We have before us an incredible opportunity to transform our economy. The disastrous turn our fiscal health took in 2008 has forced us to really think about the way our country creates and distributes wealth. One positive outcome of the recession is a zeal and enthusiasm around the idea of community wealth building, a sustainable approach to building and developing successful, sustainable and vibrant local economies.

Community wealth building is premised on the idea of broadly-shared ownership that is locally-rooted and directed toward the common good. Ownership can take place in many different forms, chief among them:

The Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, is pioneering the vision and strategy to address the chronic problems our economy faces, from high unemployment, to industrial cities that have been left to decay, to dangerously high levels of wealth inequality and the destruction of our environment. Led by Gar Alperovitz, the Democracy Collaborative is creating new concepts for how to solve these seemingly intractable problems.

Much of the excellent work done by the Collaborative in now available in “Growing a Green Economy for All,” by Deborah B. Warren and Steve Dubb. The study analyzed the potential of various ownership mechanisms to build community wealth vis-a-vis six key sectors in the green economy:

  • Renewable energy;
  • Green building;
  • Clean transportation;
  • Waste management;
  • Land use; and
  • Green financing.

The Collaborative’s findings are heartening and energizing. Though there are significant challenges ahead (lack of access to appropriate financing; regulatory barriers to community innovation; high front-end costs; unstable markets; insufficient infrastructure; and hesitant philanthropy), all signs point to positive opportunities available from community wealth building ventures.

Just a few examples that will inspire our forward momentum:

  • ESOPs are growing. Employee stock ownership plan companies employ 13.7 million Americans, comprising 9 percent of the total labor force and $900 billion in assets.
  • Public power is going to the people. Today, more than 25 percent of all US electricity is distributed via cooperative or public power company, promoting sustainability and profits geared toward member support.
  • Solar energy is heating up. We’re seeing more community-oriented companies like Namaste Solar, which is 100 percent employee-owned, and owns 20 percent of the market share in the CO solar market. A sign of good things to come.
  • One man’s trash is another’s treasure. Employee-owned Recology is a recycling industry leader serving more than 50 communities in CA.
  • Industries are transforming. The EBO Group in OH, formerly focused on the coal industry, now does half of its business in clean transportation, solar, and recycling.
  • Networks are building stronger, more supportive communities. WAGES is just one example of a network that has successfully launched five worker-owned cooperatives that provide living wages and ownership dividends through green home cleaning services.
  • Foundations are putting a stake in the ground. The Cleveland Foundation in OH, the nation’s second largest community foundation, has catalyzed a network of green worker- owned cooperative businesses, called Evergreen Cooperatives, that are generating wealth while promoting system-wide sustainability goals.

What we must do next is gather together intermediaries (credit unions, loan funds, community development organizations, place-based institutions, and advocacy and research institutions), policymakers, foundations and practitioners to develop local road maps for replicating the projects highlighted in “Growing a Green Economy for All” to create community wealth and build the sustainable economy of the future.

Keep visiting my blog as I will continue the conversation about community wealth building and impact investment. I look forward to the discussion to be had on these topics and your input in those discussions.

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