Aaron Tanaka is a community organizer, Co-Director of the Center for Economic Democracy, Startup Manager at the Boston Impact Initiative, and New Economy Coalition Board Member. 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 Aaron about the transformative power of grassroots organizing and leadership development, the prison-industrial complex, participatory budgeting, and more:
Interview with Aaron Tanaka (edited transcript)
Share a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
This story is from my time with the Boston Worker’s Alliance (BWA), which is where I had the opportunity to really grow as an organizer and develop my sense of possibility and practice in relation to people and trying to do real work. I’ll talk about the time we passed our bill, which was a highlight, a symbolic moment in a broader organizational story. BWA is an organization of under and unemployed workers in Boston, people with criminal records coming out of the prison system with barriers to employment. We started the organization realizing there was a real lack of organizing work around the issue of joblessness itself. There were lots of organizations in the community providing direct services, helping people train or write their resumes, but people weren’t viewing the crisis of joblessness as a structural or political issue. Instead, [unemployed] people are being told they’re the problem – that they’re unemployed because they have a CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) or because they didn’t go to college or because they made some other mistake – as opposed to understanding that this is really a product of a racist, sexist, classist economy that’s developed more intensely over the last forty years.
Our work began in the summer of 2005 doing listening sessions in the community, asking people who were unemployed and struggling to survive to come together and talk about what their biggest issues were around why they weren’t able to find work. Out of that conversation, after talking to more 120 people who were unemployed, mostly people of color, we realized the criminal record issue, the CORI, was increasingly prevalent in people’s inability to find work. At that time CORI wasn’t a prominent political issue, wasn’t really on anyone’s radar, and some people didn’t even know their criminal record was stopping them from getting work.
Our story was in a lot of ways a very traditional community organizing story, but what was most powerful for me was the role the members in my organization as well as the many other groups that were part of this campaign played, putting themselves out there. Many people, when they first came to my organization, had criminal records and didn’t feel comfortable talking about their situations because there was so much judgment. But as we began learning more about the system, they began seeing they weren’t the only ones – that in fact, there were so many like them. We had a lot of courageous leaders who we were not only willing to put a lot of time and energy into the organizing work, but also willing to put themselves out there to the community and the broader public and the legislature to reject this notion that people with criminal records are inherently dangerous or inherently invaluable. We started changing the narrative, saying "we are members of the community." And more than half of the people in our community have criminal records.
People started going up to the statehouse and sharing their stories, sharing the struggles they’ve had that were very personal—dealing with family depression, not being able to get a job, going back to prison because they were so desperate—and really humanizing the issue in a way that hadn’t been done in Massachusetts.
It was a really powerful and exciting moment. It took us five years to pass the bill but we ultimately did, and that bill was actually written after five months of thinking by members of our organization and others who actually had criminal records. Often when you have legislative campaigns, the actual policy solutions aren’t necessarily developed by people who are impacted by the issues. In our case it took a lot of time, but there was a real sense of ownership and direct control over the whole conversation.
It was one of those campaigns in Massachusetts that was able to generate a broad base of support across multiple sectors including faith, business, law enforcement, youth, general community organizing, labor, and we built a coalition of over one hundred and forty organizations who were involved in dozens of rallies, a fifty mile march from mid-Massachusetts to Boston which took five days and stopped in small towns along the way, people telling stories and testifying, and the media, and I think through that process – although it was challenging – people were actually able to see the impact they had on the work.
The moment I always think about is when we were up in the balcony that last day of the legislative session in 2010 and were in the final hours. The legislators had until midnight to pass the bill and they literally passed it in the last hour of the whole two-year legislative cycle. To be up there with our members in the gallery, and the legislators would go and vote and we’d see the tally board start to light up green with all the positive votes. We were holding the hands of our members who had dedicated so much time and emotional energy into the process, living in this miraculous moment. We didn’t know if we’d actually be able to pass this bill, but by the end of that night, with half an hour left, we had passed it, and passed the bill overwhelmingly. I saw the tears and the relief and jubilation of people whose lives were going to be directly impacted, who were going to be freed of their old criminal records that were holding them back. We had banned the box for all public and private jobs in the state, which made us one of two states that had done that, and all these ideas had been pushed and forced by the members.
