Friday, August 28, 2009

The JASeconomy Story

Late last year, a call out was made through NoBAWC (Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives) at Counterpulse in San Francisco to discuss the people's response to the economic crisis and alternative economic solutions. All kinds of folks came out and decided the discussion should not end there. So a few of us have been meeting for many months now and decided to host a Festival of Grassroots Economics to make visible the alternatives already happening in the Bay Area, to create synergies and to initiate new projects to create a formidable challenge to the highly dysfunctional capitalist economic system. In a sense to take our economy back and put it in the hands of the working people. The all volunteer group organizing this is JASecon - Just. Alternative. Sustainable. economy (pronounced Jazz Econ, a musical metaphor).

I thought one way to strengthen these grassroots economic projects was to create community currencies that would enable an abundant medium exchange to support projects that meet people's needs and support local businesses in a time of monetary scarcity. The energy and resources exist to create the new economy, but community currencies would be helpful in facilitating the exchanges to move the energy and resources to where they need to go even the US dollars may not be there. Here is Bernard Marsalek's (long time worker at worker cooperative Inkworks press and member of NoBAWC) take on JASecon.

Bernard Marszalek
18 August 2009

For many Americans working for oneself is a dream. And every year thousands, if not tens of thousands, hope to realize that dream – some for more than the first time.

To start a business, first an opportunity to make a profit on the venture needs to be present. Next, a business plan is devised to show how to take advantage of that opportunity. And lastly, the plan is presented to a banker, or a venture capitalist, or, if you are so fortunate, an uncle with deep pockets. The process may not be easy, after all a vast majority of new businesses fail within the first few years, but it is a well-worn path with little mystery to it and considerable support for the attempt.

But what if you see an unmet economic need in your community and you want to address it and are not driven by the overwhelming desire to profit from the venture? How do you start? Who do you see about planning and financing?

Six years ago a group in West Oakland, a low-income community, found themselves in this position. Their goal was to bring fresh produce and good food to a neighborhood abandoned by chain groceries. The prospect of selling food in this community didn’t register with the corporate world as a profitable pursuit. This meant that the usual financial resources were unresponsive, especially to a group with no history of running a grocery store and no collateral to put up.

By concentrating on the obvious social need, and guided by the goals of achieving food security, the group successfully sought seed money from foundations to finance the project. First to organize were community members with a common desire to work together in a democratic way. Several years of intense work ensued to develop into a functioning collective with a true peer relationship. In the meantime they surveyed their neighborhood and visited groceries, both cooperatives and “natural foods” establishments. They studied nutrition, made contacts with farmers to supply food directly to lower costs, and they sold food in stalls around the neighborhood to establish friendships and solidify their project to ensure its success.

As they embedded themselves in their community and demonstrated their savvy they did fund-raising, sought non-traditional financing and requested city economic development funds.

Finally, after all this work the Mandela Food Cooperative, had its grand opening as a democratically managed worker co-op. After only a few months of operation they have exceeded their financial expectations.

Worker co-ops are the smallest section of the cooperative sector in the U.S. and as such are for the most part “below the radar”, even though there are over 300 of them spread across the country. The San Francisco Bay area has the largest concentration of worker co-ops, collectives and volunteer groups focused on economic ventures. Many people know Rainbow Grocery, Cheeseboard Collective and Inkworks Press, all decades old; less well known are the three dozen democratically managed workplaces that are members of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC, pronounced No Boss).

Besides these enterprises, there are numerous groups, organized in diverse ways, developing an economy from the grassroots, outside of public and private funding. This new economy is most evident in the area of urban agriculture. The Bay area initiated the first schoolyard gardens where students learned that food comes from well-tended soil and not store shelves. Twenty years later some of the graduates from the schoolyard gardens are reclaiming vacant and abandoned urban lots and growing vegetables.

Many of these gardens involve neighbors, kids and adolescents in a community-wide project showing what organized groups can do to meet their needs. Contacts with local farmers furthers the learning process and extends the range of the urban, grassroots agricultural economy. What’s significant is that the lessons learned organizing for food security can be transferred to other areas. Civic skills develop and opportunities for both individuals and community betterment are realized.

Another large sector of the alternative economy arises from the cycling community. Bike kitchens, for example, have sprung up everywhere. They provide opportunities to learn mechanical skills to aid the mobility of kids and adults in dense urban environments. As this sector expands innovative designs for bikes to meet specific tasks are engineered. Berkeley is the home, for instance, of several ventures that explore human-powered mobility for disabled people. And as the cycling community moves into the mainstream non-automotive urban design begins to take shape.

Many areas of grassroots economic development spin off related projects. A kind of ripple effect occurs from what are essentially small, but highly creative projects. Both do-it-yourself green building design and urban agriculture led to the creation of a network of greywater projects, for example. A similar convergence led to urban agriculturalists offering gardening services for homeowners too busy to build and tend their own gardens. The home-grown surplus often then is shared with those who have no space for gardens or who can’t afford to buy fresh vegetables.

Similar synergies are evident with alternative fuels like bio-diesel – vegetable oils rescued from restaurants – that in their reuse provide an eatery with a “green” credential while at the same time lowering the carbon footprint of vehicle deliveries.

The diversity of community-based economic projects, from housing to community currencies, from alternative energy systems to collectively managed low-cost health care, from co-op janitorial services to opensource software creation, encompasses every sector, but is often unrecognized. There is no corporate marketing and branding. Some people trade with one co-op and never visit another. The average person may know of one street-level economic sector, but not how they relate to others.

A goal of the Grassroots Economic Festival is to bring together a variety of economic projects for the public to see close up and to appreciate the creativity and value of bottom-up efforts to fulfill real needs.

The same sort of insularity that we find with the public occurs with the practioners. Dedicated people apply their skills to one area to sustain an effort against great odds and never have the opportunity to see how what they have learned, what skills they have developed, might have relevancy in another area.

So another goal of the festival is to introduce these varied projects to the people involved in one area on a daily basis. We hope for synergies to become evident. For a vibrant, but still small economy, to step up its presence requires first the recognition that we are not isolated. With that recognition solidarity develops. And with solidarity we have the basis for creating a just and sustainable economy.

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