Co-Governance and Participatory Democracy in Action Across the Country
EVERY FIGHT IS UNIQUE, and successful co-governance can look very different depending on local context and circumstances. Co-governance is a collection of participatory models and practices in which government and communities work together through formal and informal structures to make collective policy decisions, co-create programs to meet community needs, and make sure those policies and programs are implemented effectively. Given this definition, there are multifaceted ways in which co-governance can play out on the ground.
In other words, there is no “right” way to do co-governance, and often a community’s relationship to government agencies can fall under a spectrum of what we call “co-governance.” When thinking about impact, scale, and replicability, the following questions may be helpful:
» How much funding does the model have?
» Is the model formalized?
» Are community participants given both real power and flexibility?
» Are government agencies adequately staffed and committed?
Below are several examples, each of which has its own, unique relationship to government. This list is by no means comprehensive, but rather points organizers and advocates to organizing experiments that have had impact. Taken together, these models demonstrate a spectrum of work to build community governance structures, exercise decision making power, and engage governing institutions in their cities and communities.
Climate and Environmental Justice – Just Transition
Buildings are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Boston. For more than two years, ACE-Alternatives for Community & Environment has been a critical participant in the development of a community-centered process to create strong performance standards for building emissions. ACE partnered with the City of Boston, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and One Square World, in an effort to bring climate adaptation advocates and activists to the table with their counterparts in the housing justice world, including organizations in the Right to the City coalition. Through that process, community members and residents discussed the impacts of the Building Emissions Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO) and possible improvements to better serve residents and abutters impacted by emissions from buildings throughout the city. ACE co-facilitated a series of virtual gatherings over the course of 2020 and drew more than 80 participants to each meeting. ACE and Right to the City, along with the Green Justice Coalition, pushed for a standard that did not include the purchase of carbon offsets as a compliance mechanism—a hard no for the community—but did include a review board with a two-thirds majority of members nominated by community-based organizations with an expertise in housing, environmental, and climate justice. As a result of this collaboration, BERDO 2.0 was introduced by Councilor Matt O’Malley, was unanimously adopted by the city council, and was signed into law by Mayor Kim Janey on October 5, 2021. ACE continues to work closely with the city to shape the regulations and implementation of the ordinance.
San Francisco, CA
In 2019, the city of San Francisco launched an Office of Racial Equity and undertook a process of addressing equity throughout its agencies and offices. On the heels of this initiative, the Zero Cities project, offering the support of several racial justice and technical partners, engaged the San Francisco Department of the Environment to create a roadmap to the twin goals of equity and zero carbon emissions in the buildings sector. The city’s community partner in the effort was the environmental justice organization People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights- San Francisco (PODER). PODER created a joint outreach plan with the city and engaged an array of stakeholders from different sectors including labor, tenants organizing, building owners, workforce training organizations, the municipal utility, climate organizations, and others. Out of a series of activities, a 25-page document of strategies and potential actions that came out of the process was used to inform the climate plan update led by the Department of the Environment. In 2021, PODER was on the Community Climate Council for the Climate Action Plan update. PODER conducted outreach and advised the Department of Environment on the Climate Action Plan update. Following this work, advocates have been working with the Board of Supervisors to enact legislation for an inter-agency task force that convenes government agencies with community and labor, to address gaps and develop next steps for the implementation plan for updated Climate Action Plan, starting with equitable building decarbonization.
With the groundbreaking mobilization that led to the Portland Clean Energy Fund in 2018–fought for by the Portland Clean Energy Fund coalition and administered by the city of Portland— partnerships between the city and community organizations were already established when the Zero Cities project, offering the support of several racial justice and technical partners, engaged the city on the task of creating a roadmap to zero carbon emissions in the buildings sector. The environmental justice organization Verde had already been on the city’s radar when the Zero Cities team recommended them as a community partner. Verde convened a coalition of BIPOC organizations called the Climate Justice Collaborative to help advise and steer the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Verde brought residents together through convenings and participatory action research to define the problems they face and identify solutions, which eventually informed the city’s thinking on the intersections between anti- displacement and energy cost burden, as well as its zero-carbon policy roadmap. The work has become a model for the city of Portland to defer to community self-determination. It is using the experience to create a next-generation Climate Action Plan under the terms of community, as well as an ordinance on energy efficiency standards for rentals.
