Democratizing Economics | Ethical Investing | Leveling up in our Leadership
Author: Felipe Witchger
Felipe organizes community. He leads a co-op that is laying the foundation for a new economy, helping community institutions level up. By developing leaders, Felipe organizes overlooked communities to build broad community wealth. He especially loves building sandcastles with his 4- and 6-year old kids.
Might this be an opportunity for you to re-imagine the quality and depth possible through better virtual spaces?
For me, most of the past 6 years I’ve built my organization while living at home in another city.
I’ve also built many of my deepest, most meaningful friendships, and communities online.
I’ve joined spirituality groups that only meet online.
I’ve started organizing 150+ gatherings online and made them meaningful for participants by using Zoom’s Breakout Rooms features — allowing us to have 1-on-1 networking and small group time.
I’ve also been using Zoom for enlisting my friends to help me make some of my hardest decisions, by facilitating virtual Clearness Committees.
Meaningful check-ins with friends from around the globe have made life easier in the hard times.
You can relate generously and in profound ways… all online.
What I really want to tell you is — I think you would be surprised how much depth and quality you can find from the right kind social interaction online.
Seth Godin offers some of the most helpful advice. I highly recommend this post, and the Akimbo Workshops:
Here are two of the four leaps Seth says we need to make:
Leap 2: There’s a difference between asynchronous and synchronous interaction. We know this intuitively in the real world (a letter is different from a phone call) but online, it’s profound. A discussion board isn’t the same as a Zoom call. It turns out that we can create rich and layered conversations with async communication, but we also have to be just a bit more patient.
Leap 3: More than one person can ‘talk’ at a time. In the real world, that’s impossible. At a table for six, we take turns talking. But in a chat room, we can all talk at the same time. Use it well and you can dramatically increase information exchange. (But if you try to follow all the threads, or you miss what you need, then it’s actually less effective.)
It’s possible, with effort, to transform business communications (and schooling) away from the top-down, synchronized, compliance-focused, off-the-record, hierarchical and slow status quo to something significantly more fluid and powerful. But we’ll need to do it on purpose.
Here’s what my experience has been:
Two years ago, I took the altMBA — a 4 week intensive workshop that was 100% online.
What I didn’t expect is that it transformed my perspective on how powerful virtual spaces could be. When the expectations are set for you to do your most important work and to embrace the emotional labor… and dance with your fear, I found myself being more vulnerable with the 3-4 others in my peer learning group. I found myself being more honest and real than I had been with some of my closest friends. My altMBA peers and I were together 3 days a week for 14 hours, so it was a lot of time together… but we also shipped 3 projects each week, commented on each other’s projects and wrote 3 reflections each week.
We got a LOT of work done together. I learned to give written feedback in a way that just mirrors back what I’m seeing. The every 3 day practice of writing a dozen set of comments taught me to ask better questions. The practice of writing and publishing online my reflection and synthesized learnings from reading other’s comments has led me to take more strategic risks. My peers in the learning groups taught me to create tension in a way that created change. The whole experience showed me that we can create a culture of reciprocity, where everyone actually does give generously, because they see how wonderful and liberating the culture can be.
The problem is, many of us interact online in crappy ways, and so we judge ourselves because some spaces are a bastion of negativity and distraction.
Take the leap. You, too, can create a culture of generosity, deep relating — all online.
My hope in this time where we increase our social distance and stop our large gatherings, that you might see this moment as an opportunity to leap. An opportunity to take a risk, try something new — and collaboratively create online spaces that build the culture of reciprocity, gift, and mutuality. You can create the kind of culture that we most want to see.
In the next few days, I’m going to share the frameworks and strategies for how the online communities I’ve been part of have completely re-shaped my thinking for what’s possible online.
I hope you’ll join me in taking a leap to try re-thinking the possibilities when you bring the right tools together. With Zoom, Slack other similar tools, I think you may find the transition easier than you thought.
But there are a few critical elements…
Let me know if you’re ready for the leap, I’d love to talk.
I also have a live Q&A, best practices sharing, and more intensive spiritual community workshop that I’m leading coming up.
In this time of growing anxiety and concern, I’m feeling increasingly called to stay grounded.
My prayer for myself is that I can take an extra 5-15 minutes each day to just sit in silence.
A few moments to center myself by paying attention to my breath.
A minute to recall that all of life is a gift. Each moment we have is a precious opportunity to love, to go deeper, to be vulnerable and honest, to be generous.
A minute to remember that all we have can at a moment’s notice can slip away — death, illness, tragedy — we encounter risks every day. Driving to work, school.
My prayer is also that I might be calm and slower to act. I want to channel the swells of energy I have in new ways.
For most of the past few years, the story of success that I tell myself is that when I have a swell of energy to do something, I just go do it. Usually this has been in the form of calling a friend, colleague, member-owner, then writing an email, or organizing a gathering or a project. I feel like when I’ve done this something new has emerged and it has been good and has led to what is next. The challenge I face now is that I’m feeling that urge — that swell of energy — bubbling up inside of me increasingly often and I can’t even keep up with all the swells of energy I feel.
Fortunately, I’ve had friends and colleagues who have reflected this back to me and so I’ve begun to slow down. I’ve begun to draft the email, but then not send it. I’ve begun to make the decision not to call that person, but rather to pick up my notebook and write instead.
I’m now trying to figure out how to transmit these swells of energy I feel into the longer, deeper work. What is the most important project I’m called to move forward this year? What might be the most meaningful contribution I can make over the next two years? How am I making meaningful time each day or each week to allow that deeper work the space it needs in my life to become what it’s meant to be?
My prayer is that I continue to invest in my writing, and the slower reflective work that might be what leads me to actually co-creating with God.
