In Conclusion: Strategies for Co-Governance
THE U.S. IS STRUGGLING WITH A PROFOUND DEMOCRACY GAP. The laws of our land do not reflect what the people want. The majority of Americans want abortion rights1, stronger gun control policies2, and more democratic elections3. And yet every year that goes by, we seem to make little progress towards these goals—and in some cases, we are losing ground. At the same time, we face consistent inequities in income, wealth, jobs, education, and every other element of everyday life. Structural racism remains a devastating weapon that erodes democratic processes. It also prevents true democratization of our politics and our economy, in which everyone is guaranteed meaningful participation in public life and the essentials like good incomes, housing, and education that we all need to thrive. In response, we have seen and participated in some of the largest marches and demonstrations in the history of our country, and the 2020 uprisings remind us of the importance of long-term, on-the-ground movement building to continue the painstaking work of building power in between elections and spontaneous protests.
As the case studies and models in this report show, part of that painstaking work will entail shifting the relationship between communities and government entities, and in so doing, changing our conceptions of everyone’s role in our democracy. The constrained, prevailing view of democracy is that of an exclusionary, passive, individualistic, consumer model of voting in which public opinion is measured and treated as a neutral, natural result of rational deliberation between individuals, and in which citizens are simply supposed to vote once every two years and then sit back to let elected leaders run the show.
This impoverished conception has led us astray. It is a double disservice: to all the people working in government who are actively trying to serve their communities and could benefit from the hard work, insight, and on-the-ground experience of community members; and to those community members who end up frustrated and disenfranchised when their government fails them. We must recognize that people don’t exist as atomized individuals in society, but rather as members of communities. We must collectively cultivate a more active, robust and inclusive form of democratic participation by building equitable, collective decision-making and oversight into our systems of governance.
So how do we build power? As in Jackson, Paterson, and San Francisco, our solutions must intentionally, equitably, and systematically rebalance both political and economic power. To do that effectively, we must reshape public and private governance to give the communities and workers who are most harshly denied human rights meaningful, formal participation, and control in how public policies and key economic decisions are made and implemented. Communities must be able to hold both government and private powers accountable to upholding democratic decisions and human rights.
We need bigger, bolder, and better ways for communities and workers who are denied human rights to build power. This must include both encouraging the formation of politically independent community and workers’ organizations outside of government as a check on concentrated private and public power, and restructuring public and private governance processes to provide formal, institutionalized ways in which communities and workers can wield meaningful power in decision-making, monitoring, and enforcement.
At the same time, co-governance strategies must be designed not just around equitable processes, but also around equitable policy outcomes that correctly and impactfully address racial, economic, gender, and other disparities.
Powerful and necessary as it is, co-governance is not a silver bullet. The challenges we face are multifaceted, so there is no single way to fix things. We need to protect voting rights and advance electoral reforms to make elected officials more representative and accountable to the public. We need advocacy and mobilization to counterbalance corporations and white nationalist movements, maintaining steady pressure on government to pass just laws and execute them fairly and effectively. We need community- and worker-controlled solidarity- economy models like cooperatives and community land trusts that build democratic ownership and control beyond the confines of government in our workplaces and broader economy. These will all be essential fronts of work in the coming years, but they are not enough on their own. Congress and state legislatures will continue to fail to take sufficient action on climate collapse, racialized inequality and the other pressing issues of our day, the courts will be hostile to human rights, and solidarity economies will need public policy and government support to meaningfully scale up. We thus also need to tackle the often-obscured realms of bureaucratic and corporate decision-making to transform how they affect people’s lives. In all of this, we must also see that we are stronger when we work together, and that includes recognizing that there are myriad opportunities for communities to find common cause with government entities—especially at the local and state levels—to build strong co-governance models.
Piloting Co-Governance and Bringing it to Scale
EXPANDING CO-GOVERNANCE AND BRINGING IT TO SCALE could provide a significant break away from the neoliberal paradigms that have dominated over recent decades, moving us away from undemocratic market rule and unaccountable “experts” and toward participatory democracy in which everyday people enjoy real power to shift resources and advance just outcomes. While ambitious, it is not far-fetched; the foundations of equitable, participatory governance are neither hard to find nor new. Such models represent ways of living in society together that can be traced back through Native, Black and immigrant traditions to before the beginning of the U.S. itself. As we document in the Co- Governance and Participatory Democracy In Action Across the Country section of this report, many people are building models of participatory governance and economic democracy all over the country today.
Yet if models of collaborative governance and economic democracy are so deeply rooted, why are they not more widespread? For one thing, there are entrenched stakeholders who have zero interest in ceding any of their power. Our system of racialized capitalism has been all too successful for many politicians and corporations, and they would happily continue on exactly as things are.
