Introduction

In 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency over the contamination of the water system in Flint, Michigan, a poor, majority-black city. 1

The crisis was seen as a failure of the government to protect the public after years of disinvestment and neglect of aging infrastructure. “There would not have been a water crisis if we had democracy in the city,” said Nayyirah Shariff, director of the nonprofit coalition Flint Rising. “We didn’t have the chance for residents to weigh in.” Flint is not alone. A Government Accountability Office audit found that, from 2014 to 2016, over 1,400 water systems across the country reported water samples with high lead levels, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines. Combined, those water systems served roughly 3.2 million people.2

In recent years, the tap water in much of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had lead levels high enough to cause “serious health problems,” the local utility warned. 3 The contamination violated EPA  guidelines and was comparable to that in Flint, but received less attention. 4 And like Flint, the problem was exacerbated after the government turned over the management of its essential water infrastructure to an unaccountable corporation, Veolia, which sought quick profits at the expense of the public welfare.5

It should go without saying that water and other basic goods are essential to life—and thus to economic well-being. Clean, affordable water is a prerequisite for employment, safe housing, and school attendance.6 Yet, in low-income, mostly Black and brown communities across the country, water infrastructure is undermined by economic inequality and systemic racism.

For decades, the federal government has invested less and less of its annual budget in all kinds of public infrastructure: from “hard” infrastructure, like water systems and bridges, to “soft” infrastructure, like education and caregiving.7 This disinvestment gave rise to privatization and a loss of faith in government and civic institutions, putting our democracy at risk.8

Government officials should be responsible for redressing past wrongs and providing access to clean water. But in Pittsburgh, it was up to community organizations in affected neighborhoods to demand that the city live up to its obligations and keep the water system public.

The fight in Pittsburgh showed that people can successfully resist the corporatization of essential infrastructure. Community leaders forced the city to provide safe, accessible, and affordable water—and developed an accountability model in the process, by which ordinary people can oversee the public water utility. Organizers mobilized residents to emphasize a simple message: water must remain a public good.

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What is Economic Democracy?

Demos’ Economic Democracy case studies show that another economic paradigm is possible. Right now, people all across the country are building a better future by recognizing their common bonds, reclaiming the civic and economic power that has been forfeited to the corporate elite, and working together to transform their communities into something more humane, more inclusive, more conscientious, and more just—a true democracy, of the people, by the people, and for the people.  

This case study is the first of four in Demos’ new Economic Democracy project, which asks how poor and working-class people — especially in Black and brown communities — can exercise greater control over the economic institutions that shape their lives. This framework seeks to expand how we define democracy and has 3 goals:

  • Break up and regulate new corporate power, including Amazon, Google, and Facebook;
  • Expand the meaning of public goods and ensure that services are equitably and publicly administered; and
  • Strengthen “co-governance” strategies so that people and public agencies can collectively make decisions about the economy. 
Economic Democracy Case Studies

Read an overview of Demos' Economic Democracy Project

Building Civic Power: Equitable Access to Flood Recovery in Harris County, TX 

This case study follows the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) as it worked to redistribute political and economic power in greater Houston after Hurricane Harvey. TOP organizers wanted to change how Harris County allocated relief funds and ensure that the people most impacted by the climate crisis have a seat at the table. To accomplish this, they implemented a 3-part inside-outside strategy: a leadership development program, an electoral campaign, and co-governance work to develop an “equity framework” for future funding.  

Banking for the Public Good: Public Bank NYC 

This case study follows the New Economy Project as it organized a cross-sector coalition of local worker collaboratives, housing cooperatives, and community wealth-building organizations to win public-banking infrastructure in the city and state of New York—the finance capital of the country. 

Standing Tall Against Corporate Power: For Us, Not Amazon 

This case study follows the coalition For Us Not Amazon (FUNA) and members of the Athena Coalition as they organized to prevent one of the biggest corporations in the world from taking over the civic, social, and political life of Northern Virginia and beyond.