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October 2, 2013

Commons as a Powerful Tool for Understanding the World

Minneapolis-based organizer Dave Mann has spent the past 12 years working to help social justice and faith-based organizations and networks achieve higher levels of change. Mann is the associate director of Grassroots Policy Project (GPP), an organization that has been refining concepts and tools for strategy development since 1993. Combining their own organizing histories with the theory and history of people’s movements they help groups transform their work to become less reactive and more focused on moving toward their vision for the world.

Mann became interested in the commons when he realized it might be a framework or paradigm or worldview that would give people a different way to see the world and to sustain the kind of change they sought to make. “People need to be able to question the status quo,” says Mann. “They need to get a glimpse of an alternative. That’s what I like about the commons work.” The commons approach, says Mann, is a powerful alternative for illuminating how deeply ingrained the market paradigm has become in society today.

I recently had the pleasure of asking Mann a few questions about how he applies the commons in his work, how his thinking about the commons has evolved over time, and what he sees as the greatest opportunities and challenges for the movement.

— Jessica Conrad

How did you first learn about the commons?

I first learned about the commons through Julie Ristau and Alexa Bradley in 2006. Alexa and I were working together at GPP. The groups we were working with had many ideas for how to re-imagine the scale of change they wanted to achieve and to restructure work to that end, but they needed a paradigm shift to help them imagine exactly what they were working toward. Julie, and later Alexa, suggested that the commons may be helpful to the work of GPP, and I soon became intrigued because I thought the commons might be a framework, or paradigm, or worldview that would give these social justice groups a better way to “hold” the change they hoped to achieve.

Has your thinking about the commons evolved over time?

My thinking about the commons evolved the most when I was working directly with your colleagues at On the Commons. I initially thought of the commons as things that belong to all of us (public parks, for example), and the process of rediscovering the world around me through a commons lens was easy and fun. Then we started talking about public institutions as commons, and it was more difficult to see my role as an “owner.” But of course they are another good example of what we share together.

The most powerful shift in my thinking about the commons occurred later when I began to see the commons as a way of thinking about our lives together, our relationships to each other, and our relationships to the world around us. In other words, I came to see the commons as an alternative to the dominant way of thinking in our society today.

That shift was especially interesting to me because a lot of my work involves helping people wrestle with what we call “market-based thinking,” or the idea that things only have value if they can be commodified. Under this paradigm, the commons are in service of the market; yet we could imagine that under a commons-based paradigm, the market is in service of the commons and our lives together. Contrasting these two ways of understanding the world provided me with a tool for helping people explore alternative ways of thinking, and a chance to show how deeply people have been affected by the market paradigm.

Has the commons influenced your worldview/narrative work?

Yes, I think it has, but the influence shows up in indirect ways today because I don’t often use the word “commons.”

When I’m facilitating, for instance, I like to try out the commons language if an opportunity arises. Sometimes I work with farmers who own their farms, but many of these farmers, particularly those who do sustainable farming, understand that they don’t “own” the land. In their words, they know the land belongs to all of us and they are caretakers for a time. When this comes up there is an opportunity to begin asking the question “What belongs to all of us?” which is an entry point into commons-based thinking.

In the early years of On the Commons, we developed and tested a workshop used to help people see, name, and claim the commons. At that time I convened a group of people from Isaiah, an organization I’d been doing a lot of worldview work with. It was a great experience and interesting because the commons resonated with the group through a faith lens. I continue to work with Isaiah, and every now and then someone will say, “This is like that commons stuff you were talking about.” So I think commons thinking may have infiltrated my work more than the language.

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

Many people are connecting via the commons, and the first real opportunity I see is just how much has been developed over the years. That’s On the Commons’ greatest contribution from my perspective. Whether or not people adopt the language of the commons, they seem to have a sense that they’re part of something bigger. And it’s not just connecting at a “what do we do” level, but also at a “what do we want and believe” level.

Another opportunity is the amount of questioning—both conscious and unconscious—that’s going on in our society. The social contract, the American Dream, and the stories we’ve been told about our country have held true for many people, As the makeup of the U.S. has changed, and the institutions and principles by which they operate have started to fail us, more and more people are seeing the holes in those stories that, for example, African-Americans have always seen and starting to wonder whether we need to make some big changes.

So there’s a crack in the narrative that we can pry open. And the opportunity here is not just for tweaking the status quo, but rather for rethinking our assumptions.

Here’s an example of how this might work. When astronauts went around the moon for the first time, it was also the first time they could look toward earth instead of back at it. It was a new way of looking at the earth. When I listened to the recording of this moment I was struck by the fact that they were silent. They didn’t know what to say because all of a sudden they were seeing something really different. Earth, it turns out, is fragile. It’s surrounded by so much coldness and darkness. This image and these realizations gave a huge boost to the environmental movement because it shifted how people were thinking about the world they lived in and on.

I don’t know if we have that kind of opportunity with the commons yet, but either way, people need to be able to question the status quo, and they need to get a glimpse of an alternative. That’s what I like about the commons work—even the commons “as things and places” part of it. Because looking through the commons lens is like catching a glimpse of the earth from space. It’s an alternative view, and it’s real.

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

I think one obstacle is that our lives are so dominated by market-based thinking we can’t even see it. I can’t always see it, and this is my work. It’s like the air we breathe.

So it’s really hard to see the extent of the market-based thinking, but it’s even harder to think of alternatives as anything other than fantasy. That’s partly because the dominant narrative is so strong that it has dehumanized us. We need to reclaim who we are as human beings and to rediscover our common connection. One of the powerful elements of commons-based thinking is it’s grounding in relationships among people and the things that belong to all of us.

So in the end the biggest obstacle I see is the insidious nature of market-based thinking. Even the nonprofit industry operates under the market paradigm (and these people are often doing important work!). It’s all based on competition and models of corporate structure. The dominant paradigm has become so ingrained, that’s what I mean by how insidious it is.

We often call people who do your kind of work commons animateurs or commons catalysts or commoners. Do you use a word or phrase to describe what you do?

I like the word animateur for myself, I like the word catalyst for myself, I just personally don’t put the word commons in front of it.

But the important thing for me is this: movements have frames. The frame for the civil rights movement and many movements it spawned was “rights,” and the over-arching frames for the conservative movement in the last 40 years were individual freedom and responsibility. The next big movement for change is going to have a frame. I don’t know what it is yet. It might be the commons or it might not. But offering new language is a good thing. Maybe that’s what it will take to give people a new way to hold what they’re aiming for.