Our experience working with grassroots groups to transform governance around the country has made clear that there are additional challenges. Collaborative governance models often lack political support and funding from elected officials; are inadequately resourced and poorly integrated into broader political processes; meet hesitancy from overstretched civil servants; are hampered by inadequate grassroots infrastructure and capacity; face outright political hostility by reactionary opponents of community and worker power; and are constrained by a lack of imagination and belief that more just, democratic ways of co-existing are even possible. The three in-depth Case Studies and the Models of Co-governance section in this report reveal a number of challenges and opportunities collaborative governance faces, and some of the strategies that proponents are using to strengthen and expand spheres of participatory democratic governance.
Lessons from the Case Studies
USING OUR CASE STUDIES AS ROADMAPS, we see the outlines of how to build powerful movements that transform their communities and eventually lead to co-governance. While the fight for education justice in Paterson, worker justice in San Francisco, and People’s Assemblies in Jackson appear to be disconnected on the surface, we see a surprising number of overlaps within the challenges they experienced and the strategies they used to win.
- CULTIVATE COMMUNITY CAPACITY
- BUILD RELATIONSHIPS
- PURSUE INSIDE/OUTSIDE STRATEGIES
- MAKE CO-GOVERNANCE ENFORCEABLE
- TRANSFORM THE CULTURE OF GOVERNANCE
- SCALE UP AND SCALE OUT
1CULTIVATE COMMUNITY CAPACITY
The first step toward authentic co-governance is often having an organization that can provide the bandwidth, structure and— crucially—access to sustained funding for a fight that may last many years, if not decades. In Paterson, the structures of the Paterson Education Fund and the Parent Education Organizing Council allowed Linda Reid and Rosie Grant to rally their community and bolster their fight for years. They then leveraged crucial support, materials, funding, and contacts through a national coalition, the Dignity in Schools Campaign. In San Francisco, the Chinese Progressive Association held firm in a decades-long fight for worker justice, and was able to help build multiple coalitions to strengthen its position and scale up to a statewide movement. In Jackson, the People’s Advocacy Institute leveraged staff capacity and administrative backing to institutionalize the generations-long practices of People’s Assemblies in the South, and share their practices with other organizations replicating the model in other regions, while participating as active members of the regional Southern Movement Assembly.
Another crucial ingredient towards creating a co-governance model is building relationships. While every organizer knows this in theory, the stories in Paterson, San Francisco, and Jackson illustrate how difficult, time-consuming, and absolutely critical it is to build trust within their communities and with government officials. In Paterson, this meant meeting after meeting with district leaders, school officials, principals, discipline officers, and teachers. Change is hard, and the only way people are going to take a leap into the unknown is if they trust that they are being heard, and that their concerns are being taken seriously.
Similarly, CPA spent untold hours meeting with workers and their families to strategize with them, and in some cases to provide emotional support to entire families as workers risked their livelihoods. They built trust slowly, worker by worker, restaurant by restaurant, case by case. They also built relationships and support within the broader Chinese community. Each victory made the next one more likely, because the community began to let go of its fear, and trust in CPA and the work they were doing. CPA also worked diligently to build relationships with city officials, and then state officials, to push for stronger policies and for real enforcement of those policies. They built enough trust (and power, much of it garnered from their strong relationship with their community) that agencies were willing to create co-governance structures with CPA , including funding some of its work.
In Jackson, the People’s Assemblies build trust and relationships among community members, and then offer them the political education that expands the community’s shared understanding of the possibilities for change. This translates into deeper commitment to the strategies that emerge from the assemblies, and more strategic partnerships with government to actualize community priorities.
3PURSUE INSIDE/OUTSIDE STRATEGIES
The carrots of strong trusting relationships are important, but sometimes you also need a big stick. This is where organizing power and the need for an inside/outside strategy come into play. As mentioned above, change is hard, and government can be slow to change. This is why working in partnership with government and organizing to demand change are both essential co-governance strategies. In Jackson, for example, Rosie Grant would meet with the School Board, while Linda Reid would be outside organizing a rally. In San Francisco, CPA eventually founded the PWA (Progressive Workers Alliance) as a separate organizational vehicle to push for change. CPA was also skilled at holding press conferences and rallies that garnered enormous press attention that catalyzed its agenda. Both movements were particularly successful at using the one-two punch of presenting powerful data and then using personal testimonials to build narrative power in their fights.
The People’s Assemblies have also built a unique inside/outside strategy as they intentionally engage community members to identify problems and come up with solutions, and, with the backing of the mass assembly, are able to advocate for those solutions with the city council. At the same time, some solutions coming from assemblies are implemented directly in community organizations, demonstrating the self-governance possible within the community and modeling what could be replicated in the public realm.
While pushing from the outside is often necessary, sometimes there is a reflexive urge towards creating contentious relationships with government entities that is ultimately a short term strategy. Demanding action is important, but it must be done in a way that upholds the possibility of building long-term relationships with people and entities that can support transformational progress.
