A solidarity economy movement is emerging from lower-income communities of color in Massachusetts. This movement aspires to transform capitalism—as we know it—into a world rooted in values of democracy, justice, and sustainability. These dreams arise from those making Black Lives Matter, from immigrant workers making poverty wages, from ex-prisoners locked out of the mainstream economy, from tenants barely able to make rent, and from communities being displaced to make way for the 1%.
Solidarity economy is more than just cooperatives. It is a social justice movement seeking to transform political and economic systems and our worldviews. Like other movements, it is shifting our consciousness about root causes and what is wrong, expanding our vision of what is possible, and inspiring dreams of the world as it should be. It is building power, not just to resist and reform the injustices and unsustainabilities produced by current systems, but ultimately to democratically control and govern political and economic resources to sustain people and the planet. And it is creating economic alternatives and prototypes for producing, exchanging, consuming, and investing in ways that are more just, sustainable, and democratic.
This report examines eight cases across lower-income communities of color in Massachusetts to see solidarity economy movement in motion. We find that aspirations for transformation are spreading. Communities are organizing to resist and reform the current system, while building alternatives that go beyond capitalism. They are incubating worker-owned coops, community land trusts, and community-controlled capital. They are modeling an economy and democratic governance based on collective care and putting people and planet over profit. Communities are dreaming big, of building regional ecosystems that can scale up transformative impacts.
These efforts are often born of necessity. When good green jobs were not available to community members, youth in Worcester started Toxic Soil Busters to clean up lead-contaminated soil and unemployed workers in Boston created the CERO recycling cooperative. In East Boston, residents who had been displaced from their apartment building began exploring economic alternatives as a way to stay in a gentrifying neighborhood.
Though anchored in communities, the movement is building solidarity across a spectrum of political perspectives and sectors. In Springfield, Wellspring is building a network of worker-owned cooperatives with partnership of major anchor institutions, such as Baystate Health and UMass Amherst. The Boston Ujima Project and Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network are developing alliances with private investors and banks. New Lynn Coalition and Worcester Solidarity and Green Economy (SAGE) Alliance are uniting labor unions and communities of color to fight for good jobs and economic development that is also community development.
Communities are resisting and reforming the current system in ways that also create more space for alternatives. Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s (DSNI) successful organizing in the 1980s against disinvestment and vacant lots led to community ownership over thirty acres of land through a community land trust. Alliance to Develop Power’s (ADP) tenant organizing in the 1990s resulted in tenant ownership of 770 units in four housing developments. CERO coop members continue to organize and advocate for zero waste policies to reduce environmental impacts, but also to create more economic opportunities for its business.
These alternatives have had to innovate and take unconventional approaches to business development. In all cases, nonprofits play critical roles, providing incubation resources, organizing and building the base, and doing research and development to support new models. Coop academies have supported the startup of coops from Worcester to Boston. ADP wove together a web of tenant-owned nonprofit housing developments with a for-profit subsidiary providing maintenance and landscaping services to those developments.
All of these efforts are inspiring (and inspired by) collective dreams of the world as it should be. ADP’s long-time director Carolyn Murray believes that “we need to think big -- we need to stake our flag way out ahead” so that we can move “from opposition to governance.” ADP’s approach to building a community economy was so compelling that another grassroots group across the country aspired “to be ADP when they grow up.”
Courtesy of Wellspring
These groups are envisioning transformation through an ecosystem approach, where scaling up happens through interlinking many locally controlled initiatives. The Ujima project is building a community-controlled capital fund to support an ecosystem that includes community-owned and certified businesses and democratic control over development. SAGE is comprised of many smaller startup coops but also includes a credit union, a worker-owned union print shop, and two cooperatively-run maker spaces. DSNI is anchoring the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, which brings together more than a dozen neighborhood groups seeking community ownership of land.
At the base of these big dreams is collective care for each other – solidarity. In Worcester, union plumbers and carpenters volunteered to rebuild Stone Soup community center after a fire because the center housed the groups that were their allies in fighting for good jobs. In East Boston, the Center for Cooperative Development and Solidarity sees their work as transforming life, starting with the basics. Member Lilliana Avendaño says “if you have a childcare where you are taking care of the children, a place where people can eat healthy food, and have a cleaning coop that cleans these places, and everybody involved has the same values, that is when we are going to see transformation in individuals, families and our neighborhood. That will help decrease the violence and will give chance for marginalized people to become powerful. That is my dream.”
There are significant challenges and tensions in the work of building solidarity economy:
Capitalist mindsets need to be overcome, including the skepticism that alternatives are possible.
Differences arising from race, ethnicity, class, and organizational capacity must be addressed through deep internal work and relationship building.
Despite the challenges of doing transformative work from within the nonprofit sector, we need to find ways to use the strengths of this sector to build vehicles for transformation.
More resources need to be garnered towards the core work of organizing and supporting the startup of alternatives.
The potential for conflicts between community organizing and sustaining a business is ever present and needs to be negotiated carefully and creatively.
These challenges are well worth taking on to build transformative pathways towards solidarity economy. Based on our learnings so far from Massachusetts, we offer the following recommendations for the movement:
See solidarity economy holistically, as a transformative social movement.
Join up the building of alternatives with resist and reform efforts.
Be willing to innovate and be prepared to fail forward.
Take an ecosystem approach to building and scaling up.
Support core organizing and incubation infrastructure.
Inspire and connect initiatives so that we can learn from one another and scale up.
Build the solidarity finance sector, with funders and investors who see themselves as part of, and not apart from, the movement.