Jill Agnew’s Keynote Speech

Common Ground Country Fair keynote speaker Jonathan Rosenthal talked about new economies that use strategies such as cooperatives and public ownership to give power back to communities. John Williams photo

From Local to System and Rural to Urban: Building a New Economy

Sunday, September 24, 2017 – Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, Maine


During his keynote speech at MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair on September 24, 2017, Jonathan Rosenthal, executive director of the New Economy Coalition, talked about the interconnectedness of our many different struggles for justice and highlighted solutions that fundamentally transform our economy, culture and politics.

Rosenthal has spent over 30 years working to transform the power of business from a destructive force of accumulation into a healing force honoring the interconnectedness of all people and our earth. He co-founded Equal Exchange, a pioneering fair trade company that is now the second largest worker-owned cooperative in the United States, as well as Oké USA and Belmont-Watertown Local First. He has consulted with people and organizations all across the trade justice movement. He is the author of numerous articles, a frequent speaker at colleges and events, a board member of the Coffee Trust and an emeritus board member of Root Capital.

As executive director of the New Economy Coalition, Rosenthal now stewards a network of 200 U.S. and Canadian organizations that are at the forefront of creating new economies using strategies such as cooperatives and public ownership that give power back to communities – groups such as Cooperation Jackson, People’s Action, Participatory Budgeting Project, Institute for Local Self Reliance, Cooperative Development Institute and many more.  His talk is posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wryy0csUWo4 and summarized here.

Harvesting Our Energy

Rosenthal began by saying that two members of the Wabanaki Coalition had helped him understand that we are on occupied land; helped him understand the long struggle for who lives on land and who enjoys the fruits of land. He asked fairgoers to take a moment to recognize our ancestors, our teachers, and the people who came before us from the Wabanaki Nation and gave us the courage to make the world a better place today.

It’s a confusing time to be alive, particularly in this United States, said Rosenthal, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the hate that is unleashed daily, but it’s also an amazing time to be alive – to understand that for those of us working to restore land and create a more just world, this is our moment. Revealing wounds gives us the opportunity to heal those wounds and create a better world, he added.

“I choose to not ignore the hate and the fear but to be uplifted, as I hold that hate and fear, by the incredible stories of communities rising to assist, to resist, to heal, to build. I really believe that this is our time.”

Rosenthal asked his audience members to clasp the forearm of the person next to them and look into the eyes of that person to help understand the power of connection – an experience that can liberate energy and cause a little discomfort in being so intimate.

“I think the exhilaration and discomfort are often related,” he said, adding that in his experience, the work of new economy and of social change “is about holding that energy and harvesting from the discomfort and the exhilaration, from the connection of another human being of being here, grounded on the earth, to build community.”

Getting Here

Rosenthal attended Colby College but left after a couple of years to do political organizing. While at Colby, however, he found a home in the food coop in Waterville, and that propelled him to seek work in the food cooperative movement when he left. He worked at Northeast Coops in the early ‘80s, where he and some other employees wanted to support liberation movements through trade. They had difficulty gaining support for that in the coop movement, so they started a small company to see if they could survive while paying farmers as high a price as possible instead of as low a price as possible.

“We were told we were crazy, and we didn’t know anything about international trade. We didn’t have any money and we didn’t have much business experience – but we believed in what we were doing, and we had a magical threesome with enough skills to get us over successive hurdles.” That company – Equal Exchange – still exists.

Rosenthal worked there for about 15 years, and Equal Exchange did pay farmers as much as possible, and worked in solidarity with cooperatives and liberation movements. His coworkers wanted to build that cooperative model company, but Rosenthal wanted more risk-taking, more innovation.

“I did a variety of things as one person to strengthen the fair trade movement, including consulting for a feasibility study to set up a banana company.” He ended up running the fair trade banana company for three years – “an incredible experience,” but because bananas are such a concentrated industry, he did not think he could change the food system through bananas.

As fair trade became more successful and moved further into the market system, into companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks and Walmart, talking about the issues that mattered – e.g., unpacking power through lenses of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, different identity issues – became nearly impossible. “I had spent more than 30 years building and working in this fair trade movement, and in many ways we’d had much more success than I could have ever imagined; yet I felt deeply frustrated by where we were” regarding talking about issues he thought were important.

After a two-year consulting project and a period of unemployment, “I realized that where I needed to be was at the intersection of what I call ‘small is beautiful’ and systems change work.” Simultaneously he was recruited to be executive director of the New Economy Coalition – a network of about 200 U.S. and Canadian organizations that collaborate to build power and voice, to create systemic change. The coalition supports and connects small organizations working on the front lines of social change and resistance to oppression. “I realized again that another world is possible,” said Rosenthal.

“This is the most exciting time in the past 60 years for social change,” he continued. “Grassroots organizations are bubbling up everywhere. Whether it’s worker coops, renewable energy, participatory budgeting, other ways to build community wealth, community power and help with communities, all across the U.S. and Canada, things are happening” – even as neo-Nazis march in the streets and “we have a president who seems to stir the flames of discrimination.

Building Grassroots Power

“Our job at the New Economy Coalition,” said Rosenthal, “is to find ways to get the message out that this is our time, and to be able to tell the stories of these amazing organizations that are doing this work.”

Historically, fragmented progressive groups have focused on identity issues, building power only locally. The new-economy movement supports building those efforts – and it links those groups to build grassroots power, to be more effective and to tell their story to wider audiences.

