Citizenship and Governance for a Five Thousand Pound Life

January 27, 2014

Illustration by Raj Kottamasu

After tackling issues of economic growthinvestment in clean energy technologies, and the notion of a steady-state economy, we now turn the focus of our curated digital series to decision-making, democracy, and civic engagement. Dayna Cunningham—Executive Director of the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) at MIT—begins this shift with a call to recognize voices from across the full spectrum of society as vital to sustainable development. Drawing from innovative examples from across the United States, she argues that progressive social movements must gain wider currency and affect environmental change by viewing issues of employment, crime, and health as ecological concerns. By making a clear connection between The Five Thousand Pound Life and the democratic decision-making that must get us there, Cunningham’s “Five Thousand Pound Democracy” highlights citizenship and governance as environmental priorities.

Five Thousand Pound Democracy: Citizenship and Governance for a Five Thousand Pound Life by Dayna Cunningham

Heeding the inspiring call to The Five Thousand Pound Life will require many societal as well as personal choices. Here are weighty questions: who will decide, and by what process? Given the dire state of the environment, is there still time for democracy? At MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), a center for planning and development in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, we are big on philosopher and social reformer John Dewey. We argue for robust, deliberative, and empathetic democracy as the most just decision-making approach, even given the urgency of environmental crisis. More than just, however, we believe that Dewey-style inclusive, informed, and sustained discourse—an all-hands-on-deck approach that imagines livelihoods and social conditions as integral to ecological claims and invites a wide variety of experiences to shape those claims—could improve efforts to slow climate change and renew the earth. It might also refresh the environmental agenda by expanding the movement’s reach, while providing crucial insights about systems failure and systems innovation from people living at society’s margins.

At CoLab we draw on two elements of Dewey for our understanding of what democracy needs in order to flourish: 1) across the whole society, people have the wherewithal for meaningful deliberation and decision-making; and 2) a widespread moral and emotional tendency towards empathy defines the scope of the polity’s concern.[1] In the US, this second requirement is made thorny by passions inspired over centuries of racism, societal exclusion, and contempt for poor people and women. Such dynamics of marginalization, and the sentiments that make them seem natural and acceptable within the mainstream, do not easily fade. Indeed, they remain among the most confounding schisms within progressive movements today. Five Thousand Pound Democracy becomes a handy way to express the positive and essential elements needed to address these dilemmas and generate society-wide innovation to meet the challenges of our time.

Environmentalism and Conflict
Increasingly, ecological debates acknowledge that polarizing social issues are embedded in every policy choice relating to sustainability and resilience. Without significant efforts to address them, measures focused narrowly on carbon reduction or other partial measures of environmental improvement could produce great suffering among poor people and even political instability.[2] The notion of ecological citizenship helps articulate the virtue of drastically reducing consumption in part as an expression of concern for the impact of global north consumption patterns on the global south. The Five Thousand Pound Life fits within a deepening environmental discussion that has begun to advocate transformation of human settlements in ways that integrate inclusive economic development, health, housing, transportation, education, public safety, and culture. A process that can incorporate voices and leadership from groups at the margins will be critical to this transformation.

Photo by Nick Iuviene

Design, Inclusion, and Innovation
Though innovation from the margins is a familiar design principal, and the use of MIT’s homegrown “X-teams” that combine system insiders and outsiders in innovation processes has gained credibility as a management approach, these concepts are rarely applied to extreme users of social systems.

Below are three specific examples of the kind of collaborative innovation that results from the deliberative dialogue discussed above. They are drawn from CoLab’s work with colleagues who are leaders from marginalized communities. Together we are experimenting with development approaches that maximize inclusion, ecological efficiency/stewardship, and equity—here understood as both fairness and wealth for dispossessed people. Their direct lived experience with systems and societal failure, when combined with planning expertise, provides crucial insights for systems innovation in everything from energy conservation and waste management to community planning and workforce development. Our collaborative experiments provide lessons with applicability and potential for impact far beyond the communities in which we work.

