We can learn a lot about what it takes to build a new economy by looking into the hidden histories of localism and cooperative economics in our own cities. And one of the clearest lessons that history offers us is that the most successful organizations of the past few decades managed to develop structures and systems that allowed them to grow while holding true to the core values of participatory democracy and community rootedness that animate them.
Here in Buffalo, the foundations of our current movement were laid in the 1970s, when our co-op movement created new bakeries, restaurants, retail stores, and credit unions. Some of these efforts were connected to anti-corporate organizing—like a broad effort to hold the big gas utility accountable and to develop energy cooperatives.
The movement for community control and cooperative economics in Buffalo blossomed as student organizers who had led resistance movements at SUNY Buffalo in the late ’60s entered their post-collegiate lives, settling in neighborhoods like University Heights and Allentown. The movement also took hold in the city’s African-American community on the East Side, where a rooted and radical consciousness was expressed in a range of new community gardens, consumer co-ops, cultural institutions, and community-controlled schools like BUILD and CAUSE.
What we see when we study our own histories are friends and neighbors committed to democratic values, working like mad to live them out and experimenting at every step. As a ’70s baby, I caught the tail end of this generative phase and I can say for sure that one of its greatest achievements was in the realm of higher consciousness, of building a culture apart from consumerism that valued the wonder and discovery of childhood, of art and music and food and everything else that makes us human.
Part of our work at People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) is about honoring the elders who instilled this spirit of humanism and openness. Our board chair, Maxine Murphy, is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who has taught us a lot about the tradition of self-sufficiency and localism that ran through the Deep South of her childhood. It’s her vision, along with that of our membership, that motivated us to create our Green Development Zone, where we’ve boosted energy security through renewables and energy efficiency, repaired food systems (in partnership with the Massachusetts Avenue Project), and built a community economy of local entrepreneurs our guiding objectives.
One question to consider when thinking about how to expand our contemporary new economy movement is that of institutionalization. Why did some of the cooperative institutions built in the ’70s—especially food co-ops—get to scale and thrive in subsequent decades, while others faded away?
We can explain of lot of this with market dynamics—food co-ops catered to emerging tastes for healthier food that big corporate food bureaucracies were clueless about. But it also had a lot to do with governance, structure, accountability, and ethos. Movement institutions that depended on inhumane commitments of time and labor or that had dysfunctional management cultures obviously had a hard time moving into the future.
For us at PUSH, the new economy rises out of the natural networks and affinities that are inherent to families and neighborhoods. Those relationships are where we can build a culture of community control and of critical consciousness.
There’s an interplay between that consciousness and the material realities—of having a say over all of the commodities we need to survive: food, housing, energy, health care, and the like. We need to bring all of those things back home, to make them part of our culture and to be producers of our essentials wherever possible.
At PUSH, we call the organization that is at the hub of all this a “community anchor institution,” guided by ideals of radical democracy and rooted in the needs and desires of people at the grass roots. An anchor that produces real wealth and power for the community has to be structured enough to get to scale and compete with the market in sectors like food and energy, while never wavering in its commitment to community-driven planning and a culture of openness.