On Tuesday, the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) hosted its annual Fall Celebration and Showcase. Now in its fifth year, SELC is a driving force for the new economy, doing pioneering work around worker cooperatives, home-based food businesses, alternative currencies, legal guides for sharing, legal apprenticeships, accessible legal cafes, renewable energy, the commons, seed libraries and more.
At the celebration, the SELC team gave an overview of what they’ve accomplished this year, including removing many legal barriers to people growing and selling home-based food; legalizing alternative currencies in California; removing one of the biggest barriers to cooperative housing; and launching the Worker Coop Academy. As Executive Director Janelle Orsi put it, “This September, the governor was just signing our bills left and right.”
Shareable and SELC recently partnered up to support seed sharing and seed libraries. With a grant from the Clif Bar Family Foundation, SELC and Shareable are launching a nationwide campaign to educate legislators and the public about the essential need for and legality of seed libraries, and to clarify and protect the legal status of seed libraries, which have come under pressure from regulators recently. Shareable will be publishing articles on seed issues, including seed sharing, seed libraries, seed saving and more. We will also promote the campaign, activate grassroots networks, and advocate for a seed library exemption law in California.
On Tuesday, the SELC team also painted a picture of a very bright future; and they did so in true SELC form with lots of laughs, cartoons, smarts and silliness. With the help of a community-supported time machine, we traveled into a future complete with healthy, thriving, sustainable communities. Here’s how it plays out:
2015: The Year of the Seed
In 2015, there are seed libraries in almost every city in the country. From these libraries people can check out free seeds, grow them, harvest the food, eat it, and share seeds back to the library. People have free access to seeds, there are thriving local food systems, and we have a diverse seed commons. SELC contributed to this bright seed future by creating a seed law tool shed, launching a national seed law petition, and legalizing seed.
2016: The Year of Local Investing
In 2014, communities realized that they needed to move money out of Wall Street and divest from fossil fuels, but there weren’t many options to invest elsewhere, due in large part to legal barriers preventing investing in local businesses. In 2016, investment portfolios include cooperatives, credit unions and small businesses. SELC’s Sustainable Economies Securities Act enabled people to invest locally and became a model for other states throughout the country.
2017: The Year of Home-Based Food Business
In 2014, giant corporations with underpaid workers controlled much of the nations agriculture. People who wanted to start a small food business couldn’t because there were so many legal barriers. By 2017, SELC has made it possible for just about anyone to start their own farm or home-based food business by legalizing these entities, pioneering legal structures that help new farmers obtain access to land, and supporting the growth of worker owned farms.
2018: The Year of the Worker Cooperative
In 2014 there were only 300 to 400 worker cooperatives, and many barriers to creating them. Businesses and law schools didn’t educate their students how to advise or operate worker owned businesses, business incubators and development agencies didn’t provide resources to worker cooperatives, and, in fact, most people didn’t even know what a worker cooperative was.
In 2018 there are thousands of worker cooperatives because of SELC’s pioneering research, education and advocacy. SELC remains at the forefront of building an ecosystem of support services and laying the legal foundation for community ownership and democracy in the workplace. They partnered with the East Bay Community Law Center and Project Equity to create the first ever Worker Coop Academy in the Bay Area; there are now accredited worker cooperative courses in colleges across California and the country; and SELC’s model city policies, that prioritize worker coops, have been passed in cities across the country.
2019: The Year of the Transformed Legal Profession
In 2014, no one could afford an attorney because most attorneys were working for the very rich. The attorneys that came out of law school couldn’t find a job in 2014 and attorneys working for corporations were helping people build bigger and bigger corporations which was ruining the planet and widening the wealth gap. This was a failure of the legal system which is supposed to help people build a just and equitable society. By 2019, SELC’s Resilient Communities Legal Cafes, which offer down to earth legal help for people doing real things in real communities, have caught on all across the country and there are legal cafes everywhere. SELC also supports individuals who are opening their own legal practices to build sustainable societies, and there’s a network of a million lawyers, all over the world, who are helping to build sustainable societies.
2020: The Year of Apprenticeships
In 2014, attorneys were graduating from law school $200,000 in debt—not a good position to be in if they wanted to serve society’s needs. By 2020, because of widespread legal apprenticeships however, a new generation of legal attorneys are able to roll up their sleeves and help cultivate sustainable societies. Legal apprenticeships have revolutionized the legal system and legal professionals now have a deep culture of teaching and learning. SELC created resources for legal apprentices to navigate their way through the legal apprenticeship, they blogged about their experiences, and they got the word out. They were even featured in the New York Times. They also introduced legal apprenticeships laws all over the US, so people everywhere can take the apprentice route to becoming an attorney.
2021: Year of the Awesome Nonprofit
In 2014, there were tons of big nonprofits where things happened very slowly. Funding sources diminished, organizations spent more on fundraising than they did on programs, staffers were overworked and always buried in paperwork, and highly paid executives and administrative staff were weighing nonprofits down. With all this, nonprofits weren’t changing our communities as fast as we needed them to. In 2021, the age of the agile nonprofit, tens of thousands of nonprofits have adopted SELC’s organizational model:
- Everyone gets paid the same living wage
- Every staff member is a leader and takes sense of ownership over the organization’s work
- Everyone has the flexibility to continue to build their skills and knowledge
- Everyone can bring proposals on ways to improve the impact of the organization
- Staff are encouraged to work 30 hour work weeks, to be creative, and, of course, to put on silly shows.
2022: The Year of Renewable Energy
In 2014, people were doing crazy stuff: injecting poisonous chemicals into the ground to extract gas, cutting mountaintops, burning everything and taking over land with industrial-scale solar farms. By 2022, communities have placed solar systems on every possible rooftop. People and communities now own and control their energy needs. SELC helped pass regulation to make sure people could actually invest in things that sustain these community solar, and other renewable energy, projects. SELC also developed legal structures to enable community solar projects and cooperatively owned solar projects that brought energy independence to every community across America.
2023: The Year of the Freelance Owned Cooperative
In 2014, freelancers were forced to bid on jobs and giant companies such as Task Rabbit and Uber were making millions off of freelancers. In 2023, there are freelancer-owned cooperatives, including Bay Area-based freelancer-owned cooperative Loconomics, everywhere. It’s because of the legal blueprint that Loconomics and SELC created that freelancers are allowed to share in profits, decision making power, tools and resources.
2024: The Year of the Commons
Before global capitalism, most land and water resources were managed by the people who used them. Communities everywhere managed their land and water resources as a commons. In 2014, these resources were highly concentrated in the hands of large corporations. But we learned from commoners and researchers including Elinor Ostrom, the principles to manage our commons. SELC created the first legal structure to collectively own and manage our farmland as a commons and has started creating more commons-based legal structures for land, water, housing, the Internet, banks and more—all things can be managed as a commons. In 2024, they’re stewarded forever in the commons legal structures.
As the SELC staff and the audience were all basking in the glow of the vibrant, thriving future of sustainable communities, Orsi offered a reminder.
“You guys could stay here in the future,” she says, “but if you don’t go back and do your work, then none of this will exist.”