Here at the Democracy Collaborative, we were incredibly excited when the Movement For Black Lives announced their policy agenda last month, underscoring the need to develop real systemic solutions to the drivers of systemic racial inequality in America (and honored to see that our work on building more inclusive local economies had found its way into a few pieces of this collaborative mosaic of transformative policies assembled by an incredible nationwide team of scholars, activists, and policy advocates). After studying and discussing the program internally, The Democracy Collaborative has decided as an organization to formally endorse the M4BL policy platform, not because we necessarily agree with every single detail of every recommendation, but because we believe it is an important contribution to a vital national conversation, and should be a key starting point in the urgently needed efforts to find policy solutions that address both the police violence inflicted with tragic regularity on too many individual Black lives, and the larger systemic violence inflicted on Black communities by an inequitable economic system. Below, our Community Development Associate Nicole Brown delves deeper into the structure and significance of the M4BL agenda and its connections to our work. —The Democracy Collaborative
The Black Lives Matter movement is not a spontaneous phenomenon but a critical response by Black communities nationwide, fed up and distressed by persistent and seemingly intractable systemic inequality. The racial distribution of wealth in our current political, social, and economic system is so drastically and inequitably concentrated that a recent report released by The Institute for Policy Studies and CFED states that it would take another 228 years for Black families to attain the same amount of wealth white families currently have. This report goes on to emphasize that current public policy, which by and large benefits those close to the top of the socioeconomic ladder, further widens this already perniciously large wealth gap between racial and ethnic groups. Responding to this larger economic context behind the racially disparate impacts of police violence, “ The Movement for Black Lives ” a working group within Black Lives Matter, recently released a policy agenda that directly addresses this glaring inequity and provides recommendations grounded in a systemic critique that gets to the numerous root causes of the wealth gap. Black collective ownership as a way to achieve economic justice is one of several policy recommendations that highlight the interconnectivity of each problem facing Black America and recognizes that lasting, sustainable change requires solutions that are ecosystem-focused and multifaceted.
A year ago, dozens of organizations allied with Black Lives Matter came together to envision what policies would need to be reformed or created to eliminate anti-black discrimination and oppression in the U.S. They formed a working group made up of local and national grassroots organizations that fielded input from hundreds of Black citizens. Together they are called The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). In the summer of 2016, M4BL released the policy agenda, entitled A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice. Black Lives Matter was initiated as a social media rallying cry and organizing principle by three Black women organizing in response to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and M4BL has built upon this foundation to create more formal connections and networks behind community-level groups organizing for racial justice. The release of the agenda came strategically amid the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, at a time when many politicians were continuing to speak about—and not to—Black people and the current state of Black citizenry. M4BL, with its policy agenda, has on the contrary brought the voices of the marginalized to the forefront to communicate a shared vision for the movement and the Black community at large. Its message is oriented towards recognizing the prevalence of human rights offenses against African-Americans as U.S. citizens—in making clear the depth of the systemic issues facing Black communities, the agenda serves to help reframe the national conversation beyond “perceived” (and therefore less credible) individual offenses to a broad recognition of the urgency with which anti-black discrimination must be addressed.
The platform provides concrete steps that can be taken at the local, state, and federal levels that intentionally acknowledge the necessity of a systems approach to fighting economic and racial inequality at multiple, interconnected levels. There are over thirty policies organized under the six main demands:
- End The War on Black People
- Economic Justice
- Community Control
- Political Power
All of the demands are interconnected in their approach to undoing the legacy of second-class citizenship suffered by African-Americans since the end of legalized slavery 151 years ago. For example, unequal opportunities to build wealth through homeownership is one contributing factor to the wealth gap—but rather than a single policy solution, this gap is addressed in the M4BL agenda by several mutually reinforcing policy recommendations in a multi-pronged approach to the systemic inequality that cumulatively disenfranchises African-Americans. This more comprehensive solution draws from multiple areas of the report:
- Black communities having control over revenue and budgetary decisions by their local city and state government; (Community Control)
- Federal support to expand “fair development” and establish community land trusts (CLTs) in order to combat the displacement caused by skyrocketing rent in gentrifying neighborhoods; (Economic Justice)
- Retroactive decriminalization and expungement of drug related offenses that disproportionately affect Black communities, eliminating a barrier to living-wage employment that pays a living wage and thus be able to afford housing (Invest-Divest)
- The development of more affordable housing built by cooperative, community-based entities funded by the Federal government, addressing the key role this same government played in the discriminatory housing policies locking Black Americans out of the wealth-building opportunities federally subsidized homeownership provided to the White middle class. (Economic Justice)
Together, these solutions form a systems approach to address the homeownership wealth-gap.
