A column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette written by Boone Shear, anthropology, and Brennan Tierney, a UMass Amherst undergraduate, talks about a recent workshop held on how to organize cooperatives and the history of cooperatives along with the workings of the Wellspring Cooperative Corp. in Springfield. (Gazette, 6/6/17)
By BRENNAN TIERNEY and BOONE SHEAR
One evening in late April, an unlikely group of educators, organizers, corporate leaders, business professionals, youths and community members gathered on the fifth floor of an office building in downtown Springfield.
Hosted by Baystate Health affiliate Techspring and the Wellspring Cooperative Corp, this was the first in a series of events intended to spark conversation and build relationships around a vision for a vibrant, community-driven economy — cooperative development. Over the course of the evening, the case was made that co-ops — businesses that are owned and operated by their members — could be an antidote to the decades of growing inequality, job loss and social exclusion resulting from conventional development.
The workshop began with an icebreaker. Participants were asked to line up around the room in rank order of how much they thought they knew about co-ops. A few self-identified experts were followed by some who thought they knew a little bit, and by many who knew not much at all.
Though the number of cooperatives in the United States continues to grow, a general lack of knowledge about co-ops, even among those who are interested in the idea, is not surprising. Co-ops are often viewed as small, temporary or relatively inconsequential. And what is known about the history and efficacy of co-ops is largely filtered through a European perspective, as the evening’s featured speaker Jessica Gordon Nembhard explained.
Nembhard’s presentation, which drew from her book “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice,” detailed the important role that co-ops have played in black communities and civil rights struggles. Between the mid-19th century and today, hundreds of African-American owned co-ops were created to pool resources, create resilient communities and gain economic power.
Though in the U.S. cooperatives are sometimes associated with white, middle-class communities, cooperative strategies have been “utilized by all groups, in every epoch, on every continent” to create good jobs, to build wealth, and to identify and address community needs. Cooperatives build vibrant, empowered communities.
Nembhard’s recovered history helps us to see more clearly how cooperatives can create local economies that center the needs and well-being of communities. Worker-owned businesses are particularly instructive. Because workers are also owners of their business, they are empowered to make decisions that balance individual, business and community needs. As a result, worker co-ops are more likely to invest in their communities and be socially responsible. Worker-owners are also more likely to be interested in creating long-term employment and to build individual and collective wealth.
Studies have even shown that co-ops are more productive and more resilient than conventional firms. Conventional development strategies that focus on luring outside investment with subsidies and incentives often gamble with community assets, displace residents, suck profits away from communities, and in Springfield have resulted in the highest adult unemployment rate of any city in New England.
In contrast, cooperatives anchor communities in a wealth-building strategy that meets the needs of families and stabilizes local economies.
Cooperative development is already taking root in Springfield. For example, Wellspring has two businesses — a full-service upholstery cooperative and a women-owned window restoration cooperative — among its growing network. This summer, Wellspring will launch its third business, Wellspring Harvest, Springfield’s first hydroponic commercial greenhouse.
Wellspring’s project is also anchored in the community in another way. Following an innovative model made famous by Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, Wellspring leverages the purchasing power of anchor institutions — nonprofits and enterprises that have deep connections to the area and are unlikely to leave — like Baystate Health or Springfield Technical Community College. These anchor institutions provide a local market for cooperative businesses, recirculate capital and build community wealth.
After Nembhard’s presentation, workshop participants broke up into small groups to discuss what they had learned, what questions they still had and how they might want to continue their involvement. Some who were already busy with cooperative projects felt re-energized. Others proposed ideas for co-ops that they would like to see happen or that they might want to start themselves. Still others had questions about some of the challenges and barriers to cooperative development. Is it possible to grow a healthy and wealthy economy from the needs, interests, and abilities of local communities? Can an emphasis on social and community well-being — not just profit-making — truly function as an economic engine?
Though the workshop prompted many questions, what was clear is that through the presentation and dialogue, the idea of cooperative development had become much more tangible. Everyone was eager to learn more.
Learning about cooperatives, their recovered histories and their potential for the future, is a powerful beginning. As a longtime cooperative development advocate said at the meeting, “I think that once people hear about the cooperative model, what cooperatives are, they are on board.” Frank Robinson, vice president of public relations at Baystate Health, echoed this sentiment, “I talk to people about co-ops, and they just get it.”
For those interested in learning more about Wellspring, visit wellspring.coop. To get involved in the workshop series, the “Co-op Bootcamp,” and learn skills to start your own cooperative enterprise, email Emily Kawano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brennan Tierney is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an intern with the Wellspring Cooperative Corp. Boone Shear is a lecturer in the anthropology department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he teaches, researches and writes about community economies and economic possibility.
- Student News