Cheyenna Weber: Creating a Solidarity Economy Giving Project

Attendees at the Solidarity Giving Project annual party. (Photo credit: Zachary Shulman)

Editor’s Note: Fascinating things are going on in the realm of giving circles and community giving projects. We are pleased to share this piece by Cheyenna Layne Weber, one of the founders of Solidarity Economy Giving Project in New York City, which aims to bring together donors in new ways. 

From Cheyenna Layne Weber:

There are more than 2,000 solidarity economy organizations in New York City, most of them founded and maintained by women. These democratic, member-led groups take different legal forms, but hold certain values in common—social and racial justice, ecological sustainability, mutualism, and cooperation. They include low-income credit unions; cooperatives providing food, affordable housing, and childcare; cooperatives of farmers and workers; community gardens and land trusts; and community-supported agriculture. Together, these form a solidarity economy based on meeting material needs rather than making profits. (Explore these models in this short video.)

Attendees at the Solidarity Giving Project annual party. (Photo credit: Zachary Shulman)

Women form solidarity economy organizations as creative solutions to systemic oppression faced in workplaces, families, housing, food systems, and financial institutions. Latinx women in Staten Island formed worker co-operatives that operate cleaning or childcare businesses while providing living wages and control over working conditions. Bangladeshi women in East New York grow food for their families in a community garden they control. In the Bronx in the 1980s, low-income women formed affordable housing co-operatives , which endure despite rising real estate values. Around that time, women of the Lower East Side formed a low-income credit union that not only continues to serve the immigrant community but has expanded to Harlem and Staten Island. In all five boroughs, no matter the race or ethnicity of the community, women are building a solidarity economy.

Attendees at the Solidarity Giving Project annual party. (Photo credit: Zachary Shulman)

So why have you never heard of it? The erasure of women’s labor in the home has been well-documented, and a similar dynamic emerges for women’s labor in communities and workplaces. This is especially true when the labor is not designed to add value for shareholders of a corporation, but rather benefits the community members who control and make use of the services of a solidarity economy organization. Many innovative women are also overlooked because they do not fit patriarchy’s conception of the entrepreneur: white, male, affluent, able-bodied, straight, and Christian. Thus, dominant institutions like government, philanthropy, and the private sector have little understanding of the incredible entrepreneurial role women often take up, and until recently had expressed little interest in learning more. This is beginning to change as cities like New York and philanthropists such as Robin Hood Foundation have begun investing in worker co-operatives to ameliorate poverty.

But it is not enough. Solidarity economy organizations often lack funding, especially those run by and serving women who are of color, immigrants,  low-income, disabled, queer and/or trans. While a few co-op loan funds and investors offer capital (such as The Working World or Cooperative Fund of New England), it is almost impossible for these women to find micro-grants to cover costs like training and technical assistance, crowdfunding matches, emergency support, or event sponsorships. Of the available grants, arduous application processes, requiring professional grant-writing or prior relationships to power (such as alumni networks), exclude women working within solidarity economy organizations.

To meet this gap young philanthropists and organizers created the Solidarity Economy Giving Project (SEGP). A program of the Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City (CEANYC),a democratic membership organization for NYC-based, solidarity economy enterprises, the Giving Project is the only solidarity economy grantmaking effort in the United States controlled by grassroots leaders. The Project includes a multi-racial, multi-gender, and intergenerational Giving Circle whose members each give a minimum $2,000 gift annually and jointly host a fundraising party. Giving Circle members lead the program, which includes learning from local solidarity economy leaders about their work; developing an analysis of racialized capitalism; building skills  to improve social justice philanthropy; and plenty of time to enjoy being with others dedicated to redistributing their wealth to address capitalism’s harmful impacts. Members also encourage each other to do more than just move money — to also become advocates and participants in the solidarity economy. Organizers initially hoped to raise $15,000 in the pilot year and ultimately raised $50,000. Now midway through year two, the Project has raised $61,000 in total.

Grassroots leaders designed the grantmaking process, which includes a very brief  application and a reduced reporting structure. The grantmaking committee is comprised of the elected members of CEANYC’s Board of Directors. SEGP donors do not participate in fund disbursement, and grantees are not burdened by site visits or extensive interviews with funders. Instead, donors trust the solidarity economy community to distribute these funds. This transfer of control flies in the face of traditional philanthropy, where a donor’s name is often affixed to a gift, and breaks with the  convention of foundation-based Giving Projects where full-time staff support participants in grantmaking decisions.

The impact of the Giving Project has been profound, even in its first full year of grantmaking in 2018. Grants included support for:

  • Nine women (seven women of color) to attend cooperative leadership trainings;
  • An affordable housing co-op in Brooklyn to prepare a vacant unit for a new family;
  • Manhattan community gardens to provide programs for low-income Latinx children;
  • Expanded staffing and ownership opportunities at catering and food processing worker co-ops led by people of color; and
  • Crowdfunding matches for a healthcare co-operative and a new food co-op that both serve Brooklyn communities of color.

The SEGP is something that like-minded donors could do in any city, and it is sorely needed. (Check out the solidarity economy in your area!) Whereas most funding is piecemeal,such as support for community gardens by health funders or credit unions by Community Reinvestment Act funds— we need resources to unify these disparate models  in a single solidarity economy vision.

The Hildegard Fund and Economic Justice grantmaking of New York Women’s Foundation and the new Solidarity Economy Initiative funders collaborative in Massachusetts are promising steps by funders in support of  a united solidarity economy rests on the power and potential of women’s leadership. Key to such efforts is acknowledging that this  work must be self-directed from the grassroots, and that resources must flow to under-resourced, dedicated innovators, not to well-connected charismatic white men or existing grantees who happen upon co-ops as a good idea they want to adopt.

A solidarity economy that meets all of our needs and welcomes all of our contributions is possible. The Solidarity Economy Giving Project is a small step in that direction.

We welcome any opportunity to support others who want to implement a similar program. Reach us at any time via organize@gocoopnyc.com.

Related:

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Kiersten Marek

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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