New Thinking

The need for Groundswell

One of our co-directors, Gilad Babchuk, discusses the need for Groundswell: "Most of the time when you go to business school, they start to speak with you about the gap in the market - you need to find this gap in the market, you need to research that, give an answer for that etc. But we want to start with the gap inside of you."

Gilad explains our approach to education - education that unites people, instead of separating them. Interested? Find out what we're looking for.

An empowerment lens

"Why are discussions about poverty so often held in luxurious surroundings?" That's the opening line of this amazing article from ... just one more piece of evidence that there is a global rethinking of our financial system currently taking place.

from giumaiolini on flickr

“If money is power, then control over money has to be democratized [...] Transforming our relationship to money is both a political and a deeply personal challenge.”

The relationship between money and power fundamentally needs to change if we want to address the climate crisis and inequality. Those in luxurious surroundings, however well-intentioned they might be, do not know how to address the needs of the poor as well as the poor do themselves. That's one reason why Groundswell takes a human-centered design approach to our work in community. We know that if our work doesn't empower people - our participants, our neighbours in the Downtown East Side, the workers at our democratic enterprises - we won't be creating the transformation we are seeking.

What does empowerment mean? That word can so quickly become a cliché. True empowerment requires recognizing and releasing our power-over others, building power-with them, and building power-within ourselves so we can act from a place of strength and resilience. Though our current economic system encourages us to feel an overwhelming sense of our own acute need, we can recognize that in community we have the choice to act differently - not from that needy place, but from a generous and humble place. When we embed these values in our financial system, that's when we'll really see a new economic logic take hold. Join us in making it happen.

The Cooperative Economy Bandwagon

This week, even the New York TImes jumped on the cooperative economy bandwagon, with an article titled "Who needs a boss?" As Shaila Dewan writes: "Support for full-fledged co-ops has inched into the mainstream as communities have grown weary of waiting for private investors to create good jobs — or sick of watching them take jobs away." She explains that co-operatives have as good or better outcomes than "regular" businesses, and are much less likely to lay off workers in a downturn (at the same time as Sears Canada doubled its executive salaries while laying off over 2,000 workers last year). photo by Peter on flickr

Much of the trouble of starting cooperatives comes from the need to get capital investments - "The biggest challenge co-ops face is lack of capital, which is why they are often labor-intensive businesses with low start-up costs. Banks can be hesitant to lend to co-ops, perhaps because they aren’t familiar with the model. Meanwhile, credit unions — another form of cooperative — face stringent regulations on business lending." We should also note that when the financial sector is very divorced from the real economy, massive gains for investors often come from wheeling and dealing failing businesses, or those that are dramatically cutting their workforce (like Sears). Those gains don't come from investing in successful businesses, necessarily, or don't come at the same volume or pace that speculation can bring. This separation between what financiers expect and what benefits real people in the economy is an urgent issue.

Another issue came up in the comments on the article, from Rebecca Wheeler:

"I've been working at a cooperative for 10 years and can never go back to working somewhere that I don't have a voice. 

The biggest barrier for worker cooperatives is educating and then empowering people to join or make their own cooperatives. It's just too easy to keep doing the easy thing: working for someone else in an already established business. Once people are educated and see the benefits of cooperatives, I think they will also become spoiled for "normal" business structures, but I'm certain that's not a bad thing."

At Groundswell, we're addressing that barrier by peer education with Vancouverites and others about the potential of the new economy, and the practice of starting democratic alternatives-to-business. We're building a new economic logic, bringing enough people in that we have the power to address things like the split between finance and the real economy. And we're so glad to be part of something larger than ourselves.

Economics, personal work, and systems change

As current Groundswell participant (and incredibly gifted intuitive healer) Andrea writes, when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park, they caused a "trophic cascade" - a series of chain reactions that changed almost the entire geography of the park, including the rivers. "The reason why the extent of this trophic cascade was impossible to predict is because we had no previous knowledge of the extent of the wolves' relationship with their environment. We didn't know its possibilities – it's the same with the ecosystem of your life."

