Archive for the 'Cooperatives' category

Cooperatives in Jamaica

As departure for Jamaica draws ever nearer, I am finding more ways that my old life, connections and interests are and can be a part of my new job. Cooperatives and the cooperative business model have long been an interest of mine, of course, and my job as a Labor Reporting Officer will give me a special opportunity to see how coops fit in to the community of workers and larger economy of the island.

Here is a piece done by Farm Radio International, about “A Successful Cooperative in Jamaica“.

Exit, Stage Left

I first took my post in the Assistant Project Manager position on starship CLUSA International Programs the first week of June, 2008.

The decision to leave that comfortable and stimulating world was not an easy one, by any measure.

A final farewell

Embassy of Iraq

The sun was shining brightly on the P Street entrance of the Iraqi Embassy today.

We can hope this is an auspicious sign. Hope.

The county’s Embassy, surprisingly easy to miss, is located on P Street, just East of the bustling Dupont Circle. This area of DC has the highest concentration of embassies of foreign governments – North of Iraq’s is what is called “the African Row,” and on the other side of Dupont Circle is a majority of the EU, stretching up Massachusetts Ave on Embassy Row.

Given the prime location of this embassy, and the fact that the US and Iraq must have not had diplomatic relations until only relatively recently (though I don’t know for sure), the history of this building must be worth exploring.

What is striking, as well, is the near complete anonymity of the Iraqi Embassy. There is not wall, no huge gate. Tall trees obscure the plain looking windows on the second floor. The nation’s flag hangs limply on the yard on P Street, and a small plaque hangs on the wall outside, hoping not to be noticed by the outside world. Apparently you don’t go there unless you have a good reason to.

Cooperative Business and Social Action: West Philly

West Philadelphia has seen a surge of community participation in the local economy, especially along the Baltimore Avenue corridor. This neighborhood is home to the Mariposa Food Cooperative, the Satellite Cafe, a community accupuncture cooperative, and other community owned and run busnisses.
Worker owned, many local products, focus on organic products

Worker owned, many local products, focus on organic products

Kale Smoothie at Satellite Coffee House. Envigorating, in a green sort of way.

Kale Smoothie at Satellite Coffee House. Envigorating, in a green sort of way.

you can tell a lot about a place by the walls of its bathroom

you can tell a lot about a place by the walls of its bathroom

Again, Bathroom of the Satellite Cafe/Coffeehouse

Again, Bathroom of the Satellite Cafe/Coffeehouse

Profit plus Community – Triple Bottom Lines

The uncertainties of our times has brought into the popular discourse an insecurity that it has not seen for generations. We look back at decades of unquestioned prosperity and realize that the safety net on which we garnered a sense of safety has become a frail economic one while our social and civil society safety nets have grown loose fallen into disrepair. Far too many people took for granted the arrival a next paycheck, the ability to make improvements on their home simply by borrowing more money against the value of that same home. Not only have we not thought to put resources aside, assuming that new money would always be available, we also failed to invest in the civil society structures that could support us in the event that that next paycheck did not come.

There is even increasing fear in countries around the world that financial instability is fostering potentially violent public dissent. What could happen to the millions of young, formerly employed Chinese laborers? What happened in the suburbs of Paris to the masses of disenfranchised, unemployed?

No wonder there has been increased interest in the cooperative model of doing business, as well as other business models that have been called “for benefit” enterprises, as opposed to simply for profit. Coops and these other businesses recognize the health and improvement of their communities and society as one of a set of bottom lines, along with making a profit. In the case of cooperatives, the customers of the business are also the owners of the business. Anything but the promotion of the well being and sustainability of the communities they serve would run counter to the business’s own interests.

Credit Unions, the cooperative model in the banking sector, is an especially timely example, as America witnesses crumbling faith in so many of its banks. The owners of these credit unions have no incentive to risk the money of the bank’s depositors/ members – indeed, these people are one and same.

A recent article in Strategy + Business magazine, published by the consulting firm Booz and Company, is but one appearance in the press about how more and more businesses are starting to recognize the need, and benefit, to address social concerns along with the pursuit of profit, whether it is environmental sustainability of the education of the community.

If the incentives to do so are obvious, the consequences of not doing so will prove catastrophic.

Cooperativa Child Care Washington, DC

At the first general meeting of the Child Care Cooperative group, after a month-long effort by the elected steering committee to perform a market analysis, feasibility study, and an examination of the business model, the 15 present potential members voted unanimously to move forward with the formation of the cooperative. There are risks and challenges inherent in the starting of any new business, of course, but this enterprise offers perhaps more promise for success and more potential benefit for both the members and the community than most.

