By Stephanie Malin and Meghan Elizabeth Kallman
Americans disagree on a lot of things these days, but many think the United States is on the wrong track and the future is bleak. At a time of unprecedented division, growing inequality and intensifying climate change, it’s easy to feel that progress is impossible.
In fact, models exist all around us for building safer and more equitable spaces where people can thrive.
We are sociologists who study organizational systems, political and economic institutions, and environmental justice. In our new book, “Building Something Better: Environmental Crises and the Promise of Community Change,” we explore how people adapt to crises and thrive in difficult times by working together.
The organizations we describe are small, but they have a big impact in creating alternatives to neoliberal capitalism – an approach to governance that uses austere economic ideas to organize society. Neoliberalism aims to put government at the service of business through measures such as the deregulation of markets, the privatization of industries and the reduction of public services.
Here are three bands we see building something better.
Humans being, not humans buying
Some groups build better systems by rejecting the hyperindividualism of neoliberalism. Individualistic logic tells people they can make the biggest changes by voting with their money.
But when people instead see how they can create real political change within communities and collective systems, amazing things can happen. One example is the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest regions in the United States.
This organization is led by and serves the Lakota people who, like other Indigenous nations, struggle with devastating structural inequalities such as racism and poverty. These challenges are rooted in settler colonialism, particularly the Lakota’s loss of their tribal lands and displacement to less safe places.
Thunder Valley focuses on healing everyday traumas, such as poverty and high suicide rates. Its goals include teaching the Lakota language across generations, empowering youth to become community leaders, and promoting food sovereignty by collecting food for the community in greenhouses and gardens.
Thunder Valley’s other programs are designed to create community and safety in ways that elevate Lakota approaches. For example, its housing initiative aims to increase access to affordable housing and offers financial support. Homes are built and neighborhoods are designed according to Lakota traditions. The organization sees home ownership as a way to strengthen community ties rather than simply creating individual wealth.
Thunder Valley programs also include a demonstration farm and a Lakota immersion Montessori school. In 2015, President Barack Obama recognized the organization’s work to heal and build multigenerational community as the Promise Zone – a place creating innovative collaborative spaces for community building.
Take up space by making music
Brass and percussion bands play for free in many American communities. They are formed mainly in cities and are deeply linked to contemporary issues of urban justice.
Acoustic and mobile, these bands play without stages to elevate them or sound systems separating the musicians from the audience. They invite crowds to join in the fun. They may perform alongside unions and grassroots groups at political demonstrations, parades or community events.
The common point is that they always occur in public spaces, where everyone can participate. Street groups bridge social divides and democratize spaces, while inviting play and camaraderie amid enormous social challenges.
In the 19th century, marching bands flourished throughout the United States and Europe. In the American South, street groups grew out of Benevolent Societies – social organizations that helped free and enslaved black Americans cope with financial hardship. These groups eventually evolved into “welfare and pleasure clubs”, the forces behind New Orleans’ famous parades.
Today, the marching band movement meets annually through the HONK! Festival in cities across the country like Boston; Providence, Rhode Island; and Austin, TX. Inspired by a tradition of protest, HONK! events are designed to affirm that artists and ordinary people have the right to occupy public space, as well as to disrupt state or corporate events.
Affordable Community Energy
Other groups are finding ways to build economic systems that serve communities rather than private businesses or industries.
That’s the goal of the Indigenized Energy Initiative, a community-owned nonprofit solar cooperative in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The organization was founded following protests on the Standing Rock reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which transports oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters opposed the pipeline, which crossed their ancestral lands and vital waterways, arguing that it violated treaties and tribal sovereignty. The project has been built, but opponents hope to shut it down thanks to an ongoing environmental review.
Indigenized Energy executive director Cody Two Bears has walked out of Standing Rock protests aimed at building the first solar farm in oil-dependent North Dakota. The organization aims to provide low-cost solar energy to all members of the community, promoting energy independence.
Today, the Cannon Ball Community Solar Farm has 1,100 solar panels and a generating capacity of 300 kilowatts, enough to power all the homes in Cannon Ball. The farm sells its electricity to the public grid, earning enough to offset electricity bills from veterans and youth centers in the community.
Longer-term goals include building tribe-owned transmission lines, installing solar panels on tribal homes and community buildings, and expanding support for solar energy in North Dakota.
Building better systems
We see similarities between these organizations and others in our book. Initiatives such as community-owned solar cooperatives and collective home ownership and neighborhood planning models aim to build economic systems that meet community needs and treat people fairly. Instead of finding answers in individual consumption or lifestyle changes, they build collective solutions.
At the same time, communities across the United States have different views on what constitutes a good life. In our view, acknowledging different experiences, goals and values is part of building a shared future.
In recent years, many scholars have pointed out the ways in which neoliberalism has failed to produce effective solutions to economic, health, environmental and other challenges. These critiques invite a deeper question: are people capable of remaking the world to privilege relationships with each other and with the planet, rather than relationships with wealth? We think the cases in our book clearly show that the answer is yes.
Stephanie Malin is an associate professor of sociology and co-founder of the Center for Environmental Justice at Colorado State University. Meghan Elizabeth Kallman is assistant professor of international development at UMass Boston. They wrote this piece for The Conversation, where it first appeared.