Throughout the six core demands, there are calls for an “end to the exploitative privatization of natural resources” by the wealthy including corporate entities that result in the economic displacement and poverty of Black communities, as well as demands for the “right to restored land, clean air, clean water and housing,” underscoring the need for community involvement in decisions that have previously resulted in environmental racism. The demands bring attention to the problem of diminished wealth among African-Americans as a systemic, institutionalized problem in need of systemic solutions. M4BL demands federal funding to build up renewable energy infrastructure; the implementation of “fair development” and construct affordable housing; and a halt to all foreclosures of Black farmland, a response to the USDA’s actions that undermined Black land ownership and wealth throughout the 20th century.
For each core demand, The Movement for Black Lives provides examples of organizations and legislation that can be used as resources to guide the next step for groups and individuals wanting to organize around a specific policy demand. Some organizations cited in the policy agenda as already doing the work on the ground include the Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, the Evergreen Cooperatives in Ohio and We the People of Detroit in Michigan. The policy agenda also provides examples of model legislation—at the local level like the Baltimore Fair Development Standards and federal level policy recommendations like H.R.4727- the National Comprehensive Housing Act.
The strategies for restoring wealth to black communities mentioned in the policy agenda are cutting edge, with strong track records for success. For instance, the green jobs and social enterprise sectors have garnered strong support from philanthropic organizations and other funders that see the work of community based organizations as vital in creating pathways for individual and community-based wealth building in low-income communities. The agenda suggests that cooperatives, land trusts, and community control are strategies that can rebuild the Black wealth that was systematically undermined and dismantled by the economic deprivation and exclusion of Blacks from the country’s economic system.
The Agenda’s Economic Justice demand outlines in more detail the need for Federal and state intervention in our current economic and political system to enable the growth of collective ownership. It calls for enacting several policy levers that would foster the economic environment conducive for the expansion of black-owned worker-coops and black entrepreneurial activities. Intervention by Federal government could be necessary, given the long history of State intransigency against policies that would benefit African-Americans, and could take the form of “low-interest, interest-free or federally guaranteed low-interest loans” or if necessary, the enactment of “executive action and congressional legislation.” It’s suggested that funding would go to Black owned alternative institutions such as banks and community development Financial Institutions (CDFI) that promote the development of food and residential cooperatives, community land trusts, as well as “culturally responsive health infrastructure". In effect, the agenda calls for creating a comprehensive ecosystem of support that would serve to meet the collective needs of Black American by building wealth rooted in Black communities. Contributors to the drafting of M4BL’s policy agenda highlight on-the-ground examples of such ecosystems of support for inclusive cooperative development that could inform the design of larger scale community wealth building efforts by Black community members and social entrepreneurs. For example, a 2014 report from the Federal of Protestant Welfare Agencies found that “cooperative networks” in a community, including land trusts, could create an ecosystem of support that can buffer formerly incarcerated individuals from the discrimination in the traditional job and housing market that leads to instability, and more broadly, “can play a crucial role in a broader campaign to fight poverty, joblessness, and income inequality.”
Our own work on strategies to create green jobs has made clear that innovative business structures (like cooperatives and worker-owned firms) that promote community-based wealth have the potential to thrive. Supporting such jobs in the green economy can boost the employment opportunities in communities of color.