CoLab’s role in these efforts is to help amass the technical resources necessary to translate our colleagues’ vision into discrete, practicable planning tasks, for example, identifying and creating a roadmap for geographic clusters of anchor institutions to collaborate on a district energy system with a community ownership component.[3] Even though CoLab sits within one of the world’s premier technical institutes, we know that technical resources alone won’t achieve social justice or save the planet. We put huge stock in Arjun Appadurai’s definition of research as “the capacity to make disciplined inquires into those things we need to know, but do not know yet” and as followers of Dewey, we embrace Appadurai’s argument that this capacity is central to the full exercise of democratic citizenship in an increasingly globalized and complex world.[4] Research is merely a precondition for deliberation.

The deliberative approach may present a steep challenge to larger progressive US social movements. When it comes to robust democratic process, particularly seeing beyond the interests of our own specific movements, activists in the US—environmental, women’s, and civil rights movements included—are desperately out of practice. Within social movements, we lack experience and skill in understanding alternative and counter-intuitive histories, perspectives, and experiences. Thus, while some mainstream environmentalists may have difficulty seeing joblessness, endemic gun violencepolice misconduct, or lead and vermin-infested buildings as ecological concerns, they are critical to the living environment of people in, say, the Bronx, who may not feel as moved as environmentalists by the 7,000-mile-wide dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. We tend to lead from and for our own movements, not for the whole society. This disability prevents us from building broader-based constituencies for the issues we care about.

Yet, the examples below suggest that a more inclusive and generative approach is possible. In these examples, leaders working at the margins have developed innovative proposals with important ecological breakthroughs for the whole community, not just their own constituents. Importantly, none of the efforts begin under an explicit environmental banner. Their starting point is often livelihoods and endemic challenges of community health. In a very straightforward way, the direct link among livelihoods, health, and ecological stewardship helps establish ownership stakes in “green” initiatives among a broad swathe of community members. In true Deweyan fashion, deep and sustained discourse and deliberation enables a variety of stakeholders, including socially marginalized groups, to plumb each other’s distinct experiences, and define and jointly pursue shared interest in systemic change. These efforts give us a glimpse of what it might look like to cultivate a moral and emotional tendency toward empathy throughout our polity.

Photo by Nick Iuviene

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth: Transitioning the Coal Economy
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) has organized communities in Eastern Kentucky’s Coal Country for 33 years. Many of its members face the twin hazards of working in the mines and living with the poisonous outputs of mining daily. No one understands better and more directly the downside of a coal-based economy. KFTC brings this perspective to its organizing work. Big Coal’s degradation of the environment cannot be disentangled from its exploitation of mine workers. Burt Lauderdale, KFTC’s executive director, says that being community-based forces members to “look at the whole place” and take up a wide range of issues stemming from these multiple threats. As a result, KFTC continuously engages multiple conflicting perspectives and interests within its own organization. Its members have regular opportunities to develop empathy for diverse experiences and the ability to build broad alliances of multiple stakeholders through discourse and negotiation. These practices help KFTC construct an inclusive democratic culture and a powerful leadership vision for a post-coal economy. Like the mainstream environmental movement, KFTC seeks to transition Kentucky’s economyaway from coal, but it does not support shutting down mines. It advocates something the mainstream environmental movement has largely overlooked: improving quality of life for coal workers and coal communities; pushing for job creation and ecological regeneration through energy efficiency upgrades; land, forest and water restoration projects; investment in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and forestry; and expansion of much-needed healthcare infrastructure in the state. This framing of the transition from the coal economy, which stems from KFTC’s perspective of the coal miner’s experience but embraces the “whole place,” enables environmental activists as well as coal miners to recognize a stake in the transition.

