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

by Angie Kim, Center for Cultural Innovation, President and CEO

Image by George Becker

AmbitioUS is a new initiative of CCI to act as an experimental arm of the artist-support sector. As we launch AmbitioUS, Angie Kim, President and CEO, will share her observations and reflections related to this cross-sector, experimental, and systems level work.

I promised that you would be part of an iterative, ongoing learning process, so I’m sharing my observations and reflections. To start, I’ve changed my thinking about CCI’s role in the shifting of the nation’s economic paradigm. I never envisioned us having enough resources or being the right platform for that level of work, but I thought that explicitly supporting new economic theories when it is accelerated by arts and culture would be in our wheelhouse. I’ve expanded my thinking about that. I still believe that we need an alternative to the destructive, rampant, economic system we’ve inherited: It’s clear today that Milton Friedman’s free-market capitalism did not trickle down but rather siphoned-up profit and power.

And, it’s clear that the nonprofit sector needs significant disruption to (1) no longer be a neo-liberal, privatizing agent participating in capitalism’s undemocratic tendencies, and (2) attend to actual conditions of well being and financial freedom than on project-based performance. So, here’s what I’ve observed and where I now sit.

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”).

These locally based efforts are exciting: I can see a country that returns to having local flavor and color (antithesis of Starbucks on every corner), wherein communities are financially self-sufficient versus depending on a global corporation with no community accountability. This is not a picture of more economic growth or scaling projects in homogenizing ways.

Rather, this vision reflects the diversity and plentitude of this country in ways that bring closer together the richness of culturally based anchoring with the freedom of financial self sufficiency.

I don’t think I’ll see in my lifetime a subversion of capitalism. In many ways, the stakeholders of this system are getting stronger, not weaker. And, I’m not sure I have the appetite for the magnitude of a black swan event. But, what is possible and worth our investments is supporting alternative systems so that for those whom capitalism long ago left behind, they can start realizing greater freedom from this exploitative and extractive system.

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.

Alternative economic systems are not fringe for lack of interest, they are “alternative” because of structural challenges that exert a cooling effect undermining these efforts.

For one, collectively owned enterprises fall through every crack of institutional government, private lender, and nonprofit philanthropic support because their ownership is shared, they are not 501(c)(3)-incorporated, or because their low-growth business plans seem to promise too little in return. Furthermore, not every state recognizes or is friendly to cooperative businesses, SEC (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) greatly restricts their ability to raise funds, and there are too few sources of low-growth capital. Consequently, these efforts are in a fragile state. As someone who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years, I know how nonprofit work is often carried on the backs of its workers, but I was surprised (and dismayed) to see how similarly leading cooperative, impact, and alternative economy leaders are volunteer-based, subsidizing this work through other employment, or using their savings and credit to afford this work. I’m surprised because some of these leaders are of enterprises that raise and move millions of dollars, but it belies how scrappy they are due to lack of operating capital.

Changes may seem herculean, but positive changes are already afoot. For example, City of Berkeley recently approved prioritizing worker-owned cooperative businesses when contracting for services and supplies. That one change can make the difference between a community being able to circulate financial capital within the community and a community wherein money goes out to large corporations that confer little real value to its residents.

Bottom line: A viable, inclusive and diverse, economic ideology is actually flourishing and growing, but it needs both the removal of structural barriers to accessing capital and actual financial investment for it to realize its fuller potential.

To this end, we see how even small amounts of philanthropic support can have outsized impact. There is so much opportunity in this space.

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.”

As a sector, the terms “arts” and “culture” have often been used interchangeably to a point of meaninglessness in distinguishing the two. But, in our work, we’re seeing “culture” distinctly, and it’s making me realize that, as a sector, we’ve paid a lot of lip service to “culture” but never really invested in the agents of 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.

There’s lots more we’re learning, which we’ll share as we go on. We’re deep in learning about market opportunities and failures for POC artists in the digital economy, platform cooperatives, new union or guild models for independent creative workers, alternatives to VC capital (talk about hyper-capitalism — yikes), cooperative business modeling, fintech opportunities that help creatives and independent workers, and so much more.

Center for Cultural Innovation- AmbitioUS

Written by

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

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