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Imagination to Action: Building Commons Movement From the Ground Up

Tom O’Connell, political science professor emeritus at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, interviewed OTC co-director Julie Ristau and Program Director Alexa Bradley for a special commons issue of the Community Development Journal. For more about the Great Lakes Commons see the new website.

(Photo by Stephen Melkisethian under a Creative Commons license.)

On the Commons (OTC) is a commons movement strategy center founded in 2001. Through workshops, presentations, and direct consultation and support, OTC brings visibility to the commons movement, initiates and catalyzes commons work, and supports the development of commons-based solutions and leadership. Readers can access OTC’s Commons Magazine and online resource center at www.onthecommons.org.

The following interview with OTC Co-director Julie Ristau and Program Director Alexa Bradley was conducted by Tom O’Connell in Minneapolis, MN.

Tom: How did you first learn about the commons?

Julie: I was introduced to the commons back in 2005 after many years doing community organizing in both rural and urban settings. When I first learned about this idea of the commons, I completely resonated with it. I was stuck in the work I was doing, feeling there was more that mattered than framing issues and figuring out the next set of activities. It just felt like a breakthrough of sorts. The commons was a positive way of thinking about what we could stand for and what we were missing in our lives. It seemed a less rigid way of thinking about organizing. It felt more about connecting people and less about professionalized organizing and campaigns.

Alexa: I actually heard about the commons from Julie. I remember getting an invitation from Julie to a gathering that she was developing with others involved in the early days of On the Commons. It was such a significant moment because I was at a point in my own work where I was struggling with how to break through what felt like an inability of people to imagine a more life-giving future and more transformational goals in the work. A lot of the work I was doing at that point was trying to help organizations and communities build strategies for longer-term change. A key part of that was imagining a longer-term change that we would like to see. People seemed stuck. They wanted more and better health care and better jobs and more and better this and that but were really not able to envision more fundamental changes in our society.

I remember getting a letter from Julie and it just felt like yes, this was something that weaves together a number of themes that had at their essence a much more vibrant kind of citizenship; a sense of interconnectedness of human and ecological well-being and an emphasis on social equity as a central part of how we think about resources and how we use them and share them.

It felt like it was a very bold vision that had a lot of idealism in it but at the same time rooted in things that had both historical and present-day realities. That felt really helpful to me.

Tom: Did you feel that there was a tension between being practical on the one hand and visionary on the other, and was the commons the way to put these two together for you?

Julie: The commons felt both practical and visionary. Early in our collaboration, we developed a set of working assumptions, including the idea that re-connecting people to their imagination was necessary in order for people to have a sense of hope. Many of our early collaborations were about tapping into people’s almost cellular memories. That was part of our early design work and it still comes up.

Alexa: We were trying to open up space for people to think in more transformational terms about what is possible. We wanted to orient our practical work toward change that is needed and that people are really hungry for. The commons provided a bridge for this to happen.

Julie: In the beginning, talking about the commons was heavy lifting. We experimented with all sorts of things in our public workshops to foster a spirit of re-imagining what we share together. Everything from showing a big picture of the earth from space and asking how does this make you re-think the idea of home. We encouraged people to leap into a different way of experiencing and imagining what was possible in their lives and communities.

Tom: I remember, Julie, having you come to a Political Economy class I was teaching and doing a session on the commons. One of the things you did was ask the students to think about where they’ve experienced commons in their own life. That flipped the whole thing from something that happened back in Magna Carta days to a recognition that we do have experiences with the commons. The question really resonated with my students. It opened up the idea of the commons for them.

Alexa: We learned early on that the commons did resonate with people but it was actually often people who were not at the forefront of the nonprofit organizing world. It was hard for a lot of people with staff positions at organizations to make that leap and understand how they would incorporate a commons perspective into their work.

