People’s movements are challenging oligarchic power and holding out a powerful vision of robust political and economic democracy to replace it, but our power so far remains marginal, and we are nowhere near ready to govern. To both build and wield mass power, we need to deliver real benefits for people through equitable, participatory effective governance that makes a palpable difference in people’s lives. That requires tying mass organizing not just to policy advocacy but to the long, hard work of building democratic muscles and institutions from the bottom up.

Co-governance, in which community or labor organizations build authentic, power-sharing relationships with government entities, can be difficult and frustrating. But when it’s paired with other mass-power-building strategies and designed specifically to advance equity and build independent community power, it offers real opportunities to effect transformative change.

Co-governance describes a range of models and already exists in various forms—some stronger, some weaker—around the country. It includes models like participatory budgeting that create space for direct democracy by local residents and redistricting panels in which demographically representative groups of citizens have redrawn legislative districts in California, Michigan, and other states. It can be incorporated into the legislative process to inform policy agendas, legislation, and public budgets, but it is most often designed to bring community groups into collaboration with administrative agencies like health, education, and labor departments.

While elections and high-profile politicians usually capture the public attention, administrative agencies are where the real work of governance happens, and oligarchs know this. Much of how oligarchs structure public policy and our economy is by wielding power in the arcane, byzantine realm of administrative governance through which public agencies and delegated private powers like contractors and supposedly self-regulating industries shape rules, regulations, public programs, public spending, and enforcement.

This grossly imbalanced approach to governance gives far more power to private entities like employers, landlords, developers, and banks than to workers, tenants, residents, patients, debtors, and families. And it has left people distrustful of government and other institutions and cynical about the prospects for change. Yet if our movements are able to figure out how to exert power in administrative governance, we can open up opportunities to organize and deliver real benefits to our base, weaken our opponents, and sequentially shift governance power from oligarchs to everyday people through what André Gorz callednon-reformist reforms” and Erik Olin Wright callederoding capitalism.”

Co-governance, I argue, is a necessary complement to mass organizing, electoral organizing, and other strategies within a larger inside-outside approach to transformative power-building. When implemented well, with a real commitment to equity and growing community power, it helps government meet people’s needs, opens up key base-building and leadership development opportunities for grassroots organizations around winnable policy demands that touch people’s lives, and shifts toward more participatory, equitable, pluralistic, and accountable forms of decision-making.

Organizers may balk, for many of us have seen weak, ineffective models like advisory task forces and “public-private partnerships” that offer tokenistic community participation while co-opting resources, demobilizing movements, and providing political cover for private profiteering. But when co-governance is designed and implemented effectively to center equity and community power-building, it can institutionalize—even if provisionally—robust, authentic, and accountable leadership and help organizers build power.

As I recently detailed in a report I coauthored with Partners for Dignity & Rights and Race Forward, people’s assemblies in Jackson, Mississippi, restorative justice in Paterson, New Jersey, and worker-centered co-enforcement in San Francisco, California, help illustrate the transformative potential of co-governance.


People’s Assemblies in Jackson

People’s assemblies are spaces in which community members come together to identify common challenges and collectively imagine policy and structural solutions. They are rooted in cultural traditions around the world, and they are finding shape across the Southeastern United States through the Southern Movement Assembly.

In Jackson, Mississippi, people’s assemblies sit neither within government nor within any one organization. Rather, they operate as an autonomous space for which multiple organizations hold responsibility and to which both government and community organizations are accountable. The People’s Advocacy Institute has been working with Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, and One Voice Mississippi to organize people’s assemblies with impressive results. In the last five years, their assemblies have drawn a total of thirty-one thousand people.

Resident-participants have prioritized issues including public safety and crumbling infrastructure and have directed city leaders toward concrete policy solutions. In 2013, attendees agreed on a resolution to increase the city’s sales tax by 1 percent in order to begin to address Jackson’s crumbling roads and leaking water pipes. The newly elected mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, took the resolution to the city council, and the following year, 90 percent of voters approved the sales tax increase. More recently, in 2018, the People’s Advocacy Institute and its allies held an assembly on community safety and violence. Members focused on the need for holistic crime prevention instead of reflexively raising the police budget. The #FundCommunities campaign grew out of that assembly and succeeded in getting the mayor and the city council to acknowledge the need for an office of violence prevention, back away from increases in the police budget, and redirect $750,000 to fund community-based organizations to lead safety programs.

