Ownership Matters|Issue 16
Inside the Bronx’s BCDI; Worker Self-Management; Entrepreneurship as Spiritual Practice
- Editorial: Educate and Resist
- Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative
- Entrepreneurship as a Spiritual Practice
- Books: Workers’ Self-Management in Argentina
- Among the Canadian Cooperators
- Video Short on The Industrial Commons
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share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkEducate . . . and Resist
By the time this newsletter reaches you, the first Arizmendi International Gathering — both its Americas-wide event and its Australia / Asia Pacific event — will be over. Videos of both events will be available soon and we’ll share those via Twitter.
Along with presentations from Mondragon-inspired projects such as the Comparte Network, The Industrial Commons, Cooperation Jackson, and others, attendees heard from spokespeople engaged in the social and solidarity economy generally: Emily Kawano, Rebecca Lurie, Felipe Witchger, Saki Hall, Marcelo Vieta.
But we began with Fr. Josemaria Arizmendi, the founder and intellectual progenitor of the Mondragon cooperatives, especially in the first two generations of that massive social experiment which in its history has created over 100 co‑op enterprises, of which over 90% have survived. (What VC fund can claim anything remotely close to that record?)
Arizmendi, writing back in the early years of the Atomic Age, claimed that the Mondragon cooperatives had “an atomic secret.” Which turns out to be, in his view, worker-owner solidarity.
And what does solidarity mean in this case? I’d suggest it means two things: education and resistance. Arizmendi wrote, “Let’s marry work and education, let’s keep them tied together in the service of a progressive community, for the good of the people.” He saw workplaces as liberatory schools of grassroots, bottom-up socialism, “centers of social radiation” which could replace capitalism with a classless society. (Compare the vision of Argentina’s recovered businesses, as described in our review appearing in this issue of Marcelo Vieta’s book on that subject.)
What has not been recognized about Arizmendi is his quiet success in resisting the capitalist (and, in his case, even fascistic) environment within which the cooperatives fought to stay viable over so many years. While he made it a practice never to attack his enemies, a few local businesspeople in 1955 decided he had become too risky, even revolutionary, and asked the local bishop to reassign Arizmendi elsewhere. He was saved by the protests of local citizens.
As he once noted, “We do not live in a world we have conquered, but on a battlefield for social justice and for a more human and just order.”
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkBuilding Economic Democracy at the Borough Level
A Conversation about the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative
A third generation New Yorker, Evan Casper-Futterman is a program director with the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI). He is also a board member with the Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City and a PhD student at Rutgers University in planning and public policy.
Thanks for sitting down with us. I noticed on the BCDI homepage it states that you’re “building the future economy of the Bronx.” Which is literally the poorest urban county in the country. That is one massive project.
Yeah, the Bronx is a million and a half people, never mind the rest of New York City at eight and a half million. The borough on its own has a similar population size to Philadelphia or Dallas.
What are the origins of the BCDI?
The BCDI came out of a group of organizers back in 2011, basically Bronx folks, most of whom are still active on our board today. So they carried this longstanding history of organizing and institution-building with them: housing justice, education justice, racial justice, economic justice — Bronxites have been on the frontlines of local and national campaigns for years in all of these spaces. But about a decade ago, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, this group of organizers started to agitate each other around the fact that trend lines in the Bronx, particularly along the lines of wealth, were not getting better despite this organizing work.
And so the question arose, “We’ve been doing this work for a really long time. But it’s not having the kind of transformative impact we need. How could we do it differently or better?”
So a few different hypotheses about what that would mean started to take shape. And in the specific context of a really large-scale redevelopment fight over the Kingsbridge Armory.
The organizers began thinking in terms of the region and wider economic democracy, correct?
Right. They began thinking regionally, thinking about the whole borough rather than at the neighborhood level. After all, the real estate industry looks at the Bronx at a borough-wide scale. We can’t only be thinking about our neighborhood and this block or that block. Take the example of the Armory: that was a 20-year fight to get a community benefits agreement for one building.
So an agreement to create a borough-wide infrastructure that supports economic democracy with a variety of capacities — that was the launch point.
During this planning period, the founders were talking to a lot of people — labor folks, foundations, looking at Mondragon, Market Creek Plaza in San Diego, the Evergreen Cooperatives — big projects.
Right, and there are a lot of possible fault lines in trying to scale up something that ambitious. And I think that we are discovering all of them.
Like the Amazon project for Queens or other large scale redevelopment efforts that are anchored in a very clear-cut, trickle-down model.
You might think your local economics would reflect your local politics — but no.
Exactly. Back in the 2012 presidential election, around the time when BCDI was getting started, let’s say 75% of New Yorkers voted for Obama against Romney. But every single day in New York City we reinscribe and reproduce the same logic of trickle-down economics that we’ve voted against at a national level.
Our local NYC elected officials reinforce an economic development logic that is no different from what Romney, certainly what Bloomberg was about. For decades now, when you look under the hood of most “progressive” mayors you haven’t really seen a substantively different economic development program or vision.
