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Our History

The Democracy Collaborative was founded in 2000 at the University of Maryland as a research center dedicated to the pursuit of democratic renewal, increased civic participation, and community revitalization. Two of our original co-founders, Gar Alperovitz and Ted Howard, continue to play a leadership role with the Collaborative. We believe that building real democracy for the 21st century means developing new strategies that address the root causes of corrosive and pervasive economic inequality, and taking those strategies to scale so we can rebuild our communities and local economies along more just, equitable, and sustainable lines.

In pursuit of this goal, over the past 20 years we have expanded our activities beyond research to include advisory services to city governments, community foundations, and anchor institutions; we engage in field-building activities designed to expand the community wealth movement and build the necessary national infrastructure; increasingly we focus on strengthening the state and local policy for wealth-building strategies.

Our 2005 report, Building Wealth: The New Asset-Based Approach to Solving Social and Economic Problems, mapped a growing tendency across different sectors to rethink ownership of wealth. Inspired by the depth and breadth of activity taking place quietly in communities across America, we focused as an organization on helping channel this incipient energy into a more coherent movement, building our platform as a place where an exchange of strategic developments could be made across traditional silos.

Using the idea of community wealth building as a central guiding principle to encourage productive collaboration, we began organizing roundtables in cities across the country to bring together key stakeholders for discussions of the need for transformative urban economic development solutions. One of these roundtables, in Cleveland, Ohio, blossomed into an economic inclusion strategy in the city’s low-income communities known as the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative. The Democracy Collaborative, along with our partners at the Cleveland Foundation and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center, designed Evergreen as a pilot project demonstrating how community-based, worker cooperatives, supported by local anchor institutions, could bring much needed green jobs to disinvested urban communities.

In the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2008, our work acquired a new urgency and relevance as the need for a different set of principles underlying our economy became increasingly clear to more and more people. Our efforts—especially those of our co-founder, political economist and historian Gar Alperovitz—to provide a pragmatic but transformative alternative vision to the economic forces tearing apart America’s communities and threatening our long-term ecological future continues to resonate with larger and broader audiences.

Our recent work has developed key analyses of the role that anchor institutions can play in helping low-income communities, with our staff authoring major reports on the state of the field in both university- and hospital-led community development, as well as developing important recommendations of best practices. We continue to play a key role in convening a broad and diverse movement of community wealth builders, and advise communities nationwide and beyond on strategies for grounding economic development in the democratization of ownership.

The Democracy Collaborative is an independent nonprofit organization, with offices in Washington, D.C.