Equity Budgeting & Ownership: First Principles & Core Praxes

Potluck luncheon buffet at the Kirkpatrick Church of Christ Monthly Potluck — Kirkpatrick, Marion County, Ohio — January 2020. For more, see the MARION VOICES FOLKLIFE + ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM: marionvoices.org. Photo Credit: Jess Lamar Reece Holler, for Marion Voices.

Our clients often think that equity budgeting is just a matter of what goes into your budget. They’re wrong. Equity budgeting, as a concept, insists that economic justice is critical for racial & social justice in community-based cultural work, and beyond — & that the labor of all participants needs to be recognized as such, and to be compensated fairly. Intellectual property is also a form of labor.

This baseline set of principles for Equity Budgeting & Ownership is designed to help businesses, non-profit organizations, collaborative // co-operative community projects, & individual artists, organizers, & practitioners to expand equity budgeting into the realm of ownership & rights thru practical re-negotiation & re-imagination of core praxes of rights, ownership, & consent in community-collaborative project work. As with equity budgeting for budgets, these principles shouldn’t just be held up as abstract ideals: they should be enacted through your project’s core documents: informed consent forms with community members, contracts with participants, MOU’s with organizations. Ideas are only as good as their material enactments — so we invite you to not just read, but draft along with us, to help bring a more equitable field of community-based cultural work into being in this world, in our soon lifetimes.

Please note: This document is not a substitute for 1:1 consulting for your project // program’s particular situation. This document is provided as a courtesy by Caledonia Northern Folk Studio with the expectation that our contributions will be cited appropriately & generously. It is not to be modified or used for commercial purposes. If you like what you see, book us for a consultation: caledonianorthern.org


  • The more precarious someone is, the more important it is to understand, respect, and proactively respect someone’s rights to their ideas as forms of past & potential future labor.
  • Projects should not wait for collaborators // practitioners to assert rights to ideas & ownership. Projects should be proactively designed to imagine & enact equity budgeting in ownership.
  • Programs & projects should under no circumstances ask collaborators or participants to sign away ownership or rights (use or reproduction) to self-generated material (ideas, writing, photographs, art). Towards a model of collective economic liberation, community-based projects for justice flourish when everyone owns their ideas; & feels free & open to share them, because they can rest in the knowledge that boundaries will be respected & that they can continue to grow their livelihoods & build movements thru their ideas & contributions in the future.
  • Rights & ownership should be made explicit in all contracts & consent forms used by a project or program. If a project or program does not use consent forms or contracts, an MOU should be established between all collaborators and any institution/organization to set collective expectations.
  • Projects should practice a radical, rigorous, reparative politics of citation. This means that everyone gets cited for their ideas. Citation, here, does not just mean “citation in a peer-reviewed academic journal, only of peer-reviewed academic publications.” Cite ideas forwarded in conversations. On Zoom calls. In emails. It’s not that hard to do. And it’s the right thing to do. Radical politics of citation build trust, build justice, & build genealogies that recognize people’s labor while maintaining their rights to build sustaining future livelihoods from the labor.
  • No derivative works from someone else’s works or ideas without their explicit & iterative consent. That means: don’t make something out of someone else’s realized work or ideas without consulting them first, and giving them first rights of refusal to collaborate. This is especially critical for commercial productions. At Caledonia Northern Folk Studios, we interpret commercial productions broadly to include anything that can contribute to someone’s livelihood, career, or well-being — including academic publications, which build cachet & open professional pathways for authors. All parties should be consulted & given opportunities to collaborate or to refuse collaboration for any uses of their materials or ideas.
  • Project design is intellectual property. Let us say it again: project design is intellectual property. And has a genealogy — not only people you should // can cite; but people you are responsible to; and should be talking to. What is project design? Project design includes “infrastructural” or behind-the-scenes “soft” // intangible (ethics, praxes, methods, procedures, processes) and “hard” (forms, documents, statements) practices that make projects & programs what they are. Project design labor is one of the forms of labor in collaborative community organizing that is the most vulnerable to theft & exploitation. Projects & programs should be designed to carefully & proactively guard against this by recognizing, naming, & citing project design labor.


What if I’m working on a … collaborative team project?

