Baltimoreans are in tremendous collective need. Poverty, hunger, eviction, homelessness, and physical and mental illness are all on the rise. The federal government’s response to COVID-19 has been abysmal, especially in assisting poor families and average workers.
Policies designed to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on businesses have been less advantageous for minority-owned businesses, which already face greater challenges accessing capital from traditional financing institutions.
Baltimore is, unknown to many, a hotbed of citizen-led grassroots efforts creating new economic and social networks to provide essential goods and services. Often referred to under the umbrella of “the solidarity economy,” these approaches have certain commonalities. They all: practice forms of democratization in engagement and decision-making; seek to make valuable citizen contributions; generate new ways to create income and wealth; support local businesses; address systemic inequalities; and develop solutions created by and for Baltimore.
These innovations provide a social safety net through community self-reliance and help to combat the effects of the pandemic. We highlight some examples:
Our city is home to the only locally-focused grassroots crowdfunding platform in the nation, the Maryland Neighborhood Exchange. Thanks to recent securities law changes, small businesses can access capital directly from their customers and broader community supporters.
The power of this model is converting customers into investors, creating armies of supporters with a powerful incentive to use and promote these businesses as much as possible. These businesses, in turn, will help their neighborhoods thrive.
By paying returns to resident investors, Baltimoreans (not an outside corporate bank) can build wealth and benefit from business growth. Since December 2019, 25 businesses (85 percent of which are minority-owned) raised over $220,000.
Michael Floyd, owner of AfterrHome, a Baltimore business using artificial intelligence to ensure homebuyers that homes are free of environmental hazards, emphasized: “As a minority founder, it’s not easy to raise capital because we can’t just go to family for $1000+ investments. But the opportunity to ask 10 members of the community we serve to invest more manageable amounts like $100 helps level the playing field.”
Another leading-edge model is SHARE, a coalition of the city’s community land trusts. CLTs are an innovation that puts land ownership in the hands of neighborhood organizations rather than investors. CLTs create perpetually affordable housing while nurturing stronger, more resilient communities.
Since 2017, CLTs throughout the city partnered to boost collective capacity, foster collaborative learning, and promote supportive policy development. Baltimore is now one of the few cities in the nation with such a coalition. The group’s work has resulted in funding streams for CLTs, and members have already developed several affordable homes with dozens more in the pre-development phase.
Moreover, as entities engaged in their communities, they quickly adapted to challenges presented by COVID-19, such as the need for food, supplies, and transportation, providing more immediate help at the neighborhood level than offered by government and other public relief efforts.
A number of grassroots organizations have been formed to address food sovereignty and the lack of grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. One example is The Black Yield Institute, which operates The Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden.
Besides growing and selling food and nonfood cash-crops, CHUCG is working to create a community-owned grocery store. Eric Jackson from Black Yield explains: “We are actively providing support to establish cooperatively-owned, community-controlled enterprises that improve access to affordable, culturally appropriate food and build community wealth.”
Other organizations like Filbert Street Garden in nearby Curtis Bay are providing complementary animal husbandry, space for the youth-led Compost Collective, and beehives producing honey for sale. Green Home in nearby Brooklyn is identifying vacant lots prime for agricultural use.
These economic activities are rooted in a commitment to democratic principles and the humanistic values of cooperation, mutual aid, and community. In contrast to images of violence, scarcity and division that sow fear and despondency, times of disaster can actually bring people together by nurturing a sense of hope and abundance coming from sharing resources and growing the local commons.
The people of Baltimore, as we have demonstrated above, have been steadily planting the seeds of a solidarity economy — thanks to the countless efforts of small businesses, community organizations, and local activists.
Given that federal efforts are and will likely continue to be insufficient to address the needs of our residents, we call on local politicians to recognize, mobilize support for, and grow these critical community-driven initiatives.
Stephanie Geller is founder and director of Community Wealth Builders. This commentary was produced in collaboration with TJ Butler; Michael B. Marks, Ph.D.; Carol Rice, Ph.D.; Cecilia Rio, Ph.D.; and Brent Flickinger.