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Boston Ujima Project

Inspiring a vision of democratic local economy, starting with community control of finance

Background

The Boston Ujima Project was launched in 2015 and is named for the Kwanzaa principle of collective work and responsibility. Ujima is an ambitious attempt to build an alternative economy rooted in solidarity and democracy at the city level and driven by community control of capital. At the core of Ujima’s vision is an investment fund, capitalized in part by direct equity investment from local neighborhood residents, and governed and allocated through a democratic process. The project is establishing roots in two adjoining lower-income neighborhoods of color, Dorchester and Roxbury.

Ujima is led by the Center for Economic Democracy (CED), a “movement strategy and capacity building organization” which convenes local stakeholders to collaborate toward social, political, and economic transformation. Core organizational partners include City Life Vida Urbana, Boston Impact Initiative, Boston NAACP, Right to the City, CERO coop, and Boston Center for Community Ownership. Participating organizations were recruited to represent both grassroots organizing groups and solidarity economy organizations. So far, the project has been moved mostly by volunteers, with limited compensation to core partner organizations, staff organizers, youth fellows, and consultants. Recently the project secured a grant to hire full-time staff.


Ujima’s plan is to build a community fund from investments by residents and augmented by other institutional and impact investors. The process for

determining which businesses to support would be weighted based on residency and other affinities rather than by the amount invested. In this way, Ujima’s fund would be democratically allocated based on community needs and aspirations rather than the interests of the largest investors.

Other elements of the Ujima ecosystem include community standards for businesses that receive investment funds. These standards could also help drive residents to shop at these businesses and be used in campaigns to secure procurement from anchor institutions. Ecosystem businesses could also share resources, such as a hub for human resources or B2B (business-to-business) lending. Ecosystem consultants could support the investment process and help businesses increase both efficiency and local impact. To close the loop, fund surplus could feed back into the ecosystem by growing the investment fund and subsidizing other community needs.

The vision of a democratically governed capital fund has inspired much interest and excitement from local organizations and community members. In August 2016, Ujima hosted a one-day Solidarity Summit to model how investments could be made. Investments from 175 individuals were matched by local impact investors for a total of $20,000. Participants spent the day learning about five local businesses that had been pre-vetted by the project, asking the business owners questions, and voting at the end to invest the $20,000 among them.

Over 200 individuals have participated in the project in its first year, including over twenty who are core organizers. Working groups and youth fellows have been reaching out to local community, grassroots organizations, businesses, impact investors, and other stakeholders to engage them in Ujima’s vision. The hope is to keep growing the Ujima universe and concretizing the vision and ultimately holding an assembly to ratify the structure and governance system for Ujima.

Key Learnings

Ujima’s ecosystem approach directly addresses a major challenge for the solidarity economy movement: How can building economic alternatives challenge capitalism on a meaningful scale? Alternatives, though implemented successfully in many places, often remain limited in impact. Ujima’s strategy is to interlink community organizing, participatory budgeting, impact investment, and community-owned businesses.

Critically, Ujima identifies its core constituency as Boston low-income communities of color and has chosen to build with the grassroots groups that have already been organizing those communities. Ujima leaders representing low-income communities of color do not necessarily use the term “solidarity economy” the way that CED does, but they believe that local control and power are necessary to meet their own needs. Nia Evans, Executive Director of the Boston NAACP, sees Ujima as responding to “regular rumbling in black communities” about the need for “economic independence, self-sufficiency, and community control… [Boston NAACP] members have been saying we need to come together, pool our resources, try a different way.”[i] Lisa Owens, Executive Director of City Life Vida Urbana (CLVU), explained “CLVU works in housing justice but has a broader vision for economic transformation. I’m excited about social ownership – input and control over capital in our community, so workers have a say over how work gets done, and what is being produced is meeting needs, not taking away or extracting, not introducing harmful things into the community.”[ii]

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Courtesy of Boston Ujima Project

Ujima organizers likewise come to the project convinced of the need for community control. According to 2016 summer fellow Rafael Feliciano, “the basic idea for me is, you don’t try to localize the production of the decision-making in an ecosystem in one person or group of people. Instead you collectivize as much as possible…” Another 2016 summer fellow, Kathrina St. Flavin, shared realizations she came to on her own through her work as a financial coach that led to her interest in what Ujima was doing: “I work with a lot of Haitian Americans and people who are new to America… something as simple as a susu [collaborative savings] that a lot of people do informally, it seems like it’s frowned upon because its not traditional banking. I felt a conflict, like I’m teaching my clients to conform to the system, but people are already doing things that work.”

