John Duda is Communications Coordinator for Democracy Collaborative. As part of PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project, a series of interviews and group conversations with leaders in the new economy and community resilience movements, we spoke with John about the role of place-based institutions as leaders in community re-investment, the expansion of cooperatives, and more:

Interview with John Duda (Edited Transcript)

Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
 
I’ve been lucky to witness what’s been going on in Cleveland, Ohio in the Evergreen Cooperatives project we’ve been working on – I’ve visited during a few key milestones in the process. For a lot of people doing work on economic alternatives, Transition, green economy and how to get there – it feels very isolated and marginalized, you always feel like you’re fighting against the current in a lot of ways.
 
What was really inspiring in Cleveland was at the groundbreaking: Green City Growers, the largest cooperative greenhouse in the US. What I saw was not something marginal, but something that was wildly embraced by the mainstream – the TV news, the mayor, the City Council, someone from the Senator’s office, even a high school marching band was there – and at that point it was just an empty lot in a distressed area in Cleveland, but to see the amount of energy behind an idea like worker ownership, intentionally green, part of a decentralized network, being treated as common sense, as the way the whole city wanted to move forward, was incredibly inspiring.
 
To visit a little later when the project had opened, walking into this gigantic greenhouse, a state of the art facility, talking to the workers, people who were going to be taking ownership of this project – I have a ton of respect for small scale, low intensity urban ag projects, I think they are vital – but to see something at such a massive scale, you could see giant rows of lettuce being prepared for local consumption, felt like walking into the future.
 
That sense of concreteness has really helped me believe in the work I’m doing, to communicate about where we’re going, to see this stuff get some traction, to develop and grow and spread has been really amazing.
 
What is most alive in your work right now?
 
When I think about what’s most alive in the work we’re doing right now, I’m really excited about the energy that’s emerging around changing the way "anchor institutions" relate to their communities. This is something we’ve been working on for a long time – we’re really starting to see a shift in consciousness and best practices among major non-profits like hospitals and universities.
 
Similar to the way that the folks working on divestment are seeing a turning of the corner, we’re seeing on our end that these same institutions, which control huge amounts of resources, are starting to get very intentional about how they’re spending their money and using those resources.
 
We developed "the anchor dashboard:" a set of recommended metrics for measuring how an anchor institution impacts the local community to see what was and wasn’t working. It’s a fairly wonky piece of analysis but we’ve found it excites people. University officials across the country are excited about it. Student groups are using it to inspect how their universities are relating to their communities. Seeing that amount of energy around something that we see as very strategic is tremendously exciting – the amount of resources that could go toward sustaining the community instead of continuing in an exploitative and unsustainable economy.
 
An "anchor Institution" is a large non-profit institution, classically a university or hospital, that is bound by place. Unlike a corporation which has a lot of resources, but is not bound to place or community. It’s those resources and long-term perspective on relationship to place that offers some long-term possibilities for building the new economy.
 
One of the things that has been interesting is that we’re at the stage of convening a group of universities to adopt this. But there have been students using this for a while who will be releasing their results over the coming year. It’s interesting to see the way that having a framework– it’s not the world’s most perfect thing, these are always provisional– how that can really start to shift the conversation and help people see what their options are.
 
Oberlin has made a big commitment to sustainable investment in their endowment and are figuring out how that’s going to relate to local investing. We’ve seen amazing projects involving hospitals all around the country. A particularly exciting one involves Gunderson Lutheran. It’s probably the most sophisticated multi-stakeholder food system initiative in the country, an effort to remap an entire food system in rural WI.  An effort to rebuild the structure around a set of cooperatives going from growers to packagers to distributors to consumers, with a hospital playing a central role in the funding and organizing.
 
That’s the sort of thing we’re starting to see all around the country–amazingly creative thinking. Like the Cleveland story, which is about local purchasing and not just the cooperatives themselves. So large hospitals–especially University Hospitals–that set of concrete numbers for local and minority hiring, spending money in local communities, etc. they used that to refine their behavior in a way that really made sense and was creative on how to address these issues of economic inequality and build a sustainable community.
 
