Understanding a New Kind of Economy in St. Louis


“It’s important to understand that all of this has a history. I don’t think concepts exist devoid of the people who build them.”

We tend to put a lot of stock into names. Creating an organization with a name and logo gives legitimacy to the ideas and actions of a group of people. When we see that Organization X is doing something, we often forget that it’s just people working together on something. We fixate on the brand: the name gains a life of its own and becomes connected to abstractions like ‘core values’, ‘mission’, and ‘strategies’.

So we approach organizations with all kinds of expectations. Instead of talking to a person, we are talking to a representative of an organized set of unifying ideas, with its own distinct goals and accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses, values and motivations. When I talk to a someone from an organization, I expect to hear a vision for the future and a plan for how to get there — something I can evaluate objectively as being idealistic or pragmatic, separate from any of the actual people involved.

But maybe that starts from the wrong place. That’s the kind of position that claims to know the (capital ‘T’) Truth, the way to do things. Julia doesn’t have much faith in that. Instead, she puts her faith in people and our shared values.

Julia Ho is working to build a solidarity economy in St. Louis. I know that as soon as I start using these terms, they become laden with a lot of historical baggage and associations. In the way ‘solidarity economy’ has been used in the past, it is typically meant to describe models trying to address communities and resources exploited in a capitalist system. It is usually locally-focused and seeks to improve the quality of life of community members in ways that often circumvent the existing institutions.

Julia Ho, founder of Solidarity Economy St. Louis

Julia Ho, founder of Solidarity Economy St. Louis

Already, you may notice the bells going off in your head telling you this is utopian, naive, or revolutionary. We live in an era with no mainstream alternative to capitalism, so anything aspiring to be an alternative is automatically cast into the fringe. If you feel like you have a knee-jerk reaction to this anti-capitalist strain, it may be more helpful to think of this as a community initiative, or a social experiment.

But to be fair, Julia is not apologetic about appearing revolutionary. After all, her primary goal, above all else, is transformation.

Solidarity Economy STL is a homegrown and locally-focused project. But this is also a conversation that is happening all over the country, one that has a lot to share with and a lot to gain from the program here. So in 2016, Solidarity Economy STL became a pilot site along with a group of related projects in other cities, all connected under an umbrella called Mutual Aid Networks (MANs). These are independent projects, with diverse goals and strategies, but united around common values and a commitment to share best practices, advice, and resources. Mutual aid is built foremost around the concept of direct responsibility toward one another, in contrast to responsibility facilitated through the state and the market.

Many of the mainstays of mutual aid and solidarity are thematically connected, if not intrinsically. Time Banking is a commonly promoted model, where time replaces money as the main form of currency. They advocate for worker-owned businesses, and encourage the growth of cooperatives, food sharing, and redistribution systems like freecycling. But it is also about simpler concepts, like making connections between people and organizations who are tackling similar problems, or who might be able to further each other’s efforts.

It can be hard to visualize what this kind of philosophy actually looks like in real life, or see how it connects to anything we do in our daily lives. Here’s one example: a friend of yours loses his job, and has to move out of his apartment to save money while he looks for work. Do you offer him the option of staying at your place temporarily as he gets back on his feet? Or do you assume that the social services and financial incentives will provide him with what he needs?

I think most people would offer their friend a temporary home unquestioningly, and may even think it indecent to do otherwise. Why? Because we feel a certain amount of responsibility for those we care about. Not just because we need them to do the same for us if our roles are reversed, but because that is just a part of what it means to care about someone.

That is the type of responsibility that Julia feels has diminished, perhaps not toward our family and friends, but toward the people in our community. Anything we do to help someone we don’t know is cast as charity, going above and beyond our duty as a member of the community. That attitude filters into our organizations, where many (especially nonprofits) are labeled as some kind of service or charity, with a clear giver and a clear receiver. Julia is trying to get beyond that approach. “This whole concept is building solidarity, not charity,” she affirms. “None of this is charity. We’re doing things out of a sense of mutual responsibility toward each other, and that goes both ways.”

Julia is quick to point out that this is far from a new idea. This is a tradition as old as our species — and is, in a way, a certain distilled version of one of our primary evolutionary advantages. In the absence of natural physical strengths, humans have relied on our unique abilities to cooperate and work together. One of the biggest social upheavals in history has been the collapse of the family and local community and their replacement by the imagined communities of the state and the market.

But that doesn’t mean this type of social community does not still exist. To Black communities and other marginalized groups across America, solidarity economies are not abstract economic systems, but a fact of life. In places where the market- and state-provided services are desperately inadequate, the community fills that vacuum by taking responsibility for each other.

When I talk to Julia, I constantly find myself trying to put a box around what she’s doing, and she responds by trying to break out of that box. I try to point to issues and projects that Solidarity Economy STL is working on: Time Banking through the Cowry Collective, food share programs in North City, a youth court for the Gravois Park and Benton Park West neighborhoods. But mention these, and Julia is quick to divert credit to others. She insists that she is not spearheading any of those projects; she’s just making the connections and giving a voice to other people and organizations.

Emanuel of Citizen Carpentry teaches students to build art displays at Parkway North HS

Emanuel of Citizen Carpentry teaches students to build art displays at Parkway North HS

That is not to say that Solidarity Economy STL is completely amorphous. In March 2017, it started officially signing on members — people and organizations who share common values and a commitment to solidarity. Within a month they had 77 members signed on to join together for their Resist + Renew Member Launch. Members are as diverse as the city and the challenges it faces: Citizen Carpentry, a socially-minded carpentry business with an apprenticeship program; Somethin’ Like Jamaica, a Jamaican food restaurant; Blank Space, a community event venue on Cherokee Street; ART House, a free food sharing program in North City.

But Julia is a bit of a chameleon. This is intentional — trying to pinpoint what she does is missing the point. It’s not about her, but about the relationships and invisible connections between people. We want to latch on to a person, or a singular vision of the future. And that is the exactly the type of approach that Julia thinks is misguided. When she deflects attention away from herself and onto connections between others, it is not out of modesty, but a principled faith in people above everything else. She is convinced that most people who hear these ideas all agree that it is good. “Most of what stops people from believing in any of these things is not a belief that it’s good, but a belief that it’s possible.” We lack faith in the ideas because we can’t see them existing anywhere in the world. She sees her job as working to build “a belief that there is an alternative, and that the power to create that alternative doesn’t exist in institutions, but in people.”

Still though, I am left wanting more. I want more guidance, more plans, more answers. Instead, she insists upon a version of the Socratic paradox: I know that I know nothing. Taking direction from one person, or one vision, attempts to absolve each of us from the need to decide for ourselves and to create the world in that image. “The big picture is that we don’t have any of the answers. I can give you all my thoughts on what we are, but I don’t know. What I do know is that there are people I want to put my trust in… I don’t know what it is that we’re trying to create, but I know that I want these people to do it.”

It takes a leap of faith to step back from generalized abstractions and concepts and to put your trust in people. Ideas are pure and systematic, but people are messy, vulnerable, irrational. And yet to truly take care of each other, perhaps that is the kind of faith we need. Solidarity Economy STL is just a name put on a person who is working to create a space for people to make connections that help them do the things they care about. And while the name may not do any of the work, or convince anyone that this kind of economy is best, it may help make people believe it is possible.