I’ve watched as too many smart, creative, innovative and motivated people – people who have contributed so much to their communities, become more and more marginalized and economically vulnerable over the last 3 decades.
I, and many of my friends are among this group. As artists, musicians and culture bearers in New Orleans, Louisiana we drive the region’s largest industry and employer – tourism and hospitality.
We knew long before hurricane Katrina that something was very wrong with our economy, as economic and workforce development initiatives and policies became increasingly about big business and privatization
Large sums of money from our public coffers were going to subsidize these big corporations in the form of tax credits, abatements and tax increment financing, siphoning money needed for our city’s schools, housing and other much needed social and economic benefit for residents of New Orleans.
What you don’t know about New Orleans
In concert with this privatization was a concerted disinvestment into working class neighborhoods of the city along with the demonization of workers struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families. As a majority African American city this took on an especially racist tinge.
Yet, it is the black community that has contributed the most to New Orleans throughout its history, making New Orleans world renown for its creative culture from music to cuisine to architecture and a grassroots street-level culture of resistance, innovation and activism that is unlike any in the United States.
New Orleans has long had a social cultural economy that is, in its essence, what we now know as Solidarity Economy.
We are the only city in the U.S. that has Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, organized neighborhood groups within the city’s African American community that are expressly concerned with cohesion, solidarity, sharing and helping.
Social aid and pleasure clubs grew out of the benevolent and mutual aid societies of mid to late 1800s to provide education and financial assistance along with jobs and livelihoods to newly freed slaves following the Civil War.
Who supports the people?
Today, New Orleans social aid and pleasure clubs continue to provide those suffering economic hardship with aid, ranging from school supplies for children to free food for the Thanksgiving and Christmas Holiday season and more, thereby foster unity and solidarity in community.
They also provide work, jobs and economic development through their Sunday afternoon second line parades where hundreds, sometimes thousands wind their way through the city’s backstreets dancing together behind the club and the music of several brass bands.
Prior to a club’s annual second line parade tailors are hired to make the impeccable suits and costumes worn by members, musicians are hired and a variety of vendors are invited to sell their wares, ranging from food and drink to arts and crafts.
Along each parade’s route are stops at neighborhood businesses such as bars and corner stores – small businesses that on ordinary days struggle to stay afloat given their location within underserved low-income neighborhoods.
My involvement as a member of a several consumer cooperatives shaped my rout to analyzing economic process
My own route to analyzing economic processes came from my own involvement as a member of several consumer cooperatives in the early 1970s in Vermont and western Massachusetts, one an electric cooperative and two food co-ops.
Later I was a founding member of a short-lived daycare cooperative, providing those of us within an informal shared housing co-op with a work-at-home livelihood for the 6 months we all lived together.
Later I worked as a seamstress and designer, selling my work at many arts and music fairs and festivals throughout the northeast.
In the 1980s, as a single mother, I worked in radio, music and social services and after the collapse of the Bank of New England in 1989 lost all 3 of my jobs within 30 days.
I decided to move to New Orleans, a city I had visited several times before and had come to love. I also knew my unemployment check would go much farther in New Orleans than it would in Northampton, MA, where rents were high, public transportation was abysmal and jobs were disappearing quickly as a result of the economy tanking after the collapse of the bank.
Meanwhile New Orleans economy was still suffering the effects of the mid-80s oil bust resulting in a large population loss and tourism was moving in to replace jobs lost.
I met musicians, artists, Black Indians, (also known as Mardi Gras Indians), social aid and pleasure club members that possessed a heritage, knowledge, talent, skills and innovative thinking that I had never encountered in such abundance before.
My first job after my unemployment ran out was with a well-known luxury hotel working in PBX, (phone switchboard operator). It was a miserable boring job in a windowless room that paid minimum wage.
I met women that had worked for the hotel for more than a decade and were still making just above minimum wage, while trying to support their children, making them eligible for public aid in the form of food stamps and sometimes in the form of public housing.
It quickly became apparent that this was the government supporting a luxury hotel paying poverty wages, but the onus was on these hard working women who had to stand in the check out line at the grocery with their foodstamps, as the more fortunate in line behind them muttered about ‘Welfare Queens’ while assuming these women did not work at all.
