The Exemplars of a new paradigm, no matter how impressive, only offer a snap-shot of aggregated experience. It is when we introduce time as a dimension that we can fully understand how change happens. In retrospect, the history of change is loaded with brilliant insights, promising innovations and lots of misdirection, redundancy and outright failure. Even when there are substantial successes, there is rarely a clear path to wide adoption.
In the USA of the ‘60s, President Kennedy put forth the Peace Corps as a foreign policy initiative, modeled as an alternative to drafting for the military. Domestically, President Johnson’s War on Poverty built on the depression era Civilian Conservation Corps with Job Corps and VISTA, eventually adding AmeriCorps, Teacher Corps, City Year, Senior Corps. National Service, tuned to the needs of states and localities, with some measure of public/private partnership in absorbing costs, was recognized as valuable to participants, a boon to community, a workforce to maintain and extend physical infrastructure, a value to the whole concept and execution of citizenship, and a cheap contribution to a full employment economy.
As limited interventions, programs continue to limp along. As the significant early-life experience for young adults across our nation, bolstering every aspect of a civil society, dissolving the usual barriers of class and economic status, rebuilding infrastructure, providing apprenticeships and job training, National Service is a very minor player. Why?
There is no good answer, but a slew of bad ones. At the top of the list, I’d put a failure of imagination and inability to grasp systemic impact. A sense of connection between all Americans is nurtured by common institutions and shared experience. Without a commonality, society predictably fractures.
Nevertheless, the surviving voluntary services continue to accrue value for the individual, communities and society, and funded national service after high school or college could be instituted with profound impacts.
URBAN PLANNING AND RESTON
In the late ‘60s, the new town of Reston, Virginia was designed to harmoniously mix residential, commercial and public spaces. Located in northern Virginia, Reston was culturally situated between the traditions of the South, and heavily African-American Washington, DC. De facto desegregated, but you wouldn’t know it from the marketing. The staff at the welcome center, the 250 picture slide show, and the newspaper ads were all lily white. It took a vigorous campaign of pre-welcoming, with a cohort of residents greeting prospective homeowners and renters with signs and a rap about Reston as an open community to accomplish change. The corporate owners caved: a full page ad appeared in the Washington Post with a black couple strolling on the piazza; the staff and slide show were integrated. If that presentation appealed to some and discouraged others, the balance didn’t hurt sales, and the African-American percentage of the town population held at around 10%.
Reston has grown into a successful suburban hub, especially now that the Metro directly links the town with DC and Dulles Airport, but the innovative design that spoke a language of civility and environmental consciousness is mostly limited to the original Lake Ann Village. Nor, except for a companion city in nearby Maryland, Columbia, have there been North American developments on its scale.
THE CONSUMER COOPERATIVE MOVEMENT
In the 1970s, there was a veritable explosion of local food co-ops, building on the ’60s generation’s new found passion for natural foods, and the energy pouring into local community. The dominant role of capital was countered with valuing labor and consumer participation through cooperatives.
Accessing supplies and learning from each other about how to do a business were common agenda items. Rather than launching a new association, the new wave of food co-ops joined with the older consumer co-op movement, which also included housing, electricity and credit unions.
The Consumer Cooperative Alliance, created in the 1920s out of a first wave of co-op organizing, was thrilled to absorb this new energy, and the summer gatherings of CCA swiftly became the hot destination for the leadership of the new movement, with more than a thousand attending.
By the late ‘70s, it seemed to the participants that the wave was about to challenge old forms of business. The Carter administration and a Democratic congress, with Ralph Nader’s organizational support, developed the National Consumer Cooperative Bank, underwritten to the tune of $300 million to provide financing for expansion and start-ups. The New School for Democratic Management positioned itself as the MBA credentialer of the future. The Employee Ownership movement, supported by new federal legislation for Employee Stock Options (ESOPs) seemed poised to complement the democratization of the US economy. A few prescient companies which had already achieved some scale, and Nationwide Insurance (an old-line cooperative) provided some resources and experience. REI and Group Health were significant and growing cooperatives standing in the wings. Historically, the Roosevelt era initiative to establish rural electric co-ops through the Tennessee Valley Authority, which effectively electrified the South, was a continuing success.
