The idea of running a city like a startup has not taken off and the £350m investment was quickly spent. Five years into the ambitious plan, projects had to be cut and the company faced massive layoffs. Nonetheless, Hsieh’s dream of a startup community capital was impactful and enhanced a growing trend. Almost ten years later the value of ‘community’ has become an integral element of mainstream economic practice. A majority of coworking spaces promote their inclusive community as a core selling point and employ at least one Community Organiser to build connections and to develop work opportunities between freelancers. Alongside hosting events, many of London’s Huckletree or WeWork communities feature game nights, yoga on the rooftop terrace and, of course, beer from the tap.
However, a few streets further down from Hackney’s WeWork complex you will encounter some of London’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods with the highest rates of child mortality. San Francisco, another candidate in the race to become top global innovation hub, leads US figures in income gaps and housing costs. It is evident that gentrification benefits primarily flow to more skilled, educated workers, whereas existing communities are increasingly priced out of their neighbourhoods.
So if new and repurposed workspaces seem to reinforce inequality and exclusion, what hope is there, if any, for coworking spaces to be part of a movement for social change? As practitioners who are working in this sector, how do we respond? This article calls for ‘community’ to be led back to its origins and to defend the values that social justice organisers have fought for throughout history. It explains the problematic exclusivity of coworking communities’ support structures, and suggests some recommendations for how we can base new economic practices on solidarity.
Community organising per definition
In light of its popular use, it is helpful to examine definitions of community organising outside of the social innovation bubble. The term itself refers to a form of organisation building that emerged in the US after the Second World War. In its most traditional form, community organising involves the building of membership organisations, which can include institutions with existing memberships such as churches and labour unions, and at other times is made up of families and individuals.
Throughout history community organisations have achieved major victories with legislative changes, expansion of social services and educational access, such as the Civil Rights Act or the introduction of the Living Wage. In Nassau county, US, the Workplace Project led by Latino immigrant workers helped pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In India, the Self-employed Women’s Association successfully campaigned in the face of police harassment, leading to vending licenses and reserved spots in markets for informal workers. Community Organising has grown into a profession with its own body of research and globally spread training institutes, reaching from yiaga Africa in Nigeria and the Centre for Third World Organising in the US, to the New Economy Organisers Network in Great Britain.
At its core, the act of community organisation stands in direct relationship with an oppressive institution of power and is based on solidarity and mutual aid. Some of the most significant campaigns in the history of community organising were built through solidarity coalitions. Women Against Pit Closures was a political movement during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 and supported miners, their families, and wider communities. The women fundraised, marched, and organised events, and was one of the main reasons the strike was able to continue for so long. In 2015, Black Lives Matter and the Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network formed a joint campaign in support of communities in Cauca, Colombia to protect their land in the face of oppression by militia groups and multinational mining corporations.
Particularly within neighbourhood organising, coalition building has formed a key historic strategy. One of the most prominent examples is the Back of the Yards Neighbourhood Council, set up in 1930s Chicago. In a predominantly Irish-Catholic community, the Neighbourhood Council successfully united previously hostile ethnic groups of Serbs and Croatians, Czechs and Slovaks, Poles and Lithuanians, and formed the first US alliance between the Catholic Church and Left-wing unions. Its work led to improved access to medical health care, a community fund for the neighbourhood, and the creation of a school lunch programme that became a model for the nation. If we compare these ideas of community with the social reality of most coworking freelancers, there seems to be an apparent contrast.