By Art Brown
For the past three months, members and staff of ONE DC organized three Cooperative Learning Journey trips visiting Baltimore, Maryland (Red Emma’s, a coop book store), New York City (Build with Prospect Construction Coop; The Working World, The Participatory Budgeting Project; COLORS) and Philadelphia (Childspace West-worker owned child care coop; Mariposa Food Coop). The purpose of these journeys was to prepare a cadre of people/workers who will invest time and commit effort to building a cooperative movement in DC. Also, a DC Worker Coop Coalition has been established and has been meeting since March of this year to initiate and coordinate a cooperative building effort.
As an added bonus to the Philadelphia Cooperative Learning Journey, participants got the opportunity to attend the US Social Forum (USSF). We took part in the Advancing the Solidarity Economy Peoples’ Movement Assembly and met with Peter Frank, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA). The PMA addressed such topics as: Participatory Budgeting, The Mapping Process of Current Local and National Networks, Urban Agriculture, Cooperative Infrastructure, Land Banking and Land Use Distribution, Divestment and Reinvestment Ethics, Loan Funds to the Grassroots and Climate Justice Projects.
The discussion with Peter Frank of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance was to gain insight into its operation and to receive guidance for the recent start-up of the DC Worker’s Cooperative Alliance. Prior to our return to DC, members and staff organizers from ONE DC held a debriefing session as a prelude to the creation of a cooperative economy in DC. The group agreed to meet on July 8th, 6:30pm at Impact Hub DC to map out next steps.
Figures from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reveal that the wages earned by the low-income population has increased 7% over the past 35 years while the wages for the middle-income group increased some 50%. Also, the income disparity between the very poor and the very rich is quite marked. For instance, DC is the most inequitable city in the US where the top 5th of the wage earners makes $285,000 on average per year and the bottom 5th of wage earners makes $9,900 on average per year. This negatively impacts family purchasing ability and the economic sustainability of low-income DC residents and is a gruesome and scandalous state of affairs.
One strategy to combat and counteract these impacts and to create economic security with a living wage and sustainable employment is to create and develop a network of worker owned and operated cooperatives. Jessica Gordon Nembhard in her book Collective Courage: A history of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, defines the cooperative as “…companies owned by the people who use their services. These member-owners form the company for a particular purpose: to satisfy an economical or social need, to provide a quality good or service (one that the market is not adequately providing) at an affordable price, or to create an economic structure to engage in needed production or facilitate more equal distribution to compensate for a market failure”. The failure of the American markets to create and sustain equitable exchange of commodities for the well being of us all, is a by-product of this nation’s city governments instituting neoliberal economic policies thus, facilitating the onset and the maintenance of income, housing and employment disparities. Coops work to offset these disparities.