Often when we invite people to imagine something, the first things that surface come out of a dominant culture. It takes a little more digging to unearth the more creative and ultimately transformational ideas. What do we really want our communities to look like? What kind of relationships do we want between ourselves and other people, between ourselves and nature, between ourselves and the resources we share? These questions really take some deeper exploring because we have so much of an imprint from the dominant culture.

Tom: Aren’t there aspects of daily life, even in the United States, which do have elements of the commons: public parks, libraries, music, and other common cultural experiences? Does an awareness of examples like these offer a beginning to imagine what is possible?

Alexa: Early on it became clear that most people don’t think of our parks, public libraries, shared culture as being a commons.

Julie: A lot of our early work with various organizations and our website was focused on helping people see, name, and claim what belongs to all of us. From there, we moved to talking about how people create commons and how people govern and share them. That became much more central to our work and helped to guide us to more visible projects.

Tom: Can you talk a little bit about that work?

Julie: I can still remember an ‘ah-ha’ moment when we first started talking about commons-based solutions. We came to feel that people needed more than exposure to new ideas; they needed tangible ways to practice living out those possibilities. We started looking for key areas where commons-based solutions could actually help transform society and people’ lives. We became focused on what we loosely call the elemental commons, like water, land, and local food systems. We also, at that time, initiated a body of work that was much more local around how do cities and communities share power and make decisions. We looked at the deterioration of democracy in our civic life and explored how commons thinking and practice help with both of those arenas.

Alexa: We worked very deliberately to make the commons work a living practice. How do you reconnect a sense of belonging, a sense of this is ours, a sense of the kinds of relationships and decision-making structures that would enable a commons to be? There isn’t a manual out there for that, and so part of our work is really to figure out how to bring our organizing experience to supporting this commons sensibility.

Tom: You mentioned the work on food systems and land.

Julie: On the municipal front here in Minneapolis, we applied a commons-based approach to a local food system movement through the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative. We experimented with ways for citizens to co-create food-related policies and practices in partnership with the city planning agency. This was very different from how city processes are typically run, which is more of an input model where city officials lay out the parameters and solutions and then ask the community members for input on what city officials have already figured out.

OTC innovated a creative, commons-based partnership between the city and community as the form for the Minneapolis Food Council. In the role as a key catalyst and leader, we partnered with the city to create an innovative process that drew on a commons framework to distill the principles identified by the community as key to the success of the work: equity, collaboration, relationships with each other and our food, celebration, cultural distinctiveness, sufficiency, local ownership, and empowerment. The Minneapolis Food Council, formed in the spring of 2012, is a commons-based structure that has standing in the community and the city. It is constructed as a hybrid council, one that is neither fully owned nor fully independent of the city. The city went from not allowing food to be grown for sale within city boundaries, to welcoming this and looking for ways to assist these new urban farmers. New community gardens were created in record time, and the city is taking a partnership approach to access to water and insurance challenges. The city and community are focused together on creating a more equitable food system by thinking of new ways to approach our shared resources such as land, parks, public buildings, and public spaces.

Tom: So the ultimate goal isn’t simply doing a project or enacting a policy. It’s changing the way people think about what they’re doing and therefore how they do it. Is that accurate?

Julie: Yes. We use this term animateur to describe what we do and what Commons catalysts or leaders in the field are trying to do. To animate literally means to breathe new life into situations. Commons leaders spark reorientation by moving beyond ‘what is’ to ‘what could be’ and thereby illuminating latent and previously unimagined possibilities for a life-sustaining future. Animateurs engage in creative ways with people and groups to weave together what appear to be disparate efforts and bring to life equitable ways to steward our shared social and natural inheritance. As animateurs, we work to enable this different kind of leadership and a different kind of decision-making process that is so life-giving and energizing for community members that it takes on a life of its own. That’s what the community organizing always aspired to be, right?

Tom: Yes, and there are some parallels between the dynamics of what you’re describing with US nonprofits and similar dynamics with NGOs around the world as well as the field of community development more generally. Do you want to talk about the Great Lakes Initiative, which has been your most expansive undertaking so far?

