Ed Whitfield

Interview of Ed Whitfield

Co-Managing Director, Fund for Democratic Communities

Interviewed by Steve Dubb, Research Director, The Democracy Collaborative

December 2014


Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, Ed’s political activism started with attending Little Rock Central High School and beginning to do anti-war work as a teenager. Ed has lived in Greensboro, North Carolina since 1970.  In 2007, with Marnie Thompson, he helped co-found the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC), a private foundation that aims to promote economic democracy and cooperative economics in the U.S. South. F4DC has pledged to spend down its endowment by 2020. Among its leading efforts are launching the Southern Grassroots Economies Project and supporting the development of the Renaissance Community Co-op in a food desert neighborhood in Greensboro.  Ed also participates on numerous boards, including the New Economy Coalition and the Highlander Research and Education Center.

Could you talk about your background and how that has impacted your work?

I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1949. I was eight years old, watching television when everything was happening in 1957 as Central High School was integrated. I have memories from that time. It set me on a path to do social justice work in my life.

When I went to college, I was involved in campus activism, particularly around South African divestment and the development of a Black Studies Program. After leaving school, I came to North Carolina to work at Malcolm X Liberation University. When it closed, I got a job and began doing community, labor and anti-war organizing. It was in the course of that work that I met Marnie Thompson.  In 2007, I was asked by her to help put together a foundation.  In 2007, we conceived of the Fund for Democratic Communities out of the base of revenue that came from an estate she inherited from her father.

We had done social justice work for years, unpaid, while working full time jobs. I probably worked 30-40 hours a week in the community while I was working 40 hours a week for more than 30 years.

In 2007, we created the F4DC with the idea of creating authentic democracy in communities and social justice organizations. This is something that was largely missing from our work. I truly believe that creating democracy is one of the most important things that we can do.  How do we make structures of, by and for the people? That is the simple economic gist of it.

Our recent work has been around economic democracy. In 2010 and 2011, we asked ourselves how is it that we can focus our work more sharply? We wanted to know how to help people have opportunities to be productive for themselves and their community. We ended up pretty quickly deciding that cooperative solutions would be among the best solutions to those economic questions. They are rooted in that spirit of self-reliance. It wasn’t honest for us to say that if you have a giant jobs march that the federal government will do something good. We wanted to be as up front and honest as possible. We talked about the fact that, yes, there is resistance work that is needed. There are powerful people, places and forces where you can be crushed if you don’t. Advocacy is needed because you need to steer resources. But in the final analysis, you need to build community power so communities can be self-reliant and do things for themselves. That is the fundamental insight.

I often talk about this approach as RAD – resistance, advocacy and doing-for-ourselves.  We put a lot of emphasis on doing-for-ourselves for various reasons. First, it is the weakest part of social justice organizations. Also, it is the primary piece that allows us to express our full humanity.  The rest of our work has to complement enabling us to do things for ourselves. That is the primary motivation for our work. 

At some point in the 1960s didn’t you go to Cornell?

Yes, after I graduated from high school, I received a scholarship for Cornell. I studied mathematics and philosophy. I had hoped that the Black Studies Program we developed would help focus some of the resources and thinking of us at Cornell on solving some of the immediate problems within communities.  It did not evolve that way, so I left and taught at Malcolm X Liberation University in Greesnboro. And I just stayed in North Carolina ever since, raising my family here. I figure that if you’re fixing problems, you might as well not leave, because you won’t get finished if you move around.

You spent nine years on the board of Greensboro Redevelopment Commission and also served on the board of the Greensboro Triad Minority Development Commission. Could you talk more about that work and what you learned from those experiences?

The Triad Minority Development Corporation was a CDC (community development corporation). Like most CDCs, almost all of its work was focused on housing. I tried to shift the direction to business development. In addition to finding ways to help people function as consumers, I thought that it would be useful for people to have job and income opportunities. We started a computer project to have people use computer technology around business creation. We got very little support for that effort. It was weird the way the CDC was set up. What we found was that there were a lot of funds available for housing work, but very few around anything else.