Harris County, TX
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Texas Organizing Project (TOP) organizers went door to door in Harris County and learned how deeply the Black and brown community was suffering from badly damaged housing conditions, including mold that was impacting the community’s health. TOP organizers realized that to have the power to direct the federal recovery aid toward communities that had been neglected, they needed representation on the county’s boards and commissions. As a Demos case study reports, “They then embarked on an electoral strategy to ensure that the area’s most vulnerable communities had decision-making power within these historically exclusionary institutional bodies—in the process, unseating a longtime incumbent county judge and electing an equity-minded successor, and implementing a racial equity-based governing framework.”
The San Diego Community Schools coalition is a group of community organizations, youth groups, and educators, who came together in 2018 with a shared belief that public education must continue to evolve to meet the needs of working families. One of the coalition’s campaigns is to reshape neighborhood schools into community schools. Effective community schools center community needs and integrate values like racial justice into the visioning, decision making, and everyday life of schools.
In July 2020, the campaign won a major victory when the San Diego Unified School District Board of Trustees unanimously adopted the coalition’s Community Schools Resolution, creating the structure and mechanisms to develop and implement community schools in the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD).
The Community Schools Steering Committee is the main entity that carries out the implementation of community schools. This committee, which includes teachers, parents, students, community members, and district staff, has been responsible for reviewing applications from school sites, recommending to school board members which schools are qualified to enter the implementation process, and selecting the District Community Schools Coordinator and the first Community Schools Site Coordinators.
In March of 2022, the coalition achieved a milestone when the San Diego Unified School District designated five schools as community schools. Ten more schools will become community schools in the 2023-24 school year.
The fight for a just transition in Appalachia spans multiple counties and states, where the organizing ecosystem is thin and coalition-building is critical. As the coal industry takes its last breaths, communities struggling with unemployment and drug addiction work to build the next economy. Government entities and officials who once wouldn’t even consider renewable energy, are now beginning to be open to working with local organizations, leading to the emergence of some co-governance relationships. The organizations Mountain Association and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), with 50- and 40-year histories in the region, respectively, have been working to ensure government spending and capital are accessible, and that communities have a say in shifting away from the coal industry that was the economic driver of the region for generations. Integrating inclusive financing with energy democracy, Mountain Association raised capital, then pursued partnerships with rural electric cooperatives to scale up energy efficiency for their members. By paying their upfront costs, the program allows members to save money in the first month, and then save money moving forward by paying back through the meter, rather than paying back a loan with high interest rates. The program utilizes the existing billing system for utilities. Combining Mountain Association’s inside work with the coops and KTFC’s outside pressure on the coops to scale up, the coalition partners are working to expand the program to hundreds of households in Eastern Kentucky. KFTC and other groups in Appalachia have developed a framework focused on community self-governance and community power, and are situating electoral justice work within that in connection to other forms of community organizing, mutual aid, and solidarity economy building. Behind all of this work is strong, grassroots organizing and trust building with communities for the changes ahead.
The Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB) was established as a permanent city agency in Richmond, Virginia, in 2015 to provide anti-poverty strategy and policy advice to the mayor and to implement municipal poverty reduction initiatives and systemic changes around housing, education, and economic development. The OCWB emerged from an intensive investigation within Richmond by its residents into drivers of structural poverty and inequitable distribution of city benefits and the identification of solutions to redress these challenges. OCWB’s efforts to maintain a vital leadership role for community members living in poverty and to amplify their voices throughout Richmond city government are ongoing.
