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Education for a People-Centered Democratic Economy
By Jessica Gordon Nembhard

An economy is a system of chosen relationships. We make choices about what we value and how we are willing to configure production and exchange processes in order to bring into effect what we value (and need). We choose how we produce goods, what we exchange, the medium of exchange, and with whom we interact. Economics is the study of the organization of social relations for the production and exchange of goods and services and the management of human reproduction and prosperity. Democratic economics is people-centered, sustainable, equitable and just: the value is a stable high quality of life: and the means are democratic participation and self- management, grassroots empowerment, community-based asset development, and wealth creation. However, this is not what the reigning economic paradigm teaches or models.

How then do we educate for a system that does not yet exist? Democratic economics education must be transformative. We begin by empowering people to think differently about economics and by exposing them to alternatives, so they will be comfortable with transformation and shifting the prevailing paradigm.

We All Make Economic Decisions Daily

An important starting point in educating for democratic economics is to provide new ways to approach economics, conceptualize economic issues, and evaluate economic processes. In order to learn democratic economics or explore new paradigms, a participant must feel comfortable discussing economics and thinking about economics. A participant must feel capable of discussing these things and thinking about making change. A participant should see her or himself as an economic agent, as a productive economic player—no matter her/his profession, level of education, or lack of, or economic status. Economics should feel natural, be enticing, and make common sense. Hopefully if we engage and excite participants, they will then be willing to put more time into learning more or at least thinking differently when they next discuss an economic issue or contemplate an economic strategy or environmental issue.

This means that democratic economics education should first focus on how to help people feel comfortable with economics. We want people to stop thinking that economics is separate from them and their daily lives, or that it is incomprehensible. Here we can emphasize the everydayness of economic activity, how we all participate in and constantly make economic choices—from what to buy for lunch and how much to spend, to balancing the household expenses and choosing between consumer items; to whether to buy a house or keep renting, to which job to take or what training to get. Participants in an economics education workshop can be guided through role-playing where group decisions have to be made about a survival issue, or participants play the role and make decisions as someone in a different class or situation than their actual status. Debriefing helps to point out the everydayness of economic decision making and the different decisions that are made, and differing perspectives that come from being in a different economic status. Participants can also be asked to fill out checklists or questionnaires, which ask them about their economic lives, skills, priorities, and how they make financial decisions (as Cooperative Economics for Women (CEW) does). Participants can come to recognize that they are already players and can begin to play greater roles in economic decision-making and activities.

One of the strategies used by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund is to call attention to culturally familiar ideas and apply them to economics, to help participants feel comfortable with the topic. Federation/LAF education workshops point out quotes and activities by famous African Americans supportive of cooperative economic development, and often refer to the principles celebrated during the Kwanzaa festivals (in particular “Ujamaa” or cooperative economics). This helps the participants feel more comfortable thinking in new ways, and feel a connection between the democratic economic concepts and their own culture and family values. They come to feel no disconnect, and realize that many of their ancestors have advocated for change over the centuries.

We Can Transform and Mold Economic Values

The second area I recommend for opening dialogue in democratic economics education is exploration into economic values. We want participants to think about how economics serves people—ourselves, our families and our communities—if it should and how well it does. Participants can be encouraged to think about how economies should be ordered or structured, who should benefit from them and who should effect or influence economic activity. We can ask questions like: How does our economy operate now and who benefits? How should it operate so that all can benefit? Should the benefit of all be an economic value? Should economic values be the same as our social, humane values, or very different? What I mean by economic versus social values is, does economics have a separate morality and should it? While our spiritual and religious values, for example, suggest that we help one another and “carry” our brother or sister if need be, in economic spheres we say it’s a dog-eat-dog-world, every man or woman for him or herself.

What are some basic values that we can begin to associate with economics, which will help us think differently about economies and economic possibilities? Does our system promote just and non-exploitative relationships? The Center for Popular Economics curriculum suggests beginning an economic education workshop illustrating wealth or income disparity with human bodies. Have the richest 1% of the population be represented by one person, who takes up 4 chairs (representing 40% of net worth of families in the U.S.). The next richest 9% (or 9 people) share 3 chairs (representing 30% of the wealth); and the remaining 90% of the population (all the rest of the group—at least 15 people, should be 90 people to maintain the scale) share 3 chairs! The group then discusses the impact of such a graphic illustration, and the fairness of such a system. Is this hierarchy a value that should be perpetuated?

A recent Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund cooperative economics workshop used a human pyramid to illustrate class structure and economic inequality in our system. Three teen-aged participants were asked to line up side by side on their hands and knees on the floor in the middle of the group. They represented the masses of people. Two more teenagers representing the middle class climbed on top of them on their hands and knees. The last lone participant climbed up to the top finishing the pyramid—representing the rich. While the participants held that position (and moaned and groaned at the bottom with all the weight on them) the facilitator led a discussion about inequality and fairness, who is bearing the weight for whom, and the status of each level of the pyramid. Once the pyramid was dismantled, the facilitator asked what might be a better distribution, or how might we avoid such inequality. Lots of good suggestions were made.

A variety of strategies are used to help participants feel comfortable with change and thinking in new ways. The facilitator of the Federation/LAF workshop reminds participants that aspects of African and African American culture support, and many Black leaders advocate for, cooperative solutions. This helps them feel the connections and feel safe thinking in new ways. In addition, the facilitator illustrates familiar paradigms and easy, safe, ways to change or alter familiar systems. For example, the first system we all learn is the system of letters, the alphabet. We all know it so well we can recite it with our eyes closed. But how easy is it to recite it backwards? We are not comfortable at first but can learn with practice to be as comfortable with Z-A as we were with A-Z. In another example, I participated in a workshop on entrepreneurship where the facilitator had the group look around and notice things in the room. Then we were told to stand on chairs and observe the room from that perspective. We then discussed how differently things looked from a higher position, and the new things that we noticed. Again, this was a way to help participants feel comfortable with change and see how new perspectives give new insights and open up the possibility for change.

Other values democratic economics education workshops might explore are common social and economic values; just and non-exploitative relationships; sustainability; democratic participation and decision making; responsible economic agency and participation; diversity, equality and equity; invisible productivity (even informal unpaid work is productive and valuable); and no neutrality (economics is not apolitical). However, democratic economics educators should elicit values from the participants themselves, and help them articulate those of concern to themselves and their communities, and find economic values that match or are similar to their social and or cultural values.

Participants begin to understand that economics is not a natural science based on neutral processes, with laws of its own that cannot or should not be changed. Participants begin to think about what should be, and what needs to be changed so that our economic structures and relationships better reflect our social values. This requires that we all think of ourselves as change agents; and economics as a system of choices that we make. It is from that place that we can then embark on a journey of democratic economic training and transformation.

Jessica Gordon Nembhard, is an economist and Assistant Professor in Afro-American Studies and the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, College Park. She can be reached at jgnembhard@civilsociety.umd.edu . Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.
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