The Greensboro Redevelopment Commission, by contrast, was a city authority that was set up as part of the city government’s work to acquire and aggregate property for development and alleviation of blight. I spent nine years watching how city collaborations around community development ended up working out. The focus was on housing and developing urban communities. Our work usually involved the acquisition of land, either through eminent domain or through friendly purchases. The idea was that we were aggregating land and making it available to developers at a price that would make certain development profitable, hoping that it would serve a social purpose.

What I learned from witnessing this activity with developers and nonprofit CDCs and being at the center of it was that it is highly inefficient. Sometimes it worked reasonably well, but sometimes less well. There was a lot of space for inefficiency and at times there was space for corruption. Several CDCs were from church-related groups. The city had to be careful about managing that relationship and sometimes had to take back projects. There were several cases of profiteering.

That was one of the things that help get me thinking about the community as a developer. So that a community-based group might get the same kind of incentives that are typically made available to private individual developers or developer groups.

The whole idea of economic development as practiced in cities today is to guarantee the profitability of an individual entrepreneur in the hope that some social benefit will result for the community. What we know is that the developer is guaranteed to make a profit on the deal. Whether the community benefits, that may or may not happen. There is a spotty history of that work.

Community benefits agreements (CBAs) are also an approach to guarantee that the community benefits from part of the development that takes place. They directly engage local government and entrepreneurs with communities. But our work has been more along the lines of helping the community directly plan development rather than depending on an individual entrepreneur to be involved.  We want to shift issues of ownership back into the hands of community. The whole question of community wealth as ownership of productive assets is important. That is a shift that needs to take place whenever possible.

What is the size of the Fund for Democratic Communities and its level of annual grantmaking?

When we were founded in 2007, we had about $10 million. We’re down to $9 million now.  Our complete annual budget is on the order of $1.5 million.

We are required by federal law to spend 5% of total assets each year. That would be $450,000. Instead we are doing more than three times that.

We are not looking to exist in perpetuity. We are going to sunset in 2020. That allows us to have a bigger impact. If we were doing $450,000 a year, easily half of that would be staff and maintenance of our operations, there would only be $200,000 or so going out. As it is, with the same size staff, we are able to put out substantially more. Many times as much is going out into the community. Where it is going right now is for projects related to cooperative economic development.

How do you fund organizations?

The bulk of our grants are grassroots matching grants. We will make funds available at a 1:1 ratio to groups that we think are doing important work within our focus area. We will match the money they raise through grassroots efforts in contributions of $100 or less.  Generally our grants are about $5,000, but some are larger. There are much larger grants that we will do on a discretionary basis if we believe the people are doing groundbreaking work.

We look to leverage our resources on the social justice work. We still remain connected to and interested in the resistance work and the advocacy work people are doing, even though we want to push the do-for-ourselves aspect of the work. We found ways to be supportive of folks in Ferguson, Missouri, for example. The bulk of our work goes into the development of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project (SGEP) and things related to that, across 14 southern states.

Please talk about the formation of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project. Where it is at today?

We don’t have a monolithic approach. We do think that the emerging economies that will be important and transformational are associated with democratic ownership and democratic control.

The idea came in the course of discussion. Marnie and I were talking with a colleague of ours, Suzanne Pharr, about people in her life. The people Suzanne was working with were suffering from unemployment at the peak of the Great Recession. We were talking about how the lack of job availability was impacting young people who had little future and hope. So the discussion went on about how we need to have a jobs march in Washington. But I asked, “Do you think a job march is going to create jobs?” She admitted that it was unlikely to succeed. So we thought about what could we do that will make a difference. And what we decided we could really do is to create jobs. It might not be huge numbers, but we need models and proofs of concept. 

People are capable of doing things for themselves. Much of what is missing in people’s lives is the opportunity for people to be productive.

