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Equity is Essential

8 ideas about how to advance equity in commons work

We believe it is critical to bring equity to the forefront of the commons conversation. As the commons gains popularity and the movement grows, so does the need to hold equity as a central and defining precept of a commons-based society.

Here is some of our thinking about equity and the commons, and how we can more fully advance equity in commons work:

  • The commons can and should advance equity, but it will not happen without deliberate commitment from a society that so readily accepts systemic inequity.
  • The extreme racial, economic, gender-related, and countless other inequities we live with, and the history that has produced those inequities, demand intentional work to address and repair that legacy and its damage. How we define or re-define the “we” of a commons will either reinforce historic exclusion in resource access and benefit, or offer redress.
  • Historically, the term ‘commons’ comes from Roman law that established the idea of things belonging to the community—not individuals or the state. Later this concept, and centuries of living from this social construct (as most indigenous and peasant societies did), was the basis on which peasants struggled to preserve and protect their access to and stewardship of shared resources. Through the centuries, the commons has been an important way for communities to express and defend their rightful claim to specific forms of natural and social abundance. Strategies for advancing equity need to include the reclamation of these forms of shared wealth by and for the benefit of all communities.
  • While we are all hurt by the ongoing and increasing appropriation, damage and enclosure of our commons, the impact is most sharply felt in communities of color and lower income communities, contributing to a lack of access to resources and a genuine voice in decision-making that already exists. Moving to a commons based society means recognizing that those most affected by economic, social, environmental and racial injustice must have a central voice in decisions about shared community resources and wealth.
  • We need to rethink what is “ours.” There are forms of social wealth that belong to all of us, to those that will come after us, and to other living beings. Naming and recognizing that kind of “belonging,” which is outside the usual market model of “ownership,” can offer people a legitimate and equitable claim on life-sustaining resources.
  • Equity means taking people seriously as both users and contributors. In a vibrant commons, people have a vital role to play not only as beneficiaries, but also as co-creators, protectors, decision makers and stewards. If we take this kind of equitable participation seriously, we have to prioritize the need for people to shape and “own” the decision-making processes that affect their commons.
  • Additionally, we see equity as inseparable from sustainability. Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s research demonstrates that when people are involved in the stewardship of a commons and actively feel a stake in its preservation and protection, the health of that commons is much greater.
  • The commons is a deeply egalitarian and collaborative means to manage shared resources. Social equity is a foundational element of any commons, but we cannot assume it will emerge as central without deliberate efforts to undo dominant paradigm thinking and systems of exclusion. Intentionality in upholding equity intersects with the need to value the inherent wisdom and knowledge of local communities in restoring and recovering the commons.