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Transition & the New Economy: Reflections from CommonBound

At the New Economy Coalition “CommonBound” Conference in Boston earlier this month, more than 600 people came together to explore how to reform and rebuild our flawed economic system.  

The New Economy Coalition formed last year to convene a wide variety of groups working on everything from banking reform to alternative economies and indicators of progress to fossil fuel divestment, and so much more.  Like Transition, the New Economy is not easy to put in a box.

Based on a series of appreciative inquiry interviews I’m conducting as part of Post Carbon Institute’s Weaving the Movement Project, as well as what I observed at the conference itself, here are some characteristics of the emerging new economy and the movement that’s building it:

·         Many local living economies based on mutual support, cooperation, and ecological boundaries vs one monoculture globalized economy

·         Divestment from extractive industries paired with regenerative, community-oriented re-investment

·         More equitable wealth distribution, with an emphasis on deep democracy (cooperatives, corporate influence out of politics, public banking, etc.) and social justice

·         A shift in values – away from material wealth toward community, ecology, culture, health, etc.

·         The new economy movement is a diverse ecosystem, where many different organizations hold a similar vision but fulfill distinct niches (focus area, geographic, audience, organizing model, etc.)

Community Resilience & Localization

Before the formal opening of the conference, Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JPNET), a Transition initiative in Boston that is also part of the Institute for Policy Studies, led a new economy tour of the Jamaica Plain neighborhood.  After reading and hearing about many of JPNET’s projects, from their State of the Neighborhood event and Boston Food Forest Coalition to the work they are doing to support local businesses in transitioning to resilience, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet some their team members and learn more about their approach to making Transition inclusive and appealing to a diverse, multi-cultural community.

Highlights of the tour included:

·         Stony Brook Public Gardens – public food-producing plots on the site where the community blocked a highway from coming through in the 1980s;

·         Agricultural “Ag” Hall – an “urban agriculture supply and resource center” focused on chickens, bee-keeping, maple sugaring, cheese-making and canning, worm composting, mushroom cultivation, changing zoning to promote urban agriculture, and more;

“Urban agriculture brings us closer to what sustains us, to nature. You come to know it’s a good day for sugaring because the sun is shining and it was cold last night.” – Bill Perkins, Ag Hall founder

·         Bikes Not Bombs  - a non-profit that trains young people how to refurbish used bikes, and provides more than 5,000 bikes to the local community as well as communities in Central America, Africa, and the Caribbean;

·         The original Sam Adams brewery (where legend has it beer flowed freely from a spigot for all employees to enjoy…), which was purchased by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and now houses non-profits—including JPNET—and local businesses, like a permaculture landscaping cooperative and a commercial kitchen that serves 29 small food enterprises;

·         Main Street – lined with small businesses like restaurants, nail and beauty salons, dry cleaners, etc. which provide livelihoods for many community members. As part of their goal of creating a cancer-free economy in Jamaica Plain, JPNET and JP Local First are supporting these businesses in transitioning away from the use of toxic chemicals and carcinogens;

·         Plaza Meat Market, a landmark neighborhood business which JPNET and JP Local First have helped to localize its supply chain;

·         JP yard-sharing program connecting aspiring gardeners with homeowners who are willing to share their land;

·         And Egleston Community Orchard, a formerly vacant lot that neighbors reclaimed and converted to food production and a community meeting space.

Following the tour, we discussed JPNET’s approach to making their work inclusive and relevant to their community, including hosting bilingual meetings and events, leading with economic or “pocketbook” issues, and always having local food at their events. You can learn more about JPNET’s approach in this article from the Reconomy Project.

During the conference itself, JPNET ‘s Sarah Byrnes co-hosted a workshop called “Local Resilience, Local Power: Small Group Organizing as a Lever for Transition” along with Sachie Hopkins Hayakawa, Youth & Student Organizer for the New Economy Coalition and  member of Pittsburgh’s Maypop Collective for Climate & Economic Justice. Orion Kriegman of JPNET and Pamela Boyce Simms of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Transition Hub led a workshop on “Organizing for Regional Resilience: Protecting the Commons & Building the New Economy,” along with representatives of SolidarityNYC and Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance to discuss the potential of bioregional-level organizing in supporting community resilience and new economy efforts.   I didn’t have a chance to attend either of the Local Resilience or Regional Organizing workshops, but was heartened by the overall emphasis on community resilience and the leadership of fellow Transitioners.

I also had the opportunity to meet Joe Grafton of the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA)and attend his workshop which highlighted a number of creative campaigns AMIBA members run to generate support for independent businesses in their communities, like July’s “Independents Week,” which have a proven impact on increasing independent business sales.

We discussed the tremendous potential of localization and independent business in engaging people along all points of the political spectrum in building the new economy, and developed the idea of “Divesting with Every Purchase You Make” as a call to action to shift significant amounts of resources out of multinational corporations and into local communities through localization and indie biz.

Just Transition

In addition to the role of community resilience, the conference emphasized the importance of justice and inclusion in the new economy, and made an explicit effort to raise the voices of youth and people of color. I was most energized to learn about resilience-based organizing efforts happening in frontline communities and urban communities of color, and in particular the work of Movement Generation, the Climate Justice Alliance, and the Fund for Democratic Communities. These groups are developing high-level strategy to reclaim the commons and challenge political and corporate power, at the same time actively creating new economic alternatives. You can learn more about Movement Generation’s vision for an oppositional economy in a recent interview I conducted with MG co-founder Mateo Nube.

I left the conference even more passionate about exploring how the Transition groups I organize with (Transition Sebastopol and the Northern California Community Resilience Network) – as well as the broader movement – can, where appropriate, build bridges to support and learn from the powerful work happening in aligned movements.

The Most Important Lesson

Transitioning our economy to one that is truly sustainable requires a bold willingness to radically re-imagine how we do business. It demands difficult conversations around privilege and power, the importance of individual responsibility, and how to equitably sustain more than seven billion people on a planet with finite resources. It necessitates a fundamental shift of culture and economic models - away from consumerism, exploitation, and extraction toward community, cooperation, and regeneration. It means we must internalize rather than externalize: not only the social and environmental impacts of our economic activity, but our power to create change.

After four intense days of listening, learning, brainstorming, visioning, and connecting, I came away exhausted and incredibly hopeful – deeply inspired both by the innovative new economy work already taking place in communities across the country (Boston, Detroit, Jackson, Cleveland, Black Mesa, the list goes on..) as well as the immense potential for economic transformation represented by the diverse organizations and individuals in attendance.

I left the conference with some big questions to ponder…

·         How will the new economy balance equity and ecology?

·         Is the new economy based on a growth, steady-state, or de-growth model?

·         Does the new economy movement need a coordinated vision and strategy, or should our work together moving forward evolve organically?

But amidst all the information and inspiration I gleaned from those four days, there was one gem that really stuck with me. In a plenary titled “A Just Transition: What Does It Look Like? How Do We Get There?” Joe Uehlein of the Labor Network for Sustainability reminded us that no matter who we’re talking to or what we are up against, no matter how angry we are at the state of our current economy or its impacts, our efforts to the build the new economy should always come from a place of love.

To learn more about the new economy movement:

·         Visit the New Economy Coalition website, which includes a list of coalition members & video highlights from CommonBound

·         Read an overview of CommonBound by Tom Llewellyn of Shareable

·         Read more on inequality & limits to growth in “What Piketty Forgot” by Noel Ortega of the Institute for Policy Studies

·         Read interviews with new economy leaders (including Transition US Co-Director Carolyne Stayton) from PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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