Ordinary people’s labor produces value. Our labor produces more value if it has the multiplier effect of efficient machinery and available raw materials. That is, if we have access to capital and if we have land that we can work on. It is our access to that which will be fundamental to being productive. So we thought we could assist with building opportunities to access the wealth of their communities, their capital. Typically people have to beg for access. “Please hire me” means “Please let me be there and work with the capital you have so I can be productive.”

Some folks, when they get hired, will say: “I found a job.” But the jobs were never lost. A job represents an agreement of someone who has capital to hire you. Therefore, you can be productive at a modern level of productivity and they will pay you a wage to live on, but the bulk of what you produce goes to them.

So we want to build community wealth. We want to be able to incrementally build and retain community wealth under the control of the community. That is the idea. We took inspiration and looked at the models we were familiar with. Marnie was originally from Cleveland. She had heard about the Evergreen Cooperatives. We didn’t know about The Democracy Collaborative at that time. But we connected through the Association of Cooperative Educators conference and the United States Social Forum in Detroit and got to know what is going on there.

I also went to Mondragón and spent a week studying the Mondragón co-op. We got to know the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy.

I also first met Jessica Gordon Nembhard, author of the Collective Courage study on the history of African American cooperatives, at the United States Social Forum in Detroit.

We also took trips through the south. I got to meet with the people in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. I met with people at Highlander and got to know Elandria Williams.

We met for the first time at Highlander for the first gathering of what we called the Southern Grassroots Economies Project in the spring of 2011. A number of people were involved, including the folks I named, as well as Carlos Perez from Cooperation Texas. There were people from a few other co-op and community development agencies from Appalachia and from out of Atlanta. In the second year, we added the Farmworker Association of Florida, Grassroots Economic Organizing, and the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives. The next year we were able to broaden our membership to include The Working World and the people who have now become Cooperation Jackson. 

The central question of our work is: How are we going to actually and realistically create models for creating jobs in our communities that are not dependent on a massive federal jobs program? And which probably won’t happen. And even if it does happen, they will probably find a way to do it wrong. 

How does this economic justice work build off of the history of civil rights organizing in the South?

One of the groups that helped keep up that history is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. People in the civil rights movement in the South formed that organization in 1967. The founders saw the need to develop economic activity, particularly in poor communities where black folks’ livelihoods were tied to the whims of wealthy white landowners. Wealthy white racists in the South were able to kick some people off the land and mechanization of agriculture was kicking even more off the land.  So they needed to do land retention and organize larger units that could use economies of scale to compete in the marketplace. The Federation grew out of that as an extension of the civil rights movement in the South. They created business opportunity for rural black farmers and extended their work to rural farmers of all races. They have worked on joint marketing strategies and purchasing of equipment and they continue to do that work. We are pleased to be a part of supporting those efforts.

One of the challenges of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project was to figure out how we can do work together that doesn’t take away from the work that is already happening. For example, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is chartered to work in 13 of the 14 states in our region.

So we decided that the Southern Grassroots Economies Project would do three things: First, we would hold the CoopEcon networking and training conference once a year.

Second, we would engage in policy work. In particular, we are interested in enabling legislation that would permit a number of different types of cooperatives to be incorporated in each state. Right now, many southern states only recognize agricultural producer co-ops. Some also provide for consumer food co-ops. Few allow for worker co-ops or multi-stakeholder co-ops of any kind.

Third, we would try to create a loan fund that is modeled on practices that are different from other lending institutions. It is intended to make capital available to constituencies that are seldom given access to business lending. The financial work that has been done for years—for centuries frankly—has been extractive. We want to bring wealth back to communities, so that those communities can continue to build sustainable businesses on that community wealth. We put tougher what we call the Reparations Loan Fund (RLF), which will hopefully be rooted in disadvantaged communities. The purpose of the loan fund is to maximize community benefit rather than simply preserving and expanding assets. In order to maximize community benefit, you want to make sure that you don’t waste resources. This loan fund will take risks that other loan funds won’t take. The key to making these riskier loans work is to make sure that the level of technical assistance that goes along with the loan is sufficient to enable the businesses that are financed to be productive and pay back the loans. There is a real possibility for growth and development. We also want to design the fund so that the people who get loans, as they are paying back their loans and afterward, will be in the position to help decide what other folks in the community will be able to get loans and be supported in that way.