New York, NY
Demos completed a case study on the New Economy Project’s efforts through the Public Bank of New York City (PBNYC) coalition of over 40 community, labor, and cooperative groups. The New Economy Project and the PBNYC coalition are developing an alternative to profit-driven private banking in New York with a public banking institution that centers economic, racial, and environmental justice and that supports solutions like worker- owned businesses, affordable housing, and community solar projects. There are few models for public banks, but momentum is growing in multiple communities for a publicly accountable and community governed banking solution.
Health and Healthcare
Alameda County, CA
Since 2000, the Alameda County Public Health Department in California has partnered with neighborhood groups to conduct participatory assessments on local needs, capacities, and priorities. The department built its program around principles of community leadership, community capacity building, nurturing community assets, and building the community-agency relationship through mutual trust and shared power. The partnership’s collaborative work has encouraged an expansive and creative vision of public health, encompassing both traditional health concerns and preventive community health projects like improving housing conditions and building a new neighborhood playground.
Los Angeles, CA
In November 2020, a coalition of labor and community organizations and the LA County Department of Public Health co-developed a proposal passed by the County Board of Supervisors that created Public Health Councils to enforce public health orders protecting essential workers from COVID-19 in their workplaces. The order applies to four industries throughout the county— restaurants, food manufacturing, garment manufacturing and warehouses—and authorized workers in these industries to form Public Health Councils to monitor health violations that expose them to COVID-19 and report these violations to the Department of Public Health. The order includes key measures that enable workers to participate, allows unions and workers’ centers to organize and train workers as public health monitors, prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for participating in Public Health Councils, backs up this prohibition with fines and by allowing workers to sue employers for damages, and funds the Department of Health to administer the program.
Ramsey County, MN
Early in the pandemic, Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul, Minnesota, formed an Equity Action Circle (EAC) of community members to co-develop strategies and solutions to support racially and ethnically diverse communities in addressing the impacts of COVID-19. The goal of forming the EAC was to address the racial disparities in the county, while also improving the county’s systems and processes in delivering its programs by building co-design, implementation, and evaluation processes that center communities most impacted by systemic racism. The members represent diverse communities and experiences and are compensated at $50/hour for their work on the EAC. They have developed recommendations to the county covering priorities including families and youth, healthcare, housing, and workforce, as well as county policies and procedures—all with a focus on the impacts in communities due to COVID-19. The county is now in the process of implementing some of the recommendations, including a culturally specific family coaching program for Black and American Indian families. The Board of Commissioners has supported continued funding of the EAC.
Housing and Equitable Development
In 2008, PUSH Buffalo, an organization in Buffalo, New York, founded the Green Development Zone (GDZ), “an area that PUSH is making more environmentally and economically sustainable,” in a 30-square- block area of Buffalo’s West Side, where many communities of color reside. Understanding that communities can combat gentrification when 30 percent of buildings and neighborhoods remain affordable, PUSH purchased vacant properties in the GDZ before developers turned them into luxury apartments. They were then able to assemble a community-controlled land bank of properties to be repurposed for affordable housing and worked hand-in-hand with the community to determine GDZ priorities that best served all community residents in the area. Through a community planning process, the GDZ planted the seeds of green, efficient, and affordable housing by transforming vacant land into public parks, rain gardens, and community spaces. Using a community congress model, residents identified priorities and goals, which determined the process and strategy to move toward these goals.2
The Our Water Campaign led by Pittsburgh United, a coalition of community organizations including labor, faith, and environmental groups, organized an inside-outside campaign to address high lead levels in drinking water, prevent customer shut offs, and keep water infrastructure a public good. They fought against efforts to privatize the local water authority and engaged the Pittsburgh community through organizing efforts like door-to-door canvassing, distributing water filters, and helping people address water bill problems. They worked with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Agency to form community advisory committees and in 2019 won an agreement to keep the water agency a public entity. As detailed in a case study by Demos, their message throughout the campaign was clear: “The way out of this crisis was greater accountability through public control, not an abdication of government responsibility through privatization.”