As a person of faith, I feel like this deeper, slower writing work is part of co-creating with God. It’s less about what I write today or tomorrow or this month or next month, but it’s the gradual work of patiently observing what’s happening in and around me. It’s the work of becoming gradually more attuned to the signs God’s offering me in my life. For me this is about seeing the work of parenting that I’m in middle of — as connected to who God is calling me to be. (For example, allowing my children space for big feelings, genuinely empathizing with those feelings, and gradually seeing that as connected to their — and my own — development of self-regulation, resilience, and emotional intelligence.)
It’s also about looking back over the past several years on trying to honestly reflect on and integrate what I’ve learned about myself in different work settings. Where have I found the deepest joy and satisfaction? Where have I found my favorite transferable skills being recognized, appreciated, and valued by others? What might God be inviting me to see as I reflect on those patterns over time?
I’ll be honest though. Even while I know intellectually everything that I just said, it’s brutally difficult for me to actualize and implement it in my own life. Yet, by writing it and sharing it with you, I’m inviting you to help me be more accountable to this deeper co-creative work.
I feel particularly compelled to ask for your help and prayers for me (and all of us) in this moment, because of the growing pain, anxiety, and fear that I sense we’re feeling.
For me, a few factors that seem to be exacerbating the difficulty:
Death of Patrick Hidalgo. A week ago, I learned that one of my closest friends died suddenly in his sleep. He was healthy and living in the prime of his life at 41 years old. He was a model for me of someone who balanced work in privileged political circles, while also building meaningful relationships with the poor and marginalized. For example, the last person he spoke with before he died was the immigrant doorman at the building where he lived in Miami. Apparently he had a lengthy and very meaningful conversation with him. At Patrick’s wake I met civil rights lawyers, community organizers, and got the sense that
he spent as much time as he did running his own business as he did
accompanying the poor and those organizing amongst the poor as he did
in elite political circles aiming to change the political and economic narrative, culture and moment in Florida, in Cuba-US relations, and in our Country as a whole.
This helps me see that at the end of our lives, we are measured as much by the depth of the relationships we have and the kinds of community we build and maintain — as anything else.
My own mortality. Because of Patrick’s death, I’ve begun to reflect on my own death. I’m more aware of how I’m living now that I see death as a real possibility in the near term. I want to spend more time thinking about my mortality and re-evaluating where I’m at. I’m going on retreat next week to create space for this conversation with God and deeper reflection.
Growing anxiety and panic. As Coronavirus spreads and begins to affect more and more parts of my life — from conferences and travel, to members of CPA Co-op and thinking about remote learning and alternative ways to worship — I recognize that it’s harder to make time for the gradual, slower work that takes years. It’s so easy to get swept up into the anxiety and panic and spend our time and attention there. It’s harder to keep moving towards the work that is shifting the underlying conditions to make a new economic model possible.
Quarantine and stocking up on food and supplies. The way my partner and family are encouraging me to hunker down seems to be pushing us more into a fear-based mindset and set of behaviors. Even if we do choose to stock up and be prepared, I pray that we not let that fear continue to be the primary operating force in more and more of our actions.
Schools and Universities cancelling. As pressure mounts for more schools and universities to cancel, I see huge opportunities for remote learning. I see huge potential to embrace Zoom virtual meetings, break-out rooms. I’m thinking more and more of the transformative experience I had in Seth Godin’s altMBA 2 years ago and the multiple virtual workshops that I’ve facilitated in the past year that have build authentic, deep community faster than any in person community I’ve been part of in the past couple of years. I’m hopeful that we can make use of this moment to try and be creative and innovate in new ways to do our most important work
In my work world — churches making changes to how they have liturgy and worship also leads to so many more questions — I’ll leave that for another post.
Conferences and mass gatherings being cancelled everywhere.
For me, all this adds up to an invitation to slower, deeper work.
Instead of going to Italy to be with other young economists and entrepreneurs at the end of March; I’m going on a silent retreat. I’m hoping to allow the spirit of Pope Francis’ letter and the model of St. Francis of Assisi to sink in deeper into the fibers of my being.
I pray that you pray for me and all of us that we might resist fear, and take this moment as an opportunity to turn into our most important, deeper work.
Where do you start when somebody you look up to so much suddenly slips away.
Patrick or “Primo!” as we affectionately called each other was the cousin who I shared the most with.
In that spirit, here are 5 exhortations I think Patrick might have for us today as we seek to honor him.
Write to your spiritual / political / movement celebrity crush. “Dude, you should write to him!” Patrick would exhort me. “Just reach out, tell him what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about — they’ll love it!” Whether it was Fr. Richard Rohr, Marshall Ganz, a New York Times columnist, or Pope Francis, Patrick would see the potential in me and also in celebrities. He saw the way a potential new connection could be mutually nourishing. Patrick saw authenticity and integrity and was drawn to these values and a desire to connect people who shared these values.
“This should be a case study.” Patrick consistently wanted to elevate examples of authentic relationship-based organizing, movement building, cooperative business, and shared leadership. From his training at Harvard and MIT, Patrick saw how the next generation was learning and what kinds of ideas and possibilities they were exposed to through case studies. If he were here, he would try to persuade each of us to tell our story in a way that Harvard Business School or the Kennedy School would read and appreciate it. Go Deep. Define your terms. Explain your analysis, the hypotheses, the real impacts and the results.
