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Equitable Enterprise:
Shining the Spotlight on Cooperatives

The premise of the Equitable Enterprise Initiative is that the primary responsibility of business should be to maximize community wellbeing and equitable distribution of economic returns from its activities. This proposition may seem radical but in reality it harkens back to the early years of US history, when the privilege of starting a corporation was granted selectively and only to enable activities that “benefited the public,” such as construction of roads and canals or educational institutions (the first public corporation was Harvard University!). Cooperatives, in fact, have been the oldest form of enterprise, allowing people to pool resources, share risks and benefits, and enhance communal ties.

But today the way to start and sustain a co-op is not common knowledge. For those who do embark on this path, there are few experts who can provide legal, financial, and organizational advice. Furthermore, cooperative models are not represented in most business schools’ case studies and many are invisible or are operating on the margins of mainstream economic activity. This is why it is important to bring co-ops, as well as other forms of community-based ventures, out of the shadows. No one is better suited to this task than political economist and EEI advisor Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nemhard, author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. In her book and in her talk for EEI (below), she illuminates both rich histories and current examples of cooperatives in a diverse array of industries and geographies.

Solidarity & Cooperative Economics and African American Co-ops in History

 
 


Dr. Gordon-Nembhard begins by defining solidarity economics—an alternative practice of economics that rejects profit maximization as its primary goal and takes into account theories of power, control, and inequality. She describes how organizing production, work, and other economic activity around this principle, as opposed to neoclassical theory, could create a more equitable, just, and sustainable future. Dr. Gordon-Nembhard then explores the history of worker cooperatives—member-owned and run organizations that are created to solve economic problems and address community needs—in various African American communities throughout the United States. Watch her session here and follow along in her book where she calls out the importance of the following:

  • Education, study groups, and training to support cooperative learning, informal study, formal study, and specific training

  • Organizational supports and deliberate co-op organizing

  • Community involvement and solidarity

  • Pooling of resources to create access to non-exploitive resources

  • Democratic participation and sharing of power, including the voices of marginalized and oppressed people

  • Women's leadership

  • Participation of youth  

Signals From the Future

A signal is a disruptive innovation that feels like the beginning of a possible future. A signal can be an unexpected product, practice, technology, event, data point, or organization that has the potential to scale in impact. What seems outlandish today could be mainstream in a few years.

BLACKOUT BLACK FRIDAY?

The r/antiwork community on Reddit grew from 76,000 in January 2020 to 1,112,847 (and counting) in November 2021; users post about the endless churn of working for unlivable wages and support each other in reclaiming one’s time from a job. In addition to sharing content, the community is in the midst of organizing “Blackout Black Friday,” a general strike for retail and hospitality workers. (Image credit: flyer from blackfridayblackout.info) 

   

New York City just cancelled most medallion debt

After multiple years of organizing, hundreds of New York City taxi drivers will finally have debt relief. The medallion debt crisis was fueled by predatory loans and artificial inflation of medallion prices. The collaboration between all actors - the NY Taxi Workers Alliance, the city, and the asset management company who purchased the debt - is a key component of the success of the deal. This monumental program comes at a time when the legitimacy of other kinds of debt is being challenged, such as student loans and mortgages. Can this be a model for future debt relief programs? (Image credit: Oscar Perry Abello) 

What happens when a healthcare union invests in worker ownership?

The gigafication of work has pervaded almost all industries, healthcare included. Not only is demand for healthcare workers outpacing available resources, employment options with economic security and flexibility are slim. AlliedUP – a worker-owned cooperative focused on staffing allied healthcare professionals in hospitals and healthcare systems – aims to meet supply and demand by partnering with health care education providers nationwide to become the stalwart employer for new allied workers by offering above market pay, benefits, and wealth building opportunities. Equitable Enterprise advisor, Ra Criscitiello, is deputy director of research at SEIU-UHW and one of the founding members of this new enterprise. (Image credit: https://alliedup.com/)


Does the future of consumption involve money? 

The Buy Nothing Project, an international network of local gifting groups that was founded in 2013, now has over four million members in 44 countries, and has grown by a third over the past year. They “exist for the sole purpose of building community,” which is how their gift economy is able to operate. According to the BNP, the notion of true wealth is the “web of connections formed between people.” They believe that communities are more resilient and equitable when they have functional gift economies. (Image credit: https://buynothingproject.org/)

Pecan Milk Builds Strong Communities 

The Pecan Milk Cooperative is a producer of non-dairy milks in Atlanta that is collectively run by primarily young Black LGBTQ folks. Their primary mission is to create dignified work for LGBTQ communities, people of African descent, other people of color, women, youth, immigrants, and people with a disability. Their governance structure allows them to stay true to their mission and fundamentally prioritize people over profits, so worker-owners are able to take control of their economic futures. In addition, the ownership structure allows for most of the economic and social benefits of their activity to stay in the community where they’re established. (Image credit: https://pecanmilk.coop/home)

Want to Know More?


What we're reading:

The Great ...Reassessment? 

Gig Work

Alternative Economic Models

...and listening to:

This initiative is made possible with the generous support of: 
Conrad N. Hilton Foundation 
W.K. Kellogg Foundation 
The James Irvine Foundation 
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


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About Institute for the Future

Institute for the Future is the world’s leading futures organization. For over 50 years, businesses, governments, and social impact organizations have depended upon IFTF global forecasts, custom research, and foresight training to navigate complex change and develop world-ready strategies. IFTF methodologies and toolsets yield coherent views of transformative possibilities across all sectors that together support a more sustainable future. Institute for the Future is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, California.

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