New Orleans schools were notoriously underfunded at that time, and deliberately so, because the state’s main economic development strategy of ‘business attraction’ was the sales pitch of a large pool of low wage labor. Right-To-Work laws and other labor union erosion strategies ensued to keep the city’s workers in poverty.
During the 1990’s the social safety net began to unravel at a rapid rate with Welfare Reform and the Crime Bill and related economic restructuring that advanced the interests of corporations through privatizing The Commons, programs like the Hope VI mixed income redevelopment of public housing, the Workforce Investment Act, which put the interests of private business owners over those of workers and resulted in the stagnation of wages and the growth of poverty and economic inequality.
The New Orleans Blues Project
In response, in 1998 I became a co-founder and lead organizer of the nonprofit New Orleans Blues Project , the nation’s first arts and music economic and workforce development organization at a time when notions of creative and cultural economy were first being developed.
At the same time The Blues Project worked to develop our program Community Development Through Music, a training program in non-performing aspects of music and entertainment.
I wrote a proposal that garnered the Blues Project the BLUES HIGHWAY Millennium Trail designation through the Clinton administration’s White House Millennium Council, which we received in June of 2000.
I found myself in D.C. meeting with the council in November, 2000 two weeks after that years contested presidential election at a time when no one knew who our next president would be. Needless to say, moneys allocated for Millennium Trails went toward war in Iraq. The Blues Project struggled and disbanded in 2003.
It’s been said that following hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became the first ever domestic Structural Adjustment Program of the economy, the first of which was imposed upon Chile in 1973, (known as ‘the other 9/11’), with the overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende and the installation of U.S. backed dictator Augusto Pinochet. This first domestic Structural Adjustment Program in New Orleans worked so well it was taken national with the 2008 financial collapse.
As a small group of evacuees in Memphis following Katrina, we toyed with the idea of re-starting the Blues Project while we contemplated what was happening in our city from afar and what our lives would be like upon return.
While also taking courses in Urban Studies at the University of Memphis, I wrote a grant for us to record a CD. The result was Dancing Ground, under the group name “New Orleans Rhythm Conspiracy”.
During the recording and production of the CD, I began floating the idea of an artist and worker owned cooperative enterprise and we incorporated as Rhythm Conspiracy Productions in late 2010.
My experience as a writer and artist has led me to believe that the cooperative enterprise structure of worker owned is the best for any type of work or livelihood in any economic realm, but especially for those working in the creative industries and cultural economy, as we often work project to project as freelancers or contract workers to other businesses and tend to have erratic incomes as a result, and are typically under-compensated for our work.
Also known as the Gig Economy, freelancers now make up 34% of the U.S. workforce.
In the last several years those of us that are member owners of Rhythm Conspiracy and others around New Orleans from: Artists, Musicians, Foodies, Techies, Students and Scholars, Social justice activists, Social aid and Pleasure Club members and the Dancing People that follow them in Sunday second line parades.
All have been working diligently together to build the cooperative enterprise model, based on the social aid and pleasure clubs that have existed here for more than 100 years, and our region’s cooperative solidarity economy movement and eco-system, informing, advocating for, and advancing the cooperative model and the solidarity economy of the South.
The way to move forward
More and more of us see the Cooperativism and Solidarity Economy as a way for people and communities to move forward together in solidarity, in a more autonomous self-determined manner toward mitigating the obscene abuses of this era of brutal neoliberalism that consists of land grabbing, gentrification, displacement, war, immoral wealth hoarding, erosion of worker’s rights, high rates of child poverty and more.
As a part of our collective efforts, we created the New Orleans Cooperative Development Project several years ago, that has since become Cooperation Louisiana, (soon to launch at http://www.CooperationLousiana.org), in solidarity with similar efforts throughout the U.S. South, such as Cooperation Texas, Cooperation Jackson, Highlander Research and Education Center, the Fund For Democratic Communities and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project
All of us, as people, organizations and communities, work together to craft local and state legislation for fair and just economic and labor policies that allow greater control over our work, livelihoods, and economic lives in ways that meet the needs and desires for ourselves, our families and our communities.