An important innovation from KFTC is its effort to build a broad popular base in Kentucky for clean energy and a diversified economy via organizing campaigns to elect independent community members to the region’s rural electric co-op boards. This work is highly strategic: representing close to 5% of the nation’s generating capacity and with close ties to the coal industry instigating over-reliance on coal, the member-owned rural electric co-ops have a unique direct channel to rural energy consumers and remain significant players nationwide in efforts to expand coal-fired electricity. KFTC’s progress in democratizing co-ops will be driven by its expansive vision and Deweyan DNA. Internal democratic skill-building practices prepare its members for complex multi-stakeholder situations outside of the organization. If its democratization efforts within this entrenched segment of the energy sector succeed and spread, KFTC’s breakthrough could make a significant contribution to sustainable energy efforts nationally. In a small step in this direction, in recent multi-stakeholder negotiations following a legal settlement that halted a co-op’s construction of a new coal-fired plant, KFTC led efforts to commit co-op resources to alternative energy investment and advocacy.

Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI): Building Health, Wealth, and Stewardship
BCDI makes a similar link between livelihoods, health, and sustainability. In the nation’s poorest urban county, BCDI has developed an inclusive participatory planning process that supports collaboration between larger well-resourced institutions with sunk costs and long-term stakes in community survival (“anchor institutions”) and community-based and labor organizations that can help facilitate cooperation between organized residents and economic actors. In partnership with Mondragon Corporation, a vast, networked worker cooperative enterprise in Spain’s Basque region, BCDI proposes resident-owned, self-governing cooperatives as a wealth capture mechanism for the shared benefit of community members.

BCDI was started by community organizing groups disenchanted with traditional economic development approaches that provided little more than minimum wage jobs for residents in a borough with significant institutional wealth. Their constituents are people of color whose marginal role in the economy over several generations has become an accepted fact in the larger public culture. The groups organized themselves to investigate why wealth leaked continuously out of the Bronx and what could be done about it. Now, with CoLab’s help, they are exploring opportunities to create cooperative businesses that build on the anchors’ steady demand for goods and services to grow local wealth.

With some of New York City’s worst health outcomes in the Bronx, health plays a major role in the BCDI development plan, both as a growing economic sector with substantial assets and employment opportunities in the borough, and as a necessary precondition for living dignified, productive, and creative lives. It is also the departure point for BCDI’s ecological focus, which considers poor external and internal air quality, lack of access to fresh food, limited job prospects and violence as critical environmental risks. BCDI hopes to support businesses that address these needs, for example, efficient micro-grid energy coops in partnership with the anchors, and fresh food bodegas.

BCDI’s development process requires alignment of the multiple, urgent, overlapping interests of the three major BCDI stakeholders—community groups, labor, and anchor institutions. Hospitals, the largest Bronx anchors, face drastic shifts in the healthcare sector, forcing them to adopt community wellness models of health delivery. New models will depend on collaboration with community-based groups for health education, support of healthy lifestyles, and prevention. New Affordable Care Act-related IRS regulations may enable hospitals’ financial support of environmental stewardship tied closely to improved health outcomes. Despite robust advocacy, the organizing groups have traditionally lacked the clout or scale to affect the Bronx economy and make a meaningful dent in poverty. The hospitals’ billions in annual procurement purchasing, little now spent in the Bronx, could support locally owned co-ops that create jobs and wealth for the organizing groups’ poorest members. 1199 S.E.I.U. United Healthcare Workers East, the nation’s largest healthcare workers’ union, has clout and scale: hundreds of thousands of members, substantial political operations, and pension funds in New York City. Local 1199 is also an important stakeholder for the hospitals. It has helped bring them to the table with organizers. Yet, with increasingly decentralized and community-based service delivery rendering centralized workplace organizing models less effective, they have much to gain from community organizing and service groups with expertise working in direct relationship to communities.

