Building Worker Co-op Infrastructure: What Knowledge Does the Field Need? – Non Profit News – Nonprofit Quarterly

I watched some of the films of the other local co-ops…It was storytelling: how they got started, what were the rough edges, how did they get through it, why was being a co-op the best decision for them. And it is kind of cool hearing that because they are all relatable situations.
Vincent Green, Co-Owner, Taharka Brothers worker co-op, Baltimore
In the past decade, worker cooperatives—that is, businesses co-owned and co-governed by worker-owners, each of whom hold an equal ownership share of their firms—have gone from being a somewhat esoteric niche strategy to a common community economic development tool.
As Courtney Berner of the Center for Cooperatives wrote in NPQ earlier this year, between 2016 and 2019, 47 percent of new co-ops formed in the US were worker co-ops. If one considers a longer period stretching from 2011 to 2019, nearly one in three newly formed co-ops in which the ownership type is known (253 of 771) were worker co-ops, an extraordinary development given that historically fewer than one in 100 co-ops nationally have been worker owned. And while the current decade is still young, the pace of worker co-op development—especially in BIPOC communities—has only accelerated.
The need for educational infrastructure to support this growth is evident. Indeed, a half-dozen years ago, Melissa Hoover, Executive Director of DAWI, and Hilary Abell—co-founder of Project Equity, an employee ownership technical assistance nonprofit—identified education as a key element of what they labelled a cooperative growth ecosystem.
Now, with financial support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Democracy at Work institute (DAWI) has developed an online worker cooperative education curriculum, hosted by the New Jersey/New York Employee Ownership Center at Rutgers University, to fill a portion of that gap.
Course instructors include Vincent Green, who became a worker-owner in November 2020, when the nonprofit-owned Baltimore-based social enterprise ice cream business where he worked, Taharka Brothers, converted into a worker co-op. He is now one of five worker-owners of that business.
Green insists that he is not a teacher, explaining, “I am only 26 years old. I am kind of still new to this co-op world.” Green is an instructor nonetheless in the newly developed, online seven-module course, in which he shares the lessons he has learned at Taharka, where he has worked since he was a high school freshman.
When Green started working at Taharka Brothers 12 years ago, the business—then a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Sylvan Beach—had “little to no accounts, one machine, hardly enough money to afford a blender.” The goals of the business at the time, notes Green, were to work with Black youth like himself to build skills and become leaders in their communities.
As a worker co-op, the business maintains those goals. But the scope of the enterprise has expanded. Today, the business operates retail stores, a catering company, a home delivery business, and over 30 wholesale accounts with local markets, which combined generate over a million dollars in annual revenues. Green adds that the firm’s ambition is to become “the next Ben & Jerry’s.” A small step in that direction: the firm aims to start regional distribution beyond Baltimore in November.
 
The worker cooperative curriculum is organized into seven modules. The first module is led by Roodline Volcy of Seed Commons, a national community development financial institution (CDFI) that supports local funds that finance worker cooperatives in over two dozen cities. Volcy’s module provides a general introduction to worker co-ops, covering basic structural elements and outlining different paths through which worker cooperatives are formed.
The next six modules cover specific areas: origin stories of specific co-ops; discussion of how to capitalize on the “cooperative advantage” of operating values-aligned businesses; democratic management; governance; legal choices in terms of business incorporation and structure; and raising capital.
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The modules are designed to be short, between 15 and 25 minutes each, except for the ones on origin stories (split into two parts, each over 30 minutes in length) and the one on cooperative advantage (45 minutes). Each module ends with a set of learning questions, speaking to the fact that, although the website indicates that “there are no interactive activities with other learners,” the usefulness of the web materials would be greatly enhanced when employed as a springboard for community-based discussion.
 
The curriculum developed focuses especially on co-ops in Black communities. One reason for doing so, as indicated by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard in one of her interventions in the recorded videos, is that “the period we are in now, starting with the Great Recession of 2007-2009 through COVID, there’s been a rise in Black people being much more interested and much more connected again to working through and creating worker cooperatives and other kinds of cooperatives.”
According to Gordon Nembhard—author of Collective Courage, the leading historical account of Black co-ops in the US—the current period marks a “fourth wave” of Black co-op development, with the three prior waves occurring during the 1880s (marked by the Knights of Labor and the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union), the 1930s-1940s (marked by the Young Negroes Co-op League and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), and the 1960s-1970s (marked by the Black Panthers and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives).
Green’s story about Taharka Brothers is part of the broader wave of Black co-op development that Gordon Nembhard highlights. Other Black-led worker co-ops featured in the curriculum include Mandela Grocery in Oakland, CA, a food co-op that has operated in the city’s largely African American “West Oakland” neighborhood since 2009; and ChiFresh Kitchen in Chicago, IL, a co-op founded during the pandemic by formerly incarcerated people that prepares hundreds of meals a day for schools and social service nonprofits and aims to expand production to 5,000 meals per day by 2023.
 
While the educational curriculum is meant to be an introduction to the field, a few key themes stand out.
Spaulding, who Prieto calls “Mr. Cooperation,” was head of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, which he led from 1923 to 1952.
Interestingly, conventional accounts ignore the member-run nature of the business he led, even though mutual insurance companies, by definition, are member run and “apply the co-op business model in their focus on policyholders.” In 1903, Walker, an advocate of “Black cooperative enterprise and economic independence from whites,” became the first woman in the US to start a bank, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank of Richmond, VA. Black cooperativism, emphasizes Prieto, is rooted in “African humanism.”
 
Green tells NPQ that he has already seen first-hand the benefits of cooperation, including the mutual support it fosters among workers. When the pandemic hit, Taharka Brothers’ conversion to co-op ownership was in process but hadn’t yet been completed. “When the pandemic hit us, we lost 70 percent of our accounts.” Green says. “A lot of businesses were getting shut down. It should have been us.”
Instead, workers at Taharka created a home deliveries department, which helped save the business. “It was so successful; it is now a permanent department,” Green explains. After wholesale business, it now generates more revenue than any other business line.
At the end of his presentation, Green said he hoped his story would inspire others to launch cooperatives. In his closing testimonial, he offered: “It benefitted me and my family” and every business owner. Co-op ownership, Green added, means that every day he gets to wake up and come to work and know that everyone is working “hand in hand, to build something together.”
Steve Dubb is a senior editor at NPQ, where he directs NPQ’s economic justice program, including NPQ’s Economy Remix column. Steve has worked with cooperatives and nonprofits for over two decades, including twelve years at The Democracy Collaborative and three years as executive director of NASCO (North American Students of Cooperation). In his work, Steve has authored, co-authored and edited numerous reports; participated in and facilitated learning cohorts; designed community building strategies; and helped build the field of community wealth building. Steve is the lead author of Building Wealth: The Asset-Based Approach to Solving Social and Economic Problems (Aspen 2005) and coauthor (with Rita Hodges) of The Road Half Traveled: University Engagement at a Crossroads, published by MSU Press in 2012. In 2016, Steve curated and authored Conversations on Community Wealth Building, a collection of interviews of community builders that Steve had conducted over the previous decade.
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