The Economy of Hope:
Building a National Directory of the Solidarity Economy
By Ethan Miller *
In collaboration with the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Cooperative Development Institute, GEO is initiating the creation of a comprehensive public directory of democratic, cooperative and solidarity-based economic initiatives in the United States. This "Economy of Hope" directory will serve as a crucial tool for connecting, strengthening and amplifying existing efforts to create a more just, democratic and sustainable economy.
Essential Tools for Building a Solidarity Economy
Despite a prevailing myth that "there are no alternatives" to corporate-driven capitalism, thousands of innovative grassroots initiatives across the U.S. and throughout the world are working to build a "solidarity economy"—an economy based on shared values of democratic empowerment and participation, broad social ownership and equity, ecological sustainability and community well-being. Linked together on local, national and global scales, these projects have the potential to be strengthened, multiplied and amplified into a significant force for social and economic transformation.
Yet efforts to build strong networks between solidarity initiatives in the United States are hindered by the lack of an accurate and comprehensive accounting of their existence. Local economic organizations often find themselves working in isolation, lacking the resources to make broad connections with other projects that share their cooperative and democratic values. We believe that the creation and effective distribution of a public directory of solidarity-based economic initiatives will provide these organizations with an essential tool for building new alliances and forging a stronger, more cohesive movement for a cooperative and democratic economy.
Outside of the United States, efforts to forge linkages between solidarity-based initiatives have met with tremendous success. The Brazilian Solidarity Economy Forum, for example, brings together twelve national networks and membership organizations with twenty-one state-based Solidarity Forums and thousands of cooperative enterprises to build mutual support systems, create cooperative incubator programs, and shape public policy. Networks in Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Spain, France and Italy are doing similar work. At the core of many of these efforts has been the creation of regional and national directories that facilitate connection and inter-cooperation.
GEO initiated efforts in the direction of a U.S. solidarity economy directory with its publication of An Economy of Hope in 2000. This paper-bound directory listed more than 800 democratic worker cooperatives, employee-owned businesses and support organizations. As an organizing tool, the directory laid crucial groundwork for the establishment of the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy (now in its 5th year) and for the founding of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives in May 2004.
In the five years since the first Economy of Hope, the landscape of economic alternatives in the U.S. has grown dramatically. Hundreds of new initiatives have come into being, while established projects have expanded and transformed. Although a few United States directories are currently maintained in the natural food cooperative, local agriculture and "green" product sectors, no updated public directories currently exist for worker cooperatives, community currencies, housing co-ops, grassroots local development initiatives, community land trusts and other such forms of democratic production, exchange and ownership. Indeed, the limited scope and now out-of-date information of the first Economy of Hope, coupled with new and exciting inspiration from cross-sector solidarity economy organizing abroad, make apparent the growing need for a new, more accessible and expanded national directory.
Our vision is built around three core goals:
I. To collaboratively build a useful, accurate and extensive national database of the solidarity economy. We anticipate that the final directory will include more than 2,000 organizations, representing nearly 40,000 workers, organizers and citizens involved in building a solidarity economy.
II. To make this database widely and freely available to organizers, workers, consumers, researchers and other interested groups and individuals. In particular, we seek to foster the use of the directory for three related efforts:
- Cross-Sector Movement Building. GEO will work to promote the directory as a powerful tool for ongoing organizing and movement-building work across various sectors of solidarity-based economic organization.
- Solidarity Marketing. Through the searchable web-based component, the directory will form the basis for an "online solidarity marketplace," connecting conscientious consumers with goods and services produced by solidarity enterprises. One model in this realm is www.localharvest.org, a website that links consumers with locally-produced food.
- Making Hope Visible. In a culture saturated by the message that "there is no alternative," the Economy of Hope directory will act as a powerful antidote to the politics of despair and disengagement. Providing numerous examples of already-existing economic alternatives, this directory will be an important tool for cooperative education and collective empowerment.
III. To build a successful model of "Open Source" multi-organization and cross-sector resource- sharing. While organizations have traditionally employed a "private ownership" model in regards to their information resources, this project will demonstrate the viability and effectiveness of building an "information commons" as a shared resource for all to use and build upon.
Who Will Be Listed?
Entries will be selected for inclusion in the directory based on a broad set of criteria examining the structure and values of the particular enterprise. While our vision is to highlight a broad array of initiatives, we also seek to encourage and highlight those that embrace clearly democratic, cooperative, just and sustainable principles and practices. Enterprises included in the directory will be working towards meeting the following (tentative draft) criteria:
• Their membership is voluntary and open.
• They operate with a democratic governance framework and organizational structure (e.g., one person, one vote; or consensus) and seek to foster participation and a significant degree of collective management by all members and workers.