The Sacramento Racial Equity Council (RE Council) is a multi- stakeholder body of community-based racial equity groups, organizations, and designated leaders who are deeply connected and in relationship with communities of color across the city. It is working collectively to guide the city of Sacramento in establishing a plan to equitably partner with and be accountable to communities of color by shifting the culture of government so that it becomes a producer of racial equity in its practices and policies. The RE Council guides the city to transform how it governs and works to achieve racial equity, defines the role of the RE Council so that it has decision-making power and mechanisms to hold the city accountable when needed, guides the city council on development of an effective community engagement/community partnership program as well as a racial equity assessment, and guides the city in the creation and implementation of a racial equity assessment tool. The Racial Equity Council works in close partnership with, takes leadership from, and is accountable to the Racial Equity Leadership Network, a network of representatives that constitute the various groups and organizations working for a shared, bold racial justice vision in Sacramento.
A case study by Demos highlights the For Us, Not Amazon (FUNA) coalition’s efforts to stop Amazon from building corporate headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Community groups saw that Amazon was not bringing public benefits to their communities, but instead worsening hiring practices and working conditions, increasing housing costs, displacing working- class households, and surveilling and developing partnerships with local law enforcement, and all with the support of public subsidies from local and state governments. The FUNA coalition was unsuccessful in stopping the Amazon headquarters from coming to Arlington, but did prevent the Arlington County Police Department from entering into a partnership with Amazon’s Ring that would have increased community surveillance and criminalization. FUNA is working with national groups like Athena and PowerSwitch Action to build community power to fight corporate power and win over the support and partnership of government. Currently, its close government partner at the federal level is investigating Amazon as an unregulated monopoly.
In 2020, grassroots coalitions King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle called for the City of Seattle to fund a community-led research process that would create an explicitly pro-Black participatory budgeting process. They worked with Participatory Budget Project (PBP) to develop a vision for citywide participatory budgeting in the creation of the city’s public safety budget with a strong racial equity framework, which took nearly two years to begin implementing. The city gave a grant of $3 million to the Black Brilliance Research Project to produce a report documenting how people were being affected by police violence, contracted with PBP to administer the program, and committed to giving communities control over how to spend $30 million, a sum that will make Seattle’s effort the largest participatory budgeting initiative in the country to date.
In July 2020, under pressure from a coalition of local groups, including Black activists who organized as Black AVL Demands, the Racial Justice Coalition of Asheville, and other organizations, the Asheville, North Carolina city council passed a resolution supporting community reparations for Black Asheville and committed to “establish a process within the next year to develop short, medium and long term recommendations to specifically address the creation of generational wealth and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the black community.” Buncombe County followed suit with a similar resolution a few weeks later. In 2021, the city convened the Information Sharing & Truth Telling Speaker Series, bringing together local and national speakers to talk about how government policies and private practices have driven racial disparities in Asheville, and to facilitate “discussions with community members about past policies and practices, present trends and disparities and future initiatives.” In 2022, the city and Buncombe County convened an all-Black reparations commission to make recommendations to address local public policies that have driven racial disparities across housing, economic development, public health, education, public safety and justice. The city budgeted $2.1 million to go toward the reparations effort. (The first $365,000 went to pay consultants to facilitate the process; no money has yet been allocated to reparations). The County Commissioners and City Council have added $1,000,000 annually, in perpetuity, to future reparations budgets. The commission is tasked with issuing a report in 2023 offering concrete short, medium and long-term recommendations that the city and county could take to repair racial harms. Its success will hinge on how committed elected officials in both city and county governments are to following through on their reparations pledges, since the Reparations Commission has no implementation or enforcement power. It remains to be seen how effective this effort will be. Community members have come together to create the Reparations Stakeholder Authority of Asheville, a community-led reparations finance authority.