Examples include a group working in post-coal communities in Appalachia on youth empowerment models, employment models and ways to build community health centers. Another, the Cooperative Development Institute, helps start and build capacity in cooperatives, while the Community Economic Development Group in Boston is creating a hub of new-economy organizations and linking them around such themes as worker ownership, participatory budgeting, local finance, community cooperatives and other ways to build community wealth. Other member groups include Equal Exchange, policy groups, 350.org and more.

The coalition builds cohesion through a major conference every two years; through about 12 working groups on everything from self care to building a new-economy policy platform for political campaigns; through training opportunities; and by convening groups in other movements.

“A lot of the movements we work with,” said Rosenthal, “are not focused on the economy or business but are more resistance-focused, so we bring that building collaboration lens to them to help build more capacity … to not focus just on resistance work.”

The coalition also provides grants of up to $5,000 to youth and student groups and front-line communities working in low-income rural and urban areas.

The coalition is also building a PR platform for the new economy movement – helping place articles in different kinds of media; giving stipends to journalists and educating them about the new economy; producing a “Beautiful Solutions” book and web platform with the historic Highlander Center in Tennessee, featuring projects from around the planet; and helping people tell the new economy story better and bring those stories to bigger and bigger audiences.

One project with rural electric coops will use funds raised collaboratively to support the ongoing rural co-op organizing efforts of several grassroots NEC members, to create publically available strategic toolkits, and to pilot a sophisticated repeatable mapping process that groups can use to lead more strategic and impactful rural co-op campaigns. Those coops can be very conservative organizations, said Rosenthal, but they are consumer cooperatives with the potential for community control. Mapping can identify and organize the most progressive people to get the coops to bring in more renewables and depend less on coal and nukes. “It’s one of the most scalable projects that we’re involved in,” said Rosenthal; “42 million people get their energy through rural electric coops.”

The coalition also sees the potential for a hub that helps connect a variety of new-economy ideas in urban and rural areas. “Imagine that [all across the country] every rural region and every major city has a hub that can teach people about worker ownership,” said Rosenthal; “that can do training in facilitation, in public speaking, in participatory budgeting, in using community foundations to build local community organizations.” That interconnection at different levels of organizing is part of the coalition’s vision of going from “small is beautiful” to systemic change.

Q & A

Asked about working on the political policy level to create social change and a new economy, Rosenthal said that working in the political arena is critical to growing an economy that’s based on meeting people’s and planetary needs and living in harmony with Mother Earth. Some of the coalition’s policy members do that, and its policy working group is looking at ways to create a more coherent national strategy – by building a new-economy policy platform for anybody running for office to use, for example. Push Buffalo, a sophisticated new-economy hub that the coalition works with in Buffalo, has gotten policy passed by the city council there and helped people get elected to the city council. Now Push Buffalo is working at the state level.

Asked how the collaborative governance method of sociocracy fits into the new economy, Rosenthal said that workplaces and organizations can learn how to unlearn some habits based on gender, race, class and how we behave with other human beings, and that sociocracy is one tools to help create workplaces that are consistent with our values.

One audience member asked what a new economy would look like in 15 or 20 years. Rosenthal said he sees the hub as the most replicable, scalable model to build a new economy – “weaving together across the country and planting the seeds where there are no seeds so that every region or bioregion would have a hub for these new ideas.” Currently four or five major U.S. cities have allocated money to develop worker-ownership curricula. In 15 or 20 years, Rosenthal envisions every city and town looking at ways to support and grow locally owned businesses and build community wealth.

“Our idea of wealth in this country is that people accumulate wealth in families or as individuals – [wealth] often extracted from the earth or from other people,” he said. In the new economy, more and more of our economic, social and cultural activities will be built on the idea of community wealth, which incorporates healthy relationship with the earth and living organisms.

“How do we support cultural workers?” asked Rosenthal. “How do we make sure everybody has access to health care, to education, to healthy food and right relationship with community?”

One solution, he said, is to have more community-run Common Ground Country Fairs where people come together. “I learned that there are 2,000 volunteer shifts over this three-day fair. That’s an incredible operation!”

Asked how to enable small businesses to incorporate the principles of the new economy in their communities, Rosenthal recommended getting better connected to find out what already exists. The U.S. Federation of Worker Coops does trainings and has an institute every year, for example. Its sister organization, Democracy Work Initiative, does consulting and support for worker ownership and employee stock ownership. The New Economy Coalition has a growing array of tools, and its members and staff are available to help.

Another fairgoer asked if the coalition is working at the level of international trade agreements that allow corporations to encroach on policy. Rosenthal responded that the coalition itself doesn’t work on policy, but some of its members and allies (Farm Aid, Oxfam America and others) do, and the coalition is connected with some global organizations. “It all has to go hand-in-hand,” he said. “We’ve learned from the neoliberals about thinking large and at all levels.”

Addressing how other connections are made, Rosenthal said the coalition has a day before its conference for network gatherings; an annual members meeting; working groups; and it does informal matching.

What’s one concrete local or state-level policy advance that the coalition has been involved in, asked one audience member, who also plugged legislation that will be taken up in Maine this year to incentivize businesses to create worker coops. Rosenthal said that the coalition does not do advocacy and lobbying, being a 501(c)3, but it brings together its members for that work.

“We have supported in New York City and in Boston organizations to lobby the city council to support putting money into worker ownership as a community development strategy.” He also attended the inaugural meeting of a new organization of Latino women in East Boston who are supporting education of undocumented, unemployed Latino women to form worker cooperatives.


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