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Interview with Nwamaka Agbo on Restorative Economics [Systems Change]

As part of our interview series with instructors for our Systems Change & the Next Economy course, we spoke with Nwamaka Agbo, who will be leading a workshop on “Restorative Economics: Strategies for Just Transition to a more Sustainable, Equitable and Just Economy.” Her workshop will take place March 16-17 in Santa Cruz County.

Nwamaka Agbo is a Restorative Economics practitioner based in Oakland, California, with a background in organizing, electoral campaigns, policy and advocacy on racial, social and environmental justice issues.

During our phone call, which has been transcribed to written word for this blog post, we started by asking Nwamaka about the topic of her workshop: Restorative Economics. Here’s what she shared:

SC Permaculture: The subject of your workshop is Restorative Economics. Can you talk a little about what this is and what it looks like in practice?

Nwamaka: Restorative Economics is a framework that I’ve been working on for the past three to five years. I’m really trying to understand what are the different strategies and solutions that we can implement to build a just and sustainable economy. Restorative Economics is really central in the principle of lifting up community-owned and community-governed projects and figuring out how we can then leverage those shared community assets to advance a vision of self-determination and sovereignty, particularly one that builds the political-economical-cultural power of low-income communities of color.

Essentially what all of that jargon breaks down into is understanding what are the things that actually help to create a really strong and thriving local economy. What are the community assets, the set of infrastructure, and how do we actually steward those resources–whether we’re looking at community institutions, whether we’re looking at land or energy infrastructure even–how do we collectively steward those resources in a way in which we’re ensuring that it benefits the public good.

At the end of the day, my work is not just about looking at how we have more people own more things together, but how does the collective ownership of those resources help us to return to a vision of the commons and one in which we actually make it possible for people to have access to the productive resources that make it possible for them to live a dignified quality of life.

So my work is really trying to support communities of people in coming together to figure out how we can collectively own and manage things as a way of moving away from a model of a capitalistic economy that’s focused on individual riches and towards a model of shared prosperity through collective governance.

SC Permaculture: Why focus on the economy as a strategy for creating a better world? When and how did you make the connection between the racial, social, and environmental justice issues of our time and the current US economic system?

Nwamaka: I don’t come to this work as a trained economist. I went to school to study sociology, African American studies, and public administration. I come to this work as someone who has been a part of social movements and a part of struggle. I’m really trying to understand what are the mechanisms for actually creating more justice and equity in society. And one of the things I experienced through some early work that I did as a campaign associate when I worked at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Green-Collar Jobs Campaign is that there’s this false way in which we have separated the notion of economy from environment from government and all the other systems that end up shaping and governing our lives.

The economy, in my opinion, has been one of the strongest systems and forces in the way that it has shaped our other systems that impact our lives. Our current economic model that’s really focused on profit maximization at the expense of people and the planet–that line of thinking has gone on to impact the criminal justice system, where we actually see people deciding that it’s more profitable to incarcerate people than it is to educate people. It’s gone into how we now have our democracy being compromised by laws like Citizens United that give corporations the same rights as people and we have lobbyists that are able to impact the way our decision-makers are legislating.

So all that to say I feel like there’s a way in which economy has created an umbrella over society as a whole and has been one of the ways in which I have found it the easiest entry point to engage in some critical conversations around justice and equity.

The other thing I would say about economy is that the etymology, the Latin root word of “economy” actually means “management of home.” Oftentimes economy is something that we think about in technical terms, we think about supply and demand curves, we think about GDP, macroeconomics, microeconomics, but when I think about the definition of “the management of home” I think about my friends, family, I think about culture and tradition. And so from that perspective, when we think about home, when any person thinks about home, even individuals that may be house-less, the concept of home is something that I think we can all identify with, and for that reason I think the study of economy is something that anybody should take interest in and most likely does take interest in.

It may not be in the technical terms of how a trained economist studies economy, but when we look around our neighborhood and we think about how we want to interact with our neighbors, what are the services that we think are important to ourselves, what’s the culture that shapes the neighborhood we live in, all of those things are the study of economy and all of those things I think people are already interested in and participating in.

SC Permaculture: Why is it important for the average person to understand or study economics?

Nwamaka: On the basic level it’s important for people to engage with the study or the observation of our economy in the sense that the economy touches on the push and pull factors that shape our daily lives. When we look at issues of gentrification and displacement in the Bay Area and to understand what’s happening in the real estate market there and land speculation, the economy can kind of give us a sense of how to predict what may be coming down the pipeline. It’s an opportunity for us to prepare ourselves around how we deal with a lot of the forces that are coming to be.