The next meeting begins the important and meticulous process of actually turning the concept into a reality – not to mention a finanial commitment by all those who wish to be a founding member. Not a huge sum, but perhaps a turning point in the mentality of those involved. They are dedicated to making this happen.

Cooperative Child Care: Social and Economic Empowerment

Washington, DC’s childcare market is eternally under-served, and the services that are being provided often fail to recognize unfulfilled needs of the community. While that could be said about a vast swathe of markets in this and other cities, especially when it comes to lower income and immigrant communities, I am writing about child care in this, our Capital, because I can attest to something being done about it.
A diverse group of certified child care providers and early child hood education/ development professionals in North West DC, mostly bilingual immigrants from all over South and Central America, have joined together to start their own child care and early childhood education service, choosing for the cooperative business model as the most suitable model for their entrepreneurial endeavor. When Republicans and Democrats alike speak of “Main Street” and the small business as the “engine of American growth,” this is what they are talking about. As a cooperative, the child care center will have a multi-layered and exponential positive impact on the community, increasing its economic and social welfare.

18 of the potential worker members of the child care cooperative voted unanamously to move forward with the business

18 of the potential worker members of the child care cooperative voted unanamously to move forward with the business

Individually, the members of the cooperative are limited in their ability to grow their business, by a lack of resources, inadequate certification or education, insufficient capacity (some have higher degrees in childhood education and run their own child cares, but are restricted by law in the number of children they can serve in their homes), while others are caught in low paying positions in existing businesses. Together, however, they have the capacity and can mobilize the resources to grow their business, combining their education, talents and experiences to offer a variety of services to suit any client’s need, and guaranteeing full ownership, more economic security, and a good wage for all the owners/ members.

The group heard presentations on possible sources of startup capital, an essential element and perennial challenge of the small business venture

The group heard presentations on possible sources of startup capital, an essential element and perennial challenge of the small business venture

Besides empowering the members of the coop themselves, leaders in their own circles, the business will also have a positive impact on the community. As a cooperative, the child care is owned by a range of community members, not by an outside entity or single business person, ensuring that the services provided are a reflection of that community’s real needs. Since the business is motivated not by profit but by the services it provides (as the members are the child care workers, the coop will provide good jobs and the ability to control the philosophy of the child care), quality and attention to the market’s needs will not be sacrificed in the name of extra profit.

Members of the Steering Committee made presentations on business strategy and market analysis

Members of the Steering Committee made presentations on business strategy and market analysis

The coop initiative, receiving training and technical assistance from the Latino Economic Development Corporation, is in the currently preforming a market analysis and constructing a business plan. The steering committee, nominated and elected by the entire group, will present their findings and propose a business plan at the first general meeting this April.

Coops strengthen America’s economy, grow economies around the world

Cooperative businesses’ uncanny ability to promote economic and social development, not to mention the empowerment of civil society, has been proven in development projects around the world. In East Timor, considerably impoverished compared to many of its neighbors in south east Asia, small stake coffee farmers have harnessed the power of cooperation. Through scale of economy, their coop now provides them with state of the art agricultural inputs and storage facilities, earns them an above average price for their coffee on the international market, and is even helping them to build schools for their children and health facilities for their communities.

But we are remiss to relegate cooperatives to the realm of developing countries and a path to supply services and employment to the under privileged. The development of the Unites States as the most powerful economy in the world would have been unthinkable without the wide spread application of the cooperative business model. Large swathes of rural America, for example, would not have received electricity were it not for the government’s harnessing of rural electrical coops in the critical moments of the industrial revolution, and the economy would never have achieved either its scale or scope were it not for the participation and development of those parts of the country.

That cooperatives are useful only in bettering the lives of people living in developing countries is, indeed, a fallacy. They can be used to achieve the goals of any group of people with a common vision who want to be their own boss and have a say in the running of their organization. Coops thrive in our open market economy for several reasons – cooperation creates larger scales of economy, for one, and individual people and entities can overcome the inefficiencies of imperfect knowledge, lack of communication and mistrust, instead profiting together. The outputs of the coop are both profitable and equitable.

Take, for example, the case of a group of immigrant women working independently as child care professionals in the District of Columbia. Many of these women are working as nannies or day care workers through corporately owned child care centers or referral services, losing large portions of their salaries to the agencies that supply them with work. Other women are operating their own child care services, often out of their own homes – they are unable to grow their businesses, however, despite a huge demand for their services in Washington, limited by their personal resources as well as by the laws governing how many children independent businesses can accommodate.

