Introduction: The Path Toward a Multiracial Democracy
IN THIS MOMENT OF BOTH PERIL AND OPPORTUNITY, the question is not whether we need a new social contract, but rather what kind it will be. We need a truly just social contract based on democratic values such as collectivity, care, and equity that is woven into our economic, social, and political systems. We must recenter our politics and economy on the understanding that every human being is valuable and worthy—and we must fulfill that commitment through universal and equitable public goods1, shared democratic control, and a transformative movement for racial justice.
Our country remains deeply politically polarized, reflecting the breakdown of any remaining faith in the existing economic and political models that fueled the global crisis of inequity. Racialized wealth and income inequality, unchecked privatization, and the fraying of public systems due to disinvestment, among others, have all reached a crisis point. Millions of people are struggling to make rent2 and pay medical bills3 while billionaires’ and corporations’ wealth grows4, our tech-fueled media landscape fails to ground us in context or objective facts, and people feel increasingly precarious and alienated from the political system and from one another.
Since 2020, conditions have only worsened. A global pandemic roared through our already fragile landscape, deepening existing inequities. Just months later, the largest multiracial racial justice uprising in U.S. history followed, accompanied by the continuing rise of a white nationalist movement that brazenly attacks U.S. democracy itself, to the point of attempting an insurrection at our nation’s capitol.
Building an accountable, authentic, inclusive multiracial democracy requires that both political rights, such as voting, and economic rights, such as housing and livable incomes, are guaranteed for all. In this new social contract, we must prioritize human needs over productivity and profits. Government must belong to the communities it represents and serves. That means protecting electoral integrity and voting rights while also going beyond traditional representative government to build democratic spaces and processes that give communities and workers direct ways to participate in decisions. Communities and workers must have a say in decisions made by legislatures, regulatory agencies, employers, and institutions like hospitals whose decisions have important public impacts. We must establish ways for communities to hold powerful public and private actors accountable to human rights and to democratic decisions. And, because we are starting from such an uneven place, we must design democratic models that explicitly and enforceably build racial, economic, gender, and other forms of equity into both democratic processes and real-world outcomes.
This report explores collaborative and co-governance efforts that deepen democratic practice in place and move us towards that vision. We present a spectrum of economic democracy and co-governance models and explore what scaling them would require. In Jackson, Mississippi, the People’s Advocacy Institute continues a long tradition in Black communities of organizing community-wide and large-scale People’s Assemblies to create space for residents to voice their concerns and propose solutions to key issues like infrastructure and community safety. The People’s Assemblies model is building toward the kind of co-governance that recognizes the power of communities to see the problem, identify the solution, and organize toward its reality. In this way, the People’s Assemblies have become a crucial first step in giving community members meaningful authority over the decisions that affect their lives.
In Paterson, New Jersey, the school district has worked closely with local community organizations Paterson Education Fund and Parent Education Organizing Council to transform the culture around school discipline. This powerful partnership elevates trusted members of the community on important task forces and hiring committees, working in tandem with the community to transform policy and culture around discipline to disrupt the school-to-prison-pipeline and help kids learn how to take responsibility for their mistakes without fear of punishment.
In the Bay Area, the Chinese Progressive Association has fought for—and won—a worker- powered co-governance model, in which the organization and the various campaigns and coalitions they have created pushed local and state agencies to provide crucial funding. Alongside city and state offices, CPA has advanced worker justice with increasingly strong policies and laws that government agencies are willing to back up with enforcement to improve working conditions for thousands of garment, restaurant, and other low-wage workers across the state of California.
“The value of this type of co-enforcement partnership is about making the law work for workers and making what we’re fighting for be real. You can’t just organize and advocate for better working conditions if we don’t actually ensure that they can be enforced. Raise the floor and enforce the floor.”
—Shaw San Liu, Chinese Progressive Association
All three case studies are powerful examples of what can be accomplished when local organizations, rooted in their communities, leverage their years of relationship-building and organizing to engage with government entities in order to influence both policy and culture. While they were born in different communities both geographically and culturally, and engage around totally different issues, each one is an example of the kind of change that is possible when a community and government recognize their power and share democratic control.