Embrace the political challenges by leaning into relationship. One motivation for Patrick’s move back to Miami these past few years was a decision to lean into his most important work. It was about embracing the emotional labor of having really difficult conversations and making lasting change. It was about creating tension, but doing so from a place of real authentic relationship. I think this was the core of his approach at Miami Freedom Project and also to his work at Future Partners. For example, in exploring community wealth building strategies in Miami, he would tell me about conversations with our cousin Francis Suarez, the Mayor of Miami and others who had meaningful power and real relationships with Patrick. While he may differ from their thoughts and policies on many things, Patrick sought to engage them on topics where there was potential to work together — on economic development, housing, real estate, energy policy, entrepreneurship, faith partnerships and more. While Patrick held his views and values deeply, he leaned more into his belief in the power of relationships. I can hear his voice clearly: “I was just texting with Francis… I think there might be a real opportunity…”
Honor and take care of your parents. Patrick would often talk about his parents. He would give me a lot of credit for what my parents did as well. He often saw me as a continuation of decisions my parents made (for example, to live with and organize with and among migrant farm workers for many years in Immokalee). He always gave me credit for this work that my parents did, but it’s because he honored his parents as well. So much of the last few years of his life he was aware of his parents, and wanting to spend more time with them. I remember just a few weeks ago Patrick sitting next to his father in a big chair as they joined one of our Zoom video calls together to talk about Pope Francis and his call to young economists and entrepreneurs.
Live Generously. A few months ago, I was with Patrick and we were walking out of the Starbucks on the ground floor of the Citi bank tower in Miami. We were headed to one of the upper floors for a meeting with Ines & Valeria. “You want anything?” “How about a coffee?” He then proceeded to insist on buying me a bottle of Fiji water…. then chocolate covered espresso beans, then pivoted to grab something healthy… He was doing what any loving friend or Latino parent would do… pushing food on me to make sure I was healthy. It actually reminded me of Esperanza, and her unbelievable generosity to us when we would go back to Cuba and visit the Gaston family sugar mill — el Ingenio Dolores. Patrick along with his siblings, led our family in reconnecting with our parents’ roots and the lives of our parents and grandparents back on the island. He would want us to continue that work and to do so generously and with love. No matter what the situation, Patrick lived generously & would want us to do the same.
Patrick & I were part of a 5-person spirituality group that began gathering in early 2019. We took time in silence together. It was contemplative prayer that was so deeply nourishing for each of us. Then we would share vulnerably with one another. We would share our latest visions, hopes, but also the pain and grief, and suffering that each of us was in the middle of.
Patrick loved deeply. We all know how much he grieved the loss of his mother. For me, this was part of Patrick’s tuning in. He was being called into closer communion with the Spirit. He was feeling pain in a deeper way.
Patrick knew pain, heartache, and also joy in a very real way. Patrick was a romantic.
Patrick ached for love. Patrick yearned for a better world.
Patrick was always building community wherever he went. One of my recent memories was going to a rally for Elizabeth Warren last summer at FIU in Miami and everywhere we went, Patrick was introducing me to somebody new.
Patrick had this unique warmth. He would always speak so highly of me. Nobody in the world introduced me in the way Patrick did. He always spoke to the parts of me that I was still aspiring to. The way he introduced me made me feel so respected, so appreciated, and so “seen”.
Patrick really could “see” people for all that they were. He loved people. He fell in love often and lived his life from that place of love… that passion that takes hold and carries you.
Aching for Love
Thinking back to the Patrick I knew in Washington DC in 2011, he was somebody loved by so many. I remember an early February birthday party at a restaurant on the corner of 14th and U St NW. There were 25 or so folks there… many were colleagues of his from the Obama Campaign or Harvard or MIT folks or other “political elites” as he would say. Patrick was running in circles where people had lots of worldly success… and while Patrick loved those people, he was also aching for a deeper kind of love. He was wrestling with his own call to love more radically and profoundly. He was at once part of the material and political world and making change through institutions, but at the same time believing in a God that loves all people and has greater power to transform all things.
He was wrestling with how to give his life to public service in a way that paid tribute to all the privileges and opportunities he was afforded, but also listen to the cry of the poor and the call to organize for justice.
I remember this time vividly because I would recall ups and downs of his love life. The ups and downs over the years felt endless, but it was because he was aching for a deep love and part of that ache was his own searching and yearning.
A few weeks ago Patrick texted me a page out of Dean Brackley’s The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times. This book has had a profound impact on me over the years — it’s a modern-day re-interpreting of St. Ignatius Spiritual Exercises. At the end of the book it talks about “Downward Mobility”. It was something that I struggled openly with Patrick about all the time and I think it was something he was struggling with right now as well.
As the wealthiest country in the world — and as people privileged by our refugee/immigration status from Cuba — how do we make sense of our story? How do we make sense of all the privilege we have as people living in America?
How do we reconcile that with the pain and suffering of so many in Cuba? How do we reconcile that with the suffering and poverty of so many in the US and around the globe?
Patrick felt called to serve. He felt called to serve by being a public servant, but more than just being in politics, he was an organizer. He was a movement builder. He brought his whole self to the work of encountering other people, and building something from the relationships and the connections that formed when we were together.
I remember going to one of our epic Gaston family reunions — I think it must have been 2004 — and hearing about our cousin who had gone to live in Dubai. That was Patrick. He moved there for love.
I think Patrick’s journey to heaven this week is marked by his following God’s call of love.
Yearning for a Better World
My first real encounter with Patrick was in 2007 at a Raices de Esperanza conference.
He had convinced me to go and since I was just finishing a class with a professor who was a journalist who had spent several years in Cuba — I was just awakening to my own identity as a Cuban American.
Patrick was my older cousin who was already well known in this space and was the most generous cousin you could imagine. He made me feel so welcome. He introduced me and helped me feel at home as I came out and began to realize how it was okay to identify as the son of a Cuban immigrant. He did it in a way that made me proud.
My affection grew for Patrick when we hung out in 2008 and 2009 in Boston while he was getting his graduate degrees at Harvard and MIT.