Economics directly affects how we put food on the table. At its root, “economics” means “management of home.” Photo by USDA

There’s a number of different things that happen in our lives, whether we’re looking at the government shutdown and trying to anticipate what the long-term impacts will be economically for individuals waiting for their paychecks to come in, or we look at trying to understand how trade relations with China may impact the United States–all of those things that end up shaping how we put food on the table, how we make the drive from Oakland to San Francisco over the toll bridge, how we build up the schools and institutions that shape our neighborhoods. It’s a part of our day-to-day lives, and being able to understand it allows us to better prepare ourselves for a lot of the shifts that come.

SC Permaculture: How can the average person make a difference in transforming the economy?

Nwamaka: We have impacts on transforming the economy every day. There are decisions that we make about how we spend our money, who we shop with. There are decisions that we make about where we live, the businesses that we decide to eat at, and so the study of the economy is an opportunity for us to have a lot more intention around how we are moving throughout our lives, how we are engaging with the businesses, with the services and the programs that are essential to a strong social fabric.

When we have a bit more intentionality about how we want to be in relationship with those different systems and with those different institutions, then we can start to lift up the lens that feels most aligned to our values and hopefully those are the ones that kind of continue on from year to year. So I think there’s just an opportunity for us to be intentional and then there’s opportunity for us to experiment with new models.

I think people are really interested in figuring out what does it mean to be in deeper solidarity with one another economically, particularly as it’s harder for people to purchase homes. How do we actually start to create things like the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative that allows people to come together to purchase property and home together.

How do we actually look at starting creating the educational centers that train children that can’t afford or don’t want to go to charter schools and believe in a public school system, but that’s slowly being eroded, so I think it’s an opportunity for us all to get to be intentional in how we move about in our daily lives.

So that’s why it’s important for us to understand what’s happening on a local but also even a national and global level with our economy.

SC Permaculture: When you imagine a just economy, what comes to mind? What are some images, examples, or principles that you would use to explain your vision for a just economy?

Nwamaka: When I think of a just economy, ultimately what it comes down to for me is this question of, how are decisions being made and who gets to make those decisions? A governance model that actually allows people to kind of engage in a conversation of collaborative governance where we come together, we understand what are the problems impacting our neighborhoods, our society, and then we together help to identify solutions to address those problems through a process of deep democracy, which is what I think is really exciting and actually key to creating a just economy.

And I would offer that the level of economic inequality that we see not only in the United States but around the world is an opportunity for us to reflect on, there a number of communities–low-income communities of color, black and brown, indigenous, transgender communities–that have been disproportionately exploited and extracted from in our current economic system. And so in order to kind of heal, I think part of what we need to be looking at is how do we strategically reinvest resources back into those communities that have been locked out and left behind so that they can actually actively participate in creating a just economy.

Right now, there’s no opportunity for people that are struggling to make ends meet to be a part of those conversations. We don’t actually have a mechanism for people to engage in collective governance other than turning out to vote every four years, and so how do we actually bring together a process that allows people to collectively govern, to understand both the facts and figures but also lived experience of people in society and then make decisions understanding that when we center the needs of the most impacted people, we’re most likely able to make decisions that will better impact everybody.

Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder of PolicyLink, refers to this concept as “the curb cut effect.” When we started to actually build sidewalks and decided to cut the curbs out of sidewalks, we made it possible for people who were disabled in wheelchairs to access the sidewalk. But we also made it possible for people to push their strollers down the sidewalk, for people to ride their bikes, for elderly people to get up and over the curbs more easily.

So, there’s a set of policies that I think really sit at the core of our society around healthcare, around education, around justice, and when we kind of take that “curb cut effect” approach to making those decisions, we’re more likely to make decisions that benefit all of society to a differentiated degree. So that’s what I see as key to creating a just economy.

Some of the projects that I’m excited about–there are a lot: the great work of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative that has been working to create a permanent real estate cooperative to help people weather the storm of what’s happening with the real estate market in the Bay Area.

I have had the pleasure of working on a project called Restore Oakland for the past some years. Restore Oakland is a joint initiative of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to create a community advocacy training center really focused on the principles of restorative justice, so bringing together these two grassroots organizations to collectively create a space to serve their membership populations of formerly incarcerated individuals and also workers in the restaurant industry so they can have access to the services, skills, and trainings and job placements that they need to be able to live in the Bay Area.

Another one I would share is there is a group called Black Land and Power that’s supported by the National Black Food & Justice Alliance that has been working to really think through what is needed to maintain and acquire Black land, land for Black people that need access to spaces for them to be able to live and farm in peace. And so being able to support organizations that are also thinking creatively around the stewardship of land and how we engage in conversations around the stewardship of land, given our history with the genocide of Native Americans in the country, as well. That’s an organization that’s been engaging in some really fascinating conversations, figuring out what are the legal mechanisms to actually structure community land trusts across different states.

National Black Food & Justice Alliance supports a group working to identify mechanisms to acquire and maintain land for Black folks who need access to places to live and farm.

