When world leaders, climate negotiators, and climate justice activists left Glasgow near the end of 2021, they left us with an essential question: What replaces a carbon-based economy? The survival of our planet depends on how quickly we answer this question.
As we begin 2022, it’s clear that the inequitable impacts of climate change, the pandemic, and racial injustice share common roots: existing systems that accept as a cost of doing business the oppression, exploitation, and degradation of BIPOC communities to enrich the few. They also share a structural solution: adopting a community health-based economy. Our vision is that we can replace a carbon-based economy with an economy that is sustainable for people, communities, and the planet.
Systems of oppression, exploitation, and extraction—from the fossil fuel industry to the prison industrial complex—feed off each other and fuel an economy that profits from misery and trauma. However, the types of policies and investments at the heart of a community health-based economy are similarly interconnected and self-reinforcing. It is the sum of these investments and policy changes that forms the basis of healthy and just systems. We cannot just select individual priorities or issues to champion but must instead focus on organizing and advocating for strategies that advance our broader goal of long-term, interconnected systems change. By intentionally amplifying connections across issues, we can better align funding streams and policy opportunities to direct resources and power towards the transformative solutions that communities are championing. And in so doing, we can fuel an economy that fosters our collective health, safety, and wellbeing.
Shifting from our current economy to the community health-based economy we need calls for a different approach in how we invest in the health, safety, and wellbeing of communities and the planet. This includes reforms that eliminate the disproportionate influence of powerful industry lobby groups. An end to subsidizing products and practices that make us sick. It calls for eliminating huge tax breaks and loopholes for the super-rich, and rejecting outright the premise of a for-profit healthcare insurance industry that doesn't perform well enough to give everyone baseline care, let alone health.
At its core, a community health-based economy is one that is designed to produce racial justice; health equity; and health, safety, and wellbeing. A community health-based economy embraces the following principles:
- Intentionally invest in health, safety, and wellbeing as primary outcomes and as indicators of economic health, while actively divesting from systems that produce oppression and harm.
- Prioritize racially just solutions and equitable investments designed to first reach the communities and populations experiencing the greatest economic, social, and health inequities and injustices. This also means pursuing shifts in power to benefit communities who are closest to the problems and closest to the solutions. Decision-making processes must be transparent, equitable, and inclusive regarding who participates, how they are engaged, and how their input is valued and applied.
- Center human and economic dignity through non-exploitative practices and standards as the measures of a strong economy with a goal of maximizing quality of life and happiness.
- Foster healing and regeneration for people, communities, and the planet, and ground economic and community development practices in models of non-extraction—starting in the communities and populations at the frontlines of climate disasters, COVID-19, structural racism and violence, and other forms of trauma. As essential to regeneration, we must champion a new generation of leaders and changemakers whose bold visions and priorities reflect the intersectional realities and assets of their communities.
Fortunately, the answers to what investments and approaches at the heart of a community health-based economy should look like are already out there. They are in the demands of a new generation of climate justice activists centering the priorities of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and other people of color communities. They are in the policy solutions of community-based organizations and networks who stepped in to fill essential gaps and meet community needs in response to COVID-19. They are in the platforms of racial justice movements organizing for freedom, liberation, and democracy. And they are in the pursuit of inclusive and progressive immigration policies, the fight for reproductive freedom, the calls to cancel student debt, and in collective labor organizing.
The community determinants of health, described in our research and practice-based THRIVE framework, can help us identify opportunities for investments that further a community health-based economy. The following examples highlight the tie between the principles for a community health-based economy and the community determinants of health:
- Social networks and trust and Participation and willingness to act for the common good: As we prioritize racially just solutions and equitable investments and pursue shifts in power to benefit communities who are closest to the problems and closest to the solutions, we can invest in building social networks and trust, and participation and willingness to act for the common good. Social networks and trust are necessary to promote healing, build community agency, and inspire collective action—including during catastrophic events. And civic engagement, and the feeling of self-determination that comes from it, is at the heart of a thriving, multi-racial democracy.
- Living wages: As we work to center human and economic dignity through non-exploitative practices and standards, we need to prioritize living wages. The ongoing pandemic highlights the connections between living wages and overall health and wellbeing, and emphasizes the important social and economic roles of caregiving.