Solidarity Economy Ecosystems
Miami-Dade County, FL
Communities in rapidly gentrifying Miami-Dade County, through the organization Catalyst Miami and its coalition partners, are building a microcosm of what a local, solidarity economy could look like. The ecosystem includes several community- wealth building strategies. Worker cooperative development across several industries, with a focus on the care economy in partnership with the Miami Workers’ Center, ensures that cooperative worker-owners have the opportunity to push for better labor standards while building their own businesses. A real estate investment cooperative aims to convert several buildings to community ownership to promote neighborhood stabilization and keep assets in communities. And engagement with long-term, place-based “anchor institutions” like universities, hospitals, and county and city agencies keeps expenditures local and flowing to small businesses instead of going to big corporations outside of Miami. In 2019, the city of Miami passed a resolution promoting employee-to-owner business conversions, and partnered with local nonprofits to promote their efforts. If public funding can be attached to conversions, the resolution provides an opening for significant expansion of employee ownership in Miami.
New York City has the ingredients for a vibrant cross-section of a solidarity economy ecosystem, some of which has been backed by the city with public funding. Community land trusts as well as an array of community-, school-, and public housing-based gardens are supported by city government to varying degrees. But most of the city’s public funding for the solidarity economy has gone to worker cooperatives, which has allowed the sector to expand massively given the economic barriers of starting businesses among low-income Black and immigrant business owners who comprise the majority of the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives’ (NYCNowC) 70 member-cooperatives. With democratic forms of decision making and governance baked into cooperative principles, worker cooperatives present a critical and promising element of economic democracy. The city’s high metrics and funding demands for rapid expansion are a challenge for worker owners, organizers, and cooperative developers who are building infrastructure to support small business development under tight time constraints. But they are innovating to meet the challenge of scaling up. Since 2017, NYCNoWC’s Training Collective are cooperative worker owners who are hired by nonprofits to train people to stand up cooperatives, putting training in the hands of worker owners to expand what the nonprofits can do. Its Advocacy Council brings cooperative practices to the policy realm by supporting worker owners financially to be able to impact policy. NYCNoWC is partnering with the Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC (CEANYC) to do shared donor organizing and fundraising activities, and with both CEANYC and Urban Homesteading Assistance Board to create shared programming. Both partnerships strengthen the ecosystem across sectors. CEANYC will be releasing an online map of the solidarity economy displaying the extent of the ecosystem sector by sector.
Starting with the need to enforce workers’ right to paid sick and safe leave, workers’ rights advocates and organizers pushed for the creation of the City of Minneapolis Labor Standards Enforcement Division. This expanded the purview of an existing department to focus exclusively on workers rights policy. But like all labor rights enforcement bodies across the country, the core of the work at the division is complaint-based enforcement of worker protections. A fundamental challenge is that the most vulnerable workers, including workers of color and low-wage workers, who are most frequently and egregiously exploited, are also the least likely to complain. One of the most effective solutions to this systemic challenge is collaboration between labor enforcement agencies and community-based worker centers, which raise awareness of workers’ rights amongst the most vulnerable workers. In line with this collaboration, “standards boards’’ are industry-based standard- setting structures. In Minneapolis, the Workplace Advisory Committee was created which is essentially an informal standards and enforcement board consisting of a minority of business representatives and a combined majority of worker, community, and public representatives. One of its key stakeholders and designers is the powerhouse organization Centro De Trabajadores Unidos En La Lucha (CTUL). Recently, the Committee created a worker-led subcommittee, a structure through which workers directly influence the rules and enforcement related to COVID-19 that the Committee advances in collaboration with the city. The committee is in charge of outreach—the city talks to the bosses and CTUL talks to the workers— and was active in the push for an increase of the minimum wage to $15/hour. The ultimate goal is to build a worker standards board to make policy, whereas most others across the country just make recommendations.
1 For existing frameworks on community-government collaboration, see Sherry R. Arstein, A Ladder of Citizen Participation, 1969; Elizabeth Rocha’s Ladder of Empowerment, 1997; and Rosa Gonzalez and Facilitating Power’s The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership, 2019.
2 Leah Obias and Emi Yoko-Young, Energy Democracy: Honoring The Past And Investing In A New Energy Economy, October 20, 2020, https://www.raceforward.org/system/files/pdf/reports/RaceForward_Energy_ Democracy_5.5.2021.pdf.