There are big policy opportunities here to take this higher. For example, the Affordable Care Act is affecting non-profit hospitals. Most people are focusing on the insurance component, but there’s also a requirement that hospitals have to assess the health needs of their communities. Traditionally they did a little charity care and maybe some fitness courses. But economic inequality is actually the single largest driver of health outcomes–poverty. So these institutions are now open to hearing that providing for public health means joining the fight against poverty, and that they can do that with their purchasing and investing decisions, by investing in their local community. It’s an exciting conversation to be able to start having now.
 
Imagine it is five years from now and your work has succeeded wildly.  Frame your next responses as if you are speaking from that future point in time.
 
a)    What has been catalyzed in the world?
 
It’s amazing looking back and thinking about 2014- when there were only a couple thousand people across the country in worker coops – many more excited about it, but it was hard to see how we were going to get to scale. It’s really amazing how much has changed over the last five years. The collapse of the old economic paradigm happened a lot faster than we thought it would, in part because the divestment movement on campuses across the country really accelerated, and universities were looking to move millions and millions of dollars into different kinds of investments, which helped catalyze the idea that there was a scalable future in some of these kinds of investments. Seeing this take off over the last five years, cities understanding this is a much better way of doing economic development than just handing money to corporations.
 
Anyone looking at economic policy could have seen that the old approach–lobbing suitcases of money at big corporations and hoping they created a few jobs– was ridiculous and a massive race to the bottom. Looking at the amount of worker coopers in development, unions, universities supporting the network of cooperatives. In 2014 it was just spreading from city to city, but now supporting the community economy is seen as a basic part of being an anchor institution. Seeing all these pieces come together and support each other, with community-driven finance taking it to scale. Now that we have millions of people in worker cooperatives, it’s exciting to see the direction the economy has taken.
 
Ken: I want to share with you a quote from another interviewee. This is a condition from 2014 as this person sees it.  Can you reflect on how this might have changed in 2019? The interviewee said "When we look at the worker cooperative movement in the US, a large majority of those projects are concentrated around white workers. I believe it’s a very sincere and true desire in the intent and political belief to talk about democracy as central to the creation of worker cooperatives in the US, yet we’re in a context where the application is not playing out in that way.
 
One of the things we realized over the last couple of years is that people had a vision of what the worker cooperative movement was that didn’t actually correspond to where it was at. In 2014 we still had to remind people that the largest worker cooperative in the US, by far, came out of the needs of primarily women of color, Cooperative Home Care Associates.  There were 1,100 worker-owners there, which was 1/3 of the worker cooperative movement in the US. People had this vision of worker coops, to put it bluntly, as kind of well-meaning white hippie projects, but what was really valuable over the last couple years is that people came to understand that the best and most vibrant parts of the coop movement were in fact those that were designed to address the needs of low income, minority communities that had been traditionally marginalized by the economic system and that those were the folks who were going to drive the worker cooperative movement forward. While there’s still plenty of well-meaning cooperatives made up of folks coming from more of a place of relative privilege and seeking an un-alienated work place, people began to really understand that we really need to focus on different types of communities in order to take this work to scale.
 
b)    Imagine that the emergence of the New Economy Coalition in 2014 was a key to the success of your work over those next five years. Tell us how that happened.
 
One thing the past 5 years has shown us is that at some points in history ideas really matter. Gar Alperovitz emphasized this, as did Immanuel Wallerstein. Ideas really don’t often change the course of history. But there are moments of crisis, moments of instability, when ideas, and not just ideas in one person’s head, but ideas that people are talking about and spreading and building institutions to advance, that there are key moments when those kind of ideas can really change what is going to happen.
 
Conferences like the one in Boston in June of 2014 really helped cement a network of theorists and scholars, practitioners and different institutions that allowed discussions around what the new economy is and who it is for to really change. In retrospect, those networks have proved to be quite amazing and brilliant in changing the economy.
 
Ultimately it was all of these various pieces – worker cooperative movement, sustainable investment, etc. – all of these various pieces began to scale on their own terms (including our own work with anchor institutions). As all of these things started to get legs, what had happened was that this network of communications grew. What we saw in the wave of activity that had happened around community development was that people got into silos too quickly and lost sight of the big picture – but what was exciting about this time period for the New Economy movement is that there was a real conscious and concrete effort made to articulate a vision, a plurality of visions, a sense of a shared horizon about where we wanted to go and how all these different pieces fit together or could fit together. Having that sort of basic understanding in place and effective networks to actually communicate that proved to be really essential in helping these developments accelerate each other as they got larger and larger.
 

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