4MAKE CO-GOVERNANCE ENFORCEABLE
These movements also understood that policy change is not a win if it’s not enforced. Worse, when laws are flouted, it undermines the community’s trust in the possibility of change. As CPA’s Shaw San Liu says, “Raise the floor and enforce the floor.”
There is no one-size-fits all legal or technical solution to enforcing labor laws, restorative justice policies, or anything else, but at least a few key ingredients are necessary. Policies must state clear principles, goals, and measurable outcomes. They must include legal, political, or economic sanctions for violations like fines or the loss of government contracts or business licenses. They must empower people who are most impacted by legal violations, like low-wage workers, to be able to speak up and initiate enforcement, which requires giving people remedies that they trust to work and protecting them from retaliation. They must be tailored to the varying dynamics and context of specific industries, localities, populations and conditions, paying special attention to addressing the worst violations, not just the lowest- hanging fruit. They must transform not just the laws and processes, but the culture and norms surrounding them that shape the ways in which all actors—employers, school officials, regulators, workers, students, etc.—collectively behave. Ultimately, effective enforcement is not a fixed institutional structure that can run on autopilot, but rather is an ongoing, adaptable process that requires continual commitment.
5TRANSFORM THE CULTURE OF GOVERNANCE
Policy wins must be reinforced with cultural change. It begins with a change in the community. For example, in San Francisco, the CPA began by convincing restaurant workers that wage theft and abuse was not acceptable or inevitable.
For co-governance to really work, there must also be a cultural change within government agencies and among officials. Public agencies need political backing, funding, training, and other forms of support for co-governance to succeed. In Paterson, success came partly when the district superintendent, principals, discipline officers, and teachers began to embrace a new approach to discipline and then encouraged other members of the school community to try it. In Jackson, community members now have an example of what it looks like when their voices are heard, and their government embraces their input. This is a powerful repudiation of the years of voter suppression and disenfranchisement endemic in Mississippi. Cultural change is essential for entrenching policy shifts, and for diminishing the danger that any policy wins will eventually be rolled back.
6SCALE UP AND SCALE OUT
Forward progress also requires growing the scale and impact of co- governance models by expanding their resources and powers, and also going beyond our individual fights to work across issues and build coalitions. Participatory budgeting organizers, for example, are working across issue silos to increase the number of dollars and budgetary decisions communities have control over, and expand participatory budgeting to more localities and levels of government. Jackson People’s Assemblies are part of the Southern Movement Assemblies, through which they are part of a much broader effort to build participatory, racially just democracy across the South and beyond. Community leaders in Paterson are part of the national Dignity in Schools Campaign, connecting them to parents, youth and allies across the country who are working to end punitive school push-out, and implement restorative justice practices in schools everywhere. CPA is a powerful example of an organization that is continually scaling up and scaling out —seeding new organizations, creating coalitions, and reaching out to build solidarity with other movements. By building these trans-local relationships and connections, these movements are sharing the lessons they’ve learned, are learning from others, and are building joint strategies to reshape policies across levels of government. As such, they are weaving their local fights together into a collective struggle.
While there is significant overlap in the winning strategies in Jackson, Paterson, and the Bay Area, we also recognize that every fight is unique, complex, and evolving. These winning strategies are not without limits or ways to deepen their impact. Organizational capacity and funding are critical—and government can play a role by providing funding for the organizing and community capacity building to make co-governance more sustainable. Relationships need to be sustained beyond individuals so that government offices and agencies can maintain trusting collaboration with community partners, even when there is change in staffing. Inside/outside strategies and accountability to implementation go hand in hand, and both require sustained organizing power beyond policy wins. All of this requires funding, capacity, and attention to the wellness, balance, and collective practices that prevent organizers from burning out. Moving forward will require iteratively testing co-governance strategies all over the country and continuing to learn from each other as we go.
Balancing Participation with Focuses on Equitable Power and Just Outcomes
WE MUST BE CAREFUL NOT TO FALSELY EQUATE democratization with simply maximizing participation. Participation that is not paired with rigorous attention to balancing power and protecting human rights carries great risks:
- Exclusion and subjugation: American history is a long lesson in how democratic participation can drive and enable the exclusion and subjugation of Black people, Native people, women, workers, people with disabilities, and other communities. This remains a critical threat today.
- Elite capture: Private capture of participatory spaces by powerful interest groups like homeowners and corporations is a huge problem that has given us exclusionary zoning and housing policy, segregated and unequal schools, corrupt corporate-backed ballot initiatives, crumbling infrastructure, extortionate health care prices, and toxic exposure to an enormous number of potentially hazardous chemicals.
