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Worcester Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance

Sowing solidarity economy vision and seeding an ecology of coops

Background

The Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance (SAGE) was born in 2011, a re-branding of the Worcester Green Jobs Coalition that was formed in 2008 by community, environmental, and labor partners. Located in central Massachusetts, Worcester is the state’s second largest city (~180,000). The alliance changed its name because it wanted to create and control green jobs rather than rely on green jobs provided by corporate capitalism.[i] SAGE sees itself as part of a “movement to create a new world that puts people and the environment before profit,” which requires creating economic alternatives, resisting and reforming inequalities, and ending racism, sexism, and other forms of exclusion.[ii]

SAGE is building an “ecology of coops” which includes more than a dozen emerging and established coops and coop-supporting organizations. These coops are driven by youth and adults from lower-income communities of color and progressive white residents and allies. Some coops are matching resident skills to meet community needs, such as landscaping, soil remediation, honey production, and urban agriculture. Others are providing services to movement organizations, such as translation, video production, and bookkeeping. The SAGE network also includes a worker-owned robotics company, two cooperative maker spaces, and an employee-owned union print shop. One of SAGE’s current priorities is building an anchor institution strategy similar to Wellspring, starting with the creation of a solidarity economy map of the Worcester region.

SAGE is anchored by Worcester Roots, a nonprofit that is “sprouting up cooperatively owned and green initiatives for social and environmental justice.”[iii] Roots began as an environmental justice organization in 2001. It launched Toxic Soil Busters in 2005, which trains and employs youth as organizers and lead-safe landscapers and has become a youth worker-owned enterprise. Roots now houses several coops and provides technical assistance, training, and fiscal sponsorship for coops. The organization operates as a staff collective, modeling the cooperative and democratic principles it promotes.

Roots is housed in Stone Soup Community Resource Center, which Roots leaders helped establish in 2006. Stone Soup is also cooperatively run. It rents space to more than a dozen community organizations, such Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), Worcester Earn-a-Bike, Stand Up for Kids Worcester, ACLU of Central Massachusetts, Worcester Immigrant Coalition, and a Food Not Bombs chapter.[iv]

SAGE has held annual gatherings since 2011 to foster solidarity economy vision and build its network. These conferences have been as large as 200 and have included participants from across Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These gatherings have also connected local activists to the broader solidarity economy movement, for example through a video conference in 2012 with Daniel Tygell, former executive secretary of the Brazilian Forum of Solidarity Economy. SAGE also holds monthly meetings to discuss local work on just transition, climate justice, and energy democracy, and to inform members of regional, national, and international movement happenings.

While SAGE is focused on building economic alternatives, it is also interlinked to other social justice organizing and policy advocacy work in Worcester. One of these is the Worcester Community Labor Coalition (WCLC), which fights for city policy and resources to support living wages, for access to good jobs, and for economic development that is also community development. These campaigns include leadership from some of SAGE’s member organizations and have built critical alliances between unions and community. When Stone Soup suffered a devastating fire in 2009, union carpenters and plumbers donated labor, materials, and management expertise to rebuild this space, delivering a million-dollar building for about half the cost.

Key Learnings

SAGE is part of a movement ecosystem in Worcester that is both fighting for reforms and creating alternatives. SAGE is explicit about this “dual power” approach through its principles. David Minasian of the Carpenters union, who also coordinates the Worcester Community Labor Coalition, sees “two ways of interacting with the conditions of existence. One is interacting in the systems that are there now to redirect resources to make them as beneficial to our communities as we can, like going after TIFs [tax subsidies to developers], local subsidies, and creating the jobs fund. Then there’s creating the new economy now, whether that’s the coop side or other examples.”

But that does not mean that SAGE is trying to do it all on its own. SAGE keeps its primary focus on building the alternatives. According to Matt Feinstein, a co-director of Worcester Roots and coordinator of SAGE, “in Worcester where there’s limited capacity and only so many of us, it’s figuring out where we can build the alliances so we can have the ecology where everyone doesn’t have to do everything. EPOCA and Neighbor to Neighbor can do the State House engagement. Other groups can be more focused in the youth coop arena, like Worcester Roots. But we can see our struggles as intertwined and do trainings together.”

The Worcester Community Labor Coalition exemplifies how resist and reform strategies can build “old school solidarity [that] has not only amplified our voices but increased our political power,” according to Minasian. He believes that “just working together with a campaign focus and being politically engaged with groups and individuals who haven’t traditionally worked together, that is also creating a sense of solidarity economy.”

Courtesy of Worcester Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance

The solidarity ties are also built through bricks and mortar projects, such as the rebuilding of Stone Soup. Minasian says that some of the union workers who volunteered on the project “are not ideologically on the level of thinking about the solidarity economy,” but they knew that Stone Soup housed many of “the folks who are working with us on a responsible employer ordinance” and that “without that community base, there would be no community to be in coalition with.” Minasian “wanted to make sure that we built community while rebuilding the community.” This idea was translated into the Coalition’s principle that economic development should also be community development.