BCDI’s Dewey-style deliberative democracy takes the form of multiple leadership “tables” without which the groups would lack the capacity to identify, explore, and build on their considerable overlapping interests. Nor could they collaboratively build a development process that leverages their unique assets together. This growing collaboration towards shared development goals is a significant innovation in the Bronx that could help to drive an economic turnaround with benefits far beyond the neighborhoods in which the organizers work. Within our colleagues’ memory, there hasn’t been a strategy to develop the entire borough and, if successful, the borough-wide approach ultimately could shift the Bronx’s status as the nation’s poorest urban county.

Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC): Confronting Social Divides And Building Inclusive Green Communities
Polarizing social conflicts will remain a constant feature of efforts to regenerate the planet. Stakeholders’ understanding mutual interests, particularly where deeply rooted conflicts around race and social exclusion shape dynamics, may not suffice to move a project forward. In the Emerald Cities Collaborative, labor, community, workforce development, and industrial consortia (ACEE and ESCO Consortium) together have created a sustainable development intermediary. It targets high road energy efficiency projects in large commercial, public sector, and anchor institution buildings in ten US cities, offering project management, financing, political coalition building, policy support, and workforce training technical support.[5] ECC includes community workforce agreements and labor standards in all of its projects to ensure minority inclusion and high wages. Despite a currently strong base of shared interest—the majority-white building trades unions will see an entire generation of members retire in the next few years with no pipeline behind them, while minority kids in many cities face unemployment rates as high as 60%—the trades’ history of racially exclusive apprenticeship and membership policies barred generations of black and brown workers from a coveted pathway to the middle class. This history remained a painful obstacle to collaboration now and, despite willingness to open training programs, the sagging economy prevented the trades from moving fast enough on minority members’ concerns.

ECC founders spent 18 months sorting through painful histories. In emotional exchanges, ECC’s minority members conveyed the impact of the trades’ exclusion of minority families and communities as a cause of their deep-seated impatience; the trades’ members described high unemployment and economic distress among their members that undermined their ability to move quickly to open apprenticeship programs. It took many tries before enough air cleared to enable ECC’s trades and workforce development intermediaries to begin collaborating on energy efficiency career development programs. They ultimately succeeded in aligning the non-labor pre-apprenticeship training programs with official union apprenticeship programs, making it possible for the two sets of programs to seamlessly support minority workers looking to enter energy efficiency careers.

The Five Thousand Pound Life captures possibilities for an abundant existence derived from closely attending to Earth’s limits. Five Thousand Pound Democracy could similarly help us envision the robust culture and civic life needed to address societal conflicts, unleash the sharpest intelligence, and cultivate the broadest public ownership of efforts to regenerate the planet. After all, democracy’s work is not to end conflict, but to enable us to identify the next problem and solve it.

Dayna Cunningham is Executive Director of the MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). An attorney by training, Dayna has worked throughout her professional career on promoting democratic participation and addressing social marginality. Prior to CoLab, Dayna has also worked on the ELIAS Project (an MIT-based collaboration between business, NGOs and government), as Associate Director at the Rockefeller Foundation exploring racial dynamics and new conceptions of race in the US, as a voting rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and as an officer for the New York City Program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Dayna is a graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management and holds a juris doctor degree from New York University School of Law. She currently serves as a board member for the Emerald Cities Collaborative, Beloved Community Center, Restaurant Opportunities Council (ROC) United, Presencing Institute, and Access Strategies Fund.


[1] See Greenwood and Levin, Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, 2nd ed. (SAGE, 2007).

[2] See, W. Neil Adger, et al. (eds.), Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change, (MIT Press 2006); See also, “WikiLeaks, Drought and Syria” in The New York Times.

[3] A district energy system is one that produces hot water, steam, or chilled water at a central plant and then distributes the energy through underground pipes to buildings connected to the system.

[4] Appadurai, A. “The Right to Research,” Globalisation, Societies and Education, Vol. 4, No. 2, July 2006, pp. 167-77.

[5] ECC seeks to “[transform] the energy efficiency sector in a high road way, by retrofitting building stock, creating high wage jobs, and revitalizing the local economies of … metropolitan regions.”  See the Emerald Cities Collaborative website.