Philadelphia’s Solidarity Economy

The CPGC sponsored a tour, led by Professor Craig Borowiak, of local Philadelphia businesses that are a part of the solidarity economy.

I am pretty familiar with the topic of the solidarity economy. Not only did I take Craig Borowiak’s political science seminar on the solidarity economy during the fall of my junior year, I also spent two summers creating a map of the solidarity economy in Philadelphia as Professor Borowiak’s research assistant. Still, it’s always enlightening to see, in person, how these institutions operate, and what the solidarity economy means to different people. I got that very chance when I took part in the CPGC-sponsored solidarity economy tour last Saturday.

But first: what exactly is the solidarity economy? Even now, with several years’ of research behind me, I struggle to give a definitive answer, precisely because I don’t believe any definitive answer exists. It is a grassroots movement that seeks an alternative to capitalism. It roots economic activity not in privatization and profit-maximization, but rather in principles of cooperation, reciprocity and participation.

The tour started with a talk by Professor Borowiak, who asked us to question whether the places we were going to visit were actually “alternative” economic institutions. Then we heard from John Durso of the Ardmore Initiative, a group that created Downtown Dollars, essentially an alternative currency for Ardmore. He told us how surprised he was when the Dollars, which let residents purchase “coupons” worth double their monetary value when spent at participating retailers, sold out within minutes of their release. Most interesting to me was his insistence that these dollars weren’t an alternative currency, but merely a clever marketing strategy to get people to invest in local shops. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered people resisting the notion of an alternative economy, but it nevertheless surprised me that he rejected this label.

After that, we drove to Mariposa Co-Op, a food cooperative in West Philly. Actually, we drove to its future location, several blocks away from its current site, that will open in the fall of this year. To be a part of the co-op and shop at Mariposa, members must contribute a onetime fee and work at least one two-hour shift every month. We toured both the new and old sites and talked with several of the managers organizing the new store about the benefits and drawbacks of their economic model. While Mariposa  faces a unique set of challenges—fundraising, ensuring members effectively carry out their shifts, making decisions by consensus—its members are clearly excited for the expansion, both of their physical space and of their customer base.

Mariposa Community Garden
Mariposa Co-op

At lunch, Shoshanna Grunwald of the Energy Cooperative told us a bit about her organization, which provides low-cost energy to its membership and now has  over 7000 members. The cooperative is one-member-one-vote, a characteristic that is definitely in line with solidarity economy principles. Its membership is so large, however, that the element of membership participation is all but absent; Grunwald said fewer than 10 members came to the Cooperative’s most recent annual meeting.

Our final stop was the Mill Creek Farm, a West Philadelphia educational urban farm dedicated to improving local access to fresh produce. Though it is coming off of its off-season, the farm, which takes up a full city block, is still impressive. The two co-founders (and currently Mill Creek’s only two full-time staff members) gave us a tour of the farm, which includes a hut made almost entirely of local materials (even the screws are from a local shoe company). Although the farm itself was very impressive and I definitely want to volunteer there if I’m in Philadelphia this summer, I can’t help but wonder how economically sustainable its model is. The two co-founders work haven’t institutionalized their positions in the way that I think they need to if they want the farm to exist after they leave. I did like, however, that they didn’t feel to need to expand to neighborhoods that aren’t their own. Getting individuals involved in their own communities is a huge component of the solidarity economy, one I’m glad to see MCF is promoting.

Mill Creek Farm Beehives
Mill Creek Farm Mural

The tour was informative, but by no means exhaustive; there are still lots of local solidarity economy sites we could visit in the future. Maybe next time we’ll go to the anarchist gallery?

–Cameron Scherer ‘11