September 30, 2014

Penn Loh: Alternatives to Walmart?

Editor’s Note: The below is a reposting of “Alternatives to Walmart?” from our friend Penn Loh. Read more of his work at pennloh.wordpress.com.

walmart map

Having harvested rural and suburban retail markets, Walmart is now ploughing new ground in cities with their smaller urban groceries. From Los Angeles to Chicago and now in Boston, communities are debating over Walmart. On the one hand, residents of economically struggling neighborhoods (often also food deserts) want jobs and access to affordable groceries. On the other, Walmart has become identified with everything that’s wrong with the global economy: workers exploited, environment trashed, local businesses destroyed, and governments paid off.

Walmart’s entry into cities raises vexing questions for community revitalization and development. If you think Walmart will eventually come, then how do you fight for a better deal for workers and the community? If you just say no, then what are other development possibilities? This latter question is the one that a community-university partnership recently started exploring. This article shares some of the learning from the spring 2012 Practical Visionaries Workshop, which brought together 20 organizers from Boston area community groups and graduate students from the Tufts Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning.

We took on this bigger question because it’s the one that rarely gets asked in the heat of battle. But it is the question that must be addressed if, in the longer term, we are to move towards a more just and sustainable economy. Many of the community partners were equivocal about waging intensive campaigns against Walmart, though some are involved in the ChangeWalmartMA coalition. If Walmart ultimately prevails, then the best prospect after several years of struggle would be slightly higher wages and perhaps a package of other community and environmental benefits. If Walmart is defeated, then the community is still left no better off than it was before. Worse yet, if you successfully keep Walmart out of one location, it still may end up in the neighborhood next door. (Though Walmart recently abandoned plans for stores in Somerville and Watertown, it still is looking for sites in Greater Boston.)

Thus, we felt that it was time to begin answering the question of alternatives to Walmart. Unfortunately, despite best efforts, there are not many examples of community economic development that have significantly reversed the tide against lower income communities. What are touted as best cases are often not much different from a Walmart or other big box store: mixed-use commercial developments with an anchor tenant, often a national chain (think Stop and Shop or Target). Some of these developments have been vital additions to communities. But are they creating good jobs? Are they generating shared wealth that recirculates locally? Are they leading to transformation of an unjust and unsustainable global economy?

Envisioning a New Community Economy

As we began exploring these questions, we found that we lacked the language to even talk about other models. In part, this difficulty stems from the dominance of free-market ideology (often called neo-liberalism outside the US). In part, we had trouble because we have put our own community organizing work into a box of civic engagement; we rarely think of local organizing as shaping “the economy”, which we perceive to flow down from the national and global levels.

Therefore, our first step was to better understand the existing (or “old”) economy. By looking at the 60 years since World War II, we started to grasp that there is a relationship between how the economy works (and who it works for) and public policy and politics. What we have today is not inevitable due to technological progress or “natural” market forces.

While we are told in fairy tale style that capitalism has triumphed over all alternatives, we felt the need for new stories about the economy, as we are not all living happily ever after. These new narratives are also frameworks to help us understand the differences and similarities between development models. What makes Walmart better or worse than another national grocery chain, from the perspective of workers, the community, and the global economy? Perhaps one pays better wages and benefits, helping stabilize families and community. But perhaps both still suck profits out of the neighborhood back to corporate headquarters and shareholders.

We found that we are searching for the same things as many others across the globe that some are calling a new economy movement. The Occupy movement helped open up more space to imagine life beyond the current economy. In Latin America, Canada, and Europe, there are already well developed networks and emerging governmental strategies to support the social or solidarity economy – one that doesn’t operate solely for private profit, but based on cooperation, mutual support, equity, and sustainability.

The new economy is not a singular and top-down vision, but a set of diverse but interlinked practices that can sustain us materially and spiritually. The economy is not just what’s sold in the marketplace, but also the gifts that we give, the caring for family and friends, and the food we grow for ourselves. It’s not just about having a job, but a livelihood. It’s not just making more things more cheaply while exhausting our Earth’s resources and causing climate chaos; it’s about bringing economy and ecology into one circle. It’s not just about choosing an alternative lifestyle, but doing what’s necessary to survive and thrive.