This is often the arena where inequities arise in short-term collaborative project work: in the time after the project, when some people (often: salaried professionals, and tenured professors) have funding/stability/resources/paid time to devote to producing derivative works (articles, publications, films, reflections, public-facing interpretive pieces) from a collective project, while more precarious practitioners (community collaborators, freelancers & independent professions) do not. Proactive planning & a solid group MOU can nip the back-slide into post-project inequity in the bud, & set a plan for sustaining equity in ownership of ideas & materials beyond the funded timeline of the project.

What if I’m … working with oral history narrators, or documenting artists, am an artist myself? What if my project is working with people who will be generating their own documentation // arts?

What if I’m … working with “vulnerable people” as community collaborators? Or as core team members?

  • BIPOC individuals, including Black & Brown peoples subject to structural racism
  • Undocumented people & refugees
  • People who do not speak your project’s primary language as a primary language
  • People living with disabilities
  • Contract (1099), freelance, & independent workers in non-salaried or temporary positions
  • Working class people
  • Incarcerated people
  • Children or youth under 18
  • Students (all kinds), in a pervasive culture of “pay your dues” & “work for exposure”
  • People who are made vulnerable by the terms of a project (i.e. kitchen workers whose interviews may be listened to by their bosses or employers)

However, rather than just recognize vulnerabilities for particular team members, Caledonia Northern Folk Studios urges projects & organizations to investigate full project ecologies, looking for power differentials that might exist — or arise — across full project // community collaborator teams. Projects should design to mitigate any inequity that may exist between members of a project that may impact long-durée maintenance of equity budgeting ethics in ownership, including (see above) differential access to resources, stable income, or livelihood after the tenure of a grant or other temporarily-funded project work cycle.

What if … this project is happening in a university or “research”-based context?

Common Misgivings: Or, The Top Excuse for Why Equity Budgeting in Ownership Can’t Happen, And Why It’s a Symptom of Capitalist Culture

“But … I Believe in Collaboration, In Sharing!”

“Why All This Fuss About Ownership?”

“Isn’t This Just Enclosure All Over Again?”

“I Hate Capitalism … Isn’t Intellectual Property Just Enforcing Property Regimes?”

“Equity Budgeting for Ownership Goes Against THE COMMONS!

Yeah. We’ve heard it all. This is the top excuse that organizations, practitioners, & institutions trained in neo-liberal ideology use to resist equity budgeting for ownership praxes & ethics. In an ideal, socialist world, we wouldn’t have to worry about just compensation for labor or its corollary — just recognition & citation of project ideas — because everyone would be taken care of and have what they need. This is not, clearly, the world we live in.

The hard truth is, under the nexus of late capitalism, colonialism, & anti-blackness, praxes of commoning often only further the exploitation of and extraction from people & positionalities that are already structurally & materially vulnerable in this world: Black, Brown, Indigenous, & People of Color. Disabled people. Young people. Freelancers. Less Famous People. The list goes on and on.

Not surprisingly, non-profits, organizations, institutions, and universities have spent the last five decades coming up with 5,000 reasons why people can’t be allowed to or supported in negotiating ownership of their own materials, contributions, & ideas. It’s all bullshit. Until we live in a world without power differentials — which is what the equity budgeting model is striving towards — we cannot enact equity without *recognizing* and *designing for* the inequities that actually already exist in this world.

That — not some retrograde desire to protect ideas and lock them down with the people who generated them — is why equity budgeting matters: not just in your organization or program’s budget, but in your consent forms, your contracts, & your processes/procedures & team MOU’s around rights, ownership, & intellectual property. Because keeping ideas & materials with the people who generated them protects & sustains their livelihoods to continue to build movements towards more just worlds.

Ultimately, as abolition organizer & visionary Mariame Kaba has noted, the ideas should get out there. They belong to the movement. But that’s not an excuse to not recognize, compensate, & protect the labor that goes into the production of movement ideas & movement materials. The only way this work will be sustainable is if we can build ways for people to survive with dignified livelihoods while organizing for more just, more nourishing, more equitable futures. Equity budgeting for ownership is one such way.

— JESS LAMAR REECE HOLLER || Caledonia Northern Folk Studios || 08 January 2021


For more on the community-based projects & movements from which the equity budgeting movement has grown, visit/support the Marion VoicesFolklife + Oral History Program and Caledonia Northern Folk Studios






cultural worker + oral historian who tries to listen. cares alot about justice for working people. columbus x marion county, ohio. caledonianorthern.org.