Boston Ujima Project citywide assembly, October 6th – October 7th 2018

By: Samy Rais

Over Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend, more than a hundred community members, business owners and activists assembled to celebrate and participate in the Boston Ujima Project’s second official citywide assembly. The Ujima Project was founded in 2017 with the mission to create a new community-controlled economy in Greater Boston, initially focusing on[1]:

  1. Good Business Certification and Alliance: establishing community standards (and supporting businesses) that consider business practices like living wages, Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI)-friendly hiring, local purchasing, environmental impact and affordability.

 

  1. Community Capital Fund: pooling savings and investments to engage in participatory budgeting to meet the enterprise, housing and consumer needs of the community. The fund will be democratically governed by historically divested communities, giving every member an equal vote on the fund’s investment priorities, loans and equity transactions.

 

  1. Worker Services Network: growing employee satisfaction and security by organizing human resource programs.

 

  1. Alternative Local Currencies: establishing alternative local currencies (like time banking) that would allow members to trade their skills and labor and incentivize circulation of resources within the community.

 

  1. Anchor Institution Advocacy: building community power and advancing campaigns for the City, State and large nonprofits to direct investment, subsidy and procurement dollars to Ujima’s network of certified good businesses and developers.

 

Since early 2016, the Community Enterprise Project (CEP) of Harvard’s Transactional Law Clinics has been supporting the Ujima Project’s inception and community-driven mission. CEP students have provided the Ujima Project with legal analysis on various transactional matters, namely corporate and nonprofit law, corporate governance structures, 1940 Investment Company Act and securities laws implications, consumer protection laws, and secured transactions. These areas of law are customarily associated with the law firm-world, but are a critical need in the public interest space. Currently, CEP students are building on work completed last semester by helping to finalize the initial documents for the Ujima Project’s Community Capital Fund to begin making investments in community-supported businesses.

As part of CEP’s support of the Ujima Project, I attended the citywide assembly with CEP director and clinical instructor, Carlos Teuscher. CEP’s attendance at the citywide assembly had two purposes: first, in following the community and movement lawyering approach, CEP believes in supporting organizations that are working to dismantle and radically restructure current systems of law and power, and it is essential to be present in order to be in solidarity with such movements; and second, it was critical to hear the voices of the community that the Ujima Project was supporting and are the most impacted, in order to effectively prepare the Ujima Project’s Community Capital Fund loan documents.

As mentioned above, the Ujima Project is creating the first-of-its-kind investment fund that is controlled by the community. While my involvement in transactional cases generally consists of undertaking legal research, drafting contracts, or forming a legal entity, it was obvious from the start that working with the Ujima Project was going to be different. Because of its community-driven approach, as its legal counsel, we need to ensure that the Ujima Project’s legal documents are able to adapt to its members’ ideas, struggles and demands, no matter how unconventional.

In that sense, the Ujima Project is both a unique project and a large-scale illustration of recurrent challenges in our work at CEP. This semester, student advocates in CEP have been advising several groups looking to form worker cooperatives in Greater Boston, which, like the Ujima Project, require democratic voting. By giving workers collective ownership in their business, worker cooperatives enable collaborative entrepreneurship and help tackle many of the issues poverty lawyers interact with on a day-to-day basis – wage-and-hour violations, health and environmental issues, immigration, criminal justice, and many others. As with the case in the Ujima Project, we need to ensure that the voices of all the members in the cooperative (undocumented/documented, low-wage workers/management, reentering citizens, etc.) are heard and reflected. At the same time, it is challenging to balance the need for urgency in the day-to-day operations and democratic management.

As we pass the mid-point of the semester, I am excited to have been able to interact with communities experimenting with and implementing alternative economic models. As an aspiring lawyer, I have appreciated the need to better understand the community you work for and their needs. Further, as a foreign student at Harvard Law School for the semester, I discovered communities in the United States, who, although being disadvantaged, gather and spare no effort or ingenuity to fight and overcome the systemic struggles they face.

[1]Ujima Concept Paper available at https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/40c717_f16102d86a644584af4c47c72ea2794b.pdf.