Legal Structures for Social Transformation

Sometimes it feels like our work at Sustainable Economies Law Center makes a sudden leap forward, and I’d like to share how that just happened. In December, we hosted a launch party for two cooperatives we’ve been incubating for more the two years, the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative and People Power Solar Cooperative. Over 250 community members and 30 sponsoring organizations showed up to celebrate. By the end of the night, each cooperative signed up more than 80 members to buy shares, thereby raising seed capital for their first projects and spurring a lot of excitement and hope. 

Going beyond these outward signs of success, I’m even more proud to share what’s happening at a deeper level with the cooperatives: A culmination of best practices, cultural shifts, and innovative structural elements that make these cooperatives microcosms of social transformation and powerful platforms for movement-building and systems change. I’ll try to summarize it here, though I suspect we’ll be spending coming years unpacking it, discussing it, and helping it spread. 

First, I’d suggest that you click to open the easy-to-read cartoon Bylaws of EB PREC and of People Power, since much of the unique legal DNA of the two cooperatives is expressed there. Here are seven elements that make the cooperatives powerful and how they show up in the Bylaws:

1. Movement cooperatives, not just consumer cooperatives:
Unlike conventional housing cooperatives or energy cooperatives, which are formed to provide housing or energy to their members as consumers, EB PREC and People Power could be described as movement cooperatives. They exist not only to provide housing and energy, but to build large membership bases and serve members’ collective goals to transform our systems for land ownership and control of energy. EB PREC and People Power envision building memberships of hundreds or even thousands of community members. (For both cooperatives, see the Bylaws sections on Becoming an Owner.)

2. Decentralized organizations designed to grow from the grassroots:
In the words of EB PREC’s Bylaws: 
”We want to spread power to as many people as possible through a decentralized structure where small groups of Owners are in the driver's seat of the Cooperative’s activities. We prioritize decentralized governance because it builds people power, creates resiliency, and fosters a strong sense of community ownership, activating people to protect and steward land in the long-term. The activities of the Cooperative will therefore be spread out among small semi-autonomous groups that will be accountable to the whole.” EB PREC and People Power are designed as backbone organizations, acting as conduits of financing and providers of technical and administrative support to many small groups organizing to acquire properties or build solar projects. The mandate to foster organizing from the ground up is embedded in the legal structure of both organizations. (See the Bylaws sections on “Spreading Power,” “Owner Groups,” and the “Governance Overview.”)

3. Self-managed staff collectives:
The day-to-day work of EB PREC and People Power is carried out by self-managed staff collectives. We view this as critical to building power for members and activating grassroots economic organizing, because self-management gives every staff person the power to take action in response to the needs, visions, and projects of the cooperatives’ members. Another way of saying it: Members express their power through and in close collaboration with the cooperative staff, so if staff don’t have power, then members don’t have power. The Law Center – through our own practice and support of dozens of other organizations – has developed expertise, resources, and regularly sold-out workshops on
worker self-governance, and we’ve embedded it in the legal structures of EB PREC and People Power. (See the sections on the trusteeship role of the cooperatives’ staff beginning on pages 29 of both Bylaws.) We believe that the deep intrinsic motivation of workers – even in real estate and solar companies – is a critical resource to tap for social change, and we can only tap it if we give power to all workers. 

4. Building collective power with community capital:
Anyone in California can buy a share of EB PREC or People Power for up to $1,000 per person, and the cooperatives have already raised $80,000 and $30,000 in shares, respectively. Each real estate and solar project will be partially or wholly financed by capital sourced from a broad base of community members. Importantly, community capital is not just a way to raise money; it’s a way to build power for the community. The cooperatives enable many people to pool their resources and use that collective power to leverage other capital to carry out projects in their own communities. The Law Center has worked for years to pave a legal path for everyday people to invest in their local economies, so we’re thrilled that this is coming to fruition. Learn more in this blog post, and see the financial sections beginning at page 39 in both Bylaws, as well as EB PREC’s section on “Becoming an Investor Owner,” and People Power’s section on “Becoming a General Owner."

5. Non-extractive financial structures:
EB PREC and People Power plan to build and hold critical assets for our communities, so it’s imperative that we create enforceable protections against profit extraction or other imbalances that could arise from excessive return on capital, excessive land prices, excessive pay to executives, or low wages to employees. The Bylaws apply floors and caps on financial benefits and compensation, balancing the benefits provided to their multiple stakeholders, including investors, workers, residents, and consumers. (See the Bylaws sections entitled “Non-Extractive Finances.”)