One of the papers he wrote in grad school was about the need for a new kind of climate movement. He was very influenced by Marshall Ganz (Harvard Kennedy School sociology professor & community organizing guru, who had worked with Cesar Chavez) and Rebecca Henderson (MIT Sloan School Professor of Strategy) and at the time invited me to a special gathering in 2010 that had a profound influence on my life.
That 2-day gathering of environmental leaders helped me find a way to integrate the energy consulting world I had been in with community organizing, and the hopeful movement building that Patrick knew was part of what was and is needed to build the beloved community.
Most recently, over the past year, I’ve watched Patrick’s drive and passion come alive as he’s begun to birth the Miami Freedom Project. A couple weeks ago he was scheming with me about how this initiative could change the political and economic narrative of south Florida, by bringing together the best from Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, the call of St. Francis of Assisi, and our current political and economic moment.
He was in the middle of building the kind of movement, the kind of community that Patrick always built.
It was the kind of community that you wanted to be part of. It was one that was fun, liberative, free, loving… but also grounded in reality. It was sober in it’s assessment of the world as it is.
And at the same time it was full of possibility. It was full of hope and belief and trust that God would be in the midst of us, moving in and through us, and breathing life into every conversation.
I think Patrick trusted that with all of his being.
He knew God was present. He brought that intense presence to each conversation.
One of my last in person conversations with Patrick was in July 2019, on the roof of my aunt Maria Luisa Gaston’s apartment in Calle Ocho. We had just picked up some food and it was a warm night, but cool in that the breeze was blowing beautifully on the top of this building.
Patrick opened up with me about his writing life. He was finding so much meaning and purpose in his writing. He was integrating the story of his grief with his mother, with the new spiritual calling that he was finding more life in.
He was telling me about a retreat he had gone to in the Southwestern US with Mirabai Starr and how much spiritual nourishment and healing he was getting from that experience.
It was helping him live each day from a deeper, more grounded place. A place that I believe was more in tune with God — and the Spirit.
While I still have so much more to process, I wanted to share these initial reflections.
As I listened to the gospel of Matthew 4:19 this weekend inviting us to be “fishers of men” — I heard not only Jesus’ voice, but also Pope Francis’s invitation:
“I ask you to be protagonists of this transformation… I ask you to build the future, to work for a better world.” ~ Pope Francis
I’d like to invite you to join me in developing our response to Pope Francis’s 2019 letter and invitation to people of good will everywhere.
Where We’re At
2,500+ young economists and entrepreneurs responded to Pope Francis’s invitation to meet with him in Assisi, Italy March 26-28, 2020 — here’s the event website.
250 friends responded with interest to an invitation to gather that Elizabeth Garlow, Elias Crimm, and I sent out in November & December 2019
155 people gathered virtually on December 16, 2019 – see video here. Speakers included:
Amy Uelman – “Pope Francis’ Inspiration for a New Economy: the Economy of Communion as a Case Study”
Nathan Schneider – “Cooperatives as Alternative Economic Praxis”
Melissa Hoover, Democracy at Work Institute – “The Emergence of Alternative Praxis”
Brian McLaren: “The Signs of our Times: Finding roots for a more just Economy.”
More than 50 of the attendees stayed on for an additional 30 minutes because they wanted to get more involved
142 people have joined the collaborative Slack workspace – you can join here as well. Thinkers, practitioners, observers — all are invited.
Conversations about Laudato Si, “Parishes-as-nodes”, “Mapping What’s working”, “Churches and Co-op Link Asset Mapping”, impact investing, changing the narrative, neighborhood projects, reading circles, are well underway — and looking for new voices and contributors.
What I’ve learned
I’ve spent the last 8 years organizing faith communities and schools to work together on their economic life. Mostly I’ve focused on where they spend their money (www.CPA.coop) and how they can make better decisions by coming together with peers wrestling with similar questions.
I’m excited to bring this learning to the broader movement-building space that Pope Francis has invited us to convene.
One Lesson Learned: The more we can hone in on exactly what problems we are wrestling with and specifically what difficult decisions we are facing, the more we can empathize, learn from, and join together with peers to make more powerful vehicles for change.
(For example, our CPA purchasing co-op has helped 121 participants come together on $17.3 million in contract spend and shift 58% of that to local small businesses — see our 2019 Impact Report here)
What I enjoy the most
I want to help unleash people’s big project ideas, especially in this world of new economic praxis.
For example, I’ve loved accompanying Greg Brodsky as he launches, shepherds and brings on a co-director for Start.coop.
I love helping organizers and entrepreneurs get the resources they need to make their big ideas come to life.
I met Hays Witt in 2014. He advised me on a few things and we stayed in touch regularly. In 2018 he told me he wanted to go to business school. I tried to dissuade him and instead encouraged him on his passion project. He was about to incorporate as an LLC in late 2018, but I told him I’d help him find money if he did a co-op. He got into the first cohort at the Start.coop accelerator, which gave him $15,000 and the business frameworks he was seeking.
In 2019, Drivers Seat — a driver-owned cooperative committed to data democracy — came to life.
“We empower gig workers and local governments to make informed decisions with insights from their rideshare data.”
Virtual Workshops can Unleash New Projects
I created a CPA Incubator Workshop in October 2019, and from that have launched a new CPA Co-op in Boston and supported entrepreneurs in Miami, Cleveland, Detroit, Denver, Los Angeles, Lancaster, and Chicago in discerning whether this model might be for them. (You can meet the amazing cohort (see some of their faces above) by reading their work here.)
Right now, I’m looking for leaders in Boston and Chicago to help us with a multi-regional effort to aggregate our electricity consumption to build a powerful vehicle for change in our energy sector. We’re calling all churches, schools, and any community-oriented property owner to submit their electricity bills to join us.
I’ve learned that it’s helpful to consider the broader Movement Ecology. Where do you most want to contribute your gifts? I’ve learned that where I like to play the most is with people that want to create real alternatives.