Perhaps the flagship of these new possibilities was Consumer’s United Insurance Company whose founder and President, Jim Gibbons, was the keynote speaker at the inaugural session of the New School for Democratic Management. Jim had built a successful health insurance company, Consumers United, which pioneered unisex rates, fully integrated its workforce by race and gender, and reached a peak of $60 million revenues and 300 staff. As a measure of his commitment to economic democracy, Jim shared ownership with the workers through stock dispersal.
In the ‘80s, Co-op America, on its trajectory to bridging the gap between producers and consumers who shared values of social and environmental responsibility, made its headline offering a health insurance plan from CUIC. The ability to partner with CUIC did play a crucial role in the success of Co-p America, which, as Green America, carries the torch that was passed.
With CUIC, there was an important piece of infrastructure, capable of generating surplus while pursuing a viable business strategy. Its pioneering efforts, however, did not endear CUIC to the rest of the insurance world, and Jim’s outspoken advocacy led to a series of punitive measures by the Delaware Insurance Commission which eventually put CUIC out of business.
In the early ‘80s, the pendulum swung back to favor commercial interests through a Reagan administration hell-bent on restoring the free-range ethics of Wall Street and a corporate America.
In the space of a few years, the momentum was stopped. The Bank dropped “consumer”, then “cooperative” from its title, the New School failed to find a permanent footing in academia, stock ownership for employees became a footnote to stock options for managers, and the bustling US economy was headed outwards towards globalization, and inwards to liberating capital and wealth accumulation from any regulation.
Nevertheless, there is a reasonable argument that nothing gets lost. Some institutions survived, new ones like Co-op America, Calvert, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, the Social Investment Forum, Whole Foods restated some part of the ideals in the ‘80s. If CCA died, there were other gathering points for a new entrepreneurial class through the Social Venture Network. By the turn of the millennium, “green” was the new word, encompassing many of the issues that captivated us at CCA.
HEALTHY COMMUNITIES ACCESS PROJECTS
There is a general appreciation that the US healthcare system is a mess, much of it due to the silos in which it functions. In 2001, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, the Secretary of HHS pushed through a bill creating the “Healthy Communities Access Program” (HCAP). Grants of a million dollars each were awarded to more than one hundred communities which presented credible plans for collaboration between healthcare entities in their cities, towns and rural areas that could promote access for patients, savings for the over-all system, and deliver a new set of best practices to be shared.
Despite the Bush administration’s attempts to crash the program, it quickly earned diversified and bi-partisan support in Congress (every state had HCAPs, creating a built-in constituency). For five years, until the initial authorization ran out, HCAP authored imaginative and successful approaches to collaboration between community health centers, private and specialist practices, pharmacies, hospitals; as well as learnings that flowed between communities.
A Coalition emerged, “Communities Joined in Action” (CJA) which marshalled support, encouraged even more sharing of best practices, and represented the HCAP community. Some of those best practices revised elements of the local systems, others withered with the lack of continued funding. Like so many innovations, much was lost. There seemed to be no ombudsman to say, “Wait a minute, didn’t this program work?” Certainly not a Federal Executive branch so focused on the war it had promoted.
Yet with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, there were incentives for efficiency, some of which would rely on collaborations, and a revived focus on prevention and primary care. The experience of the HCAPs in redefining the significance of Federally Qualified Health Centers is aiding the transition to universally provided care.
TRAINING FOR URBAN ALTERNATIVES
In New Haven, Connecticut of the ‘70s, a young, eager and relatively privileged subculture in a generation disaffected by the Vietnam War sought to create a more cooperative, egalitarian and just society. Like many towns with major universities, New Haven became a center for both protest and experimentation.