I find it incredible the role that place plays in local politics and how that impacts people’s perspective on what makes sense for certain kinds of economic development.
It seems to be the same battle pretty much everywhere.
Yes, there has to be a different way of doing development. That’s what emerged in the years after the 2008 recession, with the Occupy movement and so on — a deeper visionary rethink.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkEntrepreneurship as a Spiritual Practice
Your background is a really interesting intersection of social enterprise, public policy, and spirituality work — with Michigan Corps, the Lumina Foundation, the White House, New America, and now the Francesco Collaborative. Tell us a bit about how these different experiences fit together for you.
Bringing these seemingly disparate parts together has much to do with my spiritual formation, which has its roots in a Catholic lay movement called Focolare, founded by Chiara Lubich in northern Italy during World War II. The movement’s spirituality centers unity and provides a wide array of practical tools to help individuals and groups move toward a collective spirituality. This has given me a hunger to see the things that unite sectors, disciplines and people. I think throughout the fifteen years of my career I’ve been looking to bring my interests in finance, policy, personal and social transformation together — and to do so in partnership with those who are on a similar journey toward integration. I believe truth and wisdom are often found in the middle of tensions — so the synthesis of these different perspectives — public policy, impact investing, religion and spirituality — can hopefully contribute to greater human and planetary flourishing.
You’ve worked with entrepreneurs and investors in various capacities. How has this spiritual lens on your work influenced your thinking on the role of entrepreneurship, finance and religion in society today?
Let me go back to a visit to Berkeley, California a few years ago. I had joined a gathering at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology to reflect on the “role of the laity” in the American Catholic Church. The laity — quite simply — can be understood as people belonging to a faith tradition who are not part of the clergy.
I had been asked to share remarks at this gathering and my mind went first to the “frontier entrepreneurs” I had accompanied in Boston and Detroit on their journeys to seek partners and investment. I thought about Amy, who was building a jewelry company run by women who were transitioning out of homeless shelters to repurpose fallen graffiti in Detroit. I thought about the urban farmers, the makers, the cooperatively owned restaurant and community space on the still yet poorly trafficked main street.
As I sat with their stories I realized that in some way, they were co-creating with the Divine, finding value in spaces that are often overlooked, in an endlessly creative act of trying to make matters “on earth” more as they are “in heaven.”
I began to see more clearly the ways that we can harness the creative act of entrepreneurship as a space for personal and collective spiritual transformation, and as fertile ground for the integration of spiritual practice and daily life. I believe the Catholic Church (and any faith tradition for that matter), with its reservoir of philosophical and theological tradition and practice — often honed over centuries — can be a center for formation in principles that guide those who are building and investing in companies and organizations that steward the good of our communities and planetary home.
So what might that look like?
First, I think about how we can draw upon our faith traditions to “form principled entrepreneurs and innovators.” In the Catholic world, I’ve found Catholic Social Teaching to be a rich place to identify guiding principles.
Second, we can (and should) harness the institutional assets of the Church, and the resources of religions more broadly to invest in principled innovation and entrepreneurship.
And finally, we should self-organize in more creative ways to integrate faith, work and our daily lives.
Everywhere I look, I see signs of a growing openness to the idea that we need more entrepreneurs, and people in business broadly, who are well-formed in ethics. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere and, for those of us seeking to lead lives of meaning, we must discern our principles and remain grounded in them.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkWorkers’ Self-Management in Argentina by Marcelo Vieta
The disastrous freefall of the Argentine economy in December 2001 and the subsequent capital flight from the country created social and political shockwaves. They also created something unexpected: “islands of political and economic autonomy.” Those islands are called recuperated factories or ERTs (for empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores ).
What the almost 400 such enterprises (mostly in Buenos Aires) demonstrate, argues University of Toronto economist Marcelo Vieta in his latest book, is quite simply what people can do on their own. The ERTs also represent the largest movement worldwide for worker-led conversions of capitalist businesses into cooperatives.
The ERT slogan of “occupy, resist, produce,” borrowed from the Brazilian landless peasants’ movement, is not a call to violence, we should note, but rather to responses through both direct action and legal remedies to address a capitalist system breaking its own rules.
In the aftermath of the 2001 collapse came the growing perception in Argentina that failing companies which owe debt through taking public subsidies should now belong to everyone in the community. In Argentina today, in fact, business owners who secretly strip assets can be taken to court and lose ownership.
(For a good introduction to the early years of the Argentina ERT movement, see the 2004 documentary The Take, from Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis.)
Vieta testifies to the impact of ERTs in the introduction to his substantial book (based on some 15 years’ research), “I have not only seen workers creating new worker cooperatives from out of the ashes of failed capitalist firms; I have also seen them transforming these recuperated workplaces into socially focused enterprises that become deeply concerned with the wellbeing of surrounding communities and neighborhoods and that respond directly and locally to social distress and economic depletion.” It’s an interesting and slightly foreign-sounding concept to North American ears, this idea of “social factories,” as others have termed them.