Alexa: We were looking for places where people were already engaged in work conducive to commoning at a larger scale. We are living in an era of accelerating dispossession of the commons in the United States and globally: land grabs and water grabs and the displacement of people from commons that have been their livelihood for all recorded time. So if we’re proposing that the commons is a countervailing force to corporate control at that scale, we really need to see if that works. Is it something that can really come to life in this time, in this country, in meaningful ways? At the US Social Forum held in Detroit in 2010, we were engaged with people from Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth, and Toronto. Many of them were young and people of color, who were looking at water questions. We began to consider what would happen if we began thinking and acting as if the Great Lakes were a commons.

Julie: The Great Lakes Commons also emerged from local and international work On the Commons was involved with. Our work with Heart of the Beast Theatre in Minneapolis provided a wonderful laboratory for developing our thinking and practice. It was a two-year process working with the theater and community members around how they experienced water. We did focus groups with the audiences, and it was very clear that people fundamentally understood they could not be disconnected from water. They did not like the concept of ownership of water. The word belonging is what people really gravitated to.

That experience was a real gateway opportunity and taught us that people could really understand the commons through their relationship to water.

Alexa: The other point that was really important about the Great Lakes was changing our thinking about the commons as stuff to understanding it as a set of social relationships. The organizing work really began with asking who would need to be part of the conversation if we’re trying to activate a body of commoners around the lakes. What kinds of relationships would they need to have with one another? We challenged ourselves to think beyond the ‘usual suspects’. There are a number of water activists already visible in the Great Lakes area, including some very bold ones who have pushed the boundary of major environmental issues.

We realized there are many other people who should be part of that conversation who aren’t typically involved. The most obvious omission are the First Nation and Native American people who are very much a part of the Great Lakes but are left out of almost all policy conversations about them. We started connecting with the leadership of these communities in various parts of the Great Lakes.

We were also interested in ways that water questions affect low-income and working-class people in urban areas, so we connected with the Detroit People’s Water Board that was fighting against life-threatening water shut-offs for people who couldn’t pay their water bills.

We started making connections between the range of issues and constituencies we saw. You could drop any of these issues into a silo: the issue is fracking, no, the issue is bottling, no, the issue is pollution. We stepped back and said these are all manifestations of the fact that our commons are being violated and we, citizens of the Great Lakes, don’t have the power to shape our water future. We need to change that.

Julie: We never would enter a conversation about the Great Lakes without people saying things like, I would give everything up for the Great Lakes.

Alexa: Yes and when we asked elected officials and staff of public agencies about the governance of the Great Lakes, they said they didn’t know enough to comment. This illustrated again just this huge disconnect from people’s passion for the Great Lakes and how they could act on that passion.

Part of what has made this an important undertaking is the audaciousness of the proposition that the Great Lakes could become an actual functioning commons. After all, you’re talking about the governments of the United States and Canada! So there’s one level in which it feels completely unrealistic. On the other level, the proposition has been so attractive and we’ve found an incredible outpouring of involvement from folks like the professors at Michigan Technological University who are taking this up as a central theme for their research, to artists and activists of different stripes, to people working in public health. There’s just been this incredible engagement because of the attachment to the place and to the lakes.

Julie: Creating a Great Lakes Commons is a great aspiration, but how do you make it doable? That has been the work of On the Commons. One major piece is the importance of indigenous leadership. Indigenous communities bring cultural beliefs and practices that embody commons-based approaches.

Alexa: A second thread has been a movement toward a Great Lakes Charter. One of the things that have been typical of many commons over the centuries has been some kind of people’s charter. If you look at the Magna Carta or the Forest Charter, people were suddenly finding their historic territories encroached on. They needed a way to articulate what was collectively theirs: to define and protect common use and common responsibilities. We thought it would be important to actually have a charter that articulated a vision for the Great Lakes as a commons, not just a document that only few people wrote, but a way of engaging people in thinking about what the Great Lakes meant to them and how they envisioned them being taken care of as a commons.