A subculture developed which featured both high ideals and practical applications. Since many participants had young kids, several daycares sprung up, and inevitably alternative schools. Food, shelter, education, services, reduced costs by sharing made money less of an issue. Folks moved in together, and kept creating institutions that met needs, and which together offered a sense of social coherence. Bound together by the rhetoric of cooperation, feminism and social justice, it was the willingness of individuals to pitch in that made institutions real, and the matrix of cross-pollination that created a community.
Music, dancing, gossip, ideas and work created a matrix of experience. People knew each other sharing daycare shifts as parents, hashing out procedures in endless meetings, over meals and running households, dancing at parties, cutting cheese at the co-op. That dimensional quality of relationships blossomed into a community with a core of five or six hundred, but touching the lives of thousands in the area. The New Haven Food Coop itself had 5,000 members, running $5 million annual sales. The Yale-based Women’s Liberation Center helped thousands to appreciate the quandaries of new consciousness. A Community Exchange Cooperative published a monthly journal and calendar of events. It held weekly meetings where group houses prospected for new members, and individuals sought housing. A feminist credit union gained a charter and invested in businesses, non-profits and individuals. An activist troupe, The Street and Children’s Theatre, dramatized society’s contradictions.
In 1974, to the tune of a quarter million dollars, not chump change then, the National Institute of Mental Health bit on a bizarre proposal to document and support this alternative community, as a potentially significant anodyne to urban ills. Not only was there evidence that this complex of institutions made for happier and saner people, but restructuring many of the most basic building blocks of society had economic advantages with the slogan, “xxx for people, not for profit,” and intimations of a sharing economy. To receive the grant, a community board was created, a core administrative staff hired, money dispersed for initiatives that would move the agenda. Links were established with other communities developing similar structures in Austin, Minneapolis, Madison, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and the SF Bay area.
For a decade, an urban community operating through cooperative values built its own infrastructure and flourished. Ideas were invitations to action, and in an era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, there were few dull moments. An ideology that sought a common base of class and economic reality was given substance. Productivity was judged by value to the community. A matrix of institutions was laid across the map of the local environment, and its points of impact became the relevant markers for participants.
Was this the future? If so, it would be delayed by several decades. In the revanchist decade of the ‘80s, the pendulum swung towards Gordon Gekko’s classic line, “Greed, for want of a better word, is good.” Collaborative ventures were about as welcome as concern for the environment – which is to say, gutted whenever possible.
Meanwhile, the Baby Boom generation was growing up, worrying about their kids. For those with college degrees, cashing in for a more traditional future was becoming more attractive. In New Haven, that meant a gradual attrition of numbers and energy applied to the nascent institutions. It didn’t happen all at once, but as each institution – schools, daycares, food co-op, etc. – lost participants, considered closing, the roller coaster began a slow slide backwards. One day, folks woke up and the past was more present than the future.
The values and expression of the New Haven alternative community in the ‘70s modeled much of what a community-minded, environmentally-concerned, social justice-aware generation sought to practice in the early 21st century. Considering that gun-toting avatars of the Wild West are locked in mortal combat with the inheritors of Sharia Law, there’s an argument for what goes around, comes around. Who can be sure which cultural context will rise, like the phoenix, from the ashes of irrelevance?
THIRTEEN COLLEGE CURRICULUM PROJECT
In the late 1960s, with opportunities for higher education opening for black youth, the leadership that had developed Upward Bound and other progressive programs were concerned about the quality of preparation: given the poverty of southern and inner city public secondary schools, were these young and enthusiastic students even close to being ready for college?