We understand these efforts are taking place in the context of dangerous political trends toward authoritarianism and white nationalism that seek not only to challenge but to eradicate the notion of multiracial democracy. Similarly, we know that the less vitriolic but still racialized and dangerous vision of neoliberalism that shrinks government and abandons public responsibility to private profits offers little sustenance for the needed changes in material conditions for communities that would allow multiracial democracy to flourish.
A democratic economy ensures that material needs like food, water, and housing—those fundamental elements that everyone needs to live a good life—are guaranteed as public goods. Beyond voting and elections, and even beyond politics, democratic practice includes the ability to participate in making the decisions that affect our lives in our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, hospitals, and other key public and private institutions.
To take up this profound work of democracy, we must acknowledge that many, if not most, of our democratic deficits are shaped by our history of racial injustice. This nation has a painful history of those in power forcibly and brutally extracting labor and land from Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. The Suffragist and Civil Rights Movements won critical voting rights, but translating those achievements from formal legal commitments into real life benefits for our communities has proved painfully elusive. Only by continuing the legacy and work of the Civil Rights Movement to dismantle the structural and systemic racism that permeates our society and our government can we construct a meaningful democracy.
We face strong headwinds, not least of which include the toxic narrative that personal and individual failure drive negative outcomes, rather than a massive and systemic imbalance of power. These “fix people not systems” narratives are as abhorrent as they are pervasive, labeling primarily Black and brown people—along with immigrants from the Global South—as undeserving. They also serve to justify the economic and resource poverty that strip communities of color of democratic control over their lives and neighborhoods.
Dismantling structural and systemic racism and building the vibrant multiracial democracy we need is our ultimate challenge. We must build popular power and a political majority behind a shared vision. It will take courageous, tireless transformative organizing5 in every community, every economic sector, every institution, and every level of government.
And it will start with solutions that work.
All over the country, communities, workers, and local governments are developing transformative and equitable solutions that shift decision-making power to neighborhood residents, students and teachers, workers and working-class communities. These are not examples of the outsourcing of essential public functions or the use of public funds to generate private profits through so-called “public-private partnerships.” Rather, these models are realigning relationships between institutions and the people they are intended to serve by centering accountability, transparency, and collaboration. In this report, we present an initial set of models that can help us reimagine the institutions that shape our lives. We are honored to share these case studies, and the opportunities to replicate, scale and institutionalize them. We believe they move us towards a world where equity and human rights are the defining feature of our social fabric.
“It is important to understand economic social rights. There is a false dichotomy between political and civil rights. There is not one without the other, they are the same in a way. That is why we have to say economic democracy, but you shouldn’t even have to say that. It’s not a democracy without the ecosocial.”
—Makani Themba, Chief Strategist at Higher Ground Strategies
Co-Governance and Multiracial Democracy
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 ensure those policies and programs are implemented effectively.
A prerequisite for co-governance is the existence of community-based organizations, whether civic associations, worker centers, tenant organizations, or local food hubs, that are member-driven and -led. Vibrant and representative community organizations are the hallmark of a healthy democracy.
A multiracial democracy depends on strengthening public goods, democratic practice, and racial justice. Engagement between community-based groups and government entities is a key strategy to achieving those goals. We can strengthen public goods by having the communities that most need them working directly with the agencies responsible for them; we can deepen democratic control by rejecting a consumerist and individualistic approach to citizenry in favor of collectively engaging with government; we can fight for racial justice by using co-governance as a strategy to build power in communities of color.
Community governance exists in various forms around the world, and has deep roots in Indigenous, Black, and immigrant traditions. It has been noted that the Iroquois Nation is the oldest democracy on earth. From rebellions against slavery to food and land cooperatives today, Black communities have always cultivated deep traditions of collective action and mutual aid. Immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere have brought countless traditions including religious practices, town meetings, community lending circles, and life-long intergenerational support. While community-based democratic governance models exist throughout the U.S., a key challenge of the current political moment is how to expand and scale local democratic practices, bringing institutionalized forms of governance (i.e. local elected officials and agencies tasked with managing our public goods) into greater alignment with community-defined priorities and protecting these institutions from private interests.
