This essay by Stephanie Malin and Meghan Elizabeth Kallman appeared on Colorado Newsline September 15, 2022.
Americans don’t agree on much these days, but many think that the US is on the wrong track and the future is dark. In a time of unprecedented division, growing inequalities and intensifying climate changeit is easy to feel that progress is impossible.
In fact, models exist all around us for building safer and more equitable spaces where people can thrive.
We are sociologists who study organizational systemspolitical and economic institutions and environmental justice. In our new book, “Building Something Better: Environmental Crises and the Promise of Community Change”, we explore how people adapt to crises and thrive in difficult times by working together.
The organizations we describe are small, but they have a big impact by creating alternatives to neoliberal capitalism — an approach to government that uses austere economic ideas to organize society. Neoliberalism aims to put government at the service of business through measures such as the deregulation of markets, the privatization of industries and the reduction of public services.
Here are three bands we see building something better.
Brass and percussion bands play for free in many American communities. They are formed mainly in cities and are deeply linked to contemporary issues of urban justice.
Acoustic and mobile, these bands play without stages to elevate them or sound systems separating the musicians from the audience. They invite crowds to join in the fun. They may perform alongside unions and grassroots groups at political demonstrations, parades or community events.
The common point is that they always occur in public spaces, where everyone can participate. Street groups bridge social divides and democratize spaces, while inviting play and camaraderie amid enormous social challenges.
In the 19th century, marching bands flourished throughout the United States and Europe. In the American South, street groups grew out of Benevolent Societies – social organizations that helped free and enslaved black Americans cope with financial hardship. These groups eventually morphed into “welfare and pleasure clubs», the forces behind the famous parades of New Orleans.
Today, the brass band movement meets annually across the HORN! Festival in cities across the country like Boston; Providence, Rhode Island; and Austin, TX. Relying on a tradition of protest, BELL! events are designed to affirm that artists and ordinary people have the right to occupy public space, as well as to disrupt state or corporate events.
Some groups build better systems by rejecting the hyperindividualism of neoliberalism. Individualistic logic tells people they can make the biggest changes by vote with their dollars.
But when people instead see how they can create real political change within communities and collective systems, amazing things can happen. An example is the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporationa non-profit organization on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest regions in the United States
This organization is led by and serves the Lakota people who, like other indigenous nations, struggle with devastating structural inequalities like racism and poverty. These challenges stem from settler colonialismespecially the Lakota loss of their tribal lands and displacement to less secure places.
Thunder Valley focuses on healing everyday traumas, such as poverty and high suicide rates. Its objectives include teach the lakota language through the generations, empower young people become community leaders and promote food sovereignty raising food for the community in greenhouses and gardens.
Thunder Valley’s other programs are designed to create community and safety in ways that elevate Lakota approaches. For example, his housing initiative works to increase access to affordable housing and offers financial support. Homes are built and neighborhoods are designed according to Lakota traditions. The organization sees home ownership as a way to strengthen community ties rather than simply creating individual wealth.
Thunder Valley programs also include a demonstration farm and a Montessori school in Lakota immersion. In 2015, President Barack Obama recognized the organization’s work to heal and build a multigenerational community as area of promise — a place that builds innovative collaborative spaces for community development.
Other groups are finding ways to build economic systems that serve communities rather than private businesses or industries.
It is the purpose of the Indigenized Energy Initiative, a non-profit community solar cooperative located in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The organization was founded following protests on the Standing Rock Reservation against the Dakota Access Pipelinewhich transports oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and his supporters opposed the pipeline, which crossed his ancestral lands and vital waterways, arguing that it violated treaties and tribal sovereignty. The project has been built, but opponents hope to shut it down with a environmental review pending.
Indigenized Energy executive director Cody Two Bears walked out of Standing Rock protests aimed at building the first solar farm in oil-dependent North Dakota. The organization aims to provide low-cost solar energy to all members of the community, promoting energy independence.
Today, the Cannon Ball Community Solar Farm has 1,100 solar panels and 300 kilowatts of generating capacity, enough to power all the homes in Cannon Ball. The farm sells its electricity to the public grid, earning enough to offset electricity bills from veterans and youth centers in the community.
Longer-term goals include building tribe-owned transmission lines, installing solar panels on tribal homes and community buildings, and expanding support for solar energy in North Dakota.
We see similarities between these organizations and others in our book. Initiatives such as community-owned solar cooperatives and collective home ownership and neighborhood planning models aim to build economic systems that meet community needs and treat people fairly. Instead of finding answers in individual consumption or lifestyle changes, they build collective solutions.
At the same time, communities across the United States have different views on what constitutes a good life. In our view, acknowledging different experiences, goals and values is part of building a shared future.
In recent years, many scholars have pointed out the ways in which neoliberalism has failed to produce effective solutions for economic, health, environmental and other challenges. These critiques invite a deeper question: are people capable of remaking the world to privilege relationships with each other and with the planet, rather than relationships with wealth? We think the cases in our book clearly show that the answer is yes.