Anchor Institutions (Building Community Wealth in Santa Cruz, Part 2)

This is part two of a series of blog posts about building community wealth in Santa Cruz. Read the previous post here.

In this series, we will look at a number of strategies for building community wealth. One such strategy is the development of partnerships and networks among “anchor institutions.” Again, we asked Ted Howard, President & Co-Founder of Democracy Collaborative, for a definition, as well as a description of how anchor institutions help build community wealth. He writes:

“Anchor institutions are nonprofit or public entities that are rooted in place and rarely get up and leave (as opposed to private corporations that move around in order to maximize return to investors). Anchors include universities, hospitals, cultural and arts centers, school systems, city governments, etc. 

“Because anchors are what economists call ‘sticky capital,’ they have a vested interest in helping to ensure that the communities in which they are based are healthy, safe places to live and work. By leveraging these large economic engines to direct their purchasing, hiring and investments locally, anchors can be important partners in building community wealth. 

“A national anchor institution movement is gathering at this time and the impact can be enormous — anchors represent nearly $2 trillion in annual economic activity, close to 9% of GDP.”

The Democracy Collaborative has put together a detailed report about anchor collaboratives, which are when anchor institutions form partnerships to further leverage their impact. The report  is available here.

(Photo credit: Democracy Collaborative)

Universities as anchor collaboratives

A local example of anchor collaboratives is emerging within the University of California system. The group, which was formed at UC Davis, is called the California Economists Collective (CEC), and their first project is the UC Community Economies Network. We interviewed Marcus Renner, a coordinator for the CEC and a Ph.D. student studying geography at UC Davis, to learn more about the goals and aspirations of this new project. He writes:

“One way to understand what we’re trying to do is get each UC campus to create a regional anchor collaborative and then to link all those anchor collaboratives together in a statewide network. Such a network could provide a powerful rudder to steer the world’s fifth largest economy in a more just, sustainable, and democratic direction.

“For the UC Community Economies network, I would say there are several goals. At the most basic level, we want to support people both in and out of the UC system that are doing community economies work. Community economies has been pushed to the margins of the curriculum and is often characterized as too small, too niche, and only for those who have the time and money to indulge in alternative economic practices. By forming a network of anchor institutions and collaboratives, we want to show the collective impact that these strategies can have. 

“Community economies uses a networking logic rather the classic economies of scale approach commonly taught in business school. This means scaling up requires making connections and building relationships and using the quality of the relationship as the arbiter of success rather than a profit/loss statement. Pragmatically, we want to understand the implications of this fundamental shift in the values governing our economic system.”

In addition, Renner shared that the group plans to document their processes and key learning “so that other colleges and universities can improve upon what [they’re] doing.” The participation of students in this movement is particularly key. Renner explains why:

“The student movement is very much driving the political debate on climate change and we think changing our economic system is a very large piece of that puzzle. We sense many people are questioning neoliberal orthodoxy right now and yearn for a roadmap to another system that aligns with their values and hopes for the future. This roadmap doesn’t exist. The road doesn’t even exist. 

“As Myles Horton said, ‘We make the road by walking.’ And so we’re trying to do something that makes sense and that will then open the door for other possibilities about what universities can be, how they should be governed, how they can contribute to the rebuilding the commons and the sense of public interest.”   

We asked Renner for examples of other universities that are serving the role of anchor institutions. He shared that UC San Francisco has a new Anchor Institution Initiative that is “focused on health equity.” It “is something we’ll challenge the rest of the UC system to take as a model,” he writes. For more information on the UCSF initiative, this article provides a summary.

Renner offered some additional questions to consider beyond simply whether there are universities serving as anchor institutions. He writes:

“To some extent, all universities just are anchor institutions by virtue of the economic footprint that they have within a town, city, or region. I think the real question is are there institutions that are actively trying to advance equity, sustainability, democratic governance, and civic engagement.

“I don’t know of a university that’s made that commitment. This is why what UCSF is taking on is so encouraging and suggests that the time for a UC Community Economies Network is upon us. 

“Will the UCSF effort shift the economic paradigm and change how we measure economic performance? That’s less clear. I think that’s the role of our group. Students can use those critical thinking skills to push the dialogue toward transformation, which is important because systems are inherently conservative. They try to reproduce themselves and require stimulus to change.”

Santa Cruz Permaculture will be facilitating a session at the 2019 Bioneers Conference on October 20 titled “Permaculture, Cooperatives & Community Wealth.” Marcus Renner will be speaking about this project along with Ted Howard of Democracy Collaborative during the session. We hope you can join us!

This is part two of a series of blog posts about building community wealth in Santa Cruz. Read the next post here.

Series Outline:

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