However, the assemblies’ influence on government so far remains limited. As of last year, the sales tax had only raised $11 million, far short of the billions of dollars needed to properly address the city’s water crisis. And with a less supportive mayor than Chokwe Antar Lumumba (current mayor and son of the elder Lumumba), the assemblies’ resolutions would not get the same serious consideration they do now. Local assemblies have been unable to force changes in Mississippi’s racist, antidemocratic state politics. Years of state neglect for infrastructure in majority-Black Jackson have failed to guarantee residents clean drinking water, leading to repeated boil water advisories in recent years and school closures in January 2023. Now overwhelmingly white state lawmakers are threatening to direct how the city can spend its own funds and, most alarmingly, attempting to expand a state police force and court system to control Jackson residents without any local democratic authority or accountability.

People’s assemblies are thus no cure-all: we need to challenge racist, exclusionary, and antidemocratic politics in Mississippi and everywhere, and we need mass, multiracial power-building from neighborhoods on up to the international level. Yet as consistent, recurrent, autonomous spaces with an explicit focus on equitable participation, just policies, and power-building, people’s assemblies can help build community muscle for both organizing and governance. They develop relationships and trust among community members, reshape the public agenda, and strengthen people’s confidence that change through collective action is possible.


Restorative Justice in Paterson

Several years ago in the Paterson, New Jersey, school district, students, parents, and guardians were grappling with an out-of-control disciplinary system that was suspending up to 70 percent of kids every year, pushing them out of school and sometimes into the school-to-prison pipeline. According to the district’s code, there were twenty-seven reasons a student could be suspended.

Two community organizations, the Paterson Education Fund (PEF) and the Parent Education Organizing Council (PEOC)—the first an advocacy group focused on building relationships with school representatives and the second an outside parent organizing group that would hold direct actions and “go hard” when needed—had been working for years to bring educational justice to the district. Through what they call “gentle pressure applied relentlessly,” the PEF and the PEOC had extraordinary success in changing both the policy and the culture around discipline in the school district, including getting the superintendent to commit to instituting restorative practices in every school in the district by June 2023.

While the PEOC would never shy away from a fight when it would help the cause, the PEF focused on building relationships with the district superintendent as well as countless principals, discipline officers, and teachers. They undertook power mapping to assess who in the district they should talk to and who might be most amenable, and they had innumerable lunches, dinners, and meetings at which they pushed for change, never taking “no” for an answer but also never allowing relationships to become unnecessarily antagonistic. The PEF started by getting one school principal on board, and they worked together to implement restorative justice in that first school, demonstrated its success, and expanded from there. Over time, they have trained more and more administrators, teachers, and community members to facilitate restorative justice circles, and they have leveraged the trust they built over the years to create more collaborative decision-making between the community and the school district. 

In many ways, the PEF’s work to transform school discipline in Paterson is simply good, smart advocacy and organizing. But over the years, members of the PEF have begun to enter into a co-governance relationship with the school district. They train teachers and school administrators in restorative justice practices, hold seats on the district’s facilities team, search team, disciplinary task force, and attendance task force, and have memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with two district schools.

Not all school districts or public agencies are so amenable. But through a strategic, yearslong inside-outside approach, the PEF and the PEOC have succeeded in transforming both the policies and culture of the district, using their expertise to secure official roles for themselves in helping to shape and direct the district-wide restorative justice implementation in Paterson. 


Worker-Centered Co-Enforcement in San Francisco

Low-wage immigrant workers face widespread wage theft and other abuses by employers, but their rights are poorly protected by the legal system. Through two decades of work, San Francisco’s Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) has won strong worker-centered enforcement laws, legal processes, and working relationships with the city and state that enable low-wage immigrant workers to enforce their own labor rights in restaurants and other industries across California. This co-enforcement model combines public agencies’ legal powers to enforce workers’ rights with community organizations’ ability to build trust among low-wage workers who are fearful of losing their jobs, educate and organize those workers, document legal violations, and bring cases to the government for enforcement. Both parties bring complementary strengths that together enable co-enforcement to succeed where traditional enforcement fails. This model has been so successful that the state of California is now adapting and adopting it, along with Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, and California’s Santa Clara County.

CPA and its allies employed multiple strategies over many years to win and build the strong co-enforcement system San Francisco and California have today. In the early 2000s, CPA built a close working partnership with the Asian Law Caucus and strategically challenged specific businesses, first in the garment industry and then in the restaurant industry, to organize workers, highlight employer abuses, and reveal how the existing legal enforcement structure was failing. They simultaneously co-organized powerful progressive labor and people-of-color political coalitions—San Francisco Workers Rights Community Collaborative, Progressive Workers Alliance, San Francisco Rising, and Jobs With Justice—to pass a combination of propositions, ordinances, and budget wins to increase pressure by strengthening city and state enforcement agencies’ ability to go after wage-stealing businesses. They passed Proposition L to raise San Francisco’s minimum wage, building in a mechanism to recover wages even after owners filed for bankruptcy. And when they passed an ordinance to create a San Francisco co-enforcement program, they structured the program so that the city would contract with community groups to help carry it out. They then won that contract together and, in the following years, won additional city funding for the program.