Building political and economic power within Boston low-income communities of color is both the strategy and outcome for Ujima. For example, the community-based business standards reflect existing models such as Local First movements or the B Corporation certification, but for Ujima it is a way for community to hold accountable the businesses they invest in – a way of exercising investor power. Similarly, Ujima’s approach to anchor-based development deviates from the model popularized by the Democracy Collaborative and pursued in Wellspring and Evergreen. Rather than starting partnerships with larger institutions, Ujima’s vision is to amass community power and ally with broader movements, like Divest-Reinvest, to organize and force large institutions to shift their investments and procurement to the local solidarity economy.

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Courtesy of Boston Ujima Project

A core question for Ujima is how to build out the governance structure for the investment fund. One tension is between the need to ground decision-making in core constituent groups of low-income communities of color and the desire to also allow others to participate meaningfully. Feliciano noted that “what procedures you put in place can make you feel more or less democratic.” Another challenge is that core community members have busy lives, so the process needs to allow for deep engagement without being overburdening. “People have a lot going on,” St. Flavin observed, and “being part of Ujima is going to be another responsibility.”

Project organizers have come to grasp the solidarity economy frame over time, but many newer and occasional participants can be overwhelmed by the ecosystem vision. Newcomers tend to focus on the idea of lending to local businesses, an already familiar concept to many. In fact, this component of the vision has caught the interest of many individuals and organizations that might not have otherwise participated in a political-motivated initiative.

Because of the complexity of the vision, an intensive workshop and shorter presentations have been central activities of the project. In some cases, excitement has spread to the point where organizers have reported hearing about Ujima from others who learned of the project independently and held only a partial or mistaken understanding of it. This reflects a major strength of the project - that its bold and sprawling vision has sparked widespread excitement and imagination.

Another strength is its multi-stakeholder constituency. Ujima has deliberately recruited leaders, organizers, and participants from the core stakeholder groups: community organizations, organized labor, business owners, impact investors, and technical assistance providers. Ujima’s vision includes a bigger tent than some other solidarity economic investment funds, as it includes not just worker cooperatives but also local businesses that may be conventionally owned.

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In the first year of operations with a limited amount of funding for operations Ujima was able to achieve an impressive amount of work through the use of volunteer hours and by tapping local resources such as university classes and clinics. There is no doubt that the project has proceeded more slowly because of the lack of substantive funding early on to hire a dedicated staff, but several leaders and participants have remarked that the slower pace has had important benefits for the accessibility and inclusiveness of the project. It has given participants time to grasp the full vision, to build relationships and trust with people they have not worked with before, and contribute to the vision itself.

Courtesy of Boston Ujima Project

Although Ujima initially hoped to have the startup phase be overseen by a grassroots organizing committee, it has been challenging to maintain the commitment necessary from a large number of volunteers. Ujima organizers have struggled to balance the need to make timely progress with the desire to have a grassroots, multi-stakeholder visioning process. As Ujima volunteer Libbie Cohn expressed, “it’s like we’re all on a bus, trying to determine the direction the bus is going in together. The bus has pieces falling off and we’re trying to keep it in one piece. Then there are newcomers running after the bus: they catch up, just got here, and they have to jump on and jump right into figuring out the direction.” At the very least, the development process has remained transparent and welcoming. St. Flavin feels that “there’s the opportunity for everyone’s feedback to be impactful…it would be easy to say, this is not working, so let’s try something else.”

 

[i] Sarah Jimenez, Collective Visioning in the Boston Ujima Project (forthcoming Master’s Thesis, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning, 2017).

[ii] Boston Ujima Project Organizing Committee Meeting, March 26, 2016