I’ve begun to see and feel what leadership development really looks like. I’ve begun to learn what good facilitation tools feel like in practice — from Seth Godin’s Akimbo workshops to Technology of Participation (ToP) Methods for group Action Planning to deeper reflective spaces with Peter Block’s 6 Questions.
I’ve begun to try to take a more “Emergent Strategy” approach to my work — thanks to the wonderful wisdom adrienne maree brown shared in her book: Emergent Strategy.
March 2020 – I will be headed to Assisi with a few others and will be sharing some videos / quick 1-2 minute interviews with others I meet — likely via LinkedIn — feel free to connect with me there, if we aren’t already connected.
April 2020 – We’ll likely have another virtual video call in April.
“Most of the time, people want to be seen, understood and appreciated. And if we can offer someone dignity, we give them a gift that’s difficult to find.”
This Christmas, I took the risk and wrote a few personal notes (instead of gifts).
As I wrote, I found myself surprised how difficult it can be to really see, understand and offer specific appreciation for others that we’re not used to really seeing and appreciating.
I found myself looking into a mirror and seeing how my own judgements about others — even those close to me — can cloud my ability to really understand them. As a result, I wasn’t able to readily write the letter that I most wanted to offer.
That said, I think the attempt of offering another that dignity of being seen — might still be one of the most important gifts we can offer one another.
“Are there many others talking about Catholic Social Teaching and economics and business?”
His question is valid.
I’ve felt it myself. Haven’t you?
About 9 months ago a cousin forwarded me an email about a small group he had gotten invited to with the subject line: “CST + New Economy”.
In the invite, it talked about a contemplative meditation and then each person would be invited to give a 5 minute TED Talk as a way of introducing themselves. I was ecstatic — these must be my people. I asked my cousin if he could write to the organizer and tell him that I also wanted to join the group.
After my first meeting with that group, I felt compelled to write.
More recently, I’ve realized one of the gifts I can offer is my propensity to act. I’m willing to take risks to just start something. I’m willing to call people together, facilitate a highly interactive space, and see what emerges.
So in November when I accepted to go to Italy for the Francesco Economy event in March 2020 and then I realized there were dozens of events happening all over the world but nothing being organized in the United States. I called Elizabeth and Nathan. They each had been talking about writing something or trying to pull something together.
I told them we had to put a date on the calendar. We just had to set a date. After some significant back and forth we eventually found a date and a time.
Over the past 6 weeks, I’ve gradually begun finding more and more people like me. By shamelessly emailing everybody I know who is Catholic, or who cares about Economic Justice or Catholic Social Teaching or Pope Francis… word has gradually started to spread. We’ve had group calls with 8 people multiple times and gradually a small group of people has similarly spread the word through their networks.
I’m finding that there are many people wrestling with questions of faith, our economy, and what we can do to change things. In fact, I think there are many many more than we think there are.
My hope with this gathering on December 16, and on February 19th and hopefully more throughout 2020 — is that we, collectively might begin to paint the landscape of thinkers and practitioners that feel animated by Pope Francis’ letter.
My hope is that more of us might encounter one another to find inspiration and collaborators.
My hope is that we might come together to collaboratively brainstorm and begin building pathways into a future that is more beautiful than we can imagine.
The stakes are too high. We’re heading into an unlivable future. We know that. We also know that we must be the protagonists of this transformation.
Composting & Buying “Compostable” Paper Goods in Durham, NC
A local environmental leader, Crystal Dreisbach, Founder and Executive Director of Don’t Waste Durham, invited me to join her and two local restaurant and food truck owners to imagine how we could help them purchase biodegradable plates, cups, and carry-out containers as a co-op.
The basic problem?
Tim Morris, owner and operator of Caffe Bellezza, started the meeting: “The compostable cups I buy cost 200% or more of what their paper counterparts cost.” He continued, “If it was just a matter of 15-25% more, it would be much more palatable.” Joe Choi, owner of Namu, said, “I have to pay 45 cents per bowl. The compostables cost so much more, I have to increase prices. Fortunately, my customers are willing to pay more for the compostables, but it’s a lot.”
The frustration was clear.
While many of Joe’s customers are willing to pay a premium, he did feel like he had lost some sales over the increased prices. Tim, whose coffee shop is much smaller, is paying 30 cents per 12 oz coffee cup with a Java Jacket and lid. Whereas Crystal shared that a larger coffee shop, three-location Cocoa Cinnamon, is paying 15 cents since they buy 12,000 per month. Buying at a much higher volume can make a difference for price.
Compost pick-up was another major pain point.
Joe shared this experience: “The service for compost hauling used to cost me $600 per month. They increased it to $900/month when I had to increase the service level. And then just a couple weeks ago, after Compost Now bought the smaller company I was using, they increased the price to $1,800 per month.”
Volume and Basic Feasibility Economics
We talked about how, between the 3 of them, they could easily come up with 100 restaurant owners and food trucks that they knew personally. We estimated an average spend of $4,000 on products that they might switch to compostables, if the price and quality was reasonably good. So we estimated $400,000 per year of purchases and a 2.5% rebate of $10,000 to coordinate & organize the effort.
For the compost hauling, we estimated that the average trash and recycling pick-up cost was $350 per month and the average compost hauling was $300 per month or about $7500 per year combined. Multiplied by about 30 restaurants we thought we could easily engage $225,000 per year with a 10% rebate of $22,500 to organize the co-op.
We quickly sketched a path to how this co-op for compostables and composting could begin to generate meaningful revenue to pay for the organizer entrepreneuer.