SAGE and its leaders have been intentional and explicit about building a more racially diverse base. After SAGE’s first conference, there was a self-critique that the participants were mostly white, college-educated folks. Thus, SAGE’s committed to a principle of ending social exclusion of all kinds, and they have focused internally on undoing racism workshops and diversifying leadership and participation.

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Roots co-director Julius Jones sees solidarity economy as a pathway to racial justice and healing that is necessary for transformation. He came to the idea of coops from reading W. E. B. Dubois and learning that many other black liberation leaders also promoted cooperative alternatives. He says “a big part of the oppression that the black community especially, but all economically exploited communities face is lack of control over economic resources in their communities.” He believes that “you can’t get free without controlling your resources. Freedom is a solidarity state... A big part of that is healing from the damages of oppression. The economic work and redistribution of wealth and controlling the resources of our community would be some of the healing of external oppression. The internal oppression is the emotional and spiritual wounds that happen from oppression.”

SAGE and its members draw from a culture of deep democratic practice. This is reflected in Roots staff collective and Stone Soup’s cooperative governance. When Roots first offered a Coop Academy in 2013, that program itself was also cooperatively resourced and planned. The nine participating groups each had to fundraise $800 in order to hold the ten-week training. Groups could do work trades, and funds were also raised for scholarships.

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Courtesy of Worcester Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance

A lot was learned from the Coop Academies and efforts to incubate coops from within nonprofits. Shane Capra, the Roots staff member who coordinated the first Coop Academy, notes that many of the participant groups “had youth programs. They were thinking about going in a coop direction. They were nonprofits, and a lot of those people are realizing that a coop wouldn’t work in their nonprofit.”[v] Capra further explains, given “the amount of work that it takes to start a business, [it] isn’t necessarily going to give you returns for your nonprofit.”[vi] Stephen Healy, who was involved in EPOCA’s effort to incubate a biodiesel processing business (called Empower) says that “it’s very difficult to serve two masters, and running a business is one, and running a viable nonprofit that does advocacy work or justice work, it’s another.” [vii] He believes that as long as Empower was still relying mostly volunteer labor, it was possible for EPOCA to manage. But if it wanted to be more than a “hobby” business, it needed to make the decision to run it like a business—and that would bring into tension the priorities of the nonprofit and that of the business.[viii]

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Nonprofits trying to incubate businesses also found they needed business, legal, and technical skills that were beyond their core competencies. The youth enterprise Drop it Like It’s Hot Sauce, incubated out of the Regional Environmental Council, found that it could not be entirely youth-driven, as there are many regulations and certifications that required adults to complete. In rebuilding Stone Soup, Minasian found an experienced general contractor to be the lead, but who also was committed to the vision.

Despite the challenges, SAGE continues to grow organically and develop strategies for “scaling up”. Many of the efforts are small scale, and intentionally so, to ensure authentic democratic practice. For Dania Flores, a worker-owner of Access Consulting, “scale is a very North American model. Even though there is huge success in big coops, I feel that you lose that real democracy of the small scale. I worry that it might become like some unions and other organizations that are more top down.” Feinstein believes “we can go to scale by having many democratic social enterprises and coops, but I do think that we also need to have some larger ones just for longevity’s sake... that can anchor the smaller initiatives that come and go as the needs of the community change.” Roots Youth Leadership Coordinator, Sabbatina Konadu says that “it’s like a tree. We start with the people around us, by educating the youth workers here, so they can branch out to other people to their families and the community.

In addition to community-driven coops, SAGE is also weaving into its network established coops, like UMass Five College Credit Union. It includes Neuron Robotics, Workster, and Tecnocopia, which are innovation economy maker spaces that are also cooperatively run. It is also connected with WorX, a printing cooperative that is the first union coop in Massachusetts. WorX is affiliated with the United Steel Workers, which has a partnership with Mondragon in Spain.

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Courtesy of  Stone Soup Community Center

Courtesy of Worcester Roots

Ultimately, SAGE’s solidarity economy journey is propelled by both vision and necessity. The rebuilding of Stone Soup perhaps sums up how the ecosystem in Worcester is advancing. According to Minasian, “it wasn’t just a visionary thing but just practical. We lacked the resources so we had to figure out how to work together to make it happen.” The lesson learned for Minasian is that “you can think big and make stuff happen. You’ll be surprised by what people will do together.”

 

[i] http://www.worcestersagealliance.org/?page_id=707

[ii] http://www.worcestersagealliance.org/?page_id=239

[iii] http://www.worcesterroots.org/about-2/about/

[iv] http://www.stonesoupworcester.org/

[v] Interview with Shane Capra 5/19/14 by Stephen Healy, Solidarity Economy Mapping Project.

[vi] Interview with Shane Capra 5/19/14 by Stephen Healy, Solidarity Economy Mapping Project.

[vii] Interview with Shane Capra 5/19/14 by Stephen Healy, Solidarity Economy Mapping Project.

[viii] Stephen Healy, “Biofuels, Ex-felons, and Empower, a Worker-Owned Cooperative,” in Making Other Worlds Possible, eds. Gerda Roelvink, Kevin St. Martin, and J. K. Gibson-Graham (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p18-19.