Survival of the fittest: The phrase brings to mind the flashiest examples of nature’s competition, red in tooth and claw. There’s easy drama in a tiger dragging down the slowest boar or a pack of wolves hounding a sick deer. And because of this highly visible struggle, says Zev Friedman, “competition gets all the press.”
But Friedman, a Black Mountain-based permaculture educator and consultant, argues that nature’s most successful pattern is one of cooperation. Much of a forest’s strength, he points out, comes about by thousands of individual trees sharing nutrients and chemical signals through a network of fungi called mycorrhizae.
As humanity faces the complex challenge of climate change, Friedman suggests, trees make better role models than tigers. That’s the impetus behind Co-operate WNC, an initiative he launched in February to connect individuals and organizations and build problem-solving capacity throughout Western North Carolina.
While the project is still in its early stages, Friedman envisions eventually establishing a network of physical hubs throughout WNC that combine carbon-capturing agriculture with community services such as health care, access to credit and education. A community credit union, savings pools and other cooperative economic strategies would provide the support needed to make the operation sustainable.
“This is giving us a way to organize at a regional scale around carbon farming and climate resilience,” Friedman says. “Us doing little stuff in our backyards is not adding up to climate resilience — I wish it were, but it’s not.”
Aid for all
At the core of Co-operate WNC, Friedman explains, is the concept of mutual aid: people voluntarily combining resources at a level more than an immediate family or village but less than a formal government. This approach, he says, yields groups that are both large enough to benefit from economies of scale and small enough to stay truly accountable to their members.
In the U.S., Friedman notes, mutual aid societies have often been formed by racial, cultural or religious groups in response to exclusion from the formal economy. During the Jim Crow era, he says, African Americans joined their individually modest wealth together in societies that could together purchase farmland, establish hospitals and provide legal aid to those in need.
“That wasn’t vulnerable to the political whims of the federal government,” Friedman says. “It wasn’t funded by corporations or friendly businesses. It was funded by them pooling resources to do what needed to be done.”
In contrast to these historical mutual aid societies, Co-operate WNC would be united not by a common demographic identity, but by a shared set of permaculture values: caring for the earth, caring for people and working toward economic and social justice. “It’s one of the most tender unknowns,” Friedman says, when asked if a strong mutual aid group can arise from a diverse membership without existing racial or cultural ties.
“My theory is that we can work with that. One of the functions [Co-operate WNC] can serve is to respond to the demand of the times that we not be siloing ourselves by ethnic and cultural groups,” he continues. “This kind of effort can act as a connective circulation system between what had been siloed communities.”
Toe in the pool
The initiative is currently hosting events such as a mutual aid learning circle and a planned August summit, but Friedman acknowledges that education alone won’t build the trust needed for Co-operate WNC to succeed. Among its first tangible steps, he suggests, could be the establishment of member savings pools.
Under that framework, small groups of 10-30 people gather monthly to contribute a regular sum, then take turns withdrawing the whole pool for needs such as business seed capital or mortgage payments. The regular meetings and frank discussion help members build community as well as wealth. “They’re coming to someone’s living room, having a meal, sometimes doing a work party, and then putting in money and talking about financial situations in their lives,” Friedman explains.
Co-operate WNC has drawn local inspiration from the Emma community in West Asheville, Friedman says. The area’s large Hispanic, mostly working-class population has banded together through the PODER Emma Cooperative network, which uses savings pools to fund efforts such as purchasing mobile home parks to ensure stable, affordable housing for residents.
“Many things have bloomed from this cooperation, economically, socially and culturally,” says Mirian Porras, co-coordinator of PODER Emma. “This network of co-ops has brought us together and is holding the space for the community to have the tools to change our lives and our future.”
Porras says the network is now looking to plant sustainable gardens throughout Emma — an avenue to team up with Friedman and Co-operate WNC. In turn, she says, her community can share its own expertise on cooperative economics, laying the groundwork for even deeper collaboration to come.
“I think society sometimes works in a way where people are alienated because we don’t spend enough time together,” Porras says. “I think trust is built on relationships and the time you spend with other people to learn, especially when there are different communities, culturally, ethnically and racially.”
Partners and potential
Friedman admits there’s a long way to go — and millions of dollars — between small-scale savings pools and a regional network of mutual aid hubs. An anonymous donor and a Patreon campaign, he says, have allowed him to work full time on the project, but he’s exploring collaborations with other community groups to ramp up the initiative.
Sam Ruark-Eastes, executive director of the nonprofit Green Built Alliance, says he’s spoken with Friedman about supporting Co-operate WNC with the group’s Appalachian Offsets. This voluntary carbon credit program, he explains, allows individuals and businesses to calculate their carbon footprint, then donate to regional projects that offset their carbon emissions.
Co-operate WNC’s proposed demonstration sites for carbon-sequestering agricultural practices, Ruark-Eastes says, would be an innovative solution for Appalachian Offsets to fund. “Because we’re a local nonprofit, we have flexibility to be able to support projects that are unique and can be a model for other places,” he adds.
Friedman has also been in talks with Jane Hatley, the WNC director for Self-Help Credit Union and member of the WNC New Economy Coalition, about how Co-operate WNC might leverage savings pools as collateral to secure capital for larger projects like solar panels and health care facilities. While she stresses that the discussion is at a “very informal and exploratory” phase, she’s encouraged by the effort.
“These are all really exciting models to me, because it’s kind of working outside the system that exists, which tends to restrict the ability of certain groups to build wealth and assets,” Hatley says. “For our community, especially with the huge disparities, there’s got to be creative methods to answer the tremendous needs.”
As the initiative works to gain its footing, Friedman says, he stays motivated by the responses he’s received from people throughout WNC. “Everyone is starving for community and starving for real, authentic, intimate connection and relationships,” he says. “If we can give a little of that possibility, a lot of people just leap at that feeling of being together in something bigger than ourselves.”