The result was the 13 College Curriculum Project through the Institute for Services to Education. It was led by Dr. Elias Blake, with 70 staff, mostly black, including all the senior positions, funded by the US Department of Education, The Ford and Carnegie Foundations. Within each of the selected colleges, a cohort of around 200 students were exposed to a dynamic learning process which threw out rote drills, and replaced them with retrained, motivated teachers and a curriculum that was grounded in the students’ experience and which encouraged their creativity.
A social science class matched theories about the dysfunction of the black family against the students’ experience, empowering the students to value their own insights, while demanding the rigor of cogent arguments. A physics class had the students devising their own theory of mass and energy, building from an observed physical demonstration. A math class worked through gaming probabilities, with one precocious student admitting his facility came from running the numbers. An English class dramatized readings, and explored a performance piece with the students accomplishing a lights out, lights on shift between praying and taking. A philosophy class investigated the legitimacy of an African intellectual structure, Muntu, based on animism.
The net impact was a moving model of education that was relatively seamless between home, community, learning and preparation for life. The kind of dialogic participation we value in our best schools, which assumes the intellectual capacity of students, guided by fully engaged and prepared teachers, was the dominant mode in their classrooms.
The program was a brilliant success for the students who participated, but the level of institutional commitment it demanded faded over the years. Although some of the value crept into ordinary curriculum, the teacher training that was so critical went the way of bureaucracy and budgetary cuts – and another few generations of students were abandoned.
The lure of a comprehensive, global fair trade system which mimics or parallels the mainstream, but with inherent social and environmental values, captivated my own attention as a logical extrapolation of my work with Co-op America. For half a decade, I lined up producers, export-import, quality guarantees, financing and ongoing income streams. I visited dozens of sites in Asia, Africa and Latin America, attended EFTA meetings in Europe, met with the World Bank, USAID and venture capitalists, was advised by fellow entrepreneurial pioneers in the Social Venture Network, among them the founders of the Body Shop and Banana Republic, developed a Just Trade network of one hundred US retail shops, produced and collaborated on a number of catalogs, signed up a few thousand members to support the mission, created a promotional, “Fairtrading” video… And ran out of money. There was a domestic economic recession that made investors nervous. The collapse of the Soviet Empire radically reduced USAID’s interest in advancing Third World economies. The distribution and promotional opportunities inherent to the internet were barely imagined. Many explanations and lessons learned, but none as satisfying as success.
TEN TRENDS AND SIX PRECURSOR PRINCIPLES
New Haven of the ‘70s was one example of a systematic approach to community, as was the 13 College Program to education, as was National Service to a social and economic need, as was HCAP to healthcare, as was the consumer cooperative movement. Each of them, in their way, expressed principles and values which were present in society, yet which were denied by countervailing themes.
Nobody said it was going to be easy, but that’s where the ten trends I presented in the Introduction come into play. If those trends are accurately identified, there is a better chance that the principles they represent will be more than curious outliers, and become embedded in mainstream of society. Learning the lessons of the past includes understanding how changed conditions can deliver more positive outcomes.
- Open source access to information: The marketing and promotional opportunities of the internet would have radically affected the pace, scale and reach of my fair trade initiative.
- Sharing: The consumer co-op movement of the ‘70s was built on shared housing, food, childcare, etc. that reduced both individual consumption and expense. After decades of popularizing conspicuous consumption and ownership, the pendulum seems to be swinging back with a host of market-savvy ways of sharing.
- Locality: Even as globalization has gripped peoples’ imagination and pocketbooks, national (or international) structures from Peace Corps to AmeriCorps, have provided the support for local engagement. The rebirth of locality in the form of farmers’ markets, local producers, small business and neighborhoods has reinforced social connections.
- Environment: By the late-twentieth century, the shocking impacts of catastrophes like Love Canal, Bhopal and the Exxon Valdez spill had spawned corrective legislation, particularly the Clean Air Act. But it took growing evidence of long-term damage that, unchecked, could end the reign of humanity as Earth’s dominant species, to establish the conditions for serious behavior modification. The implementation of corporate environmental reporting through the work of CERES and GRI and the resulting dialog have mitigated disastrous choices.
