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Alliance to Develop Power

Building a community economy powered by community organizing.

Background

Based in Springfield, Alliance to Develop Power began in the late 1980s as the Anti-Displacement Project doing housing advocacy, but then shifted to tenant organizing in the early 1990s. Springfield is the third largest city in Massachusetts and also one the poorest. Throughout the 1990s, ADP organized tenants to successfully buy out their Section 8 apartment complexes, bringing 770 units of housing under tenant control at four developments. These tenant-owned developments then affiliated as organizational members of ADP.[i] This control of housing laid the foundation for building what ADP called its “community economy”.

By owning these developments tenants were able to control the income generated by the rent they paid as well as the Federal Section 8 housing subsidies. They also made decisions around hiring businesses to provide management and maintenance services. According to former Executive Director Carolyn Murray, at one of the first meetings after a buyout, they were reviewing the budget and, “one of the members said, ‘Why don’t we pay ourselves to mow the lawn?’ And it was like a lightening bolt hit. In that moment, all the questions changed and an infinite number of possibilities became clear. And so we decided to create a landscaping business.”[ii] ADP started United for Hire in 2001, which started with landscaping and grew to include snow removal, painting, light construction, and energy efficiency services. By 2011, it employed fifteen full-time workers, paying a minimum of $15/hour (almost double state minimum wage at the time) and with some sharing in profits. That year, sales were $750,000, with $220,000 going back to support ADP.[iii]

In creating this first business, ADP embarked on a journey to explore ways to use its assets and surplus income to build businesses, support community organizing, and provide community services. The housing developments used some of its surplus to set up food pantries (which they called food cooperatives), run by tenant volunteers to distribute $1.8 million worth of food each year to 1000 families.[iv] In 2003, the housing developments also anchored the purchase of a 6,600 square foot building for ADP (and United for Hire) by providing finances for the down payment and with three of the developments holding five percent ownership each.[v] In 2007, ADP established Casa Obrera, a workers center that had over 500 dues-paying members by 2012.

By 2012, ADP was talking about “creating the world as it should be” through community organizing, growing its community economy, and building community. Its housing developments were valued at $78 million. ADP had grown to a staff of thirteen with six organizers and was turning out more than 150 members to its annual convention. It was preparing to launch a series of community-owned bodegas to provide access to nutritious, affordable food and create good jobs. ADP’s story was generating excitement within it own communities and inspiring many others beyond. An organizer with San Francisco-based PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights) even said that they “aspire to be ADP when they grow up.”[vi]

But by spring of 2013, ADP folded. It had grown, perhaps, too quickly, coming to depend more on foundation funding, which ultimately could not be sustained. Today, the housing developments continue to be tenant governed, with many of the community-building initiatives still operating (like the food cooperatives). However, ADP as an organizing entity and United for Hire are no longer active.

Key Learnings

The lessons learned from ADP’s rise and demise, are important for those aspiring to build a transformational movement because they rooted their alternative economy in community organizing. For a time, ADP was able to build on the synergies between their power-building and community economic assets while navigating the considerable challenges. As former ADP director Carolyn Murray describes, “the bottom line is to build people power and economic power. I think of this work as creating the world as it should be and modeling what sustainability really is.”[vii]

Courtesy of Alliance to Develop Power

Driven by its organizing mission, ADP built a complex web of interlinked organizations and initiatives that its nonprofit anchored with organizing and infrastructural support. Each of the four housing developments were owned by their respective nonprofit tenant organizations, led by ADP members. United for Hire was a for-profit subsidiary, structured as a limited liability corporation (LLC) with the ADP nonprofit as the sole owner. The food coops were run largely by volunteers but were also supported by surplus from the housing development budgets.

This organic growth was made possible by a visionary and effective leader (Murray) and by being creative and innovative using various organizational models. By doing what worked and holding true to its vision and principles, few of ADP’s initiatives had structures that were “by the book”. The food cooperatives were not consumer coops. United for Hire was not a worker cooperative in the legal sense, even though it had elements of employee ownership and democratic governance.

As ADP grew, it found that it needed to be more explicit about telling its own story. According to Tim Fisk, Executive Director from 2011 to 2013, “one of the reasons why it was so important to tell our story is because everyone had a different version of who ADP was based on how they interacted with the organization. Some people thought that ADP was just a place that brought turkeys to all of its members… Some people thought it was just this economic development model. Or some people thought that it was just community organizing. And that all makes sense.”