And yet ERTs, as Vieta describes, are a form of the social / solidarity economy, bringing down the symbolic walls that separate companies from their communities as they double as community centers, free medical clinics, and spaces for alternative education.
The key concept in this social movement is also a bit foreign: autogestión, a term meaning “the desire and lived experience of striving to self-determine a collective’s own socio-economic destiny.” In this process, workers replace their bosses, mostly through learning by doing, but along the way they also typically experience a kind of political awakening.
Vieta’s 600 well-written pages include more analysis and reflection on both the reality and the potential of this movement than a short review here can even outline.
You can watch / listen to Marcelo Vieta discuss his book’s subject in a talk recorded by the International Centre for Cooperative Management, St. Mary’s University, in May 2020.
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy linkAmong the Canadian Cooperators
With about 70 others (total Conference registration of 165), we attended the Nov. 16 sessions of the Conference hosted by the Canadian Worker Co‑op Federation and came away energized, impressed, and better informed. Here are some highlights of what we saw and heard.
The Keynote Panel was comprised of Francesca Zaganelli (CICOPA), Hazel Corcoran (CWCF), Esteban Kelly (USFWC), Kelly Storie (La Siembra), and Jonny Sopotiuk (VALU Co‑op); facilitated by Victor Beausoleil (SETSI).
Topics include the effects of Covid on the global worker co‑op sector, strategies for success during the pandemic, and worker co‑op models for building better together.
- Francesca Zaganelli commented on the inspiring and agile responses many co‑op businesses were able to mount during the first year of Covid.
- Hazel Corcoran noted that the recent upswell of co‑op interest in Canada feels like the similar moment in U.S. interest about a decade ago; there seems to be a “great turning” in the worker co-operative movement in Canada now.
- Esteban Kelly noted that social forces like the “Great Resignation” and Striketober may have contributed to the growth in the number of U.S. co‑ops in the last year — to an estimated 900 or more, over half of which classify themselves as startups. He also pointed to a growing realization that co‑ops as a business form may offer solutions to broader workplace and social questions.
- Kelly Storie reported that the impacts of Covid from their vantage point was increased sales, a rise in home-based business models, and prospective employees who are more discerning about the places they interview.
- Jonny Sopotiuk described his interesting Vancouver-based labor co‑op for artists and creatives, now up to 17 artists with 32 members.
Hazel Corcoran of the CWCF offered some additional comments via email on the event and the Canadian co‑op scene (which includes Quebec and the rest-of-Canada or “the ROC”). Her points:
- “The worker co‑op movement in Quebec is very well developed and organized, comprising two-thirds of the worker co‑ops in the country. Quebec has the vast majority of the very large worker co‑ops, mostly in the forestry and paramedic sectors. In fact, each of these two sectors has their own federation in Quebec. There is another worker co‑op federation in Quebec, le Réseau COOP du Québec. All three of these groups are now members of CWCF.”
- “This type of situation [of parallel institutions] is common in Canada, in other co‑op sectors (housing, banking, food co‑ops, etc.), and in general. It’s partly a matter of language, with most of Quebec’s population being French-speaking, and most of the ROC’s being English-speaking. However it seems to go beyond this and be a preference of many Quebeckers to participate primarily in their own Quebec-based associations and international associations. This is changing significantly for the better of late, and this gives the potential for great synergy between the WC movements in Quebec, and the Rest of Canada.”
share this segment by right‑clicking icon to copy link“Is There Another Way to Do Work?”
Fans of The Industrial Commons — which could be described as a community of businesses — will want to check out a new 11-minute video profile of that remarkable experiment in community building and economic democracy.
Based in Morganton, North Carolina, co-founders Molly Hemstreet and Sara Chester narrate the story of this years-long effort (founded in 2015) to create a circular economy based on the region’s legacy industries — textiles and furniture.
From the Industrial Commons website: “Our goal by 2025 is to support 75 sustainable, innovative and equitable businesses and industry networks representing 10,000 workers who are given the tools, knowledge and resources to be successful democratic leaders in their workplace and sector.” We’re betting they get there.
Coming in Issue 17, December 14
- Brian Corbin on labor and co-ops together
- Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey’s Letting Go
Article ideas? Submissions? Helpful suggestions?
Contact the editor: email@example.com.
The Ownership Matters newsletter is a project under the sponsorship of Community Cooperative of Washington, DC.
- Elias Crim, Editor
founder, Solidarity Hall; former business journalist and publishing consultant
- Júlia Martins Rodrigues, Contributing Editor
attorney (Brazil); visiting scholar, law, University of Colorado Boulder; PhD candidate, civil and constitutional law, University of Camerino
- Daniel Fireside, Contributing Editor
founder, Uncommon Capital Solutions; board member, Namaste Solar; capital coordinator, Downtown Crenshaw Rising
- Zoe Crim, Editorial Assistant
B.A., linguistics, Indiana University Bloomington; co-founder Fair Trade group
- Paul Bowman, Design / Content Mgr.
- Felipe Witchger, Publisher
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