From Housing to Health Care, 7 Co-ops That Are Changing Our Economy

How manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, and others are doing business the cooperative way.

Shown here: Janvieve Williams Comrie and Omar Freilla are surrounded by Co-op Academy graduates. Co-ops represented from left to right: Caracol Interpreters, Ginger Moon, Green Worker Cooperatives, HTINK, and Concrete Green. Photo by Stephen O'Byrne.

Shown here: Janvieve Williams Comrie and Omar Freilla are surrounded by Co-op Academy graduates. Co-ops represented from left to right: Caracol Interpreters, Ginger Moon, Green Worker Cooperatives, HTINK, and Concrete Green. Photo by Stephen O’Byrne.

1. Green Worker Cooperative’s Co-op Academy
, The Bronx, N.Y.

Ideas for co-ops may flourish, but few people understand exactly how to make theirs real. The Co-op Academy is providing answers. Founded four years ago by Omar Freilla (who recently made Ebony magazine’s list of the Power 100), the academy runs 16-week courses that offer intensive mentoring, legal and financial advice, and help designing logos and websites.

Run by the South Bronx-based Green Worker Cooperative, the academy guides up to four teams per session through the startup process and has graduated four organizations now thriving in New York City. These include Caracol Interpreters, which is raising the bar on interpreter wages, and Concrete Green, which focuses on environmentally sound landscaping. Six more co-ops are in the pipeline.

“I’m amazed at how little knowledge and information is out there for the average person about how co-ops function and how to start one,” says Janvieve Williams Comrie, whose mother-owned cooperative Ginger Moon also came out of the program.

“That’s one thing the Co-op Academy really provides, the hands-on know-how.” Even money for tuition ($1,500 per team) gets the treatment. Freilla is adamant that teams fundraise to cover that cost—even if they can foot the bill themselves. “By fundraising for the registration fee, you are promoting the vision for your cooperative, gaining supporters, and creating a buzz before the program even starts,” he says. “That is just the kind of support that will propel your business forward, and while you’re doing it you’ll be getting an early opportunity to see just how well you and your teammates work together.”

Red Clouds Cooperative, Photo by Paul Dunn.

Red Clouds Cooperative, Photo by Paul Dunn.

2. Red Clouds Collective
, Portland, Ore.

They shared an active, outdoorsy lifestyle in the Pacific Northwest. They shared a talent for creative work. It seemed logical for the group of friends to leave their corporate jobs to form Red Clouds Collective, a Portland manufacturer of handcrafted canvas and leather gear. The worker-owner cooperative pools the talents of a variety of artists and allows them to make a living as craftsmen beyond what any of them could do individually. A percentage pay system benefits the original designer, the assembler, and the collective. After one year, business is great. What’s popular? theGOODbook™, a leather wallet/iphone case/sketchbook all in one. From left, Owen Johnson, Seth Neefus, Jason Thomas Brown, and Casey Neefus in their garage-turned-factory.

Seward Community Cafe, Photo by Paul Dunn.

Seward Community Cafe, Photo by Paul Dunn.

3. Seward Community Cafe
, Minneapolis

It’s one thing to run a successful cooperative business, and quite another to lend a hand to the competition. But that’s exactly what the Seward Cafe in Minneapolis did, loaning $10,000 to Hard Times Cafe when the nearby worker-run restaurant was struggling through an extended closure due to repairs. “They’re like our little sister,” says Nils Collins, a worker at Seward, which is the oldest collectively run restaurant in the country. “We can’t function in an environment where everything is corporate-owned. It’s a lot more effective to have mutual support and solidarity.” The two businesses often help each other with tax-form preparation and even food delivery. “We call it a friendly rivalry,” said Hard Times’ bookkeeper Rozina Doss. “A worker-run business has its own set of difficulties, so our relationship is just a recognition that other people have the same commitment that we do to changing the way work is done.”

4. Patient/Physician Co-ops
, Houston

Don McCormick, a former health insurance executive, opened a free, charity-funded clinic to better understand the problems in health care and stumbled onto something that surprised him: Uninsured people were willing to pay a nominal monthly fee—like $18—if it guaranteed access to medical care. Then McCormick learned that doctors actually earned more by billing patients directly—even at those nominal fees—than they did by going through Medicare, Medicaid, or HMOs. With that realization, McCormick founded the Houston-based Patient/Physician Cooperative in 2005, which now has 60 participating clinics. Members of PPC function as a group, which allows them to purchase health care at affordable prices. There are no co-payments or qualifications for those with pre-existing conditions, and the model has since spread to North Carolina and Portland, Ore. “This turned into a very practical solution,” McCormick says, “and it’s better than what anyone else is proposing.”

5. Community Food Forest
, Providence, R.I.

The new plantings at Roger Williams Park hover around three feet tall. But in a few years, they’ll sprout leafy greens and medicinal herbs. All will be available to harvest for free, along with wild mushrooms, tubers, and fiber. The edible forestry project, which broke ground in April 2012, is a partnership between the University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners and city officials at Roger Williams Park. The location is no accident. More than 83 percent of nearby residents live in a USDA-declared food desert, with little access to supermarkets selling fresh produce. But in years to come, the edible forest, which sits adjacent to a community garden, will provide nuts, mulch, fruit, and fuel. Similar projects are popping up in other urban areas. The Beacon Hill Food Forest in Seattle—funded in part with a $20,000 grant from the city’s Department of Urban Neighborhoods—is the largest edible forest on public land in the nation.

Photo courtesy of Quimper Mercantile

Photo courtesy of Quimper Mercantile

6. Community-Owned Mercantile, Port Townsend, Wash.

“We live here, work here, invest here. We just want to buy some socks here,” reads the motto of Quimper Mercantile in Port Townsend, Wash. After the town’s general store closed in 2011, residents of this out-of-the-way town found themselves with few nearby options for buying basic goods, and they weren’t interested in inviting Wal-Mart to move in. Their solution? A dozen activists and business owners raised $50,000, formed a corporation, and began selling shares to friends and neighbors. To date, 1,008 folks have invested—a hundred-dollar share at a time—$570,000, and Quimper Mercantile opened for business in October 2012. When the bankroll reaches $950,000 investors can start trading their shares. “We’re a for-profit venture, not a co-op,” says Peter Quinn, CEO. “So it’s essentially buying stock in a startup, with all the usual possibilities and risks.” At this fledgling stage, participation is motivated less by profit-seeking than community-building. “A much more altruistic purpose,” Quinn says.

Cooperative Land by Ben Guss

Cooperative Land by Ben Guss

7. Buying land as a cooperative, 
Duvall, Wash.

Mobile homes provide a source of long-term, low-income housing but, vulnerable to rate increases or eviction, it’s hardly stable. Last year, in Duvall, Wash., 24 mobile-home dwellers joined to create a cooperative and purchase their trailer park. Final price: $1.18 million. That sounds pretty steep, but Ben Guss, a facilitator with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, linked the residents to funding through ROC USA Capital, which has made loans to 125 such communities across the country. For the Duvall project, ROC partnered with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, and now for $475 a month—just $15 more than they were paying before—each member of the newly-named Duvall Riverside Village Co-op is an owner. “It’s great to change from having Damocles’ Sword in the air that you know can fall,” said Stewart Davidson, who lives there and serves as board president. “When I pass, my wife can live here and not be worried about having a knock on the door with someone saying, ‘Here’s your notice, you’re out.’”

Claudie Rowe wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Claudia has been an award-winning social issues journalist for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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