SolidarityNYC connects, supports, and promotes New York City’s solidarity economy. I wanted to interview SolidarityNYC after I heard how astonishingly far they'd come in organizing their city. I was co-conspirator of a similar group that for several years called itself Just Alternative Sustainable Economics – a regional grassroots economic network for the Bay Area area, emerging in part out of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives. Though we struggled to keep going with a few already overcommitted volunteers, the little effort we did put in seeded events, like the Festival of Grassroots Economics, fruitful relationships and innovative projects like the Sustainable Economies Law Center. SolidarityNYC has done what we mostly dreamed of with careful intention and tenacious perserverance.
This is an exploration of their impressive model for other cities to learn from – whether they are sharing cities, solidarity cities, or regions of new economy like the Berkshires in Massachusetts. In addition to this interview, I highly recommend you read their report – “Growing a Resilient City: Possibilities for Collaboration in New York City’s Solidarity Economy,” which is full of brilliant, yet practical ideas for scaling up a local solidarity economy.
Mira: How did SolidarityNYC develop?
Cheyenna: SolidarityNYC grew from a desire to support the expansion of the solidarity economy (SE) in New York City's five boroughs. The group has changed in its composition over time, but initially it was a group of New Yorkers who met while attending a weekend forum organized by the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network in 2009. Our first project was mapping local SE efforts. A few of us committed to working together to build political and economic power in our communities through solidarity economics, and that group evolved into the SolidarityNYC collective.
Mira: What does "solidarity economy" mean to you and what types of entities does it include? How does it relate to the "sharing economy"?
Cheyenna: We define the solidarity economy as a framework, rather than some kind of monolithic concept of "the economy." When we buy into the story of "the economy" we render invisible activities that do not hold an established value in the private market. We use "solidarity economy" as a shorthand. We consider solidarity economy activities to be those utilizing values of social justice, cooperation, democracy, ecological sustainability, and mutualism. We recognize that there’s a spectrum for these activities, and that some may be better with some values over others. The real distinction for us is whether something is democratic. So, there are a lot of cooperatives included because those are democratic entities, but we’ve also included Amalgamated Bank because it is owned and operated by labor unions, which are democratic in some ways, although not in all ways, and practice a politics of social justice for working people.
The “sharing economy” is an expansive term that is applied to everything from collaborative consumption that is explicitly extractive and capitalist like Zipcar to solidarity economy organizations like community development credit unions that serve low-income communities. Solidarity economy is a Latin American term, originally, and is in use globally within social movements seeking economic democracy. In the U.S. it is less responsive to trends in entrepreneurship or philanthropy, which we see as a strength, though it does mean we’re often asked to identify how it relates to sharing economy, new economy, green economy, cooperative economy, or collaborative consumption.
Mira: What is your theory of change or organizing model for building a strong solidarity economy?
Cheyenna: We started with the premise that a strong solidarity economy would provide greater economic security and self-determination for New Yorkers than any other economic development strategy. We believe decisions should be made by those most impacted by them, and that our economic activities should be structured to provide participants with democratic control. Moving from a corporate-controlled economy and politics to one of democratic grassroots participation isn’t an easy task, and we are just a small collective, but we’ve found that it is possible to have an impact by using our limited resources carefully while still experimenting with techniques and approaches.
We’re interested in building a movement, which requires creating new relationships, community, and vision. The organizing tasks required aren’t necessarily fundable for traditional philanthropic institutions, since funders prefer projects that create highly specific products. For this reason we stayed a movement collective of volunteers and used grassroots fundraising techniques to cover our operating expenses. This has allowed us to remain highly responsive to movement needs, which in turn has helped us learn a great deal about where the gaps are in solidarity economy organizing. Listening, and acting in response, is our core organizing practice.
For the first three years, we built relationships, worked on the map and films to render the solidarity economy visible, and sought to make solidarity economy practitioners aware of the larger community of New Yorkers engaged in community-controlled economic development of which they are a part. We’ve also made ourselves available to social justice groups that want to integrate these activities into their work, whether to provide information about the framework or to connect them to practitioners for technical assistance. One of our primary goals is to demonstrate that the solidarity economy isn’t a land of unicorns in a far off future where rainbows have replaced money, but is already a part of our city and has been for generations.