This vision relies on a few key assumptions:
The facts are in our favor. With 100 buyers of compostables and 30 buyers for composting & waste pick-up and a cumulative participation of $600,000+ per year, this co-op could:
Negotiate meaningfully better pricing and terms, so the value to the customers would be sufficient for them to join
Find suppliers and vendors who would agree to our terms. They would offer relatively small order minimums, an easy path to affiliation with the co-op, reasonable delivery terms, payment terms, return policy, and they would agree to pay the rebate required to fund the co-op in an on-going way
Tap into sufficient market competition. There are enough providers that want our collective business that we could use competitive negotiating to get what we’re looking for — or at least a minimum viable level to make it workable. Assessing the minimum viable level is one of the hardest parts of this calculation, but is essential to the early stages of a purchasing cooperative.
The buyers trust that the opportunity is real and worth their time. The art of organizing this process relies on:
Making sure we’re in close relationship with critical “early adopter” and “influencer” restaurant and food truck owners. Since the stakes are highest for them, they need to be at the table each step of the way to hear pushback from the suppliers and develop their own, more nuanced understanding of the market, so that they can make a compelling argument to their peers about why they need to organize.
Having enough data from a variety of buyers, from small food trucks to large restaurants, to extrapolate total potential purchase volumes with reasonable accuracy, while still being conservative enough to earn credibility with suppliers when more than we said actually show up to make the first few group purchases.
The suppliers believe us and are eager to serve us. When negotiating and talking with suppliers, providers, or distributors, they must feel that the opportunity with this group of buyers is viable. This occurs through sharing large projections of total spend that gets their attention, as well as specific anecdotes of real buyer needs and challenges that we’re solving through this process. We must present as established and prepared so the seller will believe that we’re going to be successful.
Relationships are key. The art of this negotiation also relies on an iterative process of getting to know suppliers and what they can and won’t do for us at certain levels of market power, leverage, and percent of their total revenue. We have to make sure that we’re relating to a person who’s up high enough in the company that they can make decisions with their own discretion and values and be impacted by a human argument.
Next Steps: Organizing More Buyers
Recruiting buyers actually starts with talking to providers to get a sense for their constraints, openness, and interest. What volumes would make up a meaningful chunk of their business? What value could the co-op add to their lives to make their job easier?
After that, let’s say the critical numbers are around $300,000 and we think we can do that through 12 of the larger & more influential buyers. Can we get 12 buyers to believe this might be possible, such that they show up to a meeting and follow up by sharing their spend data, what would make it worth it to them to switch, and what would hold them back.Once the organizer builds a successful network of 12, then the growth of the co-op becomes a matter of scale. Do the same thing, just do it bigger!
Because ultimately, the person who is in the middle of coordinating all of this is the essential ingredient. Even if purchasers and suppliers are aligned, without the right broker, the opportunity could fail. This person needs to be an intermediary that can deliver trustworthy, believable, and disciplined follow-through, negotiate well with all parties, and balance relational instinct with ruthless savvy when it comes to the numbers.
None of these skills rely on natural talent. CPA Co-op is here to train and support “Organizer Entrepreneurs” who have the passion to make a difference and change our local economy.
Too often, I find myself unclear on what makes great leaders. And how I can help great leaders work well as a team.
This is a big problem for me, especially with the appetite I have to make change. If you’re building an organization, a movement, or care about making change in your school, community, or company, this framework and basics might help clarify your thinking.
This post is based on my notes from a training I went to at the Ayni Institute last week.
What are the three key steps to building great leadership teams?
Recognize Good Leadership
Find & Enroll Good People
Create Good Team Dynamics
1. How to Recognize Good Leadership
First of all, let’s start with a definition I recently picked up from Ayni Institute, building off of work from Marshall Ganz and the work of Metro IAF.
Leadership = accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.
We’ll come back to this, but I think the elements of (1) accepting responsibility, (2) creating conditions to enable others, and then (3) the focus on achieving purpose in the face of uncertainty are vital starting points.
In some contexts, we are hiring leaders, in other contexts, we’re recruiting and building teams of volunteer leaders.
For both contexts, I think there are 5 key things we should look for:
Deep Motivation. Do they know why they’re doing what they do? Why this work? Why do they have this deep, intrinsic motivation? Can they articulate this?
Vision. A sense of what they want / what they believe is possible. Vision isn’t necessarily the ability to communicate this, but that they have a sense of the way things could be.
Anger / Grief. Do they have a deep emotional connection to the work. The point being it’s not just in their head, but that they feel it in their heart. For example, I have grief about the state of school lunches, because of the daily struggles I face with helping my daughter make healthy eating choices.
Patience and Sense of Humor. While anger / grief are a key component to why somebody is motivated to do the work, it’s also equally important that the person also has patience and a sense of humor, because things take time. There will be a lot of loss for most campaigns that are trying to make meaningful change. We want leaders who will be in it for the long-term.
Accountability. Do they do what they say? One of the most important things you simply cannot train for. Recognizing when people are accountable to what they say is essential.
Since going to this training at Ayni last week, I’ve been seeing these five elements in leaders everywhere — from folks I work with to people I’m trying to recruit. It’s amazing how simple and helpful just having a clear sense of what makes a strong leader. How would you evolve and/or add to this list for your context?
2. Finding and Enrolling Good People
“Who you’re working with precedes what your working on.”
This jarred me when I heard it last week, but the more I think about it, the more it resonates.
It basically asks the simple, but essential question: Who are your people?
Know Your Turf. What’s the geography? Who are the institutions? What’s the landscape you’re working in? Where might you find the kinds of people you’re most looking to work with Do you have a mental picture of the kind of person you’d like to recruit? I’d want the person to be just like so-and-so… because she is X, Y and Z.
