Ruby van der Wekken: Solidarity economy leadership as an enabler for social change

Activist and project coordinator Ruby van der Wekken visited the University of Tampere in January 2018. In her Leadership for Change Lecture, van der Wekken talked about her work at the Siemenpuu Foundation, Helsinki Timebank, Oma Maa Food Cooperative and the Global Justice Movement.

Being engaged in social movements requires a lot of time and effort but Van der Wekken believes it is essential. Her aspiration is to contribute to a world and economy that is more equal and where there is solidarity towards all people. She has been inspired in this by solidarity economy, which wants to bring the economy back to be a discussion of people’s daily life and their needs.

“The economy”, according to van der Wekken, is nothing more than the basis for organizing our everyday lives, it is not a matter only for so-called economic experts. We can see a lot of economic activity that is not centered on profit making but that have other values. Building a solidarity economy includes via their geographical mapping giving those economic activities visibility and through this enabling more their cooperation.”

Social movements have been for long having a call for radical democracy and more sustainable economy. A coming together of the Global Justice Movement held massive protests against the meetings of G7 countries and WTO in Seattle 1999. Movements then gathered at the first World Social Forum which was held in 2001 in Porto Alegre where participants opposed neoliberalism and financial capital. Van der Wekken said that she was inspired by the atmosphere of the meeting:

“It was a very powerful event. There were debates and panels in huge tents. It was a forum with open space arena where there were no formal positions and leadership was aimed at being horizontal. It was a process of democratic dialogue where everyone was meant to have an equal footing.”

Challenges with radical movements

Developing a radical social movement is not always an easy task. People often have different opinions about solidarity and how it should be done in practice. Many social movements have been opposed to hierarchical structures and want to organize in leaderless groups. However, Van der Wekken brought to the forefront the work of Jo Freemann, as expressed in the book Tyranny of Structurelessness, which puts forward that eventually every group should determine where authority lies to be a spokesperson or have certain responsabitilites.

“The Tyranny of Structureless puts forward that every group has structures. It’s inevitable when you deal with power and resources. Structures can be informal, but you need to have at least one person who will then represent the whole group, for example in the media. Because if the group doesn’t decide who has the authority, someone else will do it instead. A group can at the same time work with horizontality and still have people who have the responsibility, if the power is delegated wisely.”

Sometimes radical ways of organizing economic activity may face problems when the old power and existing structures do not allow people to do things differently.

Stadin Aikapankki is an initiative in Helsinki in which people would exchange their services for time. Each service equals the same, no matter how demanding it is.

The online platform on which also Helsinki Time Bank operates was developed in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is today the largest community currency system in the world on which all groups can intergrade. Helsinki Timebank has over 3,000 registered members in the Helsinki area. When they started the Timebank in Helsinki they thought the principle where the work, needs and time of everyone is of equal worth was a great principle to run a “currency” by. However, the tax office in Finland did not take this kindly, claiming that any professional activity or service received in the timebank should be taxed in Euros destroying the timebank’s equality base. This has negatively impacted the development of Stadin Aikapankki.

Social change starts from the bottom

To conclude her lecture, van der Wekken reminded that the most significant way for change to happen, is for it to happen from the grassroot level. Bringing radical democracy to municipalities would be the first step towards more solidarity in ways of governing.

“To make the change at the institutional level, you have to create platforms for ordinary people to really participate. Such is needed to create fearless, rebel cities trying to stand up to different attacks on political and economic sovereignty.”

Written by LFC students Enrique Montano and Markus Mäki

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