At its peak in 2012, ADP articulated a three-pronged strategy for its work, including community organizing, community building, and community economy. Fisk explains, “the idea behind community building in that way was that when people’s needs are met they are more able to participate in organizing, because they have the space to do it. And they are more able to take on leadership roles.”

This creation and telling of ADP’s story did not only help people to better understand ADP, but was itself an act of shifting consciousness and articulating a vision of what is possible.[viii] ADP’s transformational vision resonated with many community members, even those without a well-developed political analysis or previous ideological alignment. Former organizer Brendan Carey says “we had people who weren’t into leftist politics... The Latino immigrants, when I would get to know them, a lot of times I would find out they were members of conservative political parties in their countries… And they were completely bought into the vision.” This vision became so compelling that other organizing groups wanted to pursue a similar path. Even after ADP folded, the vision persists. Carey says, “I still totally believe the vision was right. It’s just about how to get there.”

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ADP experienced significant tensions holding the center between nonprofit and for-profit structures, and between power-building and building economic alternatives. One challenge was that it had to constantly organize in its housing developments to ensure that its members were in leadership. According to Carey, some “people had been living there for years. Then there were people who were new and just passing through and weren’t invested in the community and didn’t even know that it was this other thing [part of ADP].” Thus, governance over its core assets was not as direct or secure as if all the tenant groups were more formally connected to ADP.

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Courtesy of Alliance to Develop Power

Another core tension arose between United for Hire and the nonprofit ADP, which shared a business manager and other administrative infrastructure. As funding for the nonprofit became more constricted, the needs of the organizing program and United for Hire were increasingly at odds. According to Fisk, “we [ADP nonprofit] still very much depended on foundation money. There was only so much left over. If United for Hire had profit, that profit could be used to support organizing efforts.”

Ultimately, ADP failed because, in Fisk’s words, “we ran out of money.” ADP had become overextended, perhaps a consequence of their own success and quick growth. ADP had started to engage in statewide work with the Green Justice Coalition and in national networks such as National People’s Action, which competed with resources for engaging their local members. It got into the bodega work because it saw an opportunity in funder interest in food justice and security.

When nonprofit funding started to decline, according to Fisk, “we couldn’t whittle down the list to save our lives. Because every single one of those things was borne out of a deep need. And who was going to say which thing went away?” Carey believes “we had kind of overextended ourselves… We would literally think that this would be history and we’d be changing the economy… It made us think we could do anything.... Also, we felt like we needed to do everything, but it put us in a position where nothing could get done.”

Thus a key lesson learned was to grow more slowly and sustainably. Fisk says “if I were to do it over again, I would totally want to build the same thing that ADP was trying to be… What I would do differently is I would let the economic development dictate the speed and growth of the organization, not the funders.” Carey says “it all could have worked if we just did things more slowly.” But, he continues, “there was this very capitalistic idea that quick growth would solve our problems. We just had to grow forever.”

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Courtesy of Alliance to Develop Power

Another lesson is to build sufficient capacity across all of the enterprises. Fisk notes that for United for Hire, “on matters of insurance, liability, when it’s time to go to the bank for a loan for a truck or new equipment, there wasn’t an infrastructure in place with that company [United for Hire] exclusive of the organizing. If there was it would still exist, because the customer base is still there.”

Even though ADP is no longer, tenants still control housing, and the food coops are still in operation today. Yet, ADP's aspirational vision remains an important example for solidarity economy movement. As Murray said, “we need to think big -- we need to stake our flag way out ahead.”[ix] Its vision helped ADP move far beyond its roots in tenant organizing towards transformative innovations. When asked if another ADP could happen again, Fisk says “sure… You just have to want to.”

[i] Boone Shear, From Green Economies to Community Economies: Economic Possibility in Massachusetts (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Department of Anthropology, 2015).

[ii] As quoted in Conversations on Community Wealth, Interviews by Steve Dubb (Democracy Collaborative, 2016), p. 299.

[iii] Tim Fisk, Building and Alternative Economy [slide presentation] (Alliance to Develop Power, 2012).

[iv] Tim Fisk, Building and Alternative Economy [slide presentation] (Alliance to Develop Power, 2012).

[v] Julie Graham and Janelle Cornwell, “Building community economies in Massachusetts: an emerging model of economic development,” The social economy: International perspectives on economic solidarity, ed. Ash Amin (Zed Books, 2009), pp. 37-65.

[vi] http://www.shareable.net/blog/an-economy-turned-upside-down

[vii] Conversations on Community Wealth, p. 300.

[viii] Boone Shear, From Green Economies to Community Economies.

[ix] Conversations on Community Wealth, p. 297.