Neighbor to Neighbor
Building People’s Political Power for Solidarity Economy
Neighbor To Neighbor (N2N) is a grassroots community-organizing group, boasting a membership base of 10,000. Founded in 1996, N2N members and leaders build political power to address social inequalities, environmental degradation, and racism in the Massachusetts cities of Lynn, Springfield, and Holyoke.
“We are a very beautiful organization, to be quite honest with you” admits Elena Letona, N2N’s Executive Director. This avowal is not based in some kind of perceived perfection. Rather, it reflects an openness to transformation and continual improvement. Explains Andrea Nyamekye, N2N’s Climate Justice Program Director, “we never come in [to a situation] knowing everything, we’re still always constantly learning from each other…we’re really trying to find the answers together.” N2N’s uncanny combination of political strength and self-reflection positions N2N at the heart of solidarity economy politics.
Building Authentic Organizing
N2N’s process of learning and transformation is embodied in the organization’s history and practice. Much of N2N’s work during its first 20 years was directed towards statewide campaigns around policy issues, and mobilizing voters for progressive reforms. N2N worked on successful campaigns around public transportation, minimum wage increases, and fair taxes, while helping to significantly increase voter turnout in low-income communities.
During these significant campaigns and victories, however, N2N was grappling with its own internal challenges. Most saliently, it became clear that the organization’s leadership and focus was relatively disconnected from the communities it was invested in. In response, N2N has grown strong roots in order to support empowered communities. “Over the past four
years, we have made tremendous progress…right now N2N, at all levels of the organization, is 100% comprised of people of color, immigrants, women, low-income working class folks,” explains Letona. “We continue to be a part of big statewide campaigns [but we] complement the [statewide] organizing with going deeper into the communities and developing indigenous leadership…through local campaigns that are responding to local needs and that are being led by the people at the chapter level.”
Letona continues, “we don’t feel married to a particular way of doing things…we’re married to our community, to our people being united [and] organized strong, in search of better alternatives and solutions.”
People, Politics, and Solidarity Economy
N2N’s carefully crafted connections—between leadership development and community empowerment, between local needs and statewide issues, and between openness to possibility and political efficacy—along with its experience building power for policy change, brings important elements to solidarity economy work. Solidarity economy is often narrowed to only the alternative economic structures that people create—things like community land trusts, cooperatives, and alternative currencies—that encourage cooperation, interdependence, and equality. However, solidarity economy is also a social movement that builds collective power in front-line communities, in order to expand solidarity economy structures, and confront capitalism and interrelated systems of oppression.
“There’s no [solidarity] economy without the politics,” Letona reminds us. “Capitalists understood that [capitalism] needed laws, regulations or no regulations, tax breaks. They needed the governance system, the policy-making system to make it happen for them. We’re not thinking enough about the policy implications of economic model[s] that could [for example] take coop development to a bigger scale.”
As the increasing number of economic experiments and efforts in Boston and beyond demonstrate, other economies and other worlds—worlds that cultivate care, well-being, and justice—are indeed possible. Their full realization, however, depends on building political power that can confront entrenched forces of oppression and exploitation. As Nyamekye says, “we want to get away from capitalistic structures. However, we also have to be mindful that the way that capitalism works, [it] blocks us from creating a…solidarity economy.”