Bucket for the FEC - 3/30/09
On March 19th, 2009, I attended the Forum on the Solidarity Economy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. My travel costs and labor credits were provided by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC). The FEC requires a written report whenever it pays for any FEC member to attend an event. This is just such a report.
I attended the Forum to represent the FEC to the US Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN), to present a workshop on income sharing communities, and to evaluate whether the USSEN and the Forum are good fits for our organization. I also attended several of the workshops, and I hope to pass on some of what I have learned.
What is the US Solidarity Economy Network?
The US Solidarity Economy Network is an organization that serves as a networking, policy and education hub for the solidarity economy. What is the solidarity economy? This was a question asked by many folks at this forum. It took me a while to really grasp it myself. One of the organizers of this conference, Ethan Miller, has given the following definition:
"The term ‘solidarity economy’ is the English translation of economia solidária (Portuguese), economía solidaria (Spanish), and économie solidaire (French). Broadly defined, it names a grassroots form of cooperative economics that is working throughout the world to connect thousands of local alternatives together to create large-scale, viable, and creative networks of resistance to the profit-over-all-else economy.
Like all terms of political struggle, the definition of ‘solidarity economy’ is widely contested. For some, it refers to a set of strategies aimed at the abolition of capitalism and the oppressive social relations that it supports and encourages; for others, it names strategies for ‘humanising’ the capitalist economy – seeking to supplement capitalist globalization with community-based ‘social safety nets’."
The term "solidarity economy" is very broad in its definition, as it was created to name the many diverse ways in which people are resisting the worst parts of globalization, capitalism and environmental degradation. It includes many alternative economic approaches, like food coops and community supported agriculture, complimentary currencies and credit unions, community land trusts and intentional communities, open-source software and worker owned cooperatives. Many of these models & organizations rose up from the grass roots as responses to the injustices inherent to our current capitalist economic systems. These organizations would do well to communicate and cooperate together and the US Solidarity Economy Network intends to provide the structure to facilitate this by serving as a bridge between various organizations.
How does the FEC fit in to all this?
The values of the USSEN and the values of the FEC are very much in line. I would even say that the values match between the FEC and the USSEN are more in line with each other then the values match between the FEC and the FIC. The USSEN values social justice, egalitarianism, democratic & participatory governance, environmental responsibility, non-discrimination, social & economic equality, and personal development.
The USSEN is a collection of many different models and projects that have grown from the bottom up to bring these values to reality.
Egalitarian communities & cooperatives will be an important part of the equation as we look to the future and shift our culture towards one that 'powers down' and focuses on people more then things. However, the egalitarian communities movement is not by itself a complete solution to the crisis we are facing. Perhaps through the Solidarity Economy Network we could work with other people with similar values but different models towards similar ends.
What use is the USSEN to the FEC?
One of the primary ways the FEC can benefit from the USSEN is by making connections and cooperating with the various people and organizations that are present for these forums. There are credit unions and alternative banks that we could draw upon as resources for future development. There are many worthwhile projects we could invest our money in as an alternative to our current practice of investing in "socially responsible" mutual funds . There are folks who could assist us with research and people with practical experiences we could draw on.
Because we have such a close values match, many of the participating groups in the USSEN face many of the same challenges. For example, we could learn more about how other folks deal with participatory budgeting and might find a better alternative to our trade-off game. We could learn more about how worker owned cooperatives deal with issues of responsibility and management in an egalitarian workplace. We could hear from other establishments how they invest their savings in a way that both meets their ethical and financial requirements.
This year's USSEN Fourm was not a good pool of folks to try to recruit from. Most of the folks seemed to be already invested in their current endeavors.
Though the USSEN the FEC could have more of an impact on the larger movement towards a just and sustainable future.
What use could the FEC be to the USSEN?
If we wished to support this movement, we could support the SEN though some FEC dues hours. The USSEN is in need of a lot of administrative assistance, including website work and other outreach projects. The FEC could provide our systems & structures archives to the USSEN best practices archive once they are set up. We could continue to give workshops at the USSEN forums. The FEC could make available people with experience in cooperative workplaces and communal living for questions and advice.
How did the workshop go?
My workshop was scheduled on Sunday. There was only one workshop session on Sunday, and as a result only 1/3 or less of the conference attendees stayed for Sunday. Less then a dozen folks attended the FEC workshop, and I think we need at least twenty five to make it worthwhile. If we decide to go next year, I would request that we not be scheduled on Sunday.
I also gave my standard FEC workshop, while most of the other workshops were specifically targeting the audience. If we are to go to the conference again, I would tailor the workshop to explain how we are relevant to the organization and how what we have learned can be applied to a variety of different projects.
Should we send folks to this forum again?
I think we should go again and be a part of this network as it grows. However, I think we need to be clear about what we have to offer and what we hope to gain from the USSEN. If we are only going to workshops with the hopes of recruiting folks to our communities, this is not the forum for us. If we are looking for a way to be part of a larger network of folks with very similar values but with a wide variety of approaches, this will be a great place to plug in.
What did you learn at the Forum?
One of the most helpful workshops I went to was titled "Communication Strategies for Activists and Organizations." The workshop broke the communication planning process into determining the following 3 things: who is the audience, what is the message, and what is the media/method that best suits getting your message to these folks. This sounds simple, but it is actually much needed advice the FEC needs, in my opinion. I plan to bring this up in the next FEC Assembly.
I also learned a lot about alternative banking structures and credit unions. There are some really cool things people are doing with Credit Unions. Putting our cash into a credit union that shares our values rather then a conventional bank might be something we should seriously consider.
There was a workshop on the participatory budget system in Venezuela. Julio Chavez was the mayor of Torres, Venezuela from 2004 to 2008. As mayor, he put in a system where all the governmental budget decisions were made at the lowest possible level by the people who lives will be most impacted. It was quite fascinating, and was given in Spanish. Experiments in participatory decision making and budgeting are happening all over the world. I was hoping to hear more about the specifics on how these decisions are made on the street level, as we at Twin Oaks have been experimenting with our own participatory budgeting system with varying degrees of success.
Another workshop discussed a cluster of immigrant run worker-cooperatives in New York City. Many immigrant workers in NYC are treated poorly by their employers. A group of folks got together and formed various collectives: a childcare co-op, a construction co-op, and a house cleaning co-op. They each have different structures. One requires that everyone put in 2 hours of marketing work a week. The construction co-op gives women the opportunity to participate in construction that they had not access to before and they all pay each other equally no matter what their skill level is. It is awesome to see how sharing and cooperation can better the lives of those who have the hardest time getting by, as so much our movement is made up of those who have had a lot of privilege in the mainstream culture.
I also attended a workshop on land trusts & bio-regionalism.
What else do you have to say about the USSEN Forum?
It was great to see so many people from Central and South America there, willing to share their stories and support us as the US falls into financial crisis. The US intervenes in other countries politics or economics so often, it is nice to have the information flow the other way. We are just beginning to fall into our economic depression, but there are folks not far from us who have been battling poverty and corruption for quite some time. Some of them have come to share their tactics and strategies with us. I think there is a lot we could learn from those building the solidarity economy movement in Central and South America.
It was also intriguing to see how cooperative living could positively effect folks who are impoverished or do not have much access or opportunity in the mainstream culture. I wonder if we should be focusing more on serving these folks ourselves, or at the very least giving more aid to those who are working to bring cooperation and communalism to those who do not have the opportunity to come to us.
I am happy to answer any questions you have.