 1977, it still persisted in more informal ways. All of a sudden you could get lots of credit into low-income neighborhoods, just on horribly bad terms. It was the opposite problem with an equally devastating effect.”

Now, after losses in household wealth “in excess of $2 trillion – more than half that among communities of color,” development focus has moved toward business ownership, and communities of color are rediscovering shared ownership as one useful tool.

A number of groups across the country, including the Center for Family Life in NYC, Boston Impact Initiative, and Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, MS, are using cooperatives as a strategy to build wealth. “By and large, that wasn’t happening 10 years ago,” he says. And new forms of ownership have been developing: benefit corporations, low-profit limited liability companies (L3Cs), and multi-stakeholder cooperatives like the Evergreen Cooperatives, which The Democracy Collaborative helped form.

The list of changes goes on: “New York City went from zero funding for worker co-ops to $1.2 million last year and $2.1 million this coming year; Madison, WI, for the first time is contemplating commiting $5 million over five years to worker co-ops; Richmond, VA, last year established an Office of Community Wealth Building with a $5 million budget; Jacksonville, FL, created a community wealth task force. We have a presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, who made employee ownership part of his campaign platform, and former treasury secretary Larry Summers, not exactly a radical, is calling for ‘inclusive capitalism’.”

“A lot of factors go into these changes,” Steve says, including the Great Recession and the Occupy Movement. “But clearly there’s been an enormous shift and growth into new forms of social enterprise, cooperative development, hybrid business models, and Localist policies that didn’t exist a decade ago. And at the same time, at the macro level, we’re still fighting against a tendency toward greater and greater wealth accumulated amongst a concentrated few.”

“When I grew up in the ’70s,” Steve says, “the top one percent had maybe eight percent of the income. Now it’s more like 20 percent. The top 400 individuals have something like $2.2 trillion in combined net worth, and the bottom three quintiles of the U.S. population have a combined net worth of $1.2 trillion. That’s a trillion dollars less for 180 million people than for the top 400.”

“These numbers are almost unbelievable, though I’ve seen them enough times that I know they’re correct,” he says. “This is an unbelievable level of inequality that we’ve gotten ourselves into.”

There’s a lot of experimentation being done at The Democracy Collaborative and other organizations that’s “incredibly exciting and inspiring,” he says. “But we have not yet reached a tipping point where those macro numbers are getting better.”

When and what is that tipping point?

“It’s hard to say,” he says, “we’re still in this pre-historical phase,” building the relationships, institutions, organizations, and more, knowing that it is possible and coming.


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