Meanwhile, CPA gained trust in their community, working closely with restaurant workers who were afraid to risk their livelihoods by speaking out against their employers, while also shifting norms in San Francisco’s broader Chinese community around wage theft and increasing political support for workers. At the same time, they built relationships with government entities and engaged in the nitty-gritty of governance. People are the government, CPA stresses—it is not people versus the government—but we need to organize to wield popular power. CPA developed partnerships with the city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE) and increased the agency’s budget, staffing, and powers, building a legally mandated, funded program through which the city contracted CPA and other organizations to engage and educate workers and document and report labor violations.

By tirelessly building relationships with city and state staff and elected officials while also organizing workers, employee campaigns, media strategies, and protests to keep the pressure on when government agencies were dragging their heels, CPA and its allies have transformed the culture around wage theft and worker abuse and created a new model of co-enforcement between workers, community groups, and government.


Lessons Learned and Challenges Ahead

Co-governance models like those in Jackson, Paterson, and San Francisco combine the unique strengths of both government and people’s organizations, delivering tangible benefits in people’s lives that neither party could provide on its own while simultaneously enabling community organizations to build their know-how and power. We need equitable, power-building co-governance in every locality, at every level of government, extending into employment, health care, education, philanthropy, and other private industries.

Yet successful co-governance models unfortunately remain far too rare, and efforts can easily go awry. My direct experiences and, more than anything, what I’ve learned from organizers and people in government point me toward several important lessons for community and labor organizations that are working to design and build inside-outside advocacy and organizing strategies and effective co-governance.


Inside-Outside Co-Governance Strategies

Inside-outside approaches to change are common in traditional policy advocacy. What sets inside-outside co-governance apart is its focus not just on winning a given law or regulation but on transforming the process and culture of governance to shift who holds power at each stage of the policy process and what goals, values, norms, rules, and procedures shape everything. When this succeeds, it helps create a more level playing field for the next policy fight.

The inside approach centers on relationship-building with elected officials, agency heads, and rank-and-file agency staff. Just as People’s Advocacy Institute built close ties with the mayor and city councilmembers of Jackson and the Paterson Education Fund worked closely with superintendents, principals, and teachers, successful co-governance requires one-on-one interpersonal relationships grounded in trust, mutual respect, and common goals. In both these cases, organizers have succeeded in reshaping policymaking and school discipline processes around the needs, priorities, participation, and leadership of residents and students.

Relationship-building must always be matched by independent community power-building. In organizing a committed and leadership-oriented base of members, strategic partners, and coalitions, narrative power, broader community and institutional support, and electoral capacity are all important strategies.

The Chinese Progressive Association’s work is a powerful illustration of inside-outside strategies in action. For years they built close working relationships with staff at San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement and later the California Labor Commissioner’s Office that were instrumental to CPA’s ability to bring cases to departments and collaborate on worker outreach and enforcement. Yet all the way through, they simultaneously built progressive electoral power for communities of color by co-convening San Francisco Rising, the Progressive Workers’ Alliance, and a Jobs With Justice chapter. Together, they elected new city supervisors, passed ballot initiatives, and won new ordinances and budget allocations. At the same time, CPA led campaigns against specific employers to increase media attention and win public support, all while developing political support from key segments of the local Chinese community like small-business owners.


Structuring Effective, Powerful Co-Governance Models

The relationships, culture, and power structure within which co-governance models sit matter enormously to how successful they are at advancing equity and shifting power. There are several institutional design decisions that can help steer co-governance toward more authentic, effective results.


  1. Implement co-governance throughout the policy process: Typically, when government carries out public engagement, it limits the community’s role to input and only invites this input after power holders have already set the agenda. Once it passes policies, government rarely designates roles for community and labor organizations in directing how those policies are implemented or in evaluating and enforcing them once they’re in place. Where movement organizations want more involvement in policy decisions and implementation, they should push for meaningful, empowered participation at all stages of the process, from beginning to end.


  1. Prioritize equity in processes and outcomes: To avoid reproducing racial, economic, gender, generational, and other inequalities, co-governance must place equity at the center of both governance processes and outcomes. Participatory governance models like school boards and local land use planning processes have all too often been captured by white homeowners and powerful property developers. Co-governance is most effective when it centers the needs and leadership of communities that are pushed furthest to the margins, building from the bottom up rather than from the center out. Groups like low-wage immigrant workers, Black students and parents, incarcerated people, single mothers, and people with disabilities consistently face the harshest injustices in work, schools, housing, law enforcement, and other sectors, and thus have unique insights into what is and isn’t working. 