It makes sense for The Movement for Black Lives to focus on cooperatives as a viable way for harnessing the growth of Black wealth because co-operatives are, in fact gaining traction in communities of color. In the past 6 years, sixty percent of new cooperative members are people of color, an increase from the roughly 30% at cooperatives formed from the mid-1990s until 2010. These people of color (Black, Latino, Native American, Asian) who make up a significant proportion of the 7,000 or so worker-owners in the US are involved for a number of reasons, ranging from building community and fellowship among neighbors, to providing healthy food options to areas that are considered food deserts. For example, Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland, CA, has been serving a vital role in its community since 2009, creating jobs and providing access to high quality produce that would otherwise be unavailable. Philanthropy concurs with M4BL on the promise of this approach: according to a recent report by the Surdna Foundation, involvement in worker-owner businesses can be a strategy for building wealth in low-income communities and has the potential to close the wealth gap if scaled up. Foundations as well as federal programs have funded worker-cooperatives that address inequality within under-served communities, which makes M4BL’s demand for expanding Federal and state funding to support similar initiatives all the more logical.
Although there has been a recent uptick in cooperative development and participation in communities of color nationwide, co-ops had a consistent presence in the Black community for over a century. According to Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, Black communities have a long history with collective ownership and co-operative movements dating back as far as slavery. Long before W.E.B. Du Bois would document the co-operative economic practices of African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century in the form of mutual-aid and beneficial societies, there were informal collective practices undertaken by enslaved people for centuries prior. Sharing the produce grown in the small gardens behind their slave quarters as well as pooling together money earned from hiring themselves out on their only day off (Sunday) to later buy land, the freedom of their relatives or themselves, were common collective practices among African-Americans. Freedmen also engaged in collective activities such as the formation of mutual aid societies in the United States and in Canada. Gordon-Nembhard emphasizes this strong but hidden history of economic cooperative activity among African-Americans as being a common practice since before the end of slavery and was a natural response to “market failure and racial discrimination” that took many forms, including segregated banking, denial of funds and land theft as tactics of economic suppression. Cooperative efforts as a strategy for Black survival and self-determination did not stop in the first half of last century, but continued among African-American activists such as Mississippi-based Civil Rights Leader Fannie Lou Hamer during the 1970s. She argued that land ownership and control over housing and food were key for the Black community’s ability to survive and take on the other battles to dismantle systemic racism. Based on her extensive research, Nembhard can powerfully state that, “we have all the models” for collective economic strategies in African-American communities and they worked—we did not know this because “they’ve just been suppressed.” Alternative options to economic development had to be created where the result were the creation of cooperative enterprises “as a strategy for increased economic empowerment.”
As was the case in those times, Black communities do not have equal access to resources to fully participate in the “American Dream,” and continue to suffer the effects of centuries of exclusion from the opportunities to build wealth that were available to the mainstream. The Movement for Black Lives has offered multiple, actionable recommendations that could drive change to the various, interconnected systems that uphold and perpetuate Black second class citizenship. Their policy agenda embraces broad-based ownership models like cooperatives and community land trusts for rebuilding Black wealth, similar to collective economic strategies that were proposed by Black leaders in the past such as Fannie Lou Hamer and even earlier with W.E.B Du Bois in 1907. And there might still exist the pull of whether to go after these collective strategies or to go to solutions that follow the free market economic approach for members of the Black community who consider the efficacy of M4BL’s policy agenda. To Du Bois, the decision was simple, writing in 1907 that:
the economic development of the Negro American at present [is] in a “critical state. The crisis arises not so much because of idleness or even lack of skill as by reason of the fact that they unwittingly stand hesitating at the cross roads - one way leading to the old trodden ways of grasping fierce individualistic competition ... the other way leading to co-operation in capital and labor, the massing of small savings, the wide distribution of capital and more general equality of wealth and comfort.
In its emphasis on meeting the challenge of racial inequality with systemic solutions grounded in community and cooperation, M4BL is helping reinvigorate a longstanding tradition rooted in the Black American experience, and has clearly and collaboratively mapped some of the key policy supports necessary to scale these solutions.