Could you talk about the Renaissance Cooperative organizing campaign in Greensboro?

It is an important piece of local work that the Fund for Democratic Communities is supporting both because we are helping a community fulfill a dream that it has had for over 16 years and because the best way to understand this work is to engage in it. The people in the neighborhood we are working with have been looking for a grocery store since 1998, when a Winn Dixie store closed. This neighborhood is a politically engaged neighborhood. They recently fought against the reopening of a nearby landfill. Since 1998, they had been trying to get the city to help them attract a grocery store. Beginning in 2011 we suggested to some of the active folks in the community that they could create their own grocery store. At first people were skeptical. We talked about the nature of a co-op store. People asked where would we get the money for something like that. On the one hand, there are some resources from the outside, but there are also inside resources— we knew it was important to get people in the community to buy ownership in the store. They needed to have some “skin in the game” and use that to leverage other resources. When people slowly came to see that this was a real possibility, they started to join.

We have 34,000 people who live in a 2-mile radius of the store. Citizens for Economic and Environmental Justice (CEEJ) – that was the lead group that dealt with the landfill – put up some of the money to help pay for a market study. The professional grocery store marketing group study helped people see that every week, in a 2-mile radius of the site of the closed store, $1.34 million is spent on groceries: 34,000-plus people spend just over $30 per person a week on food. It is an existing stable market. The reason the grocery store left was not because they couldn’t make money there, but rather because they made a corporate decision that they couldn’t make as much money as they wanted to there. Ultimately, they closed all Winn Dixie stores in the state of North Carolina.

So it wasn’t that it was a bad neighborhood. Winn Dixie left every neighborhood. It wasn’t about this neighborhood and certainly it wasn’t that you can’t sell groceries. Everyone needs food. The market study showed us we could build a 10,000-square-foot store and generate about $4 million in annual revenues if the store had competent management and could sell at the proper price point. If it is run well, it ought to be profitable in a few years. We at F4DC then did a pro forma on that store that became part of the business plan to leverage resources from lending institutions, philanthropy and local government.  We also contracted with Uplift Solutions out of Philadelphia to help with store design, additional fundraising, selecting a qualified manager and completing the business plan. We expect to see the store open sometime late in 2015. 

The time between 2011-2012 when we started and the expected 2015 opening date is not an unusually long time for starting a new food co-op, but it is a time for building relationships in the community, educational work around cooperatives, and conducting financial analysis of the store. We also took time to identify and develop potential sources of finance and to attract people who are interested to make owner loans to help with the startup. The community enthusiasm for this project is inspiring. There are monthly community meetings that are regularly attended by 50-60 people. For the holiday party we had this past year, we got over 100 people to attend. This work generates a civil rights like enthusiasm – just around the idea that we can do something ourselves.

Some people thought the only way you get people to join a co-op is by providing large incentives. But that hasn’t been the case. The main incentive has been that you can join us and help the community. We ask for $20 down, and then you pay $10 a month until you’ve paid the full $100. But you are a full voting member immediately once you put your $20 down. People who are assumed to be poor are able to buy memberships. People are not only spending money for personal things but they also want to help their community. Almost everyone has some money. It gives them a chance to be grocery store owners in their own community and people are enthusiastic about it.

One other thing: one of the ways we have talked about this work doesn’t quite fit in the normal economy. Often co-ops are described either as worker, consumer, or producer co-ops.  For this cooperative, the need they are trying to meet is not only for a variety of wholesome food but also the need for good jobs, community empowerment and hopefulness. We like to talk about it as a community-based cooperative, not just a consumer co-op.  You could create a consumer co-op and pay people minimum wage. That is not what we will be doing. This community cooperative also has a good jobs requirement. The typical starting grocery store wage is minimum wage, under $8 an hour. We are starting two dollars higher at $10 per hour because we want it to be in people’s minds that these are good jobs. Right now, that is the best we can do. If the minimum wage went up and others were paying more, we could afford to pay even more. We are looking forward to the store opening and people are excited about it.

