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May 27, 2013

Creating Commons-Based Solutions for Communities from Swaziland to Minneapolis

From developing cooperative models in Sierra Leon and Swaziland to boosting food security in North Minneapolis, Sam Grant is creating commons-based solutions for diverse communities across the globe. Grant brings a decades-long background in economic, environmental, and social justice to his projects, as well as an unbounded sense of optimism for our ability to grow a sustainable, living culture—“one where we begin to make day-to-day decisions that increase health today and a greater sense of possibility for tomorrow.”

Grant is the Principal at the Movement Center for Deep Democracy, which exists to foster the conditions for a “way of being and a way of being together.” Deep democracy is inherently a commons, says Grant, because it’s about understanding our relationship to one another in order to discover the common basis of all existence.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Grant about how engaging different cultures can lead to a better understanding of what it means to “do better” as a global community and why he feels the time is finally ripe for advancing commons-based solutions.

— Jessica Conrad

How did you first learn about the commons?

I learned about the commons framework back in college when I was working on a degree in Environmental Studies and Biology. We were assigned Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons, and my peers and I refuted his work as nonsense: the bigger tragedy seemed to be the privatization and commodification of everything. We felt that we needed to organize our lives around the defense of the commons.

How does the commons influence your work today?

Through my work with American Indian communities across the U.S. and my African peers back on the continent, I’ve learned that people who care about our future must focus on organizing around the commons—especially those who live in the U.S.

In the 1980s I worked on affordable housing projects and tried hard to get the low-income renters and homeowners on one particular block to create a community land trust. But the residents rejected it. They wanted a house to pass on from generation to generation that would continue to appreciate—the same thing that “the Joneses” had. I couldn’t win the argument in 1988, and it was a painful loss.

But I feel as though we are at a different time now in human history, with a majority of people on the planet vibrating toward a commons sensibility. The whole notion of private ownership simply isn’t working. People are hungry for alternatives, and as a result, I’m seeing a lot of energy flowing toward the commons in the work I’m doing.

For instance, I’m involved in the local urban agriculture movement, and one of my colleagues keeps saying that he’s trying to create a gateway to the free enterprise system for “food entrepreneurs.” In response, I keep asking, “What does the free enterprise system mean?” It could mean fair trade, an open society—lots of things. After hearing about the commons framework, my colleague said, “Yeah! That’s exactly what I want.”

So we recently applied the commons framework to a food lab where 175 people gathered to look at the vacant lots in North Minneapolis. The neighborhood is very poor, very marginalized, and isolated from the mainstream economy, which, on the whole, is doing better than most metropolitan economies in the U.S. We discussed how to protect those vacant lots as a commons and as a means for increasing the food security of the community, thereby generating health and wealth.

I’m also working with a group of food processors that are using a community kitchen on a part-time basis. Last year they processed 7,500 pounds of food by hand. This year they made the audacious goal of securing more equipment and processing 100,000 pounds of food. Soon we think we will have eighteen people sharing the food processor, forming a co-op. We’re working on the final business plan now, but we think we will be able to create thirty jobs in three years and fifty jobs in five years. It’s pretty exciting.

What strategies do you recommend for making more people aware of the importance of the commons?

In September 2012, I attended a food justice democracy conference hosted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and I was moved by an Indigenous woman from the Muckleshoot Nation named Valerie Seacrest. She said, “I live under the laws: the land, the air, the water, the sky. And that’s what makes my life work. That’s what I pay attention to. When I wonder whether I’m doing things the right way, I think about how well they worked for the land, the air, the water, the sky.” Helping people re-imagine and re-inhabit different cultures is key to bringing awareness back to the commons. So is living bio-centrically.

I feel that there’s a clear paradigm to work toward, and the only thing getting in the way is fear of the conversation. The key is more commoning. It’s pretty simple.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?

The thing I keep getting hung up on—and the thing I think we, as a society, keep getting hung up on—is the word “commons.” What does it bring to mind? Commons, communist. Commons, socialist. The word commons doesn’t evoke the American ideal; it doesn’t match American values. The reality of America is that until World War II, almost all of our lives were based on the commons. But we took it for granted. The recent, dramatic shift toward the petrochemical economy has privatized all aspects of our lives. And as our lives have become more privatized, our lives have become more miserable. Even so, because of the growth of possibility, and the truth that people have been living privatized lives for the past fifty or sixty years, people think it’s still viable.

One of the big challenges around the commons is to slow people’s consciousness down and inspire people to pay attention to what matters most. I love what Paul Wellstone said: “We all do better when we all do better.” Privatization won’t facilitate the conditions for us all to do better—but the commons will.

What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?

I’ve recently been reading work by the democracy collaborative and Gar Alperovitz who supports not just green jobs, but also green ownership. I see a real opportunity now that hasn’t sufficiently existed in the past, because the conditions are ripe for so much more green cooperation and green ownership. More and more novel, nimble, less ideological, more relational, and spirited cooperative forms are coming into being. It’s too soon for me to say where it all might go, but I’m following and joining and facilitating: I’ve got young people involved in growing green spaces in the community, and along with some colleagues in Africa, I’m helping to develop cooperative infrastructure in Sierra Leon and Swaziland.

It seems a little bit unrealistic just how much is possible right now. I feel as though a lot of dreams can begin to manifest as a result of all the hard work people have put in over the last couple of decades. And once those dreams manifest over the next eight or ten years, then our consciousness will have shifted.

What are a few of the most beloved commons in your life and community?

I’m a nature boy, so one of my favorite commons is public space where I can go for a walk with my family. My wife and I actually fell in love in daily walks around Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. A coffee shop is another favorite commons. It’s a private enterprise, but it’s a place for community to emerge. The shop across the street from our house has a kids’ area where my daughter can interact with other children. We often go to the public library, which is another outrageously useful commons. I also teach at two different public colleges Minneapolis Community and Technical College and Metro State University. Those are two other forms of commons, which I highly appreciate.

Then the big one is the common dream that humanity has, and I feel like that’s what tickles me the most. All the untapped potential and untapped love that exists among humanity that just needs to be held and encouraged to open. That’s what’s dear to me.

Why do you call yourself a commoner?

I don’t use the word yet, but I can roll with “commons catalyst.” As an organizer you’re always catalyzing the commons because you’re building community with every interaction. That’s what a commons catalyst does. That’s perfect; I can start calling myself a commons catalyst today.

This interview has been edited and adapted for OntheCommons.org.