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Justice Communicator Column 5: From the corporate to the commons

Detroit Evolution is pleased to repost the Justice Communicators column from The Michigan Citizen. Patrick Geans-Ali, Victoria Goff and I have been cycling through a loose discussion on the relationship between principals shared by the Environmental Justice, Media & Digital Justice and Food Justice movements. Thus far we have discussed the principals of Access, Participation and Community Ownership. ~Gregg
From the corporate to the commons
• Sun, Oct 09, 2011

By Gregg Newsom

This is the second in the series of columns on the justice principle of common ownership by the Justice Communicators.

As I sat down to write this week’s column on the justice principal of community ownership, I was unexpectedly challenged.

I’ve been a vocal proponent of cooperatives and community-owned projects for quite some time, but as I reflected on it with sustainability and equity in the foreground, I began to question exactly how the notion of ownership, community or otherwise, can be translated into the grassroots sustainability movement that is gaining momentum in Detroit and other urban centers globally. I postulate a connection between corporate influence in our daily lives and our ability to work more collectively and share in community.

In the Sept. 18 column, Patrick presented the Green Bay Packers franchise as an example of a cooperative or community-owned enterprise that could be replicated to answer the current economic crisis and failures of capitalism. While I agree replication of these models is a step in the right direction and that community ownership may increase the shareholders’ ability to make some decisions and monitor revenue flow, I feel this example still upholds status quo, profit-driven business practices. Cooperative models that uphold these large scale systems and are dependent on industries that encourage the continuation of the majority of American’s unbalanced and pathological lifestyles will be a bandage at best or, at worst, the gateway to a deeper and even more spiritually devastating curtailing of our rights.

When I turned 30, I became disillusioned with the academic world I’d taken refuge in and, in a motion that reflected my cynical mindset at the time, decided to settle down and get a “real” job. I ended up working for a large Detroit corporation for five years and my experiences and observations there fueled and informed my anti-corporate stance since. There may be people who thrive in that environment, but I found that cubical culture promoted dependence on consumer goods and services, increased my already rabid individualism and greatly stifled my creativity and compassion. I worked as an administrator in a massive sales department and witnessed first-hand the disparities in the treatment and compensation of employees based on gender and race. My personal response, facilitated by corporate culture, was to keep to my own business, protect my job security and build opportunistic relationships for advancement. The culture promoted the outward appearance of teamwork and camaraderie, while encouraging an internalized distrust and surveillance of my peers. In hindsight, I perceive that my participation in this conflicted daily 9-5 social structure facilitated the development of hierarchical thought patterns that I consider to be blocks to building meaningful relationships and respectfully share in community.

It is this lived experience in corporate America and awareness of how corporate influence affects one’s ability to share in community that gave me pause last week when news about another Wisconsin-based non-profit began flooding my inbox. Urban agriculture hero Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, announced they are partnering with Walmart to the tune of $1 million. Walmart’s Web site reported the funding will “help Growing Power strengthen 20 community food centers in more than 15 states.

Based upon my principals and admiration for their work, I have to respect Growing Power’s autonomy. But this announcement and the subsequent discussion has caused me to reconsider how corporations are already partnered with and participating in efforts commonly identified with the grassroots justice movement in Detroit.

Growing Power’s decision reinforces my concern about some of the more subtle examples already active right here in Detroit. It puts the Whole Foods logos strewn across Eastern Market into a different perspective. It causes me to look more critically at the Greening of Detroit’s partnership with the MGM Grand Casino and Compuware’s recently opened, and quite beautiful, Lafayette Greens

Are these efforts to expand corporate interests and influence into our food system or simply warm fuzzy expressions and good PR? I know we all are tied to corporate systems, but I think it is important to promote transparency by asking these questions. I’m also concerned these Detroit-local examples and Growing Power’s Walmart deal are part and parcel of a greater thrust for corporate infiltration of our urban communities and a parceling out of our community space and resources, our commons.

More importantly, we need to ask ourselves how these subtle motions within our food system are connected to the larger corporate-influenced attack on Detroiters by Lansing and the suburbs. There is the fight to regionalize Detroit’s water and sewerage system — a corporate-influenced step toward privatization. There is the mass closing of public schools, the handing over of schools to charters and the creation of a separate state-run school system that can dictate what is taught to our youth and that feeds the school-to prison-pipeline. We’ve also witnessed how land, space and place in Detroit are highly sought after with the constant re-framing and re-branding of the Hantz “Farm” proposal and the “Move to Midtown” incentives that maximize and profit from gentrification. There are also the massive cuts to state aid, as of Oct. 1, that will negatively impact thousands of Detroiters.

Rightly so, like those occupying Wall Street this week, many people are taking a stand and speaking out against corporate-run government, media and education. But after wearing a tie every day for five years, I feel it is important to pay attention to, and increase the awareness that, corporate influence and thinking can serve as an obstacle to the success of community-owned grassroots endeavors. It is also vital that we begin to promote the concept that healing from these modes of thought is possible and that we strive to facilitate space for healing to take place in all aspects of our work, life and play.

Five years removed from cubicles, I’m just beginning to postulate how to work with others in ways that don’t replicate hierarchical structures. I still have a way to go in this work, but I have been blessed to participate in the co-creation of many grassroots, community-centered expressions. I’m thrilled to be a part of the new Cass Corridor Commons, emerging from the First Unitarian Universalist Church at Forest and Cass, where amazing individuals and organizations are dedicated to healing and learning together.

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