Emerging Models

We found inspiration in the many places outside of the US that have been cultivating a new economy. Launched in 1956, Mondragon in Spain has built a network of more than 100 worker-owned cooperatives employing more than 80,000. In Argentina, we learned about the workers who occupied their factories and took them over when the economy collapsed in 2001. In Quebec, we were inspired by the formation of a social economy network in the late 1990s, which with labor union partnership created its own investment fund to support nonprofit and cooperative businesses. A number of South American countries, such as Brazil and Venezuela, have national-level secretariats for the solidarity economy, providing technical assistance and investment funds.

While the movement outside the US may seem light years ahead, we also discovered that the seeds of a new economy are being sown right here at home. Some of these efforts are more recent and consciously about laying the foundations for a new economy. However, some are decades old, even if they don’t yet see themselves as part of a new economy. Here in Massachusetts, we can point to a number of well established worker cooperatives, such as Equal Exchange, a worker owned fair trade coffee company and Red Sun Press. We also have large numbers of socially-owned housing developments, where tenants have significant level of ownerhip control. In Springfield, the Alliance to Develop Power has leveraged tenant ownership of 4 housing developments to build their community economy. Perhaps the best case from Boston is the community land trust established by Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in 1988, where they took control over a swath of vacant land and have since built several hundred units of affordable housing as part of their “urban village”.

The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland have gained much attention for launching several worker-owned cooperatives serving the City’s universities and hospitals. So far, they have launched a green commercial laundry, solar-installation/weatherization company, and commercial greenhouse producing fresh lettuce. With significant support from City and institutional leaders, this initiative is fashioning itself after Mondragon, aspiring to build a network of 10 cooperatives with 500 worker-owners in the next several years.

Evergreen has inspired a number of similar efforts in cities across the US. We had the opportunity to learn directly from two such initiatives – one from Springfield, Massachusetts and one from the Bronx. In Springfield, the Wellspring project has brought together anchor institutions and community partners with University of Massachusetts and the Center for Popular Economics to plan for launching a food hub and green building business in the next year. The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative has also been in planning mode for more than a year, with key community groups, a labor union, and MIT CoLab anchoring the process.

Then What?
As we were learning and being inspired, we also drilled down into the specific question of how to envision alternatives to Walmart in the Boston area. A group of five masters students completed a major report, guided by our community partners, entitled “If Not Walmart, Then What? Envisioning a Different Paradigm for Local Economic Development in Roxbury and Somerville”. The first half of this report tells the stories (in popular terms) of the local economy with Walmart and with a new community economy. The second half frames out a systems alternative to Walmart and sketches out the possibility of a food cooperative in Somerville and a community-owned organics repurposing facility in Roxbury.

Perhaps the biggest lightbulb moment for our exploration this spring is that an alternative to Walmart is not simply a different development on the same site. Walmart doesn’t just bring a new store, but a whole global supply chain, with goods produced across the country and world. A different paradigm starts with thinking about the regional economy and what can be produced here. Thus, we started to look not just at where food is sold but where it is grown and produced. We also looked at what happens to energy and waste flows. The possibility of turning organic waste into fertilizer and energy inspired the idea of an organics facility in Roxbury. In short, we needed to look more holistically at the system.

This exploration is only a beginning. As inspired as we are by efforts such as Evergreen, we also have major questions about how these models are coordinated with community organizing, policy change, local democracy, and building community power. In the end, we have even more questions than answers. But we know that there will have to be work on a number of fronts, including:

  • Popular education – the work of redefining the economy has to proliferate to the streets. This is tough work, but community organizers are looking for ways to connect short-term campaigns to long-term vision.
  • Assessing assets – we already have a lot to work with, but it often goes unrecognized and synergies left untapped. Mapping of existing businesses, residents’ skills, and community-controlled institutions will be critical.
  • Demonstration and pilot projects – functioning enterprises, even if not perfect, are important for showing that other economies are possible. They are also fertile learning grounds for how to build our own solidarity economy.
  • Public policy and resources – a new economy will need public support in the form of policies and resources. Policies should start to tilt the playing field towards the new economy while curbing the worst practices of the old economy.
  • Coordination – the new economy can bring together many partners who have not traditionally worked together, including community groups, unions, environmentalists, local businesses, social investors, and anchor institutions.

Look here for future posts related to the new community economy and our partner efforts here in the Boston area.

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