Co-governance: An Inside/Outside Model for Multiracial Democracy
CO-GOVERNANCE MUST BE DESIGNED not just around equitable processes, but also in service of equitable outcomes that correct disparities among racial, economic, gender, and other groups. To do this effectively, it must utilize an organizing strategy that harnesses both collaboration and external pressure from civil society.
When power and relationships are properly aligned, stakeholders can come together to develop and implement solutions in a range of contexts with community representatives at the table. But more entrenched policy, political, and structural challenges often require external pressure to complement collaborative relationships, and savvy racial equity practitioners in government are skilled at leveraging that external pressure towards internal goals. This is particularly true when private actors pursuing private interests are either a barrier or the source of the injustice, as is far too often in cases like private sector polluters, prisons, healthcare systems, developers, and more. When private interests have too much power, community pressure can offer an important counterbalance to enable government to tackle injustice.
But which organizations are legitimate community representatives? And are all groups to be treated equally? Member-led groups should hold prominence because they have built-in community accountability and often adopt democratic practices like elections and consensus decision-making. Furthermore, communities and organizations that are oriented toward upholding human rights and public goods above profits, and toward equalizing power, and toward gaining positive outcomes in people’s real lives should be centered. The three Case Studies in this report are based on organizations that have built such standing and trust within their communities through years of organizing and relationship building.
Most attempts to deepen democracy focus on protecting and reforming elections and government, but to truly deepen democracy, it is imperative that we recognize and work across the blurred lines between the public and private6, and the political, social and economic realms7. In other words, for democracy to thrive, we must build democratic practice across every element of our society.
In the first section of this report, we provide some historic context on the long struggle for multiracial democracy by looking back to the legacy of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In the Case Studies, we highlight powerful models from Jackson, Mississippi, Paterson, New Jersey, and San Francisco, demonstrating how communities and workers are partnering with the public sector to democratize local governance and help co-create racially and economically just schools, communities, and working conditions. In the Co-Governance and Participatory Democracy in Action section, we summarize a range of co-governance initiatives led by community-based organizations across the country that involve at least some role for government, whether as a convener, an active participant, or a more passive supporter. Overall, the report illustrates that it is possible to build power and give community members a real say over the decisions in their lives when organizations are able to engage with government entities to change policy, establish a culture of justice, and center community participation. We look forward to engaging with community organizations, people in government, and everyone committed to building more just, democratic modes of decision-making throughout government and our economy.
1 We define public goods as those essential goods that represent fundamental economic and social rights which government has a public responsibility to ensure are equitably accessible for all people at a reasonable level of quality and affordability. These goods may be ensured through community models, regulation, or direct provision. The core obligation of government is to create a system ensuring these goods and addressing obstacles such as speculation and profiteering that undermine access.
2 Anna Bahney, “Majority of Americans say they’re worried about being able to pay for housing,” CNN, August 15, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/15/homes/rising-rent-wages-housing.
3 Noam Levey, “100 million people in America are saddled with medical debt,” Kaiser Health News, June 16, 2022, https://khn.org/news/article/diagnosis-debt-investigation-100-million-americans-hidden-medical-debt/.
4 Chuck Collins, “Billionaire Wealth, U.S. Job Losses and Pandemic Profiteers,” Institute for Policy Studies’ Inequality.org, May 4, 2022, https://inequality.org/great-divide/updates-billionaire-pandemic/.
5 For components and examples of this model, see Steve Williams, “Organizing Transformation: Best Practices in the Transformative Organizing Model,” Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung, May 2015.
6 For feminist writing on the public/private divide, see Patricia Boling, Susan B. Boyd, Grace Chang, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Cynthia Enloe, Arlie R. Hochschild, Janet Siltanen and Michelle Stanworth.
7 Note the contrast between the government response to Black people with crack addiction in the 1980s to the response to opioid addiction in white communities today (race demarcation); whose accessibility, mobility and safety is considered a policy priority, and whose is not (ability demarcation); and how stocks, overwhelmingly owned by the wealthiest 10%, get far more attention from political leaders and the news media than wages, debt and other bread-and-butter issues that matter to the rest of us (class demarcation).