There was a moment two years before then when we were offered a compromise bill, and a lot of us who were the professional organizers, the staff people, the coalition, thought we should take the opportunity because we weren’t sure if we’d have another chance. But when we took the compromise bill back to our members, who would be the ones who would be impacted by and benefit from the legislation, they decided it was better not to take the bill and instead to keep fighting, keep pushing rather than accept the compromise because it wasn’t really going to fix the problem. It was a moment of anxiety for a lot of staff people, but also a moment of clear moral prioritization. A lot of organizers talk about the role of leaders and constituents, and that was an instance of really, genuinely asking the members and allowing them to make these decisions about what they were willing to fight for and to decide strategy. Two years later it ended up panning out in this really beautiful legislative victory.
Though it was a long experience, it really taught me that there are many forms and strategies for doing social change work, but ultimately the deepest and most transformative work is that which is based in grassroots organizing, leadership development, and creating space for people to build with each other and find their own solutions.
I don’t do direct grassroots organizing anymore, but my own commitment and experience and theory will always be rooted in how to support the communities on the frontlines that are experiencing things firsthand, and making space for folks on the ground to become the leaders they need to be.
What is most alive in your work right now?
I left the Boston Worker’s Alliance in 2012 and moved toward capacity building and new economy-related organizing. Primarily I work with two key organizations, the Center for Economic Democracy and the Boston Impact Initiative, which are complimentary but have distinct purposes, strengths, and capacities. I’ve been fortunate to play a leadership role in both. I feel grateful to be in a place where I can take the lessons I learned from the Boston Worker’s Alliance and apply them to movement building.
The overall point for me right now when talking about new economy is trying to grapple with what the long term vision for a truly new economy is. We’ve been developing a framework around the notion of economic democracy, trying to position a theory and framework that act as an alternative to capitalism as well as an alternative to centralized state socialism.
As an organizer at BWA, despite our amazing victory around CORI, it was clear to me that we were dealing with essential but ultimately band-aid solutions to the injustices we’re facing in our communities. In a lot of ways, my biggest critiques – even when I was in the organizing field – are that despite our general critique of capitalism as progressive organizers, in our non-profit work we have a real problem naming and articulating our critique of capitalism. I’ve always felt that issues like the prison-industrial complex, which we were focusing on at BWA, working at the intersection of the two systems of mass unemployment and mass incarceration, are directly tied into neo-liberalism and capitalism. We were spending so much energy dealing with the symptoms of the problem but not addressing the root causes, which is something that often happens in organizing but has started to change in the last few years.
For us, the question is how do we talk about alternatives to capitalism in a way that doesn’t immediately alienate people – including funders, which I think is part of the reason why some organizations are afraid to offer a broader analysis – but also how to talk about alternatives to capitalism in a coherent way. I think one of the main reasons we haven’t engaged more explicitly in the grassroots space around capitalism is because people don’t really know what they would be calling for. As you’re doing daily "survival" organizing work with a very focused campaign, to try take a step back and engage with people around a process and a system when you don’t really have a vision or a pathway on how to get out of the current system is difficult.
For me that felt like essential work that needed to be happening. We’ve had a lot of conversations about where we’ve been and the broad democratization of the American economy, which might be the way in which we can frame and engage the broader mainstream America in thinking about what the new economy could look like.
The thinking around that has been to hold up this notion of American Democracy as one that has had a conflicted history thus far but is finally at a place where women and people of color, for example, do have the right to vote, but recognizing that annual vote alone is fairly inconsequential when we’re seeing corporate takeover of American politics. But to also say there’s a vision of re-orienting the economy to one that is controlled by the people and communities.
As we talk about economic democracy, locally in Boston we’ve been doing work to highlight and illuminate what that could look like. It allows us to talk about concrete examples. Often what is referred to as "new economy" or "solidarity economy" has been around for generations. At the same time, economic democracy allows us to talk about the longer term alternatives to capitalism and centralized state socialism (which I can talk about more later).
