Since our founding twelve years ago, On the Commons (OTC) has played a lead role in advancing discussion and exploration of on-the-ground models for regenerating public life and the public sphere. One of our focuses has been the concept of shared-powered principles and structures—especially between municipal bureaucracies and communities—to fully tap the potential and creativity of the whole community.
OTC has been working to implement practical, shared power structures through the Homegrown Minneapolis Initiative. OTC Co-Director Julie Ristau was founding co-chair of Homegrown Minneapolis, and in this role, she partnered with the city to create an authentic partnership between the city and the community. This process drew on the commons framework to distill the principles often identified by the community in this process—equity, collaboration, relationships with each other and our food, celebration, cultural distinctiveness, sufficiency, and local empowerment. She assembled the working group that designed a new vision and operating guidelines for the Minneapolis Food Policy Council that exhibited shared power.
The approach and thinking involved in creating the Minneapolis Food Council as a commons-based structure was complex. The working group began by researching existing Food Policy Councils across the U.S. to build an analysis of what was and wasn’t working in other cities. Several national reports had pointed out that Food Policy Councils often become bureaucratic, quasi-governmental entities that dwindle in excitement and momentum. There are several causes for this:
- In our market-driven culture, most citizens have become mere consumers of public services. Our role has been diminished to giving “input” to plans and decisions that are mostly pre-determined.
- Councils based on a “representative model,” while understandable as a way to include all voices, can diminish efforts for stewardship of the whole system and deep collaboration as members are expected to advocate for their community’s perspective and needs.
- An exclusive focus on policy also fails to engage the hearts and minds of the community members who have been growing and creating local food and local economies.
Meetings often held in downtown locations during daytime hours limit participation and creativity.
In contrast, a commons approach to governance seeks to foster a collaborative political and social space where individuals believe their thoughts and actions matter, where their ideas can actually come to life, and where they can not only stop threats to their community, but also co-create a positive future.
Based on the information and insights gathered, and the commons framework, the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council was created as a hybrid structure: one that is neither fully owned nor independent of the city, and one that is neither held exclusively by nor without the co-equal investment of the community. Rather, the hybrid structure might best be understood as a footbridge connecting the city and the community into their rightful relationship: one of mutual trust, benefit, and shared vision. This hybrid Food Council has been in place now for two years.
The challenges and successes of this model are being more thoroughly assessed this fall, but a few themes seem evident. One is the need for the ongoing role of what we call commons catalysts, or animateurs. Commons animateurs or catalysts are skilled in the art of co-creating and collaboration. By increasing our recognition of what’s shared among us, and by emphasizing forms of “citizen engagement” that establish people’s agency as stewards and protectors of those resources (not just users and beneficiaries), a commons approach lays the groundwork for re-democratizing public decision making processes. It takes creativity and leaps of learning to reclaim share our resources in new ways. And it takes time and compassion to build deep levels of communication and trust.
A second area of learning is about the rules of engagement. We wrote the Food Council bylaws and a foundational set of agreements that named and outlined our commons-based approach. One of the roles of the Food Council Executive Committee is to help create and evaluate the culture of the Council as a jointly-owned and operated body between the city staff and community leaders. Keeping these documents alive through continual review and revisions (if needed) are critical to keep the original intention and new model in tact. Our experience also points to the need for a leadership cohort that includes (on equal footing) leaders from both of the centers of power—the city staff and the community—that understand the importance and possibilities that a shared power structure affords.
A third arena of learning addresses questions of how funding and resourcing the work of the Food Council. Money equals power in these settings, and it has been difficult to build a structure that both embraces the city budget as a line item of support and marry that with the community’s ability to raise funds to support the ongoing work of building the local food system. In other words, how do we really “co-own” this Food Council and raise funds together? This relies again on building trust and also the mechanisms for the co-mingling of funds and having the structures in place to allocate money and staffing towards the common good and our joint agenda.
Despite challenges, developing new ways of working and relating together is essential to creating thriving communities that truly collaborate with the aim of sharing our resources—natural, financial and human—to benefit all. The commons framework and practical experience applying this framework in the field are beginning to provide chart roadmaps so these approaches can be lifted up and applied in other communities.