Last Friday, Professor Lorlene Hoyt’s Anchor Institutions class hosted Nick Iuviene to talk about his work at MIT CoLab’s Just Urban Economies and the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative(BCDI). Iuviene is a graduate of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and before that worked as a community organizer in the Bronx.
His current work focuses on urban economic democracy. Specifically, the BCDI uses both bottom up and top down efforts to drive comprehensive economic development that builds the wealth, power and leadership skills of low and moderate income residents in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States. Taking inspiration from Mondragon, of Spain’s Basque Country, and Cleveland, OH’s Evergreen Initiative, the BCDI seeks to apply many of the tools pioneered by these organizations within the context of the Bronx. Iuviene and fellow MIT CoLab staff, Yorman Nunez, are the program coordinators for this project.
The talk began with a brief history of the Mondragon Corporation and the Evergreen Initiative. Mondragon, the largest and perhaps best known worker cooperative organization in the world, has the benefit of over 60 years of development and network building, which has allowed it to prosper even in international markets. It is the importance of network building that Iuviene stressed the most. In a recent closure of one of Mondragon’s plants, he emphasized the “success in its failure”: the corporation guaranteed employees of the closed plant 80% of their salaries for 2 years, though they were all eventually retrained and rehired in new locations. The Evergreen Initiative has a much shorter history, and of course a very different social and geographic context. They utilize the strength of local anchor institutions to build on the model pioneered by Mondragon. They leverage the power and capacity of local hospitals to stabilize the rest of the city, which is currently experiencing high levels of poverty and unemployment. This fact, Iuviene stated, gives the Evergreen Initiative a more top down approach. A desire for a more grassroots approach and the lack of such strong regional anchor institutions is what differentiates the BCDI from its forerunners. In an effort to get local institutions involved, the BCDI had to show that local community organizations could actively build, rather than merely fight inequitable development projects. They have also attempted to aggregate smaller and medium sized nonprofits.
Current work focuses on an economic democracy leadership series in order to build capacity at the grassroots level. In its first stages coordinators were skeptical of the level of interest in the program, thinking that local people would have too many other things going on to be able to focus on learning new economic models. They were surprised when their trainings, designed for 20-30 people, were attended by over 50 people. They are currently in the process of creating an online web series to spread their leadership training model to other cities who could benefit from similar projects.
To end, Iuviene mentioned some organizations in Boston aiming at similar models of economic development. The Center for Economic Democracy and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative are both looking at ways of implementing similar ideas in the Boston area.