- Arts & cultural expression; Air, water, and soil; and Parks and open spaces: As we foster healing and regeneration for people, communities, and the planet, we must include attention to arts and cultural expression. Additionally we must consider the policies and investments that shape our air, water, and soil, and access to parks and open spaces. A community health-based economy is one that values and funds arts and recognizes artists as community healers and power builders. It also invests in parks and green spaces as essential community infrastructure, and prioritizes climate justice.
Below we describe specific actions to strengthen six of THRIVE’s community determinants of health.
Social networks & trust
Actions to support social networks and trust include investing in the leadership and collective agency of young people; and directly resourcing local community organizations and networks who serve as hubs of connection and mutual aid through the local COVID fiscal recovery resources provided in American Rescue Plan Act.
Parks & open space
Parks and green spaces are crucial for community health and wellbeing, a fact made clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advancing park and green space equity includes the pursuit of local level policy actions that address existing park inequities while building the skills, capacities, and power of residents who live in park-poor neighborhoods to drive policy and systems changes.
Participation & willingness to act for the common good
Prioritizing participation and willingness to act for the common good includes protecting and enshrining voting rights at the federal level through the passage of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act and by supporting critical organizing efforts at the local level.
Air, water & soil
Replacing the carbon-based economy includes meeting the demands of global climate activists; implementing the Green New Deal framework through legislative and regulatory actions; maximizing and furthering the climate provisions in the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act and in the House version of Build Back Better; and incorporating an expanded focus on climate migration in the fight for immigration justice.
A community health-based economy is by default a care economy that embraces the core pillars in the House version of Build Back Better through meaningful investments in home- and community-based caregiving, maintenance of the expanded Child Tax Credits, availability of universal pre-K and affordable childcare, and equitable paid family leave policies.
Arts & cultural expression
Artists reflect the voice and health of their communities—their joy, hope, struggles, power, and visions for change. By pushing the boundaries of our collective imaginations for the future and broadening our emotional vocabularies to bridge community needs and possibilities, artists have always been at the forefront of social change and social justice.
So how do we take these priorities to scale? One necessary systems shift is from problematic single-issue funding streams to comprehensive funding streams. We can contribute to this shift by identifying and countering harmful narratives that stymie comprehensive funding approaches. We must re-shape our messages and stories to reinforce narratives that advance needed systems change. To do so, we must be clear and explicit about how different issues and priorities are interconnected with each other and call attention to structural solutions that act across systems. and to similar comprehensive structural solutions. Our stories and messages should also center the priorities and leadership of communities and populations that bear the burden of unjust and discriminatory systems and policies—including Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color communities, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ communities, women, and people with disabilities.
We must significantly increase the direct flow of resources—philanthropic and governmental—to organizations and leaders that are rooted in communities to shift power and create just systems. This means advocating for changes in how government and philanthropies distribute resources to community organizations and networks that champion community health and justice. It also means that our stories and messages should showcase the importance of multi-racial and intergenerational leadership rooted in community wisdom and history. It means holding all levels of governments accountable to crafting and implementing equitable funding programs and evaluating their outcomes for continuous improvements. And it means acknowledging that many of us directly benefit from the systems that favor larger or certain types of non-profits over other organizations, and examining how we partner and work differently to spread the resources we have.
In “System Change: A Basic Primer to the Solidarity Economy” (published in Nonprofit Quarterly on July 8, 2020), the authors noted, “This historic moment calls for us to push hard and through [the door to a better future] to build a world that centers people and planet.” They describe the benefits and possibilities inherent in shifting to a solidarity economy. Nearly two years later, we’re still in this historic moment, and the same door to a better future remains open in front of us. Stepping through that door means holding the tension that the work ahead of us is both urgent and slow-going. It is work that calls on us to look in three directions at once as we advance structural solutions: at past systems and their harms; at our current systems and their harms; and at the predictable future harms if we don’t act. And it is work that is within our collective reach if we reject the far too common fallback to austerity thinking that would have us believe that we can only ‘afford’ to invest in short-term, single-issue solutions and approaches. Instead, we must approach our work from a place of solidarity, caring, and abundance.
 “Systems Change: A Basic Primer to the Solidarity Economy”, Kawano E & Matthaei J. Nonprofit Quarterly, July 8, 2020. System Change: A Basic Primer to the Solidarity Economy - Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly.
Thank you to Dr Assata Richards for sharing the full quote during a panel presentation for the Injury and Violence Prevention Network Equity Convening on December 14, 2021.