In terms of the work that we’re doing, some of the work that we’ve done to manifest and demonstrate components of what a more democratic future could look like include, for example, our project here around participatory budgeting – local, democratic allocation of tax dollars – which is one of the campaigns BWA pushed for in the city of Boston while I was there. We’re pleased that last year as our past mayor was transitioning out, he agreed to pilot a $1 million youth-led participatory budgeting (PB) process, the first youth-only PB process in the country. A million dollars is not a lot of money – and the money was limited to only dealing with capital projects which are physical infrastructure projects in the city, so we couldn’t, for example, fund more youth jobs in the city – but the Center for Economy Democracy and myself and some of our staff, working with the Participatory Budgeting Project, were able to provide support to the City of Boston and I was able to be intimately involved in the roll out of this whole project.
We started in January and just had our vote last month (in June) where the youth (1700 from around the city) voted on the various projects that were brainstormed by youth, developed and fleshed out by young people working with the city’s budget staff to develop realistic projections on the costs and feasibility of these projects. They did a bunch of outreach and we had voting sites all over the city, in schools and community centers and youth groups and public T stops and shopping areas where the young people were at.
It was an incredible experience to watch, to see young people – even those who were just voting, who hadn’t designed a project – when we explained to them that there’s a million dollars that they get to help decide how to spend, with this look of incredulity around the fact that they would actually have any say in how the money was spent. Then they would look at the different projects and see computers at a school, or an art mural, or a feasibility study for a skate park, or fixing up one of the biggest parks in Dorchester, which is where much of our community is – and then talking through the different options with their friends and saying "This one is more expensive, and this one is cheaper, so we could probably fit more projects in."
It was an amazing experience, not because I think it’s going to fundamentally transform our budget process, and not because I think young people who voted once are now thinking about this on a daily basis. But to see that spark, this realization that they could have more power around how the city is run, and for them to start exercising their ability to make sophisticated decisions that politicians often say people aren’t capable of making, to see teenagers thinking through and discussing deliberately and making real decisions I think was a really important moment in Boston’s history, even though it was a small project. We talk about this not so much around the direct impact of the project – and we want to grow the participatory budgeting project much larger in the future – but it’s really about re-orienting people’s sense of what democracy in relation to governance can be about. That process just ended, and I think we’ll be doing a lot to share our learnings, and particularly to hold up the youth leadership aspect of this whole experience.
Two other things that we’re doing that I think are exciting – a lot of people have heard about CERO, Cooperative Energy Recycling and Organics – a green start up worker-owned cooperative here in Boston that’s going to be doing waste vegetable oil collection, full service recycling, as well as trash pickup and organic composting.
This business is an outgrowth from my time in the Boston Worker’s Alliance – as we were doing policy level work we realized that even if we addressed the criminal record issue there still weren’t enough jobs in the community – we were dealing with barriers and not necessarily engaging in the job creation side, so in that conversation we decided we wanted to start testing worker-owned cooperative – this was back in May of 2007.
A few years before grassroots groups started thinking about how to engage with co-ops and economic development strategies – but out of that experience we created Roxbury Green Power after we took a few members of BWA to the Green For All conference in Memphis, and people were so excited that in the airport on the way home we wrote up a letter to area restaurants to see if we could get their waste vegetable oil that could then be used for biodiesel manufacturing – a cleaner resource for their community.
There were a couple major lessons because we ended up having to shut down Roxbury Green Power because we were so highly under-capitalized when we started and because we didn’t have the full-scale technical assistance we needed to have to really make the co-op work.
That experience gave us open opportunity to have the conversation, and eventually we were able to restart the co-op by securing some grant money and forging a partnership between BWA, which is primarily an African American organization, and with MassCOSH, a predominantly Latino workers’ organization.
We were able to hire a start up manager using that grant money and formed this new multiracial Black and Latino worker co-op that is working in the hood doing waste and recycling, trying to model green jobs creation and also democratic workplaces.
As I stepped out of the BWA and into these new spaces, both with the Center for Economic Democracy and the Boston Impact Initiative we’ve been able to apply some of the capacity building strategies to support work like CERO.
In my work with the BII, which is a local impact investment fund where we do very social purpose oriented lending and private equity investments into local triple bottom line businesses or minority owned companies, we were able to help do a zero interest loan for CERO, partnering with the Cooperative Fund of New England to secure contracts and get them going as a business with no interest or principal payments in the first year, which is something most community-oriented financial institutions are not going to do.
