Understanding the Solidarity Economy and Just Transition

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Source: Local Peace Economy Project

A global movement is building for a just, sustainable economy that prioritizes people and the planet over endless profit and growth.

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April M. Short is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor. She is also a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with an enormous wealth gap. As of 2021, there was no place in America where “a full-time, minimum-wage worker” could afford to pay rent. The inequities are seemingly boundless in America, and there are countless social and racial justice ramifications of having a profit-centered, extractive economy—from increasing homelessness, to hunger, to climate crises. Instead of government agencies or large organizations coming up with viable solutions to these problems, it is often the people experiencing the worst of these inequities who come up with the most innovative, effective strategies to cope and to address the many deficiencies embedded in the system. The people who are poor and already living on the margins—where systemic problems are amplified—are the ones who are offering means to relocalize supply chains, strengthen mutual aid efforts, create community-led and owned housing and build what is often called the solidarity economy. The process by which this shift to a solidarity economy model takes place is often referred to as “just transition.”

What Is Solidarity Economy?[edit | edit source]

The New Economy Coalition—a membership-based network of non-profit businesses, grassroots community organizations and sectoral associations representing the solidarity economy movement in the United State—defines solidarity economy as:

“A global movement to build a just and sustainable economy where we prioritize people and the planet over endless profit and growth. Growing out of social movements in Latin America and the Global South, the solidarity economy provides real alternatives to capitalism, where communities govern themselves through participatory democracy, cooperative and public ownership, and a culture of solidarity and respect for the earth.”

It is very often artists, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), trans people, queer people, strippers and single moms who are the force behind bringing about a shift in culture – and in the economy – from within. They are the ones offering local solutions to the global-scale problems that many people face today and that many more will face in the future. This is detailed in the new report, “Solidarity Not Charity: Arts and Culture Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy.” In particular, the report explores how the grantmaking community can support culture-workers and artists to create a more just economy. The report was commissioned and released by New York-based Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), which is a national association of art funders, and the report received additional funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and the Barr Foundation.

What Is Just Transition?[edit | edit source]

A “just transition” is the process of shifting from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. The Just Transition Alliance defines just transition on its website as, “a principle, a process and a practice. The principle of just transition is that a healthy economy and a clean environment can and should co-exist. The process for achieving this vision should be a fair one that should not cost workers or community residents their health, environment, jobs, or economic assets.

Any losses should be fairly compensated. And the practice of just transition means that the people who are most affected by pollution – the frontline workers and the fenceline communities – should be in the leadership of crafting policy solutions.”

Lorie Shaull from St Paul, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Solidarity Economy and Just Transition in the Arts[edit | edit source]

In addition to a written version of the Solidarity Not Charity report, there is also an interactive website and informative short film that provides an overview of what is known as the “solidarity economy,” and the vital role of culture-workers in building this economy. The website also includes recommendations and an “action checklist” for grantmakers to use as guidance to support the solidarity economy.

As the authors of “Solidarity Not Charity” explain in their report, “solidarity economy” is a relatively contemporary term used to describe “sustainable and equitable community-control of work, food, housing, and culture.”

It is “recognized internationally as a way to value people and the planet over profits and to unite grassroots practices like lending circles, credit unions, worker cooperatives, and community land trusts to form a base of political power,” and ultimately aims to transform the economy at the local level in order to transform the world economy and systems of value.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many of the problems already in existence, and the arts and culture sectors have been no exception. The Solidarity Not Charity report by GIA was commissioned in response to the pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter uprisings. As the website landing page of the report states:

“No one knows what arts and culture will look like after the pandemic… 63 percent of creatives have become fully unemployed [through the pandemic and] one-third of museums say they are likely to close forever.

“The COVID-19 death rate of Black and Indigenous people is more than twice the COVID-19 death rate of White people in the US. And yet, foundation giving in 2020 documented that only 5 percent of pandemic-response dollars were intended for communities of color. Around half of 1 percent of annual foundation giving directly supports women and girls of color. And less than half of 1 percent goes to Native Americans.

“What would the cultural economy be like if it loved Black and Indigenous people?”

