Protecting Solidarity Economies

via UCLA Magazine

As a child of immigrants, Yvonne Yen Liu has long been fascinated by the social and economic dynamics of the Asian American communities around her.

A co-founder of the L.A.–based Solidarity Research Center, Liu has spent years documenting and assisting what she calls “solidarity economies” — informal collectives that pool resources and develop mechanisms like cooperative lending, barter exchanges or collective kitchens.

Liu says that these informal economic collectives, which are most common in immigrant communities and marginalized minority groups, generally form among “folks who are on the periphery of society.”

And while the collective behaviors of these economies often overlap with progressive worker-led leftist values and union organizing, Liu says they can form independent of political ideologies or training.

“It’s an economy based on equity and inclusivity,” she says. “And an economy is basically just a set of social relationships.”

Liu’s work has involved her in successful movements to raise the local minimum wage to $15.50 per hour and to decriminalize street vending — a huge portion of the informal Angeleno economy.

As part of UCLA’s second class of activists-in-residence, Liu worked closely with the Asian American Studies Center and took full advantage of unfettered access to the UCLA academic infrastructure.

“It was an incredible opportunity to connect with the resources on campus — the students, the faculty, the library,” she says. “I don’t know of any other program out there where they open the doors of the university to people who are engaged in social movements and then provide a space and an opportunity for folks to reflect on their practices and refine their ideas.”

Liu says the Activist-in-Residence Program is a prime example of how universities can extend their scope in a way that both stimulates progressive change in the surrounding community and brings the outside world into students’ lives.

“It’s about building a university,” she says, “that isn’t contained by its walls.”

On May Day, Let’s Make Bold Demands for Democracy at Work and in the Streets

Published in Truthout on April 30, 2022

As we continue to watch federal and state governments fail us on issue after issue — from climate change to voting rights to even the most basic of human rights, such as the right to an abortion — a growing movement of change-makers are beginning to look closer to home for ways to exercise political agency and to reshape their world.

This movement has been referred to as the “municipalist moment,” one which puts the city at the heart of the revolutionary struggle. Broadly speaking, municipalism is a bottom-up political system that puts power in the hands of the people working from blocks to neighborhoods to the city. At its heart is the desire to transform society into one that reflects the values of solidarity, democracy, equity, sustainability and pluralism.

On May Day, residents of the Los Angeles area are taking to the streets to begin a two-year project aimed at taking back their city. Anchored by Los Angeles for All, a network of self-organized social movements, the intention of this place-based project is to craft a municipalist platform that reflects the needs of the residents instead of corporations, opens up space for direct democratic reforms, and puts power back in the hands of the people.

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When decolonization meets post-capitalism: the third annual post-capitalism conference

Zooming from Los Angeles, Yvonne Yen Liu began the discussion with a conversation about municipalism, putting an emphasis on building stronger cities defined by direct democracy, feminism, and anti-capitalist principles. “We have the social conditions that are ripe for a municipal movement that will stitch together all the autonomous institutions, organizations, and grassroots groups that are working across the city to create a city-wide People’s Platform similar to what Barcelona en Comu (Barcelona in Common) in 2015,” Liu hypothesized.

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Q&A: Solidarity Research Center’s Yvonne Yen Liu

via Shareable

by Ruby Irene Pratka

The Solidarity Research Center based in Los Angeles, California, was established in 2014 by a group of researchers and academics with roots in organized labor. Now they are working on projects across the country, linking the ethos of the labor movement and the dynamics of the cooperative economy to build and promote cooperatives across a wide range of sectors.

“I like the term ‘solidarity economy’ because it’s linked to the history of the movement against privatization of the common and neoliberalism,” says the group’s research director Yvonne Yen Liu. “It’s like the motto of the World Social Forum — another world is possible. Many of these people-centered practices are about recognizing invisible labor and recognizing what the earth provides. Many communities have been doing that since the beginning of the human species. Not everything is immersed in a capitalist framework. There are other economic and social practices.” We caught up with Liu to learn more about their unique approach to cooperative development.

Ruby Pratka, Shareable: How was the Solidarity Research Center established?

Yvonne Yen Liu, Solidarity Research Center: When we started, in 2014, we were the research arm of the Industrial Workers of the World. We were charged at the time with surveying union members and trying to understand what needs they have. We evolved into partnering with a lot of different campaigns, mostly in North America, providing research and campaign support to worker-led organizing campaigns for different sectors from harm reduction workers to fast food and coffee shop employees.

We’ve also worked with the Incarcerated Workers Union, who organized a well-known prisoners’ strike in September 2016. They were based mostly in a maximum security prison in Alabama doing chem manufacturing, and they believed the products were being sold at Walmart, and they reached out to us for research assistance. We were labor researchers who cut our teeth helping grassroots workers and then started developing partnerships with other community groups outside of the IWW that represented our style of organizing.