We could add - it's the same with the ecosystem of our current economy.

photo credit Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr

At Groundswell, one thing that makes us unique is our focus on personal development. One of the many things that differentiates us from a traditional business school is that we focus on helping participants find a deep sense of their own capacities, strengths, passions and goals. We believe that "people are at their best and are happiest when they have a project they are working on: a project that they are truly invested in, is genuinely important to them and their community, where their own best energies, values and skills can be realized."

Andrea's alternative-to-business gels beautifully with Groundswell - she focuses on supporting people in doing personal work and self-exploration using archetypal imagery. This requires her clients to go deep, and to see the possibility for trophic cascades in their own lives:

"That conversation with your brother might resurrect a forgotten memory, which makes you question the way you think about yourself, which – after considerable introspection and healing – ends up with you behaving differently at your workplace and being offered that next promotion."

A life, a park, and an economy are all complex ecosystems with many moving parts and possibilities that we can't foresee - hence the failure of much mainstream economics to predict things like the trickle-up of wealth to the 1%, instead of a trickle-down to the poor. Setting over 20 brilliant young people out into the economy equipped with alternatives-to-business that harness the best of their energies, values and skills starts to create the potential for the best kind of trophic cascade: a domino effect that can take us into a new more just, more democratic, and more sustainable world.

The New Science of Cooperation

You know you're in the right place at the right time when you are part of a paradigm shift that is rippling powerfully across disciplines... A photo from our recent "Long-table Dinner for a New Economy," co-hosted in our cafe space with Ashoka Changemakers

At Groundswell, we talk a lot about moving from a competitive to a collaborative economy. Amongst the many problems with our extractive, winner-take-all economy is its self-fulfilling prophecies about human nature: we're told that we are selfish and need to put ourselves first if we hope to survive, creating a race-to-the-bottom of greed and self-involvement. But these stories are changing.

Stephanie Van Hook has a great blog post on about the limits of non-cooperation for social change, looking at new research that shows we are much more cooperatively inclined than our economic models suggest:

"The new science of cooperation doesn’t write aggression or competition out of the human story, but it brings in cooperation as a vital counterweight. Indeed, some research suggests that human beings are best understood as 'super-cooperators' whose entire existence is an expression of caring and concern - from our first experiences in families to the behavior of those who risk their lives for strangers. Researchers at UCLA have discovered that 'tend and befriend' behavior, which defuses tension by actively seeking out connections and common ground, is just as significant as 'fight or flight.'"

As she says, "the modus operandi of most contemporary systems is to keep people from working together, especially around the things that really matter, like giving birth to a person-centered economy." At Groundswell, when we say we're changing economic logics, we mean changing that modus operandi too. And we're accepting applications for fall of 2014 now...

debt = opportunity

For the last year I have been working on a political campaign called The Rolling Jubilee that is simple and complex and kind of magical: we buy people’s debts and abolish them. Few Americans know that their unpaid bills—healthcare, credit card, and other kinds of consumer accounts—are often sold for pennies on the dollar on a shady, speculative, and alarmingly unregulated market. The Rolling Jubilee participates in this market, but instead of trying to collect the full amount of the debts we buy, we make them disappear. This week we announced that we have abolished $13.5 million worth of medical debt owed by 2,693 people, and they owe us nothing in return. strikedebtAstra Taylor, film-maker and a some-time instructor at the Purple Thistle (started in part by Groundswell co-founder Matt Hern) has written a beautiful piece in Hazlitt magazine about the Rolling Jubilee, another amazing example of the solidarity economy in action. Instead of leaving poor people at the mercy of finance, The Rolling Jubilee emancipates them by erasing their debts. The real magic, though, would come from organizing these liberated debtors into a powerful movement for a new economy that doesn't allow shady trading of debts or predatory lending. Check out Strike Debt, which aims to do just that - "organize debt resistors to fight for economic justice and democratic freedom."