Eddie Torres, president and CEO of GIA, said the association decided in 2020 to fund the Solidarity Not Charity report for two reasons. The first was to support their vision for a future grantmaking field that invests more broadly in culture and supports more widespread communities, businesses, artists and organizations. Second, GIA commissioned the report to provide a shared contextual knowledge when it comes to the solidarity economy, which works as a reference point for their own programming to stem from.

“The pandemic revealed how interdependent we are – artists and workers, nonprofits and small businesses,” Torres said. “As a field interested in realizing a just future, we are recognizing that we are as safe as the most vulnerable among us. Our field’s responses to this crisis remind us that all funders can put the most vulnerable at the center of their work and treat them as the leaders they are. This centering of oppressed groups – including people of color, people with disabilities and others – need not be charity. Funders can and should support self-determination by communities, including investing in organizations that are founded by, governed and managed by and for impacted communities.”

Torres continued to say that federal legislative responses to the COVID-19 crisis were a reminder that the nonprofit community can access the public services and benefits available to the small business community and that “the small business community employs many artists and culture-workers. There are no sectors in society in which artists do not work. Support for artists and the arts must be a part of all social support [systems],” said Torres.

System-Change Work[edit | edit source]

Nati Linares, communications manager at the nonprofit New Economy Coalition (NEC), and Caroline Woolard, an artist, educator and fellow at the Center for Cultural Innovation, authored the report in just four months from November 2020 to March 2021. To formulate the report, Linares and Woolard gathered insights from “grantmakers, artists, advocates, scholars, lawyers, and economists in order to inform the recommendations for arts and culture grantmakers on how they can engage in systems-change work that addresses root causes rather than symptoms of cultural inequity,” according to a GIA press release.

In an email interview with the Independent Media Institute (IMI), the report’s authors said that the idea for them to collaborate on a Solidarity Not Charity report came when Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, forwarded GIA’s request for proposals about racial justice and “alternative economies” to Linares. Linares and Woolard decided to apply together as a chance to collaborate for the first time and “shift the discourse in the arts and culture sector from ‘alternative’ economies – which assumes that the ‘economy’ is always-already neoliberal and capitalist – to solidarity economies,” Woolard told IMI.

“We wanted to highlight the connections between mutual aid networks, open source software, and cooperatives that creative people are organizing now,” Woolard said. “In short, to show grantmakers the role culture plays in initiatives that build ‘community ownership and democratic governance for political, cultural, and economic power,’ as [CEO of the Kataly Foundation] Nwamaka Agbo articulates so well.”

Linares, who joined NEC in 2016, following a decade of work with record labels and the live music industry, told IMI that her experiences in the “belly of the music industry beast” are what fuel her.

“I want to be a part of building a better world for the next generation of creators, especially those most historically excluded,” she said. “I believe when artists and creators are in control of the resources they need to create, we can do the hard work of building a truly revolutionary culture. Coming across Caroline [Woolard]’s work – as I was getting immersed in the histories and legacies of solidarity economy organizing in the US while working at NEC – confirmed my suspicions that artists had always been practicing the values of solidarity economy. … [W]hat’s most exciting to me right now is that it seems more and more organizers in the realms of economic justice/post-capitalist organizing and visionary artists are finding each other.”

Woolard said that when she was growing up as a queer kid in Rhode Island, her father – who grew up without running water and was the first generation to go to college in their family – warned her against going down the path of “starving artist.”

“He talked openly with me about his desire to prepare me to become a doctor or a lawyer, something ‘impressive,’” Woolard said. “I pushed back. I said, ‘I will make a living as an artist. Artists are not stupid. I will take care of you, when you are old.’ This began my commitment to economic justice and the arts – for me, they go hand in hand. As a teenager, I got into Cooper Union in New York, which was tuition-free for all students for 154 years. From there I believed and dreamed and fumbled my way into a community of artists in New York City that held me. I connected with collectives, barter networks, mutual aid groups, housing cooperatives, and eventually, worker-owned businesses and land trusts and the broader solidarity economy movement. What excites me is all the BIPOC, queer, and working-class people who are building networks and institutions and study groups, now.”

Linares told IMI that in working on the Solidarity Not charity report, the authors “realized that many artists and culture-bearers want to get to know each other better and want to learn more about the solidarity economy as it relates to culture. A key recommendation we heard again and again from our interviewees in the report was about the importance of studying-into-action together.”

Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Solidarity Economy In Action: Americans with Jobs Shared Pandemic Stimulus Checks with People Out of Work[edit | edit source]

One strong example of solidarity economy in action came in 2020 during the start of the pandemic, as people with jobs began sharing their government stimulus checks with people out of work due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.

The pandemic has demonstrated that when crises strike, they most severely impact the same communities that have been historically exploited and oppressed by racist and xenophobic practices in the U.S. Conversations have emerged around which industries and workers are truly essential to life’s basic functions, and how we treat and compensate those workers in our society.

As playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler) put it in an Instagram post on May 18, 2020:

“The virus is revealing the violent, broken, greed and growth systems that we have been both tolerating and forced to live with for far too long. As we #RiseInGlobalSolidarity to meet this moment, we now MUST ASK ourselves; ‘what is essential’, ‘who is essential’, ‘what would it mean to live with just what is essential’, and ‘how would we value, protect and uplift those who are doing the essential work’?”

Out of the necessity of the pandemic moment emerged some extraordinary, citizen-led relief efforts. Mutual aid volunteers began mobilizing across the country after the virus hit, with those who were able bringing free groceries and other basics to the people hardest hit. And, as the divide between the employed and the jobless deepened in America, a sort of citizens’ fiscal relief effort also developed.

At one end of the trend were problematic top-down handouts and money giveaways by wealthy influencers on Instagram, as explored in a New York Times piece in April 2020. At the other end of the trend was an opportunity for solidarity economy—a longstanding, citizen-led movement toward wealth redistribution—to step into the spotlight. This solidarity economy movement aims to democratize economic systems by way of localized efforts and supports the most marginalized Americans. As the pandemic made the glaring gaps and biases in our current systems impossible to ignore, some argue now is the time to push for a new, solidarity-oriented economy.

Drop Your Venmo in the Comments[edit | edit source]

With invitations from influencers on Instagram and other apps asking for people out of work to “drop your Venmo in the comments,” a good samaritan giveaway economy developed online. Out-of-work, struggling Americans turned to social media to ask strangers for small bailouts—like basic grocery money or help paying the rent. The trend exposed the deepening divide between the employed and the unemployed in America.

As strangers stepped in to pay for strangers’ bills, a “samaritan economy” emerged through apps like Instagram, NextDoor and Venmo. The trend is detailed in an April 2020 article in Utah’s Deseret News by Jennifer Graham, who writes:

“Using apps like Venmo and NextDoor, people who have money are giving it to strangers who don’t. Others are paying service providers, such as hairdressers and pet sitters, for services they didn’t receive. And a nonprofit that has given cash to struggling families in Africa for more than a decade [called GiveDirectly] has launched a program to quickly get help to Americans who are spiraling toward insolvency.”

People with significant online followings began encouraging followers in need to request financial aid from fellow followers, and comment threads across social media channels grew full of requests. As Graham’s article notes, Yashar Ali, a journalist with 621,000 Twitter followers, tweeted in favor of person-to-person aid in late March in a thread that went viral.

Other online influencers, some of whom were flaunting their cash to spare, have been pushing the concept of giving away money in a slightly different direction, as explored in the New York Times article “Everyone Is Giving Away Cash on Instagram.” The article explores how some influencers were capitalizing on the crisis for self-promotion:

“As the coronavirus has continued to disrupt American lives and livelihoods, Instagram has been overrun with cash giveaways… Several popular personalities have offered cash to their fans in exchange for tags, follows and comments, including Harry Jowsey, a star of the new Netflix reality show ‘Too Hot to Handle’; the lifestyle influencers Caitlin Covington and Laura Beverlin; and the rapper and social media star Bhad Bhabie.”

The Times piece dives into the varying levels of transparency and self-interest of influencer giveaways during the early-pandemic crisis.

#ShareMyCheck[edit | edit source]

With the arrival of $1,200 stimulus checks, an online movement emerged encouraging people with the means to give away part or all of their stimulus checks, to help strangers in need online. While this might have sounded like a far-fetched, radical concept to many Americans pre-2020, with COVID-19 it was trending.

GiveDirectly, the nonprofit mentioned in Graham’s article that pivoted its efforts from focusing on Africa to focusing on those in the U.S. impacted by COVID-19, enacted a pledge drive asking people who did not need their federal stimulus money to give it away to those in need. The company accepted donations in any form, using credit cards, stock transfers or Bitcoin.