It's worth describing what it means to "build relationships." We've primarily focused on those who have been maintaining the solidarity economy organizations that make our city livable. These are the people we interview, connect to resources, and connect to each other. When you're learning about a community or sector it's important to take in as much information as possible–attending public meetings or events, keeping up with their internal or external communications (listservs, newsletters, social media, etc.), and studying the history of the organizations and movements involved. It's in this way we identified ways to be useful to people, often volunteering in an administrative or coordinating capacity to meet gaps. We have regularly convened technical assistance gatherings, helped to organize national events, and tapped our network when asked. In this way we’ve created an informal network in real life, not of everyone on the map just yet, but hopefully someday. We've also connected it to regional and national networks to leverage resources for the local. A good example is the Occupy Workplace Democracy we did for Occupy Wall Street's emerging co-ops, which brought out-of-town co-op gurus and local co-op organizers together in support of emerging worker co-ops in the five boroughs.
At this stage, we’ve committed to bringing together solidarity economy leaders to develop a proposal for advancing our political and economic power as a movement. The strategic planning process is underway, coordinated by a steering committee of leaders who are supported by a grant our collective solicited. The grant, which the steering committee controls, was necessary to generate the capacity needed for an in-depth process and opens the door for additional philanthropic support for any organization that results from the committee's proposals. The committee is building on SolidarityNYC’s work but is a distinct entity, with its own goals and values, that we’re supporting. Our hope is that group will identify what forms of organization solidarity economy can undertake to expand activities and meet the dire need for affordable housing, empowering non-predatory financial services, healthy and affordable food, living wage jobs, and economic security. We have a great deal of work to do.
Mira: What kinds of resources do you offer?
The Collective: We have made more visible solidarity economy practices by creating a NYC solidarity economy map. In providing information about what's available, we empower New Yorkers to build a just and sustainable local economy. The finished map not only allows individuals to find local produce or housing collectives, it also connects us to organized efforts to support policies in favor of a solidarity economy. SolidarityNYC hopes to address the need for a shared vehicle for engaging citizens and policymakers by assessing the needs and goals of NYC’s solidarity economy and bringing together a diverse and democratic body to our disparate efforts. We provide educational programs and resources that challenge prevailing assumptions and demonstrate the alternative economic practices that are available to us all. We partner with allies to present programs focused on specific practices or skills necessary to a viable solidarity economy, like how to start a worker cooperative or create a democratic culture within an organization.
Mira: Who runs and participates in SolidarityNYC, what's your organizational structure, and how are you funded?
Lauren: SolidarityNYC is a volunteer-run collective of ten or so people, so we all essentially ‘run’ it collaboratively. We’ve all come to the solidarity economy framework from different spaces, including grad school, credit unions, media-making collectives, and movement organizations. Our work is not directly dependent on funding since we all volunteer our time to carry out projects like our “Growing a Resilient City" 21 page report released in 2013.
Though it's helpful to get paid to sustain the work, we would seek compensation on a project-by-project basis, not for any general operational expenses. One of the most important ways we ensure our sustainability is building relationships with others doing work in the solidarity economy. We’ve gotten a lot of help with our resources, video series, map, and website construction thanks to media-makers and designers who are already engaged in this work. It’s a wonderfully cyclical process in fact – the very practices and sectors we seek to promote through our work ensure that we can continue.
Mira: What kinds of actions, events, projects or resources have had the most impact?
Lauren: I’d have to say that our report, “Growing a Resilient City: Possibilities for Collaboration in New York City’s Solidarity Economy” was deeply influential for our collective. The report was a result of multiple interviews of solidarity economy practitioners living and working in New York City. We wanted to learn more about common threads, be they our common successes or struggles, that practitioners from different SE sectors experienced. That project allowed both the collective and this larger network of practitioners to imagine what greater collaboration and resilience could look like in our city. I believe the project had a fantastic outward impact in that so many conversations and potential partnerships were sparked, and it also heavily impacted the way we frame our projects going forward.