Debt is where many people feel the practical, daily life effects of the boom-and-bust, winner-take-all-economy. And therefore, it's an opportunity to motivate people to rethink this current economic logic – and work together to create something better.

Cooperatives blazing a trail in Canada

Skiers in Canada are forming co-operatives to buy their local slopes – reconnecting with the true spirit of the sport The Guardian recently reported on a new trend in recreational business in Canada: local communities starting cooperatives to buy and run ski resorts.

"'Community ownership of ski areas allows for a certain pride," says Christian Theberge, the general manager of My Mountain Coop, the first not-for-profit ski cooperative in Canada. "People tend to take better care of what's theirs. It also allows members to actively participate in the improvements and really understand what makes the magic happen.'"


My Mountain Co-op's mission statement:

Membership is our strength. Through co-operative practices, working together with our communities, and partnering with like-minded organizations, we can be successful.

The Guardian claims this kind of magic and mission is spreading, with the co-op model generating interest among other mountain communities. The latest is Mount Sima in Yukon, which is run by another not-for-profit organisation, the Great Northern Ski Society (GNSS), that views the project as a huge asset to the community, especially the youngsters.

"Whether it's family-run or member-run, having a local ski area is key for the community," says Steve Carpenter, president of Mystery Mountain Winter Park in Manitoba. "It's extremely welcoming – everyone knows everyone," says Carpenter. "If you can make it up the lift without having a conversation with the person you're riding with, I'd be surprised."

All around us, we're seeing the links between democratic participation in businesses and community building – evidence of the global new thinking that Groundswell is leading.

read more at The Guardian or check out My Mountain Coop

10 Ways to Democratize the Economy

01_0 Gar Alperovitz is one of a a growing number of thinkers specifying exactly what a new economy could look like. Here are his ten steps to democratizing the economy, from Shareable:

  1. Put your money in a credit union, and participate in its governance.
  2. Help build a worker co-op or encourage interested businesses to transition to employee ownership and adopt social and environmental standards as part of their missions. (hello, Groundswell!)
  3. Organize your community so that local government spending is determined by inclusive neighborhood deliberations on key priorities (participatory budgeting)
  4. Make nonprofit institutions like universities and hospitals use their resources to fight poverty, unemployment, and global warming. (hello, divestment campaigns!)
  5. Build community power through economic development and community land trusts.
  6. Organize to use public finances for community development. (i.e. make local governments invest locally).
  7. Get your workplace to offer more retirement-plan opportunities for responsible investment.
  8. Democratize energy production to create a green economy - Get involved in public and cooperative utilities to fight climate change.
  9. Get your religious organization to move its money to a local financial institution involved in community development.
  10. Fight unemployment by joining the fight against work = seek out opportunities for work sharing.

That's a daunting list of tasks, and an inspiring list of opportunities. Nobody needs to be directly involved in all ten - pick something local that you can start with, and you'll soon be part of a vast global community that is both envisioning and building the new, more democratic economy.

The faceless markets

"When people talk about the markets, it's easy to think of it as faceless, something that happens high above us. But the market is made up of people, millions of them, constantly at work, every price set by a willing buyer, finding a willing seller. There's a pristine elegance to it. But what if that simple price-matching mechanism is broken? In example after example, case after case, insiders are exploiting their advantage. It's as if everything is rigged." At Groundswell, we're tapping into our felt sense that something is wrong with the current economy – and you can see that this visceral, felt sense of wrongness about the current conditions is spreading from the margins, from the periphery, closer and closer into the mainstream. Even the CBC is presenting a thorough critique of our winner-take-all, casino-style economic system:

One of the tenets of Groundswell is that this economic logic, as currently practiced, isn't inevitable. We're challenging our participants to do something about this - to build a new, more collaborative way of doing business that emphasizes the common good and leaves no-one behind. It's about a lot more than unrigging markets - it's about recognizing that the profit motive and unbridled competition have unmoored our communities, but that we still have the ingenuity and the love required to reground our economy in values like sharing, solidarity, and care.