Renaissance is not your typical high-end organic food co-op.  Could you talk about that?

About 30 years ago, the niche that was filled by food co-ops was the need for the availability of locally based natural and organic foodstuffs. A lot of things have changed. Today, we have a different market in the grocery world. There is a much wider availability of natural foods. You have Whole Foods and even Wal-Mart and Harris Teeter have a growing selection of organic food. And sometimes they even buy local.

For that natural food co-op model, the target demographic of the consumer has been well-educated, middle-income white people. I say it that way because the consultants in the field explicitly talk about it that way. The consulting group for cooperative grocery stores that came into being was generally organized around that model.

Here in Greensboro, we have a food desert, mixed-income neighborhood that is overwhelmingly African American, with some Hispanics, and a few whites—not a lot, but some. It represents a lower income bracket than what would look successful with the other model. It is still the case that the people in the neighborhood spend one-million-and-a-third a week on groceries. There is the possibility to develop a model that fits this community and supplies this community with what it wants and needs, without being at the higher price point of a natural/organic store.

Could you talk about your work on the board of the New Economy Coalition and how it relates to the rest of your work?

The New Economy Coalition is composed of environmental and economic justice groups that are looking to find ways to work together on a new economy that needs to be built. That means different things to different people.

Recently, at a board meeting we were talking about narrowing the focus some and emphasizing the important role of front-line communities, communities that are most impacted by the economic crisis, where large amounts of extraction are going on and where there are serious economic needs. The New Economy Coalition is thinking about how it will relate to the very communities that the Southern Grassroots Economies Project works with. That is, African American communities. The Coalition is also looking at how to work with Native American communities, immigrant communities, Hispanic communities, low-income white communities, women, previously incarcerated people, etc.

There are lots of conceptions and, I daresay, misconceptions about organizing in the South.  What you see as the organizing strategy that is needed in the South today?

The South has a history of having experienced the most recent slavery in the United States. I say it that way because all of the United States at some point has gone through slavery. It was abolished in the North first. Racism continues to exist in the whole country, of course, as we have recently seen in New York, in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

The South is also the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement. And that is important. There are remnants in the popular history and memory. There remains that idea that we can do something for ourselves that will make a difference. People who don’t live in the South don’t see that. They sometimes think of the people of the South as being unable to do much. But there is a huge potential that saw its realization in the civil rights movement and is continuing today in some of the social justice moments that are just as powerful in other parts of the country. Yes, there are big things in the Bay Area, but that is also true in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

I am in the South. I am a product of the South. That is what I am. The potential for engaging in transformation here is massive. And there is a history of recent struggle to be built on. The children of the people who engaged in those struggles can remember gaining the right to vote and all of the other things that we recognize as the product of the 1960s and 1970s civil rights movement. That energy can be recaptured and reutilized.

What do you see as the potential of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project going forward?

There are many potential advances for the work of SGEP. Right now, people in the divestment moment are trying to get money out of fossil fuels, out of the profitable private prison industry and out of the privatization of public education. But if you don’t invest in those areas, where will you invest instead? The idea is to promote investing in what people are referring to as a just transition. If our work creating this Reparations Loan Fund goes well, it will be an opportunity for new community reinvestment, where some of the dollars that are presently being divested from carbon fuels and the private prison industry can be reinvested. This work in the South can be an important instance for that. It can be something positive for people who are conscious of the need for a just transition and the development of something new.

One of the things I don’t talk about is a “broken” economy. That implies that you can fix what we have. It even implies that it once worked well. It didn’t, although in some respects some parts of it are getting even worse. It is dysfunctional by design. We need a new economy. We are not trying to fix something that is simply broken.