6. Legal structures for permanent community ownership:
EB PREC and People Power use a suite of protections against commodification of the organizations and their resources. Outside organizations and individuals hold board appointment power and veto power over attempts to change essential structural elements, sell land or other resources, or liquidate the organizations. EB PREC also has a mandate to protect land by giving other organizations, like land trusts and local Indigenous tribes, purchase options and rights of first refusal to prevent the land from re-entering the speculative market. The vision is for both organizations to be permanent title-holders of their community-owned resources. (See the Bylaws sections entitled “Permanent Community Stewardship,” “Vision Protectors,” “Appointed Directors,” and “Closing or Selling the Cooperative.”)

7. Participatory legal documents that deepen collective understanding:
Even while they contain complex and innovative legal components, the Bylaws are written in plain English, with cartoons, and other diagrams that make them understandable even to a high school student who test-read them for us. Bylaws like this enable high levels of stakeholder participation in their creation, which yields countless insights into the process of developing legal structures, and creates operating rules that are aligned with the culture and work happening on the ground. To refine these documents, we held many lively and engaging discussions with the cooperative staff. This process built a core of leaders with deep understanding of and buy-in to the complex legal structures we created. The process was emblematic of a broader goal of the Law Center: We want to bring law and policy down to earth so that everyday people can actively shape the operating rules of their own communities toward social transformation.

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My New Years Resolution

Ricardo Runs for Workers!Happy New Year!

My New Year's resolution is to continue building a cooperatively owned future of work that meets the needs of immigrant and QTPOC communities. That's why, on March 24th, I’m participating in the Law Center’s first-ever Workers Run Oakland marathon fundraiser and I’m looking for folks to run (or walk) with me to help reach our goal of raising $30,000! Will you join me at the Oakland Running Festival as a #WorkersRunOakland Run-Raiser? Registration closes January 31st!


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Worker Cooperative Advocates Complete 1-Year “Policy Brigade” Immersion Training with the Law Center

This past December, worker owners from across the Bay Area gathered together to celebrate a year of transformative policymaking together through the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s Worker Cooperative Policy Brigade project.

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People Powered East Bay - The Law Center Incubated Cooperatives Launch in Oakland!

Guests showing support for the two new cooperatives that launched at the People Powered East Bay event on December 5, 2018.


December was an exciting month for the Sustainable Economies Law Center, as we brought together over 300 community members to celebrate the launch of two cooperatives. More than two years in the making, these cooperatives have been incubated and funded by the Law Center, and each now has a dynamic leadership team ready to welcome hundreds or thousands of members!

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Leadership in Social Change: Janelle Orsi

By Vanessa Wakeman with The Wakeman LegacyJanelle_Orsi_Rebel_Lawyer


Excerpt: In 2010, The American Bar Association named Janelle Orsi a Legal Rebel, for being an attorney who is remaking the legal profession through the power of innovation...In this episode, Janelle shares examples of how her organization’s leadership practices create opportunities for every level of staff to be engaged in contributing to the organization. 

Read the full interview here.

(Originally published December 7, 2018.)

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In Oakland, a radical approach to housing shortage

By Erin Baldassari for the Mercury News


Excerpt: Noni Session, a third-generation Oakland resident, returned after five years to the city where she was raised only to find it growing increasingly unrecognizable. Session is now the director of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, or EB PREC, a nascent cooperative corporation that last week launched its first campaign to purchase a four-unit apartment building in North Oakland. While housing cooperatives have long worked to purchase individual properties and retain them as affordable housing stock, EB PREC is hoping its model can grow into a network of properties that can begin to effect lasting change.

Read the full article here.

(Originally published December 11, 2018.)

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Things worth celebrating from 2018

As we reflect on the year that was and begin to prepare ourselves for the year ahead, we think it’s worth celebrating our collective accomplishments. From launching new movement cooperatives to training the next generation of immigrant entrepreneurs and community lawyers, here are a few things we’re celebrating as we ring in the new year!  

Please join us in making 2019 another year filled with transformative connections and people-powered solutions!

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Caregiving Businesses & Employment Laws: What's the Latest?

Who should read this blog: Caregiving registries or home care organizations in California

What major laws and regulations should caregiving registries know about?

