Yvonne Yen Liu on Los Angeles for All

Yvonne Yen Liu is the Co-Founder and Research Director of the Solidarity Research Center. She is a practitioner of research justice with over 20 years of being a nerd for social movements. Yvonne serves on the boards of the US Solidarity Economy Network, Policy Advocates for Sustainable Economies (a 501(c)(4) organization affiliated with the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives), Institute for Social Ecology, and New Economy Coalition.

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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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