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Columnists Brennan Tierney and Boone Shear: Transforming economies to sustainability, solidarity

  • Emily Kawano discusses the Old Windows Workshop, a women-owned worker cooperative in Springfield that is a member of the Wellspring Cooperative, during a “Lunch and Learn” session in June at Springfield Technical Community College. BRENNAN TIERNEY

  • Panelists field questions about cooperative development during a “Lunch and Learn” session in June at Springfield Technical Community College. BRENNAN TIERNEY



Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The monumental 2017 publication, “Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet,” invites readers to learn new ways to understand ourselves in the face of unprecedented social and ecological turmoil.

As part of this rethinking, scholars marshal research that upends the most fundamental unit of biological and social analysis — the individual. Building from the work of famed University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Lynn Margulis, one essay shows the proliferation and importance of nonhuman cells that comprise human bodies. Another essay proposes that evolution depends in part on relationships between species, and not simply individual fitness. And yet another essay argues that collective behavior might best be understood as an emergent process, rather than as a planned outcome.

These growing scientific insights are profound. They suggest that our very existence depends not on individual success, but on a deepening understanding of and attunement to our interrelationships with others — both human and otherwise.

Just as biological research challenges what we thought we knew about our own survival, unorthodox ideas about economy — about how we make, distribute, and consume stuff — are taking hold in communities across Massachusetts. These projects center cooperation and community, unsettling the long-held axioms of self-interest and competition thought to constitute a healthy economy.

Cooperative economies

During the summer, 40 community members attended a “Lunch and Learn” at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) to learn about worker cooperatives, a business model that places collective ownership and decision-making at the center of the action.

The conversation was led by a panel of representatives from four Pioneer Valley cooperatives: Real Pickles, a vegetable fermentation enterprise in Greenfield; Energia, a Holyoke-based company offering residential and commercial energy efficiency services; The Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), which provides social change resources and consultation for educators and organizations; and Wellspring Cooperative, a growing network of worker cooperatives in Springfield that includes a re-upholstery cooperative, a women-owned window restoration cooperative, and a hydroponic, commercial greenhouse.

Wellspring organized the event, in part, to promote and prefigure the upcoming worker cooperative certificate program at STCC.

As the panelists discussed their organizations’ histories and efforts, they made it clear that cooperatives are built from and forge meaningful, ethical relationships between worker-owners and between business and community.

For example, because cooperative members own and control the enterprise, they tend to give much more attention and care to the work at hand. Production manager Mark Tajima from Energia explained that equal ownership among workers creates a dynamic in which “people learn to want to think about the success” of the business.

Lucy Kahn, a worker-owner from Real Pickles, echoed this sentiment, arguing that “making decisions together is super powerful, everything feels meaningful.”

And Andrew Stachiw, a founding member of TESA, explained that the intentional practice of making decisions together leads to insights and innovation that would not be possible in conventional firms. In a worker cooperative “you own and control your own destiny. Most of us have no idea why we do things a certain way; when you own a business you can figure that out.”

One of the decisions that TESA has made is to limit the work week to 30 hours, a decision that has not hindered overall productivity.

Social connections

Though one of the benefits of worker cooperatives is the deeply felt connection it engenders among members, the panelists stressed that they nevertheless work in a businesses that have to be efficient and competitive in order to succeed. But financial success is also viewed as inextricably tied to community and social connections.

Each cooperative at the “Lunch and Learn” was initiated with the support of other cooperatives, cooperative financing institutions and the broader community. Both Wellspring and Real Pickles, for example, used a direct public offering, which helps finance businesses by inviting community members to make small investments and gain a direct stake in their outcome.

Each of the organizations also consciously engages in ethical, social change practices that intend to create healthier communities. Energia is part of a growing “green” economy, TESA works directly with and for social justice organizations, and Real Pickles is entrenched in the food justice movement, purchasing all of its vegetables used for fermentation from local farmers.

Kahn said, “Real Pickles is part of the food system. We do some charitable giving, we pay farmers well, we pay good wages, we are trying to shift the story of what success looks like for a business. Partnerships are what make that happen; a worker co-op doesn’t deliver economic justice to members in isolation.”

Solidarity economy

Emily Kawano explained that the Wellspring Cooperatives is not only creating community wealth in Springfield, but is part of a broader movement to create an economy that puts people and planet before profit. “We can do better. (We can take) pieces that we have in our economic system and marry them to collective control.”

Kawano went on to identify other cooperative economic institutions like food co-ops, community land trusts and credits unions that can comprise a solidarity economy. Kawano is the coordinator of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network. Though solidarity economy movements have a much deeper history in Latin America and Europe, they are also gaining currency in the United States.

For example, a recent report commissioned by the Boston-based Solidarity Economy Initiative identifies eight different solidarity economy networks emerging in low-income communities in Massachusetts, including a community controlled investment fund in Boston, an effort to grow an “ecology of co-ops” in Worcester, and a 30-acre community land trust in Boston that includes affordable housing, parks and urban farming. Varying in size, scope and structure, all of these initiatives aim to build power through economic institutions that encourage cooperation and “collective care for each other.”

At a time of compounding economic, social, and environmental crises, economic initiatives rooted in cooperation, community and justice are showing that our well-being depends not on the individual but on the very interconnections that make up everything from the cells in our bodies to the behaviors of our economic institutions.

Transforming our economies away from competition and self-interest, and toward sustainability and solidarity — toward our collective survival — is certainly not a preordained outcome. However, the growing interest and energy around cooperatives and solidarity economies can help us to learn to live together in new ways as part of our collective evolution.

For more information about Wellspring’s “Lunch and Learn” gatherings and the Worker Cooperative Certificate Program, visit http://wellspring.coop/co-op-businesses/co-op-boot-camp.

The Solidarity Economy Initiative’s Solidarity Rising Report can be found at https://pennloh.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/sei_solidarityrising_final.pdf.

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.