We got really interested in contesting unjust systems that punish people who don’t have access to means of grievance [and] who are coerced into not resolving their issues. We started to get involved in learning about the solidarity economy and applying our skills to doing marketing and business research and feasibility studies for cooperatives. The organization in itself is no longer directly affiliated with the union but we are still working with them, especially on projects involving incarcerated workers.

The Center has been involved with quite a diverse network of projects, from a farmworkers’ union to a journalism startup to an electricity cooperative to a land use research group on the Navajo Nation. What would you say brings them all together?

When building alternative economics [platforms], you have to resist the current system and the inequalities it produces, but you have to also build an alternative system. Those are the two legs that move our work forward. That’s the common thread, given our roots in resisting unequal, unfair, and unhealthy working conditions, [building toward] thinking about how to build a better workplace how to build a better cooperative ecosystem.

Resisting the current system and building a better system are our two common threads. … We define solidarity research as research done with impacted communities, in partnership, rather than outside researchers swooping in doing research on a community and swooping out. There is an exchange of knowledge that takes place — we are all learning together.

Could you provide a few concrete examples of a solidarity economy?

Sure. I have been looking into the history of Asian American and refugee communities, mutual aid, mutual insurance societies, and cooperative enterprises. [These organizations] have a long history going back to China centuries ago — a group of people would decide to contribute a certain amount of money to the pot and it would get allocated to one person in need. It’s a form of sharing wealth based on trust and kin or friendship bonds that goes back 800 years in some parts of the world.

When immigrants came to North America, they brought these practices with them and it helped them survive, especially if they were barred from joining unions because of the vilification of Asian workers that was present at the time. One of our mentors, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, wrote a great book about the black cooperative tradition, “Collective Courage.” We are exploring another project with the Diné Policy Institute about recognizing current [cooperative] practices on the Navajo Nation and how they fit into the economy and how they can be further built up.

How did the Asian American Solidarity Economy Project get started?

My colleague Parag Khandhar and I started the project two years ago and we ended up developing a national network of Asian-American organizers trying to take existing strategies and scale them up. We developed a cohort of five organizations that were already establishing co-ops: the Pilipino Workers Center homecare cooperative in Southern California, a group of vegetable farmers in Louisiana creating a democratically-run farm run mostly by Vietnamese elders, a youth group called VietLead in Philadelphia where they’re studying how to establish a co-op coffee shop and nail salon, a child care co-op of mostly Bangladeshi women in NYC and Wishwas, which is establishing a sewing cooperative for immigrant women in New York City. We found that there were unique challenges, especially among some older people who had had traumatic experiences with state-sanctioned cooperatives in their home countries, but the practices we are working on predate state cooperatives.

Why are Asian American communities fertile ground for this kind of work?

I don’t know if there is a predisposition toward cooperatives in Asian communities, but there’s definitely a need and a legacy. Given the long history of exclusion that Asian Americans here faced, [they] were not welcomed to become workers and a lot of them established businesses with mutual aid capital or established cooperatives. Having people who had those experiences in your family makes it easier, but if we dig deeper I think we can find [fertile ground for the solidarity economy] in any community.

What kind of assistance do you provide to cooperatives?

We provide technical assistance — for example if they need help understanding what kind of legal entity they should pursue. One of them we set up a website. It really runs the gamut. I recently read a study that showed co-ops are more productive but they need more resources to get started. We’re [also] focusing more on educating people and raising awareness. That’s one reason why we’re doing webinars on the basics of cooperative finance. We’re planning to synthesize the webinars and publish a toolkit.

What are you hoping the project will bring to target communities?

We are hoping that this brings more awareness of the cooperative movement as a tool for economic development. This is a model that doesn’t gentrify or displace, but builds collective wealth and helps a community grow. We would love to see broader acceptance and adoption of the co-op model and get more Asian Americans interested in these issues. We think it’s important to have people who look like you doing this work. I hope it will encourage young people to get involved in the movement and inspire people to build similar types of co-ops in their communities.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Header image of Yvonne Yen Liu courtesy of the Solidarity Research Center

California tax cheats difficult to find

“Employers who are cheaters, who are gaming the system, are able to thrive, which squeezes out responsible, high-road employers and brings down the level of wages and working conditions for everyone in addition to squeezing the public purse to some extent,” said researcher Yvonne Yen Liu, who co-wrote the report.

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Racialicious Crush of the Week

By Andrea Plaid via Racialicious

Like I mentioned at the Facing Race roundtable yesterday, the “No Justice, No Peas” panel left a deep impression on me because it addresses what otherwise great food-movement documentaries like Food, Inc. and Forks Over Knives sometimes touch on but tend to erase entirely: the food workers of color who do the incredible work of bringing the food–both organic and non-organic–to USians’ palettes and gullets and how deeply economic exploitation and racial injustice not only affects their lives but the lives of their families and neighborhoods. (The Storified version of the panel is here.)

Pretty prescient and very relevant, considering the current fast-food workers strikes.