So those are some of the projects that I’ve been excited to support as well as others around community capital funds, how do we look at creating a capital fund to be governed by local place-based community groups. So yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff emerging across the country.

SC Permaculture: It is easy to feel overwhelmed and defeated by simply turning on the news these days. What gives you hope and how do you continue in your work despite everything that is going on in the world?

Nwamaka: This question around what gives me hope is always a tricky one because on one hand I definitely do believe in the resilience of people, particularly low income communities of color to be resilient and to find a way to survive.

And at the same time, I think we’re in a really difficult position, not only as a country but as a world, as we look at converging crisis around economic decline and climate change and rising inequality.

That being said, I believe that it’s important for us to continue to struggle, this is something that Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about that really resonates for me, that regardless of what we may be seeing when we turn on the news, and regardless of the fact that sometimes the forces against us may seem insurmountable, it is still really important for us to struggle.

What I would add to that is that I think it’s important for us to struggle together, I think it’s important for us to be in deep solidarity with one another as we do this work. And so the moments where people are interested and willing in coming together to be in community, to identify solutions and to implement solutions together, those are the things that feel really important to me in this moment. Those are the type of projects and type of communities that I’m really honored to work with and to support.  

SC Permaculture: What will participants of Systems Change & the Next Economy gain from your workshop?

Nwamaka: I’m excited to design a course that allows people to reflect on their individual experiences around economy, around governance, around money. What’s really important to me is that we don’t get stuck on the individual experience and we’re actually able to connect it back to what is happening systemically.

Because the fact of the matter is, income inequality is systemic, which requires systemic solutions to fix it. So really starting to work with participants to understand what are the systems changes that we can begin to take on to actually fix our economy and to provide the bright spots in which we get to experiment with new models that will hopefully set us up and help us to cultivate a practice for the more just economy that we seek to be a part of.

We’ll spend some time over the weekend reflecting on our personal relationship to money and power. We’ll spend some time talking about governance models and structures and what does it mean to actually collectively make decisions together, and then I also want to spend some time really talking about the importance of building political power. I would say political power and economic and cultural power and what it looks like for people with privilege to really leverage their privilege to advance the needs and interests of those who have been most impacted.

I’m also excited for the opportunity for people to share how the Restorative Economics framework resonates with them, how it applies to the way that they’ve been seeing the world or the work that they’re a part of, or not. I’m really looking forward to engaging in the conversations that I think are really important to bringing people together to create transformational change.

SC Permaculture: Is there anything else you want to share for folks who are considering signing up for your workshop?

Nwamaka: I would share with people that while this conversation is framed as next economy, that once again, I come from a community organizing and social justice background, so throughout the conversations I will be bringing in a race, class, and gender analysis to the topics that we discuss.

I’ll really be asking participants to challenge their own unexamined assumptions around the way they look at the world and how they understand economy to be. I hope that people can come with an open mind and a level of vulnerability that actually makes it possible for us to get to something more transformational at the end of the weekend.

Learn more with Systems Change and the Next Economy: Regenerative Design for People & the Planet

Join us March 16-17 in Santa Cruz, CA to spend the weekend learning about all of this and more with Nwamaka Agbo! Register online here.

Additional information about the Systems Change & The Next Economy course, including dates, workshop titles, and instructor biographies for our other upcoming workshops, is available at http://santacruzpermaculture.com/economy/

Note: To receive updates about future opportunities like this, please sign up for our email list here.

About Nwamaka Agbo

Restorative Economics practitioner, Nwamaka Agbo, brings a solutions-oriented approach to her project management consulting. With a background in organizing, electoral campaigns, policy and advocacy on racial, social and environmental justice issues, Nwamaka supports projects that build resilient, healthy and self-determined communities rooted in shared prosperity.

In addition to her consulting practice, Nwamaka is also a Senior Fellow at the Movement Strategy Center and a 2017 Fellow for the RSF Integrated Capital Fellowship Program. Nwamaka previously served as the Director of Programs at EcoDistricts leading Target Cities—a program to support 11 neighborhood-scale sustainable urban regeneration projects across North American committed to equitable economic development.

As the Director of Programs at Transform Finance, Nwamaka designed and launched the inaugural Transform Finance Institute for Social Justice leaders. The Institute was created to educate and train social justice community leaders about how to best leverage impact investments to deepen their social impact for transformative social change.

She currently serves as an Advisory Board Member to Oakland Rising Action and a Board Member to Thousand Currents, Center for Third World Organizing and the Schumacher Center for New Economics. She graduated from UC Davis with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and African American Studies and holds a Master’s of Public Administration specializing in Financial Management from San Francisco State University.

Nwamaka lives in Oakland with her husband, where she can be found geeking out on the latest sci-fi, Afrofuturism novels or cheering for the Golden State Warriors. She likes her bourbon neat and her sake chilled.

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