Earlier this month, the Heartland Alliance, a leading Midwest-based anti-poverty organization, released their annual poverty report about Illinois. Their findings are deeply troubling. Instead of mirroring the U.S. government’s rhetoric of recovery and job creation, the report shows an increase in joblessness, poverty, homeless youth, and the divide between rich and poor.
The numbers are staggering— 33 percent of the Illinois population is now living in poverty, up almost 50 percent from 2007. In Chicago roughly 50 percent of the population is living in, or near, low-income poverty. The breadth of the economic crisis in Illinois, and specifically in Chicago, is almost overwhelming. According the U.S. Census, the population of almost half of the Census tracts (neighborhood subdivisions) in Chicago have been at poverty levels for five consecutive decades—which means this crisis predates the 2008 financial crisis.
Clearly, economic recovery has been a failure in Chicago. Yet, as the numbers illustrate, this state of crisis has been a constant in parts of Chicago for decades, and none of the capitalistic frameworks have provided anything more than a bandage.
With a large portion of the population plunged into poverty and more than 31.2 Percent of the Chicago labor force working in stagnant low-wage jobs, how can meaningful and sustainable economic and community development be achieved? According to Dennis Kelleher, Executive Director at the Center for Workplace Democracy (CWD), a Chicago-based organization, the answer lies in the cooperative movement, specifically worker cooperatives.
Worker cooperatives are businesses owned by their workers. Unlike standard businesses, worker cooperatives are governed by a mantra of “one member, one share, one vote.” The direction, management, and funds are equally controlled by the workforce—a truly democratic workplace. Though these co-ops have achieved economic success globally, especially Mondragon in Spain and Emilia-Romagna in Italy, there are only about 300 registered worker cooperatives in the U.S.
“There are not a lot of cooperatives of any type in Chicago and we’re hoping to change that,” said Kelleher. “One of the things CWD is trying to do is create a network—a forum—for cooperatives and collectives in Chicago.” Much like how Mondragon created lasting economic improvement in an oppressed region, Kelleher strongly believes that the very essence of worker cooperatives, the way that they give ownership, power, resources, and control back to workers and their communities, is key to creating lasting structural changes in Chicago’s neighborhoods.
CWD, a four-person organization founded in October 2011 as a “worker-ownership development center,” was instrumental in helping Republic Windows and Doors workers in their struggle to buy their business and convert it into a worker cooperative. Building off of their partnership with Republic Windows and Doors, CWD began working with Austin Polytechnical Academy to create a student-run worker cooperative and with Latino Union and Cafe Chicago to develop a worker-owned coffee roasting business.
Through CWD’s work in the community, Kelleher noticed that people were “looking for new ways of doing things”. Momentum started to grow and CWD responded with a larger initiative, their Cooperative Business Academy, inspired by Cooperation Texas and Green Worker Cooperatives. The goal is “to create sustainable cooperative businesses that will go on to positively impact their communities,” said Kelleher.
The Academy is not your standard MBA program or business school, but rather hopes to develop transformative businesses that are empowering to worker owners, rooted in their communities, generating community wealth, and cultivating a culture of democracy. To do so, CWD will be building their Academy around the principles of democratic and participatory education, with the belief that democratic identities are not delivered to people, they are learned and experienced.
Kelleher finds democratic education crucial to overcoming some of the many challenges of the Academy, such as designing a curriculum that is meaningful and accessible to a wide range of people from different racial, ethnic, lingual, and class backgrounds. To CWD, this Academy is a vehicle to bridge the barriers that have been erected in Chicago. Though still in the planning phase, the CWD Academy demonstrates that the cooperative movement is gaining traction, especially in economically oppressed urban centers. According to Kelleher, this is also part of a more personal ideological shift, and a desire in people to seek cooperation and recapture our democratic identities.
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