In a way, our fund is really pushing the envelope in looking at how private capital can stimulate and grow community wealth – our partners and myself as the startup manager were able to move some of that initial lending.
What’s really exciting now is that we’ve been walking with the cooperative as a second round of funding specifically using a Direct Public Offering (DPO), which is one of the financing mechanisms that we’ve been helping popularize and build out with putting capital out in the open. Instead of having Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which are crowdsourced grant tools, the DPO is a crowdsourced financing tool, so you can either take loans or get equity investments from unaccredited popular investors.
CERO has been working with Cutting Edge Capital to help promote a DPO to raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars from the community and that’s an example of where a community can take more of an active role in directing their investments and pooling our resources and supporting businesses and organizations that are leading up towards the future we want to be living in.
The DPO is a nerdy financing mechanism we’re really excited about – in a broader sense it’s a way to engage with the community and support a green worker-owned business led by veterans and people with criminal records and low-income workers, and that’s incredibly exciting.
On top of that, through the Center for Economic Democracy, for example, we’re applying some of the lessons we’ve learned from other co-ops such as the Evergreen Cooperatives, where we use anchor institution strategies and work with major universities and hospitals to get them to contract with CERO and customer support co-ops.
It’s a place where we’re able to really bring together the efforts of grassroots organizing with these new economy strategies.
I should also mention BWA and CERO are part of the Boston Recycling Coalition, which is a grassroots organizing coalition that is pushing policy changes that will increase recycling rates and position CERO as a business which will take advantage of policy opportunities to advance to a greener future.
The second example speaks to the intersection that I’m working at, which is working with grassroots social change organizations to build capacity and opportunities for them to not only work on traditional organizing and policy efforts, but also to combine them with local economic development strategies that are helping model the future we want to live in and grow the local economy.
The people who are really invested in this work know that at some point, as we grow bigger and bigger with more co-ops, land trusts and community gardens, we will begin to run up against the limitations of the dominant legal system and economy.
We are pushing and advancing our social justice and organizing work in a way that’s very concrete for people – as they build up their co-op, they see what a workplace democracy looks like.
They’re still having to compete with Walmart or subsidies and tax breaks going to multinational corporations that are leaving out small businesses and cooperatives, but that in turn feeds back into political and grassroots organizing that’s happening in communities.
Alternative financing and community development financial strategies can also be a service to the grassroots organizing field – working in this area is really at the intersection of organizing and economic development.
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?
Five years from now, my hopes are that the general discourse around the untenability, the contradictions around capitalism are clearer and more common sense in American politics. Obviously the Occupy moment and the Thomas Piketty moment were essential in moving the conversation forward and digging ourselves out of the ideological malaise of post-Cold War politics.
It seems like our generation of young adults see it more as common sense that capitalism is responsible for massive wealth disparities and concentration of wealth and if not transformed is going to lead the human species to potential ecological disaster. People see that there needs to be something real and different. I hope the language and framework and rhetoric of the new economy/alternatives to capitalism is much more common, is being taught in university business schools, the major news outlets are increasingly aware and articulating this position, and most importantly the grassroots organizing field is taking a new role in the new economy movement. There’s currently a division – Mateo Nube references this too – that a lot of cooperatives and new economy organizations are predominantly white and middle class versus the grassroots organizing field which is led by people of color for the most part and embedded and accountable for their own communities.
By that time, I hope the new economy field has made a deliberate effort to make this framework relevant and useful, intellectually and with regard to people’s energy and time, and that this work is really embedded in the grassroots social justice sector so that groups like the BWA are thinking about cooperatives, people working on gentrification and displacement are thinking about land trusts, and people working on food justice are thinking about land in different ways.
This work is already happening in Boston and around the country, but we’re still at the beginning of it. My hope is that five years from now there isn’t a distinction – that transformational organizing automatically includes new economy strategies.
That’s my big picture take on where I hope this work will be in the short term future.
More concretely, though, my hope is that we have been able to build up models on local economies and to show how are they are connected to each other (which I think is one of the biggest deficiencies in the new economy movement).
I recognize we’re still very early on in this conversation, but I hear people say, for example: "we just need a ton more coops…" (and I’m assuming they’re controlled and run by people of color and they’re radically inclusive like I mentioned before).