"I think it would be really fascinating for coops across NYC to use each other. For the cleaning co-op to clean at the food co-ops. And the food co-op to provide cleaning products to the cleaning cooperatives. And for the childcare co-op to take care of the children of other co-op members. So there's no gap in collaborating and have a tight way of cross-marketing together. This has happened in small way, but not enough." Vanessa Bransburg, Center for Family Life from the Growing a Resilient City Report
Of course, I couldn’t answer any questions about our projects without mentioning our SE map and directory. We’ve enjoyed a lot of interest in our map throughout the past year–whether that be from other mappers, academics, students, organizers, and tech publications. I often feel that the map is a complement to our report in that it is a visual representation of these vibrant SE sectors in New York. It’s been great visibility tool for those already doing SE work and a resource for those who may not have ever heard of the ‘solidarity’, ‘sharing’, or ‘gift’ economy. Our map has been impactful because it celebrates the work that’s already being done and is an invitation for others to participate.
Mira: What challenges have you had in organizing with low income or communities of color in such a large city? How have you overcome them?
Cheyenna: NYC’s solidarity economy organizations primarily serve low-income communities and communities of color. Community development credit unions, low-income housing cooperatives, community gardens, our largest worker cooperatives, and our only housing community land trust are all designed to involve these populations. Supporting these groups through coalition-building has been our main concern.
That said, there are substantial divides along race and class lines within the cooperative movement in particular, which comprises a substantial part of our organizing, but any time you are organizing resources in New York City you’re going to encounter the challenges of racism and oppression. We’ve avoided some of this because we haven’t proposed a concrete project, but rather seek to convene and listen. However, as the steering committee becomes more concrete, they will need to consider how to address these concerns in the membership, principles, practices, and governance of anything they propose.
For our collective, being inclusive and diverse has always been a challenge. Working class, low-income, people of color, women, disabled, or queer folks are under more stress than those with greater privilege, and thus often have less ability to participate in extracurriculars. We struggle to find ways to support participation that may require different kinds of information-sharing or accountability that reflects needs based on identity. We’re always learning and the group maintains a strong commitment to inclusion in our composition and our projects.
Mira: What advice would you give other cities just beginning to organize their city?
Evan: Mapping is a great way to start because its basically like taking attendance or a census. Who’s here? What do we have? Who are our people? That helps any group also deal with the criteria of what the solidarity economy looks like to them. In some places it might make sense to cast a really broad net that is inclusive of a diverse range of businesses or organizations or collectives because that diversity exists, whereas in some places it may be possible to have narrower criteria and still have a pretty healthy number of groups and people and practices represented. The goal should be some kind of critical mass that you can use to build on and organize with, so there’s no magic number or strict set of boxes to check.
The values that we use as guidelines are just that: a framework that we are continuously checking against ourselves and our work: what we’re doing, who we’re talking to, and what we’re organizing for. There are also a few great primers for talking to people about this work and doing outreach and explanation, like the animated video above. Ed Whitfield from the Fund For Democratic Communities, has this incredible 4-minute speech where he breaks down the “teach a man to fish” parable and remixes it into a case for more economic democracy, community wealth building and collective ownership.
Mira: What are your long-term vision and goals for the transformation of the economy in NYC?
The Collective: Our vision is a vibrant and growing movement to provide greater economic security, improved health, and increased democracy for our communities.
Our primary goals are to:
Make the strong solidarity economy practices that already exist in New York City visible. Check out our map and our films.
Bring the various sectors of the solidarity economy into conversation with each other for collaboration and mutual benefit. We want to build both economic and political power.
Grow the solidarity economy by driving more traffic into existing initiatives while inspiring and supporting the development of new ones.
Create democratic and cooperative cultures to replace those of competition and hierarchy which characterize corporate capitalism. It isn’t enough to just have a “green” business or “social” enterprise–we have to radically change the way we relate to each other and the purpose of economic activity.
Bridge gaps between social justice grassroots economic community development movements.
Mira: How can people get involved with and help SolidarityNYC?