- Bureaucratic gridlock: Though participation and checks and balances in government and society are crucial, many well-intentioned participatory mechanisms have decayed into sclerotic procedures that slow down or completely halt progress on infrastructure, housing development, and climate action, harming the very communities they were meant to protect.
- Demobilization: For social movements fighting to win greater participation in governance, winning participatory mechanisms also carries the risk of demobilizing the very organizing that made those victories possible and that is necessary to keep them operating effectively, authentically, and with accountability.
- Burdening the oppressed: While membership in society should carry responsibilities as well as benefits, poor people and people of color shouldn’t have to carry an undue participatory burden and show up to long regulatory meetings in order to avoid human rights violations.
- False solutions: Policymakers can tout policy outcomes that claim to solve real problems such as environmental and climate injustice by using the language of science such as “carbon offsets,” while continuing to damage the health and livelihoods of directly- impacted communities.
Participatory mechanisms gone awry:
- NIMBYism (“Not In My Back Yard”): Homeowners (usually white and relatively wealthy) have captured local land-use planning processes, showing up to public meetings to block construction of housing affordable to working-class people, and thereby entrenching racial and economic segregation in our neighborhoods, cities, and schools. Racial segregation in American metropolitan regions is worse now than it was in the 1960s.
- Community benefits agreements (CBAs): Real estate developers have learned how to hijack community benefits agreement processes, either slowing them to a crawl and threatening to walk away (as the Oakland Athletics are doing in the CBA for Oakland’s new baseball stadium) or, as with Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, creating a false “community” coalition to secure a sweetheart deal that lets them pocket enormous profits from redevelopment without delivering real benefits to local communities.
- Ballot initiatives: The progressive movement won ballot initiatives more than a century ago to provide a way for direct democratic participation to get around corrupt legislatures, but have been captured by corporations and billionaires who buy signatures and ads to pass or defeat popular initiatives. In 2018, for example, the dialysis clinic industry spent $111 million to defeat California’s Proposition 8, which would have stopped the industry from price-gouging patients and discriminating against people based on Medicaid or Medicare.
The key to avoiding these pitfalls is establishing clear goals and outcomes for the people most affected by an issue. These include reducing specific racial disparities, expanding participation (including of undocumented people, young people, incarcerated individuals, and others who face barriers to participation), or increasing community organizing power and mobilization. Also essential is building shared accountability, assessing progress toward these goals and outcomes, and course correcting along the way.
The Road Ahead
» “Do I have access to jobs that will pay and treat me well?”
» “Can I afford to go to the doctor and fill my prescriptions?”
» “Can I pay my rent or even buy a home?”
» “Can I send my kids to a well-resourced neighborhood school?”
FOR TENS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, the answer to these questions is no. Yet the fact that healthcare, housing, education, good jobs, and other essential elements of our lives are so precarious is neither natural nor inevitable: it is the result of concrete policy and economic decisions made both by government and by powerful private actors.
Policy can be changed, but the challenges are real. Opposition from hostile corporations, billionaires, and white nationalists; increasingly undemocratic political institutions like the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Senate; inequitable campaign financing, gerrymandering, and years of community frustration with “participatory” processes that fail to deliver changes are all significant barriers to real democracy. Yet multiracial democracy is less a destination than it is a collective practice. Every time we make a shift, even if small, toward a more equitable, democratic process or outcome, we grow our democracy bit by bit.
As community leaders in Jackson, Paterson, and San Francisco demonstrate, there is power in community members coming together to identify problems, work with like-minded people in government, and collectively develop policy solutions that can meaningfully change lives. A different future is possible. We can move past the neoliberal era we are in to build a multiracial democracy in which everyone’s needs are met.
Change can start small, such as the examples provided in the Case Studies. A spark may happen when a grandmother hears about her granddaughter getting suspended or a few restaurant workers ask for help with wage theft at their work. These moments can build and grow into profound movements for change. It takes organizations with the bandwidth for a years-long fight; deep, meticulous relationship-building; an inside/outside strategy; and a commitment to both cultural change and policy change. These fights are happening across the country, on every issue that is important to us.
Our future has yet to be written, and a multiracial democracy is in no way guaranteed. But moving boldly towards a vision of a transformed economy and politics—with universal, equitable public goods, shared democratic control, and racial justice at the center—is an absolute necessity.
1 Hannah Hartig, “About six-in-ten Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases,” Pew Research Center, June 13, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/06/13/about-six-in-ten-americans-say-abortion-should-be-legal-in-all-or-most-cases-2/.
2 Rani Molla, “Polling is clear: Americans want gun control,” Vox, June 1, 2022, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/23141651/gun-control-american-approval-polling.
3 Rebecca Salzer and Jocelyn Kiley, “Majority of Americans continue to favor moving away from Electoral College,” Pew Research Center, August 5, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/2022/08/05/ majority-of-americans-continue-to-favor-moving-away-from-electoral-college/.