The caregiving industry, which has historically operated in the shadows, has attracted increasing scrutiny in recent years. In 2016, California passed the Home Care Consumer Services Protection Act (HCSCPA), which imposed strict screening criteria on home care agencies working with caregivers. Two years later, in 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-4 (“FAB”)  for a specific subset within the home care industry: registry and matchmaking services for caregivers. The DOL bulletin from July 2018 is one of few guidelines that the DOL has issued for the caregiving industry.  

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Forming a Nonprofit? We Have a Primer on That!

Are you running a volunteer-run organization? Or are you part of a nonprofit that needs to formalize its legal structure?

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East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative Featured in Solidarity House Podcast

By Solidarity House Cooperative

In this episode of Solidarity House Cooperatives: Cowboys on the Commons, Noni Session and Greg Jackson introduce the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative.

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Building Grassroots-Led and Community Owned Energy Projects

Clean energy should be affordable and owned by everyone.

Energy is such a basic and important necessity that everyone should affordably access, own, and control it.

By now, you have probably seen the alarming headlines warning that we only have 12 years left to turn climate change around. That's not a lot of time! The problem is that we need energy to make stuff happen, and most energy is generated through polluting sources such as the burning of fossil fuels. Luckily, many groups have already figured out the solution: We need to democratize clean energy.

Check out our newest video!

Energy Democracy is pretty complicated... but we drew some cartoons to make the concept easier to understand. Check out this video of our Executive Director Janelle Orsi presenting at a day-long gathering of energy equity leaders. 

This presentation unpacks the concept of community-owned energy. Janelle also describes some basic legal concepts and offers some guiding principles for governance, financial structure, and long-term community control.

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10 Reasons for Lawyers to Draw Pictures

What's the point if your clients can't understand your advice?

As you probably know by now, our Executive Director Janelle Orsi, loves drawing cartoons. For our Fellows Week, Janelle drew this to inspire lawyers to be better communicators. 

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Filipino American History Month at the Law Center!

October is Filipino American History Month, Cooperative Month, and Domestic Violence Awareness Month!

This is Tia here, writing my first blog post for the Law Center! And you know I'm writing about Filipino American History Month for my Fil/Am fam. So here goes. 

Did you know that the Philippines has a strong history of cooperative economics, pre-dating Spanish colonization? For example, bayanihan is the practice of an entire town working together to build or move a house!

At the Law Center, we have three Filipino Americans in our squad! To celebrate Filipino American History Month, we're highlighting our own work, which just so happens to be work that also commemorates Co-op Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month!

Adrien Salazar

Charlotte Tsui

Tia Taruc-Myers (that's me!)

Adrien Salazar is one of our board members. He wrote a blog post about Filipino Americans and the cooperative movement back in 2016 when he was still interning with us. Read his blog post to learn about more examples of pre-colonial shared labor agreements in the Philippines as well as examples of current efforts by Filipino Americans to harness the energy of coops!

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Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.

Reflections on the 2018 Worker Cooperative National Conference

By Ricardo Samir Nuñez, Director of Economic Democracy

     This September we hit a milestone: the ten year anniversary of the 2008 financial crisis that crippled the global economy. Institutions of international capital crumbled while the housing market collapsed. We had come as close as ever to proving that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The systems that extract wealth from our communities proved incredibly resilient. It is only now, ten years on, that people are starting to see what a world beyond capitalism could look like.

     That’s why spaces like the Worker Cooperative National Conference (WCNC) are so critical: they help expand the frontiers of our collective imagination and show us the future of work in action. These spaces show us the many paths being forged for a future where workers are compensated fairly and encouraged to show up as their fulls selves at work. The voices and stories I heard at the WCNC provided a radical vision of a future of de-commodified labor and comfort that we are a strong and growing movement.

NoBAWC members representing at the Conference!
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Berkeley Adopts New Urban Agriculture Ordinance

By Millicent Sampson, Law Center Summer Intern, and Christina Oatfield, Policy Director

As the popularity of urban agriculture and community gardens rises around the US, the need to acknowledge, define, and allow them in city ordinances has become apparent. Many other cities in California have passed very permissible urban agriculture ordinances within the last decade, however, people are often surprised to learn that Berkeley has haFarm_Stand.jpgd only a very limited gardening ordinance that applied only in residential areas until now.

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