Community Wealth: The Democracy Collaborative

By Sarah Trent

This is the second in a two-part series featuring Local Economy Fellow Steve Dubb and his work with The Democracy Collaborative. Below read a mini case study of The Democracy Collaborative and learn more about the innovative organizations and projects their work supports. In part one, learn about Steve’s journey to Localism and community wealth building, along with the data that drives his work in social justice. 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.

The Democracy Collaborative, where BALLE Fellow Steve Dubb is director of special projects, is a leading national voice in community wealth building. The organization is known for its research, place-based work in and with communities, informing public policy, developing and promoting new models, and establishing metrics to advance the field.

The organization’s goal is to shift the paradigm of economic development toward a system based on broad ownership and stewardship over capital, democracy in the workplace, stable local communities, equitable and inclusive growth, and environmental, institutional, and social sustainability.

“Part of what we’re trying to promote,” Steve says, “is the idea of fair access – of equitable access to capital and the ability to not just have income, but to generate wealth and income over time. Wealth is not just about money in the bank, but the ability in time to generate additional income and provide additional value for the businesses you develop.”

The Democracy Collaborative

The scope of The Democracy Collaborative’s work covers four major areas:


Based on extensive interviews with local leaders all over North America and sophisticated assessment of impact across many different communities, The Democracy Collaborative’s publications cover topics ranging from cooperative development to the green economy to the role of anchor institutions like universities and hospitals in creating community wealth. Steve has authored and contributed to many of these reports in his more than a decade of work there.

Building the Field

In order to further the organization’s work and tell the story of the growing movement toward an economy that works for more people, Steve and other Democracy Collaborative staff present at conferences across the country, host webinars, and run, an information clearinghouse filled with strategies to build wealth in different communities. (The website launched a beautiful redesign just last week!)

Advisory Work

Working with local organizations, The Democracy Collaborative brings their expertise and research into local communities to advise on community wealth building projects. One of their best-known projects is the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, OH, in which three cooperatives employing around 120 people now meet the procurement needs of major institutions in town – all in a neighborhood that is more than 95 percent African American, has a median household income of $18,500, and includes many formerly incarcerated individuals.

The Next System Project

Launched in March of this year to wide acclaim, the Next System Project is based on decades of work in this field. It is a platform for asking and exploring the following question: “If the old Soviet Union-style socialism didn’t work, and we don’t like the corporate capitalist system we have in the USA – what would work?” Looking sector by sector, Steve says, “What would it look like to have a democratic healthcare system or a democratic financial system? From macro to micro, we’re looking at both ends, trying to open up the discussion of systemic alternatives.” The project is motivated by the sense that the United States – and the global economy on the whole – has reached a systemic crisis. You could elect a whole slew of progressive politicians, Steve says, and still achieve relatively little. “The crisis isn’t really the gridlock on Capitol Hill because of divided government,” he says. “It’s because we have an economic system that is basically an oligarchy, with a small number of individuals who control most of politics and economics in this country, both electorally and through economic pressures. Until that situation changes, it’s going to be very difficult to have a truly people-based democratic economy.”

So the project, in fact much of The Democracy Collaborative’s work, is “to think about alternatives and develop institutions, structures, and prototypes – small projects that nonetheless have big impact like the Evergreen Cooperatives – along with theory and practice in order to start advancing the alternatives.”

Special Projects

When we asked Steve to share about some of the projects he’s especially excited about right now, he cited two major initiatives:

The Learning/Action Lab for Community Wealth Building

The Learning/Action Lab is a partnership funded by the Northwest Area Foundation (St. Paul, MN). The foundation serves eight states from Washington and Oregon east to Minnesota, and is committed to having at least 40 percent of its grants support Native American groups. The Learning/Action Lab works with five different American Indian groups, including two urban organizations in Minneapolis and Portland and three on rural reservations – two on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and one with the Spokane Nation in eastern Washington.

According to the project website, the goal is to “help Native American communities better engage in comprehensive community economic development… empower(ing) participants to build and retain wealth by developing effective strategies that foster ownership of enterprise, increase access to local assets, and create and anchor jobs locally.”

Steve insists that the overwhelming majority of the work on these projects is being done by local leaders in each place, with coaching, connections, and research through The Democracy Collaborative. “When you can connect talented people to resources,” he says, “you can do amazing things.”

  • In Portland, the Collaborative’s team works with the Native American Youth and Family Center (better known as NAYA). Started 40 years ago as a volunteer organization, NAYA has grown into a $10-million nonprofit agency with a staff of over 100 people. The organization carries out a wide range of social services for Portland’s 30,000-member Native American community, including running a highly successful high school for Native American kids who have been expelled or have dropped out of the public school system. With the Learning/Action Lab, NAYA is working to buttress its social enterprise program to provide more jobs and wealth building opportunities for Portland’s growing American Indian community. “Using Evergreen Cooperative learnings in a totally different environment,” Steve says,” we’re working to co-create forms of community wealth building that resonate and work well in Native American communities.” Among the social enterprises NAYA is developing are a catering company, a housing construction business for local community development corporations and a nonprofit back-end business service arm to better support these and other social enterprises.
  • The Minneapolis group – Little Earth of United Tribes – operates the only American Indian-preference section 8 housing in the United States and is seeking to get that exemption from HUD extended to provide similar supportive low-income housing for urban American Indians in other cities. Additionally, just this month they launched a food truck business, Tatanka, which serves healthy Native American food “and is getting quite a bit of attention and press in Minneapolis.”
  • On the Pine Ridge Reservation are the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation and Native American Natural Foods. Thunder Valley CDC broke ground this June on a project that involves building an entirely new sustainable community. They are also using the construction project as an opportunity to incubate an employee-owned housing construction company “so that American Indians on the reservation can become owners of the business that’s actually building their homes,” Steve says. “It’s innovative, ecologically-based, but also equity-focused in terms of creating opportunities for ownership in Native-based companies. It’s a really incredible project.”

    Native American Natural Foods makes Tanka Bars – a buffalo meat snack bar sold nationwide at stores like REI and Whole Foods – and has been very successful. Doing about $6 million in sales annually, the founders just converted five percent of the company to employee ownership. Co-founder Mark Tilsen spoke at the BALLE Conference in June about the company’s mission to reintroduce buffalo to the land, lives, and economy of the Lakota Nation. The company was also just featured in a Tribeca Film Festival documentary.

  • In the Spokane Nation, The Democracy Collaborative is working with the Spokane Tribal Network, which is revitalizing an existing tribal trading post store into a community store that will create opportunities for gain-sharing by employees. Consumers will be able to participate in governance through an advisory board and, providing the store is profitable, receive dividend payments annually in proportion to their annual spending in the store.

Anchor Dashboard Learning Cohort

Working with six universities, The Democracy Collaborative is developing an “Anchor Dashboard” instrument that can help institutions like universities and hospitals asses their community impact and therefore better align their resources to meet community needs. “We’re looking at how to assess what they’re doing and what’s happening in the community,” Steve says. “Is there any relationship? What’s working?” Steve explains that like a car’s dashboard, it will provide useful metrics and a heuristic framework for institution leaders to make decisions and communicate with their internal and external audiences, such as students, staff, faculty, and community members.

“Universities and hospitals combined control over $1 trillion in annual spending in the U.S., employ eight percent of the active workforce, represent six to seven percent of GDP, and exist in pretty much every city in the U.S.,” Steve says. “If it became the norm to use these indicators, that would be tremendously impactful.”


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