On Saturday, January 30, 2016, more than 110 community members convened in Baltimore for a full day of workshops and trainings related to the establishment of worker-owned cooperatives. The organizers, a new network of technical assistance providers called the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy (BRED), were very pleased with the turnout and engagement. “There has been a lot of discussion about new economies and alternatives for Baltimore, particularly in the aftermath of the April 2015 Baltimore Uprising, but we felt that it was important to start taking steps to actually move the conversation forward in a concrete way that enters around racial and social equity,” said members of BRED.
The Worker Cooperative Jumpstart was held in the new Impact Hub Baltimore space at the renovated Centre Theater on North Avenue. Registrants were asked to donate a sliding scale registration fee between $1 – $25, but no one was turned away for lack of resources. “We know there are many people thinking about cooperative economics in the city and wanted to make this event accessible. We look forward to taking this information and the tools that we shared today into community centers and third spaces across the state over time.”
Participants came from many parts of the city, state, and beyond; and from a range of experience with cooperatives. Some were in the idea and start-up phases of launching cooperatively-owned businesses, others came from social enterprises and nonprofits exploring the model to see how the principles could be applied to their context. Immigrant rights organization CASA came with interpretation equipment and members exploring the prospect of starting a childcare cooperative in Langley Park, MD. Many of the employees of Baltimore’s favorite ice cream brand, Taharka Bros, actively participated as they shared their exploration of converting the beloved social enterprise into a worker-owned cooperative. There were representatives from numerous local nonprofit organizations thinking about how to integrate cooperative principles in their structure, perhaps as worker self-directed nonprofits, as well as community advocates exploring ways to build economic power in disinvested neighborhoods through worker cooperative development.
Attendees were introduced to the basics of worker-owned enterprises through an opening presentation called “Worker Coops 101.” They learned that cooperatives offer a vital tool for economic self-determination for workers and communities who have been excluded or exploited by the mainstream economy on the basis of race, gender, immigration status, or some other basis. The packed room learned that there have been worker-owned cooperatives in the United States for a long time, and that there is presently significant momentum to build robust ecosystems to grow more worker-owned enterprises in cities around the nation. “From NYC to Madison, WI, to Richmond, VA, cities are investing in worker-owned cooperative development. It’s time for Baltimore to get with the program!”, said one of the presenters.
In addition to the introduction to worker cooperatives, attendees chose between workshops dedicated to a number of critical priorities. One session focused on “democratic financing” with representatives of The Working World, which is supporting the development of a revolving loan fund to support the development and growth of democratic economic institutions in Maryland.
Solidarity economies law firm Gilmore Khandhar, LLC presented on cooperative law basics. Representatives from the Democracy at Work Network discussed “Steps to Starting a Worker Cooperative” and introduced tools to help along the way. In another session, members of local worker-owned cooperatives shared insights on “Cooperative Structure and Democratic Decision-Making.” Participants heard examples of real issues that come up in worker-owned enterprises, as well as the genuine promise of working without a boss from presenters and audience members. There was great energy in the room, with many people staying until the final debrief session between 4 – 5 PM.
In the closing session, participants were asked to discuss what they appreciated and learned from, as well as what they would recommend to improve on this experience and future BRED plans. Participants recommended ongoing series for young people and established business owners, as well as learning tracks for established cooperatives and democratic workplaces. One attendee called for more discussion of policy and systemic interventions that could help to build out the ecosystem. Others underscored the need to bring these resources directly into communities of color and poor communities and to reach into rural and suburban communities across the state.
BRED is a loosely-affiliated roundtable created by members of a number of established and developing spaces in Baltimore. The members convened the roundtable to discuss cooperative and solidarity economics that already exist in Maryland and identify technical assistance and other resources needed to grow a dynamic ecosystem for economic democracy. BRED includes representatives from a number of different worker-owned enterprises (Red Emma’s Coffeehouse and Bookstore, Baltimore Bicycle Works, and Charmington’s). It also includes participation from: the collectively run 2640 Space; worker cooperative peer-advisor group the Democracy at Work Network; non-extractive lender The Working World; solidarity and cooperative economies law firm Gilmore Khandhar, LLC; and Baltimore Activating Solidarity Economies (BASE).
The turnout and interest underscore that there is great interest and great need for ongoing work to develop an ecosystem to support inclusive worker ownership in Baltimore and Maryland. BRED organizers are working on next steps to connect participants and others interested in building this ecosystem. For more information or to get updates, please email BREDRoundtable[at]gmail.com.
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