The creation of the Charter is a multiple step process in which people from a range of communities around the Lakes are coming together to discuss what they see as the orienting principles and vision for the Great Lakes Commons.

We are also exploring both existing and emerging legal traditions that might offer a legal basis for a Great Lakes Commons. This includes public trust laws, a key tradition in Western law that has its origins in Roman law. Treaty law is also very important because it recognizes the right of specific indigenous communities to care for, access, and use water in perpetuity. There are also new international legal approaches based on the rights of Mother Earth, that we think have the potential to bolster the case for our Great Lakes Commons and the care of that as an ecosystem not just as a set of political jurisdictions.

Julie: I do think that there’s something emerging in this Great Lakes Commons initiative that is helping set the stage for other large battles around the world to protect our natural resources. At the center of this is that the crises in these large international natural commons require a transformed governance. Going back to our earlier conversation about imagination, the Great Lakes Charter is so important because, without it, people can’t imagine a different kind of governance. The fundamental world view that our current system of governance is based on is one of dominion over, a narrowly Western interpretation. I think that the idea of transforming governance is going to be front and center over the next twenty-five years. How does that kind of evolution and change take place in the current system dominated by short-term thinking and short-term funding?

Tom: I’m glad you mentioned governance. One of the big conversations within the commons movement is the relationship between the state and governance within the commons. In the case of the Great Lakes, the state is supposed to serve as the guardian of the public interest and the referee between the various interest groups that make claims on the commons. Would the commons way of governance replace state regulation, would it augment state regulation?

Julie: We do believe the state is still important, but it often fails to fulfill its duty of protection and guardianship. We (and many others) are exploring a more nested or polycentric governance in which people have the opportunity to participate at various levels and scales in ways that are authentic and grounded in real agency. And along with rethinking governance, we also need to recognize that a change in world view is required. We need to shift from the idea that water is a resource that needs to be managed to the notion that we are actually responsible to the water. We need to create processes that can connect people who do have that sense of responsibility to opportunities to actually live that value out.

Tom: What are some of your reflections on the work looking backward and moving ahead?

Alexa: One thing that really struck me is that when you create space for people to participate in solution-making, they come in. There’s a guy who created an entire GIS interactive mapping program for the Great Lakes Commons just on his own. People are creating ideas all the time. One person wants to organize a symposium at his university; another wants to do art projects. There’s just an amazing amount of creative energy that is unleashed in a space that really invites community leadership.

Julie: We’ve talked about the experimental nature of this commons work over the last twelve years. A lot of our work has been largely invisible. It’s been about incubating efforts to unleash the creativity that could provide the basis for a transformed governance. And as wealth in this country continues to shift to the one percent, it’s going to be harder to fund this kind of work. Yet, at the same time, I think the commons way of working sparks positive forward thinking that we need in these times.

Tom: Thinking back to when you started this work, how would you compare the awareness of and interest in the commons then and now?

Alexa: When we first started, I remember that in almost every conversation we would ask ourselves, do have to use the word commons? No one is going to recognize it or have any idea what it means.

Tom: I think I may have said that.

Alexa: I think we all did at some point, right. No one says that anymore. I was just at this gathering in Bangkok and people were starting to talk about land grabs in terms of a fight for the commons.

Julie: It’s such a relief. It’s so ironic that you’d ask that question. I just got an email from a city staff person for Home Grown in Minneapolis. She has just sent out a notice to our entire team praising a new book, Nature for Sale – Commons versus Commodities, by Giovanna Ricoveri with a foreword by Vandana Shiva. That wouldn’t have happened even three years ago.

Tom: Wow, a city staffer!

Julie: I think people are starting to wake up to what is life-giving. I believe the enclosure of so much that is makes life sustainable on so many levels has reached a tipping point. More and more people are seeing the commons as a forward path toward a different and better future.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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