Play the Field. Don’t invite everybody to the team. Too often we’re tempted to do this. Set a high bar for who you invite. Do they do real work? Do they accept responsibility? You can try people out by setting low bar commitments. Who can you invite to come to this gathering? What kind of people do they bring? Who do they know? Can they think of a list of people they have good relationships with and how do they describe the work they’ve done together? Really take your time and do your assessment before you invite people to join the team.
Look Behind People. Where do they fit into other things / departments / organizations / communities? You have to ask other people that know them or have worked with them? Try to make real assessments based on results in other contexts. Sometimes it won’t be obvious where to look or who to ask, but take the time to check around & see where they fit.
Proposition Them. You have to ask them to lead with you. This can be the hardest and most important step. You need to make a real, intentional invitation. For this to go well, I’ve found you need to affirm and name what you’ve seen in them. Take the time to write down and share with them what you recognize about their leadership, their motivation, grief, patience, vision, and reputation of being accountable. Simply naming these things for them will be a kind of affirmation and also help them gain perspective on who they are and what you see in them. Then invite them to join you to be part of making this team. Tell them how you want it to be different and while it may be hard, why you believe in it. Also name what might be in it for them. “I want to invite you to this team, because I think this team can support you in this and that way and help you actualize more of your full potential.”
There’s an element of leadership that’s about spiritual awakening — allowing people and inviting people to reflect more deeply on why they’re here — their deeper purpose and mission — and inviting them to live into that more fully.
The idea in a good team is that it allows you to fulfill your full potential.
3. Create Good Team Dynamics
Culture. Early and intentionally setting your culture might be one of the most important things you can do. What does this mean?
Decision-making. How do the decisions get made? Do you use the advice process? Or what is your process? Even if it’s simple, naming it together is better than not talking about this. Otherwise, the person with the most informal power will set the tone of the culture around decision-making for you.
Rituals and Shared Practice. For us at CPA, we’ve gotten into the habit of quarterly retreats as a staff and making sure we do some improv exercises / games at each retreat as a way to be silly, have fun, and use more creative sides of our brains together. (And because we have a great team member who loves leading improv games.) Another practice is making intentional time to evaluate after each meeting we have. Even if it’s just 5 minutes, we try to make it a practice that we share one feeling word on how we felt the meeting went. We try to draw a few takeaways, lessons, things that could have been improved and ask ourselves: “Did we get the reaction we wanted?” An organizing mentor used to say: “If it’s not worth evaluating, then it’s not worth doing.” In other words, we’re creating a culture of continuous learning. What are the shared practices that make up your ideal team culture?
Find ways to Relationship Build. This is the bedrock of our team culture. Making intentional time to deepen our relationships with one another, and also taking time in our interactions with clients, investors, everybody — to build relationships. So often our culture focuses on the transactional, the tasks that need to get done, the project management to do list, the goals we have to achieve our bigger purpose. However, if we don’t take time for the relational, we miss the opportunity to form a deeper emotional connection that might be essential for the unexpected down the road.
Accountability. What are the processes for holding each other accountable? How do you create space for mutual accountability? Is it team check-ins? Shared reflection on goals? A periodic write-up on the meetings/conversations we had and where our latest thinking is as a result of those? Did we do what we said we’d do on the timeline? If not, what happened? Why?
Training. Doing a training together can be an interesting way to set a standard for the work and in a way be another form of accountability. It offers a great way to combat awkward power dynamics or experience differentials in a group. If everybody goes to the same training, agrees to the new, common set of expectations, then there is a new baseline.
Meetings with Purpose. Ensure your meetings have purpose in a broader arc of what you’re trying to accomplish. Make sure folks know why they’re coming to your meeting, what the purpose is, the intended reaction(s), decisions to be made are ,and that they have all the necessary information / reports in advance so that the time in the meeting isn’t sharing information or something that could have been shared in advance. For example, the IAF “campaign cycle” goes through five stages. Your meetings might have more purpose if you fit them within your broader campaign roadmap:
Research, Cut the Issue
Here’s another example of a Campaign Cycle from Marshall Ganz at Harvard University.
Three of my best friends from college just texted me telling me they’re planning to buy carbon offsets and wanted my two cents. The problem is: I’m having difficulty reducing my thoughts to a text.
A little more than 10 years ago, my work as a climate change and clean energy consultant led me to writing a paper on Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Offsets. The more I learned, the more I realized the complexity inherent in trading money for “emissions reductions” in other places. The problems begin with the complexity of the basic criteria for what makes up an offset (additionality, measureability, complete accounting, verifiability, enforceability, permanence).
Assuming you’re looking for a less technical response, I like this below excerpt from Josie Wexler of Ethical Consumer’s “A Short Guide to Carbon Offsets” because she emphasizes some DIY offsetting options and also reminding us that the most important thing is to reduce our own emissions.
Recommendations from Ethical Consumer
We recommend offsetting at the level of individual projects (rather than just giving to a company’s whole portfolio) because this is the level at which there is most information available. Accordingly, most of this feature deals with how best to choose such a project. In the process it also looks at criticisms of specific types of offsets, and of the whole concept.
If you want to buy official offsets, we recommend giving to Gold Standard-approved wind or solar energy projects. You can find Gold Standard VER projects on the Gold Standard website and you can buy Gold Standard CERs directly through the UN’s platform.
Alternately, if you fancy DIY offsetting and want to give to educational projects, the fantastic website Skeptical Science (which largely tackles climate sceptic misinformation) lists some that are crowdsourcing.
Lastly, you should always take promised emission cuts with a pinch of salt, bearing in mind that independent research has cast doubt on them, even in the case of the most reputable standards.
The best thing to do is reduce your own emissions in the first place.
Does it matter if it’s less than a drop in the bucket?
Voluntary vs. Compliance
One of the biggest problems I have is that individual purchases of carbon offsets are like a fraction of a fraction of a contribution to what’s needed.
