Tuesday, July 16, 2024



4 lessons from the Worker Cooperative National Conference on creating space for equality

Representatives from Living Hope Wheelchair Association in Texas. August 3, 2016 Category: MediumMethod
While all of Philadelphia was buzzing waiting for Hillary Clinton to accept the nomination for Democratic presidential candidate, I boarded a plane to Austin, Texas, to attend the Worker Cooperative National Conference.

Hosted by the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) and the Democracy at Work Institute, the WCNC gathered 400+ worker owners from across the country — including Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance’s staff and two board members (one of them being me). 

Worker cooperatives are businesses owned and controlled by the people who work in them. Despite not yet being a well-known model in Philadelphia, cooperatives enterprises worldwide employ 250 million people, and generate $2.2 trillion USD in turnover. They are a time-tested way to create quality jobs, and worker-owners use this structure to build and secure wealth in communities around the world.

Here are four lessons on making that happen from the conference.

1. Start with an even playing field.

Most sessions throughout the conference, including the keynotes, had simultaneous translation. Interpreters from Community Language Cooperative and the Austin Language Justice Collective ensured that most of the sessions were interpreted from Spanish to English and vice versa — a complement to the fully bilingual conference booklet — to ensure that workers owners from across the country had the best experience possible.

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This kind of forward thinking keeps participants in step with each other and created a welcoming environment for all. For organizations such as Living Hope Wheelchair Association, which consists primarily of immigrants with spinal cord injuries, both language and mobile accessibility were key to simply being at the table to have a conversation.

2. Think globally, act locally. Act globally, too.

It’s easier to say this slogan than it is to live it. In the conference’s Sunday keynote with writer, documentarian and advocate for open source solutions to social problems Doug Rushkoff, the focus was on looking back through annals of history to understand how people function together in society, to understand what works, what doesn’t and why.

“To transform our economy, it’s not enough to act locally — we need to confront global systems,” said Esteban Kelly of Philly-based facilitation consultant cooperative AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance). Kelly noted that acting locally is great, but just as important is understanding the worldwide systems that contribute to inequality and enforce marginalized communities.

3. Be proactive.

In consideration of recent events regarding historically marginalized communities, such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the USFWC has put forth a new initiative: USFWC Racial and Economic Justice Membership Council. In their conference member meeting, the USFWC discussed its role in confronting issues of diversity and equality and supporting people of color and is currently hammering out what a council for the federation will look like.

What does that really mean? The USFWC, which knits together 160 businesses and organizational members representing over 4,000 workers across the country, is ensuring that racial and economic justice is a part of the federation’s core mission.

4. Young people have something to say, if we only give them platform.

A priority of the conference was to include young people. For instance, the health equity convening workshop — full disclosure, I was running said workshop — was filmed by Future Focus Media, including their newest member, a young man named Nori who not only filmed but also took part in discussions throughout the weekend concerning cooperative development.

In Worcester, where Nori is from, Toxic Soil Busters of the Worcester Roots Project is a youth-run worker cooperative currently employing 10 youth between the ages of 14 and 19. Toxic Soil Busters is a landscaping company that helps people remediate their leaded soils. The organization got contracts with the city to work in yards around Worcester to create a lead-safe environment for local children.

The best part? Through their hard work and collaboration with other groups, the campaign has been largely successful in bringing local childhood lead poisoning to a statistical zero, according to co-director Julius Jones.

After a weekend of this kind of passion and tactical commitment to improving lives, who else in Philly is ready to the work? I sure am.

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