But it’s important to understand that having everyone be a cooperative does not equate to having alternatives to capitalism. Also, having a much larger form of participatory budgeting in and of itself does not equate to an alternative to capitalism.
There are much deeper questions that we need to engage with and think about how we can link these new economies and solidarity economy models together.
For example, even if every business in America is a worker owned coop and we dealt with the issue of labor exploitation at the firm level, if these co-ops are still operating on the dominant capitalist market system, they’d still have the same pressures to compete with each other to survive as a business.
Those market dynamics are the same pressures that lead to exploiting labor in co-ops: if you’re working at a cooperative what might end up happening is that you self-exploit and degrade your own labor just so you can stay afloat and survive, and the other major issue is that same market and profit-driven allocation system depends on people using the cheapest and most exploitative, extractive resources for their business, which leads to people buying the cheapest and least environmentally friendly product – dynamics we’re concerned about that don’t necessarily get solved by just having a bunch of co-ops.
What we are starting to explore theoretically and have been working on for the last five years or so is this concept of democratic planning – presenting an actual democratic pricing mechanism that’s not the same as free market capitalism but is also not the same as the Soviet system for central planning.
Without getting too deep into the specifics of the model, first it helps to understand what central planning is. We have a lot of critiques of the Soviet Union, and don’t advocate for socialism because that rhetorical fight is already lost and is not the most effective way to talk to people about the new economy. But central planning provides some insight because it’s a way of looking at how much is going to be produced and consumed. People critique it though, and claim it is inefficient because planners say "we need this much flour and this much sugar," but it was impossible for planners to predict what was actually needed so people weren’t able to get a diversity of products or there were mismatches with regard to supply and demand.
The other major issue is that it’s a top down approach so it was extremely brutal and the values/direction of the planning economy weren’t in service to the people – there was a huge emphasis on building up the military and that was at the expense of other needs that people had.
All that being said, that was an example of an economy that functioned not on a competitive profit-driven market system but instead on values that were articulated and dictated in that case by the state and the elite.
Our question is to ask whether it’s possible to draw from that lesson to think about what a new plan for a democratically governed economy would look like – taking the idea of planning but re-orienting it so that it’s driven by and accountable to everyday people in America.
What are our core priorities for the economy, for existing within our broader ecological reality and for meeting a lot of the basic needs that we have as people?
The labor and resources of our country should be first oriented toward those things and towards giving the decision making process to individuals – what are the most important local needs, and what are the tradeoffs? These are the questions to ask, not wondering about investments and where the best profit opportunities are right now, which have nothing to do with the actual needs of people.
Five years from now I hope there is a much more robust conversation that is really helping to flesh out some real alternatives for our current system. I hear people talking about alternatives to capitalism, but to me they don’t actually amount to long term meaningful alternatives.
Within that space, in addition to having a clear analysis (on the left) of the pros and cons of democratic economy (none of us has the solution but I’m hoping people are engaging in the conversation), my hope is that we’ve actually moved to a place of experimenting and demonstrating and preconfiguring what some levels of democratic planning could look like.
Towards that end we currently have a project – a community-based alternative finance study group through which we’re engaging progressives, organizers and activists in the greater Boston area.
We’re starting to envision what’s possible by learning about different alternative finance vehicles such as community development credit unions, community loan funds and community equity funds and hopefully by then we’ll be experimenting and have something up and running so that people are able to use these existing financing institutions and take it further to another level, beyond what has been done in the past. The question will be whether we can start experimenting with some forms of preconfigured democratic planning.
For example, if we’re able to have a community loan fund or even better a community bank (currently, if you’re a member of a bank, you have no input with regard to what kind of businesses they’re lending to or the labor standards of the businesses receiving loans or what products or services they’re providing) we could instead create new spaces where people are democratically prioritizing the types of businesses they want to see in their own community (local, small businesses and co-ops).
Could we think about creating democratic financing processes to direct capital and think about all of us who are members of the bank to be shopping and supporting these businesses, overlaying local currency as a way of systematizing this locally and democratically-controlled mini economy and also providing some insulation from the dominant market?