Carbon offsets were created under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism as a way for countries to comply with their emissions “cap”. Because entities in the EU and in other places have had to comply with these regulations, its created a need for offsets for “compliance” purposes. The vast majority of offsets are purchased from “Compliance” buyers.
The rest of us are “voluntary” buyers — including companies and universities and others.
Then of the “voluntary” buyers, companies buy 98% of the market and individuals (like you and me) buy less than 1%.
My own view is that purchasing carbon offsets is better than nothing, assuming that you are careful about where you buy them. Yet when considering ways to reduce your own carbon footprint, you should compare offsetting to the more certain alternative of directly reducing your own emissions. As offset provider Carbonfund.org states, your motto should be, “Reduce what you can, offset what you can’t.”
If I wanted to encourage you in purchasing offsets, I’d sign off here, given that I like Carbonfund.org’s great tag line.
However, I’ve become quite a skeptic and I believe it’s important to also read through the critique of carbon markets and offsets in particular. The Corner House in the UK provides one of the better critiques on carbon trading.
The report describes the financial aspects of carbon trading and how the carbon market has changed over the past few years as new interest groups and complex financial arrangements have become involved. As a result, carbon quota prices have become more volatile, speculation in the carbon market has increased, and the market is increasingly delinked from its original objective of providing an effective cost-management tool to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Their synopsis document is called, “Designed to Fail“. Here’s an excerpt from page 7:
Advocates of the offset system point to the many world-wide carbon-reduction projects that are funded by the system; the savings to industry (and thus consumers and society at large); the flow of money from North to South; the export of new technologies to developing economies; and how innovation in low carbon technologies has been incentivised. FERN [the author] believes that these claimed benefits very rarely exist in reality, and are heavily outweighed by the significant, systemic failure of offsetting to reduce emissions at all, which we discuss in the last section of this paper.
Another point they make is that “of the US $ 144 billion carbon market, only US $ 3,370 million goes to project developers and only a fraction of that will go to communities who host projects.”
I think some of their critiques help remind us that fundamentally carbon offsets were created to make it easier for us to do more “cost effective” emission reductions. The reality is also that emissions reductions may be cheaper in other places in the Global South.
Thanks to our mainstream neoclassical economic theories and practitioners — with our focus on markets, free trade, individuals, & utility maximization — we’ve created a carbon trading market allowing us to continue doing what we’re doing with our fossil intensive energy infrastructure and pay others to make reductions.
The challenge is: can we create a commodity from a reduction in emissions?
Is our money well spent investing in the financial markets creating these offsets projects, the financiers, administrators, marketers, developers, and verifiers?
Is it better spent on a specific project you do in your house to reduce some of your emissions? Or a project with somebody you know? In your city or in a community you have relationship with and an understanding of abroad? Or might our money be better spent on advocacy or organizing? If we could pass climate policy — with a cap on emissions — on state or federal levels — that would do the most good. What about giving $10 to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network — they’re one of the local groups who I most respect in their organizing and advocacy work. On a national & international level, I believe 350.org has done and continues to do some incredible work. For me it comes down to building power and better vehicles for change. So that’s where I’m investing my money. What are the vehicles I believe are capable of building the power needed to help people, institutions, systems make the hard decisions/investments to decarbonize? And what are the paths to getting states, regions, countries to implement the policy and regulatory changes we need to decarbonize our electric & transportation sectors?I have a few ideas… but I’ll leave that for another post.
Shifting our investments to local, direct investing is really about buying “livable future insurance”.
The concept is basically that we’re dramatically under-calculating the devastating impacts of super storms, heat waves, hurricanes, & all climate related disruptions over the next 20-40 years. The interesting thing is that many of us will be drawing down our retirement savings on a similar time horizon. I think collectively we’re grossly under-calculating the risk of climate, inequality and related disruptions will have on the stock market. The 8% average annual returns of the past 90 years are not what we’re going to see going forward. Not if you believe the most recent IPCC report.
When you add on to this the reality of health care and long-term care costs, food system instability, other unexpected disruptions — the world will be fundamentally different 20-40 years from now. Whether you’re a technologist (with VR and AI), or a malthusian (finite limits of world’s resources) — the world will be different.
But what are we doing to re-think our retirement savings strategies? Our long-term investing? How are we investing for a livable future?
Here’s my proposal
Durham’s Angel Investor / Slow Money Circle
Investing in Black & Latinx Entrepreneurs
We believe the traditional advice on investing needs to be re-thought given current realities with carbon, inequality, refugees, healthcare, elder care, and mass criminalization of black and brown bodies. We need to be more thoughtful about the structures of sin and evil we are complicit in perpetuating by following status quo investment advice.
We believe the stock market is riskier than most people think, and that we need deeper economic, power, financial, & ruthlessly critical analyses to help us create a livable future for our grandkids and their grandkids.
We believe that understanding racism, all of it’s systemic, institutional, interpersonal impacts is fundamental for white folks to do the work to begin to see the ways we’re all bound up in the structures and extractive mindset that keeps us apart, disconnected from deeper work, where we’re from, and where we’re going.
We believe in the redeeming power of real, deep relationships and contemplative practice, especially based on trust, mutual respect, mutual accountability, grace, and mercy.
We need new vehicles, platforms, communities, learning groups, cohorts to do the important, hard thinking on how do we really divest and where do we reinvest? What alternatives are we building?
Capitalism tends toward the concentration and centralization of wealth and we see it all the time in various sectors and industries we’re in (for example John Oliver’s recent piece on Private Equity’s recent entrance into manufactured housing). Can we democratize these sectors, create co-ops, employee ownership structures that can scale?
What collaboratives of deep thinkers are you engaging with to build this next generation of people moving their money in strategic ways to build the power we need for a more just and livable future to be possible?
“Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.