• They equitably and democratically reshape ownership and control of social & economic resources so that they are shared with their members, workers, and/or a broader community.
• Their activities, while maintaining economic sustainability, promote and support goals of community well-being and just livelihood over and above the maximization of profit.
• They operate autonomously and independently and are rooted in and accountable to their communities and places.
• They are committed to building relationships of mutual-aid and support with other "solidarity economy" enterprises and with broader movements for economic, social and ecological justice.
• They strive toward practicing and promoting ecologically sound activities and operations.
• They work to enact, within their structures and practices, values of social and economic justice which promote the elimination of discrimination, exploitation and oppression in all forms.
In looking for enterprises that meet these criteria, we will focus primarily (but not exclusively) on identifying initiatives in sectors which are not currently served by other printed or online directories. Sectors to be inventoried will include:
• Worker cooperatives
• Democratic ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Programs) and other majority employee-owned firms
• Democratic land ownership and housing initiatives (community land trusts, housing co-ops)
• Solidarity-based financial institutions (community development financial institutions, microcredit groups, cooperative loan funds)
• Alternative currencies and exchanges (community money, barter networks, etc.)
• Democratic & cooperative education initiatives
• Support organizations for solidarity enterprises and cooperative development.
The directory will also include selected organizations—such as certain grassroots labor associations, neighborhood & community organizations, etc.—that could be considered "allies" to the solidarity economy.
Our goal is to complete the core of the project within 17 months from the time that we have raised adequate funds to hire a project coordinator. We anticipate the following milestones:
• October 2005 - June 2006 (9 months): Data gathering and verification
• July-September 2006 (3 months): Editing and assembly of directory
• October 2006: Final editing and publication; launching of website
• November 2006-February 2007 (4 months): Promotion,distribution, strategizing next steps
• After February 2007: Ongoing distribution; database upkeep
GEO will hire three part time staff people to anchor the project, including a project coordinator and two other staff. One project staff person will work directly with the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives on data collection and verification of worker co-op listings in the U.S. The second staff person will work with the project coordinator and Cooperative Development Institute staff, focusing on data collection and verification of listings in other cooperative sectors. All project staff will work with representatives from collaborating organizations as part of a democratic Project Coordinating Group, providing a mechanism of multi-organization guidance and accountability for the project.
Potential database listings will be gathered through web searches, use of existing lists and databases (shared from co-sponsoring and allied organizations, as well as from the first edition of An Economy of Hope), and from recommendations by organizations contacted during the process. Each potential listing will be contacted directly, via phone, email or mail to verify all information. Listings will include full contact information, descriptions of the enterprise’s mission, available products and services, number of members involved, and other relevant information.
The electronic database itself, designed in consultation with Jim Johnson of Sligo Computer Services, will allow project staff and volunteers to update and edit the same database from multiple locations through a password-protected on-line interface. When the database is fully edited and ready for public distribution, it will be converted into print format and public-access web format.
Income from sales of the print version of the directory, as well as from on-line donations, will help fund a part-time database editor and website maintainer after the bulk of the directory is completed.
Effective distribution of the final directory, both through web links and in its hard-copy format, is a high priority. In the "distribution and promotion" phase of the project, the Project Coordinator will devote 20 hours per week for four months to strategic outreach and marketing. Project co-sponsors will also be asked to assist with directory promotion, making the tool known and available to their constituencies through newsletters, events, emails and the internet.
An initial print run will be distributed among project partners and co-sponsors, as well as to key resource "nodes" such as the four regional U.S. worker co-op networks that make up the U.S. Federation. Invitations to order a print copy of the directory will be sent to all listed initiatives.
Following this initial promotion phase, GEO will convene a series of meetings between project partners, co-sponsors and other allies to evaluate the project and strategize next steps towards building on our collaborative efforts and effectively utilizing the tool we have created. This directory is only a first step in a long-term organizing process that will build stronger connections, shared visions and more effective strategies of "solidarity economy" movement-building.
How You Can Get Involved!
There are many ways for cooperative organizations, supporters and allies to join in this exciting and important effort:
• Become a Co-Sponsor. We invite cooperative organizations to become co-sponsors of the directory, committing to help build the database and promote and distribute the completed tool.
• Send us initiatives to add to the directory. We're on the lookout for local, democratic initiatives that should be part of this database. Please pass along suggestions!
• Volunteer to help with data collection and editing.
• Donate! Direct financial support is essential for this project's success. Please consider supporting us with a contribution. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to GEO, P.O. Box 115, Riverdale, MD 20738-0115. Please specify "Economy of Hope" in the memo line.
* Ethan Miller is an editor of GEO. Please contact him with comments, ideas and suggestions. Email: email@example.com; Phone: 207-946-4478.
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