  1. Cultivate community capacity: To avoid tokenization, co-optation, and other potential pitfalls community and labor organizations face when working with government, successful co-governance should be driven by a real commitment from elected officials and agency staff to equitable, authentic community power-building. Politicians and agencies must recognize which communities are not adequately served through public policy and support and collaborate with member-led community and worker organizations in these communities. This political commitment is tough to build and tough to maintain, but it is critical. Sometimes, as in Paterson, building this support takes years of relationship-building and “gentle pressure applied relentlessly” as organizers find allies in government and work to educate and move them over time. In other cases, organizers may need to work to get new people elected to public office and hired into public agencies. The Chinese Progressive Association pursued both these strategies, working with allies to elect a new slate of city supervisors and getting a Chinese-speaking staff member hired by the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.


  1. Make the case for member-led organizations: There is a particularly important place at the intersection of co-governance, equity, and power-building for models like publicly governed utilities and worker-powered enforcement that create special roles for member-led community and labor organizations to help carry out functions government cannot fully achieve on its own. Member-led organizations are ideally suited to roles like engaging local residents in assessing and budgeting for community needs or documenting and enforcing legal violations by employers, landlords, polluters, or other private powers. But they should be given more power than merely the ability to provide data input to government power holders. Government should open up agenda setting, decision-making, monitoring, and enforcement to member-led organizations representing communities whose needs and rights are not met by traditional public policy processes.


  1. Build in legal hooks and levers for organizing: Co-governance can be designed to incorporate what Hollie Russon Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman call “institutional hooks and levers” like community needs assessments, budgeting processes, and legal enforcement mechanisms that provide targets and tools for organizing and thus help organizers build their base and their ability to wield power over time. These kinds of hooks and levers can create myriad opportunities for base-building and leadership development. The legal enforcement powers, co-enforcement program, and budget allocations CPA and its allies built into ballot propositions and ordinances are great examples of this.


  1. Make co-governance enforceable: Policy change is not a win if it’s not enforced. Policies should state clear principles, goals, and measurable outcomes, be tailored to specific conditions, and take care to address the worst violations. They should include legal, political, or economic sanctions for violations, like fines or the loss of government contracts or business licenses, and they should empower those who are directly impacted by legal violations to speak up and initiate enforcement without fear of retaliation. Furthermore, they must transform not just laws but also institutional cultures and norms, in order to reshape how actors collectively behave. Effective enforcement is not a fixed institutional structure that can run on autopilot but rather is an ongoing, adaptable process that requires continual commitment.


  1. Democratize privatized governance: Private powers in the United States like banks, employers, and health care companies have always been given the power to make private decisions of enormous public importance that determine whose needs are fulfilled and whose economic rights are denied. And since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, federal, state, and local governments have steadily devolved more and more decisions of public importance to corporations and other private powers. Where government has abdicated its responsibilities by delegating decisions over how workers are treated, where housing is built and for whom, and who receives health care to private powers like employers, developers, and insurance companies, we must fight not just for participation in the shrinking sphere of government purview but to use co-governance to help expand the sphere of public, democratic control.


  1. Start small, but scale up: The co-governance efforts in Jackson, Paterson, and San Francisco didn’t begin at nearly the scale they are now, and they are still evolving and growing. Community leaders worked to implement their plans by starting small with one assembly, one school, one employer, and one minimum wage law proposition. For co-governance to ultimately succeed in delivering meaningful real-world outcomes, political leaders and public agencies must provide adequate funding, powers, staffing, staff training, and political backing to co-governance processes. But building this kind of political support takes time, often developing one relationship, one win, and one demonstration project at a time. Institutionalizing commitments to co-governance in both law and the culture of governance and scaling up those commitments over time can, as in Jackson, Paterson, and San Francisco, help open up a series of non-reformist reforms that progressively shift power, build community capacity, and begin to transform governance.


Administrative governance may be less flashy than electoral politics, but it is the site of critical decisions like how to assess community needs, how to raise and spend public funds, and how to regulate employers and landlords, and it is thus both vitally important in people’s lives and a powerful potential site for organizing. In tandem with mass organizing, electoral organizing, and advocacy, co-governance offers another arena in which movement organizations can put pressure on government and on private powers as part of a broader inside-outside strategy. It complements them by opening important fronts of base-building and struggle and helps build our movements’ readiness, sector by sector and member by member, to move from making demands to running our schools, workplaces, hospitals, and governments collectively.


Ben Palmquist directs the New Social Contract project at Partners for Dignity & Rights and is coauthor of the recent report “Co-Governing Toward Multiracial Democracy.”



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