This work is along the lines that people I met in the Bay Area at a recent Our Power Conference are working on. There are I learned about work in the southwest, where indigenous people working around ecological and economic projects from the incredible theft that has taken place historically. The South alongside them is helping to develop new economic structures.

This grocery store in Greensboro is another example. When we started working on it, we did not know that nobody had developed a model that they understood would work in low-income food deserts. We just ran into that fact while looking for advice.  But we don’t mind being out in front and developing that model and sharing it with others.

Could you talk about the role of public policy in providing a supportive environment? There seems to be some movement, such as the creation of an Office of Community Wealth Building in Richmond, Virginia or the creation of a community wealth building task force in Jacksonville, Florida.

Those two examples are in the South, but you also see this happening across the country. I recently spoke at a conference in Denver where a number of forces in the community from philanthropy to local government to neighborhood groups were talking about community wealth building in a pretty serious way. 

There is an attempt also among community foundations to view their work within a framework of community wealth building. I like the recent work of the Democracy Collaborative that discusses that trend. We are trying to help spread that word. We would like to see that go even further.

Advocacy work is important. If extracting financial resources weren’t so damaging, I wouldn’t be so upset. Those resources exist and can be redirected to a socially beneficial purpose. I talked with Thad Williamson in Richmond. He has a very difficult and daunting task in implementing a new model of development at a city level. The old model and old ways of doing economic development have this inertia of their own. It is hard to move past that.

We need to see some more examples of where that works. The challenge is, when you do something new, there won’t be a lot of examples. We try to share the examples that we do have with the local government here in Greensboro and ask them to support the Renaissance Cooperative and provide us the same kind of economic incentives that other businesses get. It turns out there is no precedent here where it is a community group rather than an individual entrepreneur who gets incentives. Nor where a neighborhood apart from those previously designated get assistance. There are also certain industries that are targeted, but in Greensboro these don’t include grocery. We are trying to get them to do something new. What it requires is, first, the political strength of being able to convince people in public office to do what they need to do; and second, extensive public education work. Somebody has to do it first.

Could you talk about some of the leading resistance work that the Fund for Democratic Communities is supporting?

I don’t think anybody can ignore what has come out of Ferguson, Missouri. And there are similar cases in Cleveland, Ohio and New York City and elsewhere. It is an unpardonable breach of conduct in those situations that reflect this contemptible disrespect for black lives. This whole standing tougher and pretending nothing is wrong with police misconduct is incredible. What is great is that so many young people are crying out, rejecting business as usual and refusing to be quiet and go away. These grand jury decisions with no trial and no cross-exanimation are ridiculous.

That resistance, and the fact that it was rapid, intensive and sparked a national dialogue on questions that people have often swept under the rug, is very important. Some lives have not heretofore mattered, which is how the slogan “Black Lives matter” took hold. The idea is to bring black lives up to the status of other lives. That resistance work is powerful and it is bringing into existence groups of young people who are looking more critically into the future.

Now, one interesting aspect of this is that even as people resist, they are also looking to do for themselves. So, for example, I met with the Florida Dream Defenders. The workshop they had me to do was on cooperative economics and the relationship between poverty, property and violence. They are energetic, respectful of the past, and they are determined to move in a different way in the future. It is hard to overstate the powerful force that has been unleashed by the blatant racism of vigilante groups and police departments.

This movement is not going to go away quickly. It will be seeking outlets in terms of building things and not just resisting.

If you were to highlight the key accomplishments of the Fund for Democratic Community’s work to date that you are most proud of, what would they be?

Getting the Southern Grassroots Economies Project started and. within that work, we are very happy with what we have been able to do with the Renaissance Co-op and developing a revolving loan fund (Reparations Loan Fund) that will makes a difference for low-income communities who want to develop cooperative businesses. All of that is really recent. We are kind of living in the present and the future. That is what we are most proud of and on which we are most excited to continue build and to move forward.

For more information on the Fund for Democratic Communities, see: http://f4dc.org/