GiveDirectly is part of a larger trend focused on redistributing stimulus money to communities most in need. The hashtags #ShareYourCheck and #ShareMyCheck gained popularity in 2020 across social media channels, encouraging Americans who still had steady employment to share their stimulus checks, and any excess income, with people out of work during the pandemic.

The check sharing movement and the hashtags came from an organized effort by the New Economy Coalition. The coalition’s members include environmentalist organizations, social and economic justice activist groups, economists and others—all of whom work within their local areas to envision and enact community-based economic models that are more democratic and sustainable than the current prevalent systems.

The idea for the Share My Check campaign initially came from one of NEC’s members, Resource Generation, which is a membership community made up of young people ages 18-35, who recognize that they have benefitted from wealth or class privilege and are “committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power,” as stated on the group’s website.

Kelly Baker, a co-director of the NEC told Independent Media Institute in 2020 that when she first heard about the $1,200 government stimulus checks, it occurred to her that since she still had work, she wouldn’t be putting that money to immediate use for groceries, rent or other bills.

“I thought, if I’m in that situation, possibly other people are, and it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who had that idea, which is really a great thing,” she said.

The concept was adopted by NEC’s members across the country. Since NEC already had a donation page, it funneled any donations that came from #ShareMyCheck directly to organizations that offer direct aid to people most in need.

Long before the pandemic struck, NEC was working to identify the communities most urgently in need of economic support efforts, and funneling grant money to the organizations working directly to bring mutual aid and on-the-ground organization to those communities. They organize and divvy out donation-based grants to grantees that meet specific criteria, through their Movement Support Program fund.

“We started the Share My Check campaign with the explicit goal to amplify the work of the Movement Support [Program] fund, and increase the amount of grants we can move through that fund directly to solidarity economy organizing,” Baker said.

After the COVID-19 situation became clear, and the Share My Check campaign was born, NEC switched gears from its regular grant process to a rapid-response model. They reached out to their members and developed new criteria for a process that allows for a quicker grant process and supports the most urgent initiatives offering mutual aid and support through the pandemic.

Melody Martínez, who lives in Portland, Oregon, is the individual giving manager for NEC and says the groups NEC has always worked to fund, all have one thing in common: the fact that they are made up of and represent working-class people.

“These are groups that are made up of people of color, of immigrants, that span the United States and Puerto Rico,” Martínez says. “And they all work on different things, whether it’s co-op work, or farming work, or arts and culture work, or finance. They span the kind of spectrum of the world that we want to live in, where people are working collaboratively with growing food, where we’re working together to develop new systems.… It’s the kind of work for people specifically who are most impacted when we’re in an economic recession or when a crisis hits.”

Martínez notes that the NEC website includes a thorough list of all past and current donors, for anyone interested to learn more specifically about where donations and grant money from NEC and the Movement Support Program fund go.

While NEC began with efforts primarily focused on college campuses, since 2015 the program has been intentionally shifting toward supporting frontline groups and youth organizing groups doing solidarity work beyond college networks. Baker says the coalition was formed as a way to tie together the various existing threads around the nation that were already working toward the solidarity economy.

Martínez says the NEC’s pluralistic approach to the solidarity economy includes developing an understanding of the current systems, as is necessary in order to create a new way of living in the world.

“We live in a world where there is massive income inequality, massive wealth inequality, where land and resources like water and clean air are not being equitably distributed, and not just in the U.S. but globally,” says Martínez. “So those principles of the solidarity economy—cooperation, solidarity and democracy—all of those things on their own aren’t enough. They have to be speaking together, to ensure that we have a just and sustainable system afterward.”

While the decision to share a stimulus check seems uniquely of the pandemic moment, Martínez viewed it as part of a larger interest in systemic wealth redistribution that assesses equity across racial, gender, class, ethnic, and national lines.

The pandemic brought wider public awareness of the painful shortcomings that have long existed in the current economic system.

“Wealth redistribution is really about understanding that the way the system is now really privileges a few at the expense of so many, and in that new world, that new economy, that new place, what we could do is really redistribute this,” Martinez says. “We can all have access and all share in the benefits of our labor, of our work.”

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