Recently, BASE sat down with a newly-convening group of worker cooperatives advocates, developers, and worker-owners to map out the space of the democratic economy, focusing on Baltimore and the larger Maryland context. Together, we arrived at some important clarity about how the idea of “cooperative” or “worker cooperative” can often be a little limiting as a frame, and we suggested that it might make sense to broaden this definition to include a range of community-based economic institutions with a commitment to democratic control. This notion of “democratically controlled economic institutions” doesn’t cover everything—there are non-democratic locally-owned businesses that are pillars of civic life in their communities, and plenty of non-economic but totally democratic institutions that are vital for culture and politics (like Bmore Bloc, for instance). We’re specifically interested in figuring out how to talk about building an ecosystem of support for institutions which have an economic impact—ownership of real assets and/or the creation of jobs—but which do so following models which are participatory, inclusive, and in some way formally democratic. This is a broad enough working definition to cover:
- cooperatives (to the extent that they are democratic in more than name only!)
- worker cooperatives
- horizontally managed ESOPs
- worker self-directed non-profits (like the Baltimore Algebra Project)
- social enterprises built around or with a pathway to employee ownership of capital (this particular form is especially useful for various kinds of incubation and workforce development initiatives)
- community land trusts and community solar gardens
With this definition in mind, we set about doing a preliminary map of the ecosystem’s landscape, looking both at geography and the particular functional niche each entity plays—are they a democratically controlled economic institution? Are they an advocate or champion? Do they provide technical assistance to other parts of the ecosystem? What we came up with is probably far from exhaustive (let us know if we left you out!), but was incredibly helpful to the group:
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One thing that jumped out immediately to us as a result was the imbalance in the Baltimore ecosystem in particular—lots of energy with tons of real projects and projects in formation, and a good number of advocates, champions, and connectors—but far less entities providing the key technical and financial assistance to make this ecosystem thrive and grow. If you’re looking for a key place to invest time or money in scaling the number and scope of democratically controlled economic institutions in Baltimore, this would be it—and BASE can help connect you to some of the emerging possibilities here.
Also, if you are interested in this kind of mapping process, and would be interested in having BASE help facilitate a similar process as consultants, please don’t hesitate to be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.