- Best Practices: HCAP’s pioneering work in breaking down healthcare silos demonstrated the value of sharing successful approaches and protocols between organizations. HCAP is gone, but with the Affordable Care Act, there become even more incentives to operate efficiently, and community health centers like CHC Inc. are flourishing
- Facing contradictions between open and closed cultures: The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, etc. have set a high standard for bridging the gap between cultures with wide disparities. Perhaps that is the best we can expect, and surely better than hordes of youth dazzled by the promise of global largesse, then crushed by the weight of failed delivery. In cities like Amsterdam and Curitiba, villages like Agua Caliente, and the neighborhoods of Burlington, at least there is attention to the general well-being and a real hope of social and economic mobility, while retaining the values of community.
- Distributive systems: After the false dawn of the Consumer Co-op Movement in the ‘70s, overwhelmed by decades of mergers and acquisitions, it seemed the only mainstream paths to diversification were franchises or multi-level marketing. Federated structures like ACE Hardware or IGA and producer cooperatives like Cabot and Blue Diamond allowed some ability to compete with big box stores, and there has been a resurgence of Main Streets in many American towns and cities. Further, the potential of decentralization to change the base of a market economy has arrived with the internet. With the advent of efficient co-generation, and 3-D printing under development, the sky may indeed be the limit.
- Collaboration and Networking: HCAPS had to deal with breaking patterns of hierarchy and proprietary control. Now, teams of clinicians representing mutually supportive disciplines, and specialists linked with primary care providers to offer expertise are validating the conception of Medical Homes caring for the whole family, aware of the needs of the whole community over time.
- Redefining Productivity: The 13 College Curriculum Project threw out the book on nurturing the development of students, and succeeded in educating a previously ignored and insulted segment of a generation to their fullest potential as productive citizens. Our public primary and secondary education system, much less many of our colleges and universities, have yet to achieve that potential. Educational environments, however, like the HUBs and the whole area of entrepreneurship are applying the spirit of valuing real contributions to society and enhancing curiosity.
- Shift towards imagining the future: In its most halcyon years, there was never a doubt among participants that the New Haven Alternative Community or the Consumer Co-ops, or employee ownerships, as part of larger social movement, were creating the future. Except in isolated circumstances, that didn’t happen. Yet the accomplishment of grafting a value-laden application onto an existing, and usually amoral urban platform, demonstrated what could be done to shift society. These days, we have the proliferation of mass-market apocalyptic visions, with salvation dependent on the intervention of bodacious super-heroes. Even so, fear of likely catastrophes has reduced complacency, and an ecological appreciation of our planet leads to more practical exploration and long-range planning.
A MATRIX THEORY OF DEVELOPMENT
On the road to a sustainable world, what is the balance between moderating the macro systems of a global, market economy, and knitting together our communities through systems that derive from community? Top down or bottom up? Do both and meet in the middle?
If a new paradigm is to emerge, our exemplars will need a new level of mutual awareness, and willingness to collaborate on the systemic structures that make it probable. The hopeful news is that these exemplars are already deep into the practice of sharing vision, strategy and tactics. Even better, institutions and sectors that have gone to scale already embrace many of the trends and principles we have proposed.
Without denying the plentitude of human greed, viciousness and stupidity, we’ve got a chance: the potential can be leveraged by Exemplars, even those which have passed their brightest moments. Cross fertilization takes place when there are contacts and overlaps that demonstrate useful. Training for Urban Alternatives, Peace Corps, 13 College Program, HCAP and Consumers United, were successful exemplars of innovation for a time, without inspiring wide-spread replication. All five examples were affected by external support or its withdrawal, and the mood and priorities of the larger society.
Each social experiment leaves its mark on at least the participants. It is the matrix of experiences which create opportunities for insights and innovation, even if they must wait to be taken up in more propitious times.