Basically we would be demonstrating a system that takes our existing new economy models and links them together under a new democratically controlled logic, as opposed to one that is driven by profit.
We know that you can only get so far as long as you operate within dominant capitalism, but my hope is that five years from now our analysis is much clearer in a way that we’re able to share the thinking with other communities, and now that we have a project we can show some of the real life benefits to people who are engaged in this work and succeeding with this model, so that provides an initial blueprint.
More broadly, we’d see an economy that does meet all of our needs and that resolves the tensions between capitalism and liberal democracy. The other big picture question for me is five years from now will the grassroots organizing field, even if only at the municipal level, be thinking about deep structural reform for the politics at the city level?
Personally, I’m very interested in the question of what would a municipal city charter reform look like? One that would democratize a city to build a democratic, enlightened 21st century municipality? What are the decisions that cities make, and how could we democratize them? How would life be different? For example, thinking about the city’s purchasing power and having that be a transparent and democratic process so that people can leverage the municipal purchasing power to build up worker’s co-ops and community-controlled businesses.
Obviously a big expansion of participatory budgeting and revising our budget process which is highly mayor-controlled in Boston is in line with this strategy.
A fourth thing is the re-organization of our city’s Urban Planning Department (the BRA) which has been historically unaccountable to communities and has led to Boston becoming the most gentrified city in the country and for us to completely rethink our planning process and make it truly democratic, talking to neighbors etc.
We need to make sure people in the city are deciding what is being built, what industry is growing and have accountability to folks so they aren’t displaced by luxury development and gentrification.
Having democratic control over the school system is another important step – in Boston the school board is controlled by the mayor. Reforming education through building more student youth power and building more engagement from parents, students and teachers are key goals.
Criminal justice side – thinking about Restorative Justice practices as a democratic implementation of public safety as an alternative to mass incarceration and repression that we currently have.
So while we’re experimenting with building the capacity of these new economy models, my hope is that we’re also thinking about what are the policies that pivot the decision-making power of cities so we’re not fighting the same fight but changing the rules of the game. I don’t know whether five years from now we’ll have overhauled our municipal constitution but my hope is that there is a clear understanding from the left, and from people who care about democracy and community more broadly speaking, to see the opportunities for municipal reform and how it can directly empower people and make the local economy stronger. I hope this logic ultimately translates towards an eye on democratizing both state and federal constitutions.
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.
NEC was a moment in which a lot of people who are doing this work and thinking about these strategies were able to come together and affirm the reality of emerging movement and conversations, that there is a distinct field that is growing, which is about experimentation and offering models that are different.
No doubt that that this moment with a lot of incredible people will be one of the many moments along the way that will be seen as helping build capacity and identity of this growing sector.
Personally in terms of democratic planning, being part of the NEC I have come across other folks who have been in this space, feeling like we’re out here in the wilderness. At the board retreat I was able to connect with Gar Alperovitz and Gus Speth who have a program called the Next System Project and they’re doing a lot of this thinking around democratic planning.
More broadly speaking – the work Adrienne Maree Brown and some of the incredible storytelling and visioning she did linking the new economy movement to sci-fi and the work of Octavia Butler created new impulses that I don’t know would have been seen as new economy work, but people really took it to heart.
The emerging proposal by folks like Gopal at Movement Generation and Deirdre Smith from 350.org and Brandon Martin from the Working World around the creation of a national reinvestment loan fund as an alternative investment vehicle for the fossil fuels divestment movement I think is also hopefully pivotal.
Finally, I hope the call from Ed Whitfield at Fund for Democratic Communities for a more vigorous and radical inclusivity in our movement will be heard and acted upon.
In general, the weekend helped broaden and sharpen the definition of new economy which I hope and think will be more accessible, relevant and intuitively available to everyday folks. There is some really good intellectual and framing work that happened at that conference which will really help as people keep pushing their efforts.
It was an early and important affirmation of an opportunity and sector that a lot of us have been working on.
Personally, I’ve been studying and practicing solidarity economy work for over a decade but I haven’t felt like this work was gaining any traction in the broader mainstream society or even in the progressive organizing field.
The NEC conference was the flagpost people can point to as a catalyzing moment. I’m honored to have been elected to serve on the board of NEC and am invested in helping move that vision forward.