The realization that the challenges faced were shared by a large number of women in this community and that the goals aspired to were limited by a failure to work together, the appropriateness of a cooperative was obvious. A child care cooperative owned and run by the women that worked there would solve a number of problems. The workers would be their own bosses, and would not be paying portions of their salaries to an outside third party or boss. As the owners as well as members of the coop, they would be fully in charge of the teaching philosophy and methodology offered. The child care and child education would be a direct reflection of the value of the community, able to address problems and offer services, such as bilingual education, that are otherwise largely unaddressed in the market today.

As I have worked with these women over the past few weeks, one thing has struck me more than any other. Any lingering perception that I may have had of the cooperative as a tool only of social workers and charity organizations has been washed away – these women are business people, savvy, intelligent, and experienced entrepreneurs through and through. They are coming together because they recognize the opportunity to grow their businesses, increase their incomes, and be in charge of their economic fortunes, as well as have a positive impact on their community.

A Key Role For Cooperatives in Energy Development

Listening to the President’s speech today regarding his administration’s priorities in terms of energy, I couldn’t help but feel that I was witnessing the beginning of an era that might actually work toward creating a world different from that we now know. As strikingly naive as that sounds, Obama‘s short but meaningful speech laid down a broad plan and made clear his priority to reshape where America gets its energy.

One example of a plan to save energy and boost the economy that struck me as rather simple yet very intelligent was an initiative to weather proof hundreds of thousands of homes. Analyzing the many layers of impact this one action would have reveals the potential multiplier effect.

First of all, weather proofing would reduce the heating costs to home owners, who would then have that much more income to spend spend in their communities. Also, it would necessitate the purchasing of large quantities of building material. Also, it would keep working men and women in the home building/ fixing industry, well known to be hard hit by the economic downturn.

What would enhance this multiplier effect even more would be carrying out pieces of this intelligent initiative using cooperatives. Establishing local or regional cooperatives of home owners as well as home builders would increase the effectiveness of this plan’s economic stimulas in a number of ways. First of all, scales of economy means that materials could be purchased in larger quantities and therefore at a better value for the home owners and home builders. Also, financial inputs would be mainlined into Main Street – income produced by cooperatives is not kept by an individual or corporation but goes directly to the members/ users/ owners. Money would stay local, making investments more effective.

Also, perhaps less tangibly but no less importantly, cooperative organizations increase the strengths of community and business networks and organizational capacity, further facilitating business interactions. Finally, home owners will see more value in their houses, have more of a commitment to their neighborhoods and communities, and will feel true ownership and therefore will be more eager to participate in these initiatives that will, as President Obama says, not be easy.

Cooperatives in the Stimulus Plan, Part II

In light of the massive economic revitalization project being planned by the still coalescing Obama administration, meant to dump hundreds of billions of dollars into employing Americans and modernizing the country’s infrastructure, one of the most promising trends is the rising popularity of the public – private partnership. A model of private sector business that could maximize the impact of this project is the cooperative one. Teaming up with the cooperative business model offers the government an unprecedented opportunity to not only jump start the economy but to empower citizens.

Cooperatives are, indeed, a business model, operating in a free market, out to maximize benefits to their owners. Unlike other models, however, coops are owned by their customers, or members, and are therefore controlled by the same people that use them. This is one of the reasons why cooperatives are such a viable option to make the most of the economic stimulus plan – a characteristic of a well-executed coop is that it will supply whatever good, service, or infrastructure that is needed or demanded, in the most suitable manner for the context. By creating the incentives for Americans to join credit unions, build housing cooperatives, buy into alternative energy cooperatives, etc, the new administration will see America’s valuable money mainlined directly to “main street,” resulting in innovation, the strengthening of an equitable middle class, a reinvigorated infrastructure that makes the most of local conditions, and, perhaps most importantly, a more active and empowered civil society.

Coops provide a key component to the answer in nearly every sector, including health, infrastructure and construction, education, banking, housing, energy, and many more.

For example, a recent experience of mine illustrates how coops appear when there is demand for something that is not being provided. In a North West Washington DC neighborhood, there is no publicly orchestrated child care, and the private sector does not offer any viable options for this group of Latino families. Realizing their common need, they decided to act and Do It For Themselves. Through a contact at the Latino Economic Development Corporation, the group contacted me at the National Cooperative Business Association seeking guidance on starting their child care coop. The coop could not only provide an unfulfilled and needed service but do it in a way that is affordable for its member, all the while empowering these citizens to take control of their own communities and economic fates. Imagine the possibilities if this kind of entrepreneurial spirit was recognized by the government; engaging coops in public – private partnerships unlocks a world of possibilities.

Indeed, one of the most exciting revelations that have become obvious through my work in international cooperative development, often in developing countries where people are forced to provide services for themselves, is the coop’s ability to efficiently reflect the needs and conditions of a given locale or population.