Economic Democracy: A Conversation With Funders
In a wide-ranging conversation, Sandra Lobo (Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative board vice president), Diane Ives (Kendeda Fund), and Scott Abrams (Open Society Foundations) discussed their respective decisions to invest in BCDI, what funders need to do to support one another in this work, and why there is a need to create a collective consciousness around economic democracy.
Diane Ives: In the United States, we have done a lot of really interesting work in different venues trying to understand what democracy means for government but have put very little effort into understanding what democracy means for the economy. It’s almost as if the economy has been given a pass. We focus so much on policy, so much on elected officials, and so much on the rule of law. But the conversation is never about democratizing the economy and what that would mean and how that would benefit us overall. Instead, we’ve just accepted the neoliberal approach to the economy without asking, “Well, what does it mean for us in the United States as a democracy? How does this actually match up?”
With that in mind, I would say that some of the funding we do involves taking baby steps. Scott, you talked about this notion of shared ownership at the firm level. Is there a way we could get workers to ask every single day what it means to be part of an economic democracy in terms of decision making around where they work and all the different ways they engage in the economy on a day-to-day basis? It’s that kind of truly tactile experience that needs to be scaled up, because it’s not going to be a top-down, policy-driven directive. Whether the question is, “How do we convert a business to shared ownership?” or “How do we create a right-of-first-refusal for tenants to buy their buildings?”, the minute you start thinking differently about how we, as economic actors, interact with the economy, an entirely different set of options are on the table.
Some of the funding we’ve awarded has been to groups like the The Democracy Collaborative and the MIT Community Innovators Lab — groups that are thinking about ways to scale some of these examples on the ground. We’ve also supported groups like BCDI, PUSH Buffalo in western New York, the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, which works on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and Nexus Community Partners in the Twin Cities. And we’ve been looking at shared ownership in the workplace, making a series of grants around cooperative development for workplaces and converting existing businesses into worker coops or ESOPs [employee stock ownership plans].