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The Reemergence of Social Charters

Another tool for reclaiming the commons

| by On the Commons Team

Detroit activist Charity Hicks at the Great Lakes Commons Gathering at Notre Dame last fall, where the idea of a social charter was explored. (Photo by Bunker Seyfert.)

A social charter is an established set of norms, rules, rights, and practices that define a community’s relationship to a commons and way of governing it. When commons have been enclosed, lost, or forgotten, commoners have historically turned to the social charter as a tool for reclaiming those commons and managing them in trust for their beneficiaries.

In 13th Century England, for example, people drafted the Charter of the Forest to protect the land belonging to everyone from threats made by the William the Conqueror. At a time when forests were the most important source of sustenance, the charter allowed non-royals to graze their animals in the forest and forage for food.

Years later, the South African Freedom Charter put forward a vision for unified resistance to the racial segregation and oppression of apartheid. In 1955 the Congress of the People ratified the charter, which began with this opening demand: “The People Shall Govern!”

Today the social charter remains a powerful, contemporary tool for making change on behalf of the public good. And here at On the Commons, we’ve recently initiated a long-term social charter development process to engage citizens of the Great Lakes region in reclaiming their role as stewards and protectors of the water. Community leaders have already risen up to embark on the co-creation of a social charter that will restore citizens’ standing and structural power in the decisions that affect their lives, livelihoods, and the water itself.

You can learn more about our Great Lakes Commons Initiative here, and find out about the organizing required for social charter creation here.

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