Alternative Economic Work Is Thriving in the U.S. but Faces Unnatural, Unnecessary Hurdles

Image by George Becker

Alternative paradigms already exist

There already is an alternative economic paradigm, in fact, there are a number of them: Just Transition, Solidarity Economy, new economy, localism, The Commons, and so forth. There are key differences amongst these, but what they loosely share is a centering on community-based, people-to-people, localized economic independence. Localism and its cousins (independent workers united through communities of practice, place-based localism, and culturally bound communities whether in real-reality or digitally) are growing in popularity (think of current efforts for publicly owned banks, local currency, independent workers using tech-based platforms to cut out middlemen, and communities that are raising and re-investing their own impact capital called “community investment funds”).

Mainstreaming empowerment, particularly for Black, Brown, and Native peoples, is going to look like ownership, democratic governance, and locally and enterprise-based financial infrastructure.

All this is happening, and that momentum is growing in both place-based and digitally identity-based ways. Many folks already know about Cooperation Jackson (MS), but there’s also Boston Ujima and the cooperative-based incubator work of Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland. We’ve also learned that Minneapolis has the highest concentration of black-owned cooperatives in the US, and all because many of its founders read Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.”

The work is hard

What keeps the movement for community-controlled, democratically owned economic systems from going mainstream is that doing this work is hard — unnaturally hard.

Language and the agents of culture

One other shift I’ve made is in our language. I originally described AmbitioUS as rooted in artists because they are the original gig worker and our current economic paradigm exploits and no longer protects their labor. And, that premise is still the case: We are still looking at innovations in structural supports for artists and all those who share their challenging conditions. But what I’ve also come to realize is that a significant part of AmbitioUS’s investments is about emphasizing “culture.”

If the intention of supporting the arts is to realize vibrant culture, we have to talk about people in situ in their community and not people siloed in their artistic practice.

Culture and community

Alternative economy leaders talk to us about artists and culture as key and necessary ingredients for a locally based economic infrastructure to thrive. One of our Allies is Nwamaka Agbo who has a compelling vision of a Restorative Economic paradigm, and “culture” is one of its necessary pillars. For her, and many others in the alternative economy space, “culture” is what delimits, describes, and makes a community a “community.”

For what is a community without cultural connections that make neighbors care about and really see one other?

When alternative economy leaders talk about artists, they are not talking about artists the way that the arts sector talks about artists — as activists, social practice artists, or even place-based artists. Instead, they talk about artists as anchors, connectors, unifiers, trauma healers, storytellers, problem solvers, truth-tellers, as well as neighbors, mentors, teachers, business owners, customers, providers, and civic participants.



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Center for Cultural Innovation- AmbitioUS

Center for Cultural Innovation- AmbitioUS


President & CEO of @CCI_ARTS. Influencing financial self determination for artists and cultural anchors by investing in alternative, just, and new economies.