I just had to vibe with the panel’s brilliant and passionate facilitator, Yvonne Yen Liu, who’s the outgoing Senior Research Associate at the Applied Research Center (the people who bring you the Facing Race conference and Colorlines) and the incoming Director of the Global Movements at WhyHunger. We chatted about not only how she found her way to food justice but also how that issue intertwines with race, racism, sexism, and labor justice, and how one journalist cluelessly said that the food movement isn’t a social justice issue.

I know. I know. Read on…

Food justice is your passion. How and why did you gravitate to that?

I see food as a portal to addressing a host of social ills.  I am pretty transparent about the fact that I don’t have food politics per se—obviously, I like to eat, and I think that everyone should have access to healthy and affordable food—but, I see the growing interest in local food systems, organic food, slow food, etc. as an opportunity to bring people into the fold of racial justice.  Because we all need to eat, food is something that universally touches all of us, we all enter the food chain at one point or another, whether as a consumer, a worker, or grower.  How can we shift people from a particular position to recognize that we’re all interlinked, whether we be a small family farmer, a restaurant worker, or an artisanal goat cheese maker.

The food justice movement itself is rather young, but we are informed by other struggles, as I wrote in the Good Food and Good Jobs for All[1] report published by the Applied Research Center this past summer.  The food movement has its roots in the back-to-land movement in the 1960s, the environmental justice turn with the People of Color Summit in the 1990s, and even the self-described “survival pending revolution” breakfast programs by the Black Panthers.  How can we, the nascent food movement, learn lessons from other struggles, work in conjunction within multiracial coalitions, to build power?

My entry point to food is through labor.  Three years ago, I was working on green jobs for the Applied Research Center.  We focused on the need for racial equity in crafting green jobs and a renewable energy economy, one that is inclusive and emboldens communities of color.  One of the case studies we pursued was of the central coast of California, in partnership with a farmworker women organization Lideres Campesinas.[2]  Many groups focused on the urban manifestation of the green economy, but what about rural communities?  And, what about agriculture and food production, the first green job, to some extent?

The initial conversations that we had with the leaders at Lideres Campesinas led to a three-year trust building process, which other partners such as the Data Center and the Center for Race, Poverty, and Environment later joined, to craft a participant action research project for campesinas to define a green economy for themselves and their families.  I reached out to other farmworker organizations, which led me to connect with a new national network representing workers across the food chain, the Food Chain Workers Alliance.

The network was still in the process of mapping out the landscape of who food chain workers were.  We supported them in those efforts with our research, later published in The Color of Food[3], which outlined the composition of the food workforce by race, class, and gender.  We found shocking disparities in wages; for example, for every dollar that a white man earns in the food system, a Black woman makes almost half of that, 53 cents.  Latinas make 50 cents.

And it’s apparent that you brought that passion to the panel on the intersecting issues of food justice, racial justice, and labor justice. As discussed at the panel, the public conversations about food justice wraps around the idea about the products themselves, e.g. access to organic food, food “deserts,” and obesity. Less so is the conversation about the people who are processing the organic—and non-organic—food, from the garden and farms to the restaurants and homes. Why is that disconnect still there?

Unfortunately, labor is often ignored in the public discourse.  It’s no different in the food movement.  I interviewed a well-known food journalist for the Good Food and Good Jobs for All report, who told me, “I don’t know if it’s smart politics for the food movement to take a social justice role.  We need to have positions, but if we devolve, we’ll lose our specificity and attraction for people who can deal with food, but not economic systems.”

Now, that’s just sad.  To me, it seems self-evident that in order to eat and to eat well, you need a good job that pays living wages.  Food and labor are interconnected.  But, unfortunately, the majority of good food advocates are wary of collaborating with the labor movement for fear of diluting their mission. Similarly, proponents for good jobs typically focus solely on serving the interests of workers and are generally uninterested in tackling the structural problems in industrial agriculture and the production of food.

Who gets hurt, because of this disconnect?  Low-income people and people of color suffer disproportionately from food inequities, as I outlined in Good Food and Good jobs for All, such as obesity, hunger, and earning below minimum wage as a food worker. Therefore, a divide between the struggle for good food and good jobs is an issue of racial and economic justice, because it sharpens socioeconomic disparities for communities of color. Being separated in issue silos also serves the interests of the food and agricultural corporations operated by a minority of white men who dominate both domestic and global markets, thus creating the conditions for these disparities across the world.

As I mentioned in the “Energy Democracy For All” panel, I believe the disconnect rests with the image problem that the green movement still has, namely that the images of the green movement is still white. So, even with the great policies like solar-energy redistribution to benefit communities of color and even incredibly out-front activists like Van Jones, Majora Carter, and you, the message of “going green is for everyone” seems like it still isn’t taking a hold to the point of popular, sustained action. Or is it that communities of color are “going green” in a way that isn’t recognized in the majority of green movements?

Yes, it’s an image problem and I think it’s important for communities of color to see themselves reflected in public images associated with sustainability, be it green energy or urban agriculture.  But, beyond representation, we need genuine engagement and leadership of people of color in these movements.  Which is part of the work being done in Oakland with community-owned solar projects[4] and in the Navajo Nation.[5]