Co-Governing Toward Multiracial Democracy: Executive Summary



IN 2018, THE NATIONAL ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL RIGHTS INITIATIVE (NESRI) launched the first New Social Contract. It focused on collective solutions by and for communities and invited a conversation to ignite our political imagination around the possibility of systemic change. Six organizations took up the call and published the next report the following year: A New Social Contract for Workers, which expressed the kind of hope and determination making change requires.

These reports reflect the ongoing conversation about our next social contract, which is being held across the nation in meeting spaces, churches, conferences, schools, and at kitchen tables. They reflect the need to weave together our most innovative efforts and ideas and to deepen dialogue across government and community efforts.

In 2018, we had long known our social contract was irreparably broken. Race Forward was one of the first organizations to endorse the New Social Contract project, and in this report joins Partners for Dignity & Rights (formerly NESRI) to continue the conversation with a focus on reimagining the relationship between government and communities.

Both Race Forward and Partners for Dignity & Rights are committed to building an accountable, authentic, inclusive multiracial democracy that guarantees both political rights like voting and economic rights like housing and livable incomes for all. We believe that to do so, government must belong to the communities they represent and serve.

Executive Summary

Building Multiracial Democracy Through Co-Governance

AFTER GENERATIONS OF STRUGGLE AND SACRIFICE, multiracial democracy in the United States remains a beautiful yet unfulfilled dream. Following the history and ongoing leadership of our movement allies, we envision a multiracial democracy that centers on the understanding that every human being is valuable and worthy, and that is built on the pillars of universal and equitable public goods, shared democratic control, and racial, gender, and all forms of justice.

The Suffragist and Civil Rights Movements pushed us toward universal voting rights, yet today we find ourselves struggling to protect voting rights and elections from authoritarian, racist threats. But even beyond elections, we are struggling with a profound democracy gap. The constrained, prevailing view of citizenship is a passive, individualistic, consumer model of voting and citizenship 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. But people are feeling increasingly precarious in their lives, lacking real choices about where and how they live, work, and send their children to school. Following years of political promises that haven’t materialized, many people do not believe that government is willing or able to work for them.

Strengthening democracy will take many strategies, including protecting voting rights and political institutions, repairing racial harms, resisting all forms of oppression, reining in corporate power, and building cooperatives and other community- and worker-controlled economic institutions. But to build people’s faith in government and the potential for collective action to meet shared needs and improve real outcomes in people’s lives, we also need to go deeper, building modes of participatory democracy from the ground up.

In this report, we focus on the critical nexus between community and worker organizing with local government, documenting ways in which member-led organizations representing poor and working-class people of color—those who have been excluded from full political and economic citizenship—are working with local government staff and officials to build out co-governance models like people’s assemblies, restorative justice in schools, and worker-centered enforcement of labor rights. The models we lift up are powerful because they are giving people who are directly impacted by injustices a direct role in developing and implementing solutions.

Learning from History, In-Depth Case Studies and the Landscape

THE REPORT BEGINS BY REFLECTING ON LESSONS from the political and economic organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other Black community leaders in Mississippi, tracing the deeply American tradition of struggles for a truly democratic and racially just government and society. We then highlight three in-depth case studies of co-governance models:

  • 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 about and propose solutions to key issues like infrastructure and community safety.
  • In Paterson, New Jersey, local community organizations the Paterson Education Fund and the Parent Education Organizing Council have worked closely with the school district to shift the culture around school discipline toward restorative justice and to disrupt the school-to-prison-pipeline.
  • In San Francisco, California, the Chinese Progressive Association has fought for—and won—strong worker-centered enforcement laws, legal processes, and working relationships with the city and the state, which enable low-wage immigrant workers to enforce their own labor rights in restaurants, garment factories, and other industries across California.

We also include short highlights of a range of additional economic democracy and co- governance models from across the country, in which community and worker organizations are working with government to build collaborative models with specific attention toward achieving racially equitable inclusion and outcomes. These include participatory budgeting in Seattle’s public safety budget, a community needs assessment conducted by the Texas Organizing Project, and Buffalo’s Green Development Zone for participatory, equitable land-use planning and development. We hope that the breadth of examples provided demonstrate the diversity of ways in which community organizations and local governments are collaborating to democratize governance and advance racial equity, and inspire many more people to experiment with building and implementing new and better models of co-governance.

Lessons for Organizers and Local Governments

SEVERAL LESSONS EMERGE from our in-depth case studies and landscape scan:


Established organizations and coalitions led by community members and workers outside of government are essential to effectively engage people’s knowledge, participation, and leadership.


Strong relationships between the staff and leaders of community organizations, their members, their broader communities, and city staff and leaders are foundational. Building strong relationships takes time and commitment.


Co-governance draws on the strengths that both public agencies and community organizations bring to the table, including governments’ legal powers and resources, as well as community organizations’ community trust, knowledge, and their ability to mobilize political support. It can take work from both sides to move beyond antagonistic relationships while still maintaining community groups’ political independence from government.


Policy change is not a win if it’s not enforced, so policies should identify clear, measurable goals and outcomes; include sanctions; empower workers and others most affected by violations to enforce laws; be tailored to sectoral and local context; and transform norms and cultures of enforcement.


Effective co-governance requires real commitment and institutional change. Public agencies need political backing, funding, and training for co-governance to succeed.


Co-governance holds tremendous potential to be scaled up across local, state, and federal governments, as well as extended into the private and nonprofit sectors. To get to scale and learn from one another as we go, we must seed new organizations, create coalitions, and build solidarity with other movements.

The future of governance and democracy in the U.S. remains uncertain, and a multiracial democracy is in no way guaranteed unless we fight for it in all sectors of society and the economy. But moving boldly towards a vision of a transformed economy and politics—with universal and equitable public goods, shared democratic control, and racial and all forms of justice at the center—is an absolute necessity.