Building Engaged Communities: Why Xavier is promoting the cooperative movement

When I spoke with Timothy Kraus, interim director of Interfaith Business Builders, he was in the middle of a history tour of the South, exploring significant landmarks related to abolition, the Civil Rights movement and blues music.

As a key player in Cincinnati’s cooperative movement, Kraus made a conscious decision to tour the South. Visiting these towns and landmarks is a part of his attempt to understand the history of a community strategy that is already taking flight in our city.

“People are slowly beginning to realize that cooperatives are not necessarily a new idea,” Kraus says. “Co-ops in the South were one of the strategies newly freed slaves used to sustain themselves. They have always been critical to pulling people through hard times.”

Today, Cincinnati’s role in the cooperative movement is rapidly expanding. Over the next year, by teaming up with a number of co-op organizations around town, Xavier University will host a three-part conference to spread the word about cooperative influence in Cincinnati and beyond; the first gathering is Nov. 12.

'Businesses rooted in the community better the community'

By definition, a cooperative business is one that exists for the benefit of those using it services. “User-owners” distribute profits and earnings among themselves. Cooperatives are often created for a specific cause or need, creating jobs for disenfranchised individuals or contributing to overall sustainable community development.

“Cooperative businesses can be great tools in low income neighborhoods to keep the money in the neighborhood,” Kraus says. “There’s a lot of money that flows through every neighborhood, but it never stays in the neighborhood.”

He says the number of “absentee landlords and business owners” in economically stressed communities is part of the problem cooperatives hope to solve.

“Businesses rooted in the community better the community,” Kraus says. “They're a way to bolster a struggling economy in a local neighborhood.”

After a long career in teaching, Kraus retired in the hopes of putting his energy into something completely different. Enter Interfaith Business Builders, one of Cincinnati’s most established worker-owned cooperative builders. Since 1983, IBB has worked with over 400 underemployed or chronically unemployed people to help them find a place in their community’s economy.

According to Kraus, IBB began as Jobs for People, the religious community's attempt to find the root causes of unemployment and poverty. The organization recognized that solution required more than employment opportunities. They needed to create ways for chronically unemployed people to find pride and ownership in their work.

“Marginalized people should be able to be participants in the economy,” Kraus says.

One of their longstanding businesses, Cooperative Janitorial Services, has been in existence for 20 years and supports 15 individuals and their families. These same families are user-owners of the profitable cooperative, which boasts an impressive client base ranging from churches and social services agencies to Towne Properties apartment complexes.

Another example of IBB's influence is Community Blend Coffee, an Evanston-based coffeehouse that's been in existence for about a year and a half. Like any brand new business, Community Blend is still fighting for break-even status, though its impact on the neighborhood is already apparent.

Xavier's involvement

Community Blend's impact is exactly why Xavier University has turned its attention to the cooperative movement.

“Through that co-op in particular, Xavier became more interested in what was going on,” says Gabe Gottlieb, philosophy professor and director of Xavier's Ethics/Religion and Society program. “We saw it as both an educational opportunity and an opportunity to support and help out the blossoming movement.”

Xavier's newfound mission to educate both students and the community about these economic business models stems from the school's longstanding values. Its Ethics/Religion and Society Department as well as its Sustainability Department have been studying the impacts of co-ops for years; members of Xavier’s own Board of Trustees are actively involved in cooperative organizations across the country.

Not only that, but as a Jesuit institution, Xavier is always looking for more ways to provide service to those in need.

“(The cooperative movement) has built in the kind of values that Xavier promotes,” Gottlieb says.

Xavier began organizing a conference last year to educate the community on how we can create a more inclusive economy. As hosts, the Ethics/Religion and Society Department began collecting a panel of experts and cooperative members to address the pressing questions facing the business model.

The first stage of the conference is a panel discussion at Xavier's Cintas Center on Nov. 12. The panel was scheduled then so as to coincide with another cooperative conference, the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI).

CUCI is responsible for a number of growing cooperatives in Cincinnati, including Our Harvest, an agricultural community co-op, and Sustainergy, a co-op focused on improving energy efficiency in our city's buildings. The organization is also assisting the Apple Street Market, which is close to starting construction on a new co-op grocery store in Northside.

“The goal is to build a whole network of businesses,” Kraus says. “We firmly believe there is room for all kinds of people to get engaged.”

The Union Cooperative Symposium will be held in Northside on Nov. 13-14 and will focus primarily on the Mondragon Cooperative Movement in Spain that's promoted the co-op model for over 60 years. Mondragon is known for having an extremely low unemployment rate compared to the rest of the country.

Xavier's Nov. 12 panel discussion will be working off of CUCI's momentum. The panel will include Kristin Barker (CUCI); Tim Kloppengerg (IBB, Xavier); Bilal Muhammad (a member of Cooperative Janitorial Services and Community Blend); and Michael Elsas (Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York). Moderating the panel will be Laura Hanson Schlachter, a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison who's done research on cooperatives and in particular the CUCI and IBB.

The panel discussion serves as a teaser for the university's larger event in April.

“Our event is meant to be an introduction to the idea of what co-ops are and the virtues of co-ops,” Gottlieb says.

The conference, The Cooperative Economy: Building a More Sustainable Future, will convene April 21-22 at Xavier's Cintas Center. The team behind the event has recruited two key speakers to help inspire the city to become more involved in the movement:

• Melissa Hoover, executive director of the Democracy at Work Institute, whose research has focused primarily on the role of immigrant women in building a cooperative movement in the early 20th Century.   

• Jessica Gordon Nembhard, associate professor in John Jay College’s Africana Studies Department in New York City who specializes in racial injustice, wealth inequality and the African-American Cooperative movement. She'll deliver a keynote address on the history of African American cooperatives.

“We just received a grant from Ohio Humanities to support the conference,” Gottlieb says. “Because of Jessica Gordon Nembhard's work on the history of cooperatives in African-American communities and with the focus on values, (there is) a strong humanities framework to the conference — putting the humanities into practice, if you like.”

The third phase of the conference will take place sometime next fall.

Why now?

If you ask Kraus and Gottlieb, the time for change in the way we approach community development seems to be upon us.

“We need to revisit this,” Kraus insists. “Top-down development doesn’t work anymore. It doesn’t actually trickle down to those who really need it. We want people to be able to reclaim their lives.”

As an example, Kraus mentions IBB's practice of helping recently released prison inmates reintegrate into society.

“One of the things we do is to employ these returning citizens, turning them into worker-owners,” he says. “If they can't turn their lives around, they return to what put them in prison in the first place. Co-ops have the power to move people away from doing things illegally to survive.”

And that's just one thing co-ops can do, Kraus says. These upcoming conferences will provide interested Cincinnatians with the knowledge they need to perpetuate the co-op movement and keep the community — the entirety of the community — engaged in building and improving our city.
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