The solidarity economy brings hope for those seeking to build alternative economic systems rooted in justice. Its vision animates a movement toward more equitable, sustainable, and democratic ways of structuring workplaces, housing, financing, and all manner of societal institutions. But the pervasive incentives, norms, and policies in the United States (and globally) continually promote an antithetical, patriarchal, white supremacist capitalism, an associated concentration of wealth and power, and neocolonial relationships to land and our non-human relations. Pushing against dominant norms isn’t easy—and competing for resources to do good work in a policy environment that almost always disincentivizes and deprioritizes solidarity can make the actual work of organizing and practicing a solidarity economy quite difficult.
Like many movement activists, I have made my fair share of complaints about the “co-optation” of movements by funders and neoliberal interests. In my corner of the solidarity economy world, the community land trust (CLT) sector, the desperate pursuit of funding, the red tape that comes with funding, and the general lack of resources makes it easy to turn away from the time-consuming practices of democratic neighborhood organizing that the CLT model was built upon, and to instead focus on raising money and managing administrative duties.
Organizing in the solidarity economy often feels like steering a boat in a storm whose wind and currents continually shift us off course. While structural conditions make course correction difficult, it’s something we must do in our daily practice if we are to stay focused on our goals and the horizon we’re aiming for.
But the question of how to stay oriented toward the right horizon is hard to answer when nearly every funder, technical assistance organization, umbrella group, and national advocacy organization is so focused on securing funding, making sure accounting practices are sound, and supporting legislation to make the work happen at all.
Don’t get me wrong: financial resources, technical expertise, and legislative support are important, for we need these resources to do our work well. But when we’re so focused on the money, it becomes easy to forget the deeper principles that brought us to this movement in the first place. When we adopt the language and values of our funders and policymakers, focusing on metrics like “individuals served” and “products created,” we can lose sight of the reasons for what we do. The very bones of the movement can fall apart—and we can reproduce systems of oppression—when we focus on simply being technically correct, efficient, productive entities. This helps explain why economically successful consumer cooperatives like REI violate co-op principles and engage in practices like union-busting.
Solidarity is a practice. The primary work of the solidarity economy is to learn, teach, and grow together, creating new practices and norms—creating a new system beyond and after capitalism. Practicing and bringing a regenerative solidarity economy into existence is as timely and important as ever. Wealth and income inequality are as bad as they have been in generations, and all manner of capitalist-fed disasters are coalescing to threaten civilization as we know it. We have no time to lose.
So what does it take to build a solidarity economy movement in Canada, the United States, and beyond—and to sustain it in a way that resists cooptation and systemic oppression? Organizers have pondered this question for years. Recently, there has been an explosion of innovative practices to work toward that goal, but so often, such work is siloed within organizations and not shared systematically across the movement. There’s a hunger for this knowledge and a need for the infrastructure to hold and share it.
Elandria Williams, a visionary who for decades built capacity for this work through political education and organizing in the South, was concerned about this kind of movement work before their tragic passing in 2020. In an interview in 2016, Williams said: “We need to get to values, organizing principles, and deep-dive discussions. We need to identify what are the big debates, big ideas, big questions, and where we could go from here—from reparations to what true community control looks like, to building networks and ecosystems that support solidarity economies at scale.”
Williams was a co-editor of Beautiful Solutions, a web resource as well as a book coming out later this year, which seeks to inspire a broad audience to understand and support the goals of the solidarity economy. While Beautiful Solutions provides some overarching principles to define the solidarity economy—and gives valuable practical examples of what to do—comrades continue talking about how to deepen this work by addressing critical questions regarding the how: how do we do solidarity economy work well? For those already sailing along with a wind that pushes us everywhere but the direction we want to go, how do we stay pointed toward our horizon? What is our north star?
Generating Principles to Guide Our Movement
In February 2021, a group of North American solidarity economy organizers convened to discuss our frustrations, the daily challenges we face, the practices and organizations that inspire us, and our hopes for what the movement could look like. We all agreed that in the day-to-day, many of our organizations come up short on practicing the principles we espouse. We saw a need for a movement-wide commitment to shared solidarity economy principles and a central repository of practices that groups have been developing to live out these principles. We drew our inspiration from the International Cooperative Principles, the Jemez Principles, the Madison Principles, and more recently, a set of principles that were drafted in 2019 by Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective (GEO) but never completed.
For about half a year, the initial group drafted principles and practices in working groups and reviewed the drafts iteratively as a larger team, discussing hard questions like how to deal with cooperative members who threaten the group’s integrity, and sharing emerging practices around topics like managing internal conflict and maintaining an anti-racist orientation. From September 2021 to March 2022, we spread the word about our project and sought feedback by reaching out through our national and regional networks to the different solidarity economy sectors to generate alignment among the sectors, and by giving presentations and workshops. In spring 2022, we began incorporating feedback and revising the principles and practices.
Building a New Framework
The solidarity economy principles are organized into five themes, each of which contains sub-principles along with associated practices or examples to guide implementation. The list is designed to offer a nested set of resources under each theme to inspire additional work in each of these directions. Our website lists the full set of principles and practices, but I briefly outline each theme below:
- Collective Care, Relationships, and Accountability: This theme is about centering collective care in our work and committing to collective organizing and all the messiness that entails—elevating one another’s efforts rather than competing, embracing conflict by holding one another accountable, and seeking resolutions without excluding people except as a last resort.
- Shared Resources and Vision: The principles and practices under this theme point us toward building a solidarity economy movement that prioritizes grassroots autonomy while sharing resources in our networks.
- Liberation Culture: This theme guides us toward principles and practices that support liberation of all oppressed people and assist us in responding to racism, colonization, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and capitalist exploitation of workers and the earth.
- Democracy and Process: The principles and practices under this theme urge us to be transparent with information and to make decisions at the most local level possible, even when it’s hard.
- Education and Leadership Development: This theme highlights the importance of continual education and capacity and leadership development in order to share responsibility and avoid burnout.
The vision is for these principles to guide groups and networks in staying true to the movement. Your organization or network can commit to aim to uphold these solidarity economy principles—recognizing that none of us are perfect; we will always fall short of practicing all the recommended practices all the time. We see this work as about movement building, not simply about making our individual organizations better. Instead of working in isolation, we must move toward greater interdependence and alignment on shared commitments to build power.
The principles and practices are not “final.” The feedback form remains open on our website so that new practices can be added and new suggestions incorporated. Please review them—and leave feedback! To collectively organize, the movement must continue developing practices to build political alignment, handle conflict, govern, and distribute resources.