Co-op network grows community-based businesses

DIGNIFIED WORK: Jesus Hinojosa Luna works with the Chispas team to remodel an older home at the High Oaks Mobile Home Park on Spivey Moutain for a family in the Emma community. Photo by Cindy Kunst

When Mirian Porras moved to the Emma community 11 years ago, she never expected to end up running a property management company, let alone one that handles the homes and businesses of her neighbors and friends.

Her background is in community organizing around immigrant rights. After years of working in the neighborhood, however, she caught wind of a new trend: Residents of mobile home parks in the area were coming together to create housing co-ops as vehicles for jointly purchasing those properties. And in 2018, Porras and her neighbors formed Las Casitas Mobile Home Park Cooperative.

But it didn’t take long for Porras to realize that her new situation provided benefits beyond enabling her to own a share of the property: The co-op also offered community members dignified jobs. And with her own basic needs covered, she wanted to do more.

These days, Porras is a member of two real estate co-ops and a housing co-op; she’s also a worker-owner of Chispas, a property management cooperative that maintains several buildings owned by neighborhood collectives. The model that’s developed is unique, she says, and it has helped create a better quality of life for Emma’s working class residents.

“Among our network, we have been able to create more economic opportunities and specifically focus on the needs of our community,” she explains. “We are not outsiders — we live in this community. We care for this community, and we are developing something that will last a long time.”

Investing locally

Nestled just northwest of Asheville, the predominantly Latino neighborhood is no stranger to community-based development. Asheville’s continued growth and development has accelerated the displacement of Emma residents, says community organizer and co-op worker-owner Andrea Golden.

In 2016, the longtime neighborhood resident co-founded PODER Emma, which seeks to promote economic development while preserving the community’s culture and identity. The group has gained local recognition for its network of housing and real estate co-ops and has grown to include an early childhood education cooperative network. In January, PODER Emma formally launched a new worker-owned cooperative network to encourage what Golden calls “culturally relevant” small-business development.

“We started to think about how neighbors could come together who typically, in terms of finances, were low-wealth families who face a lot of barriers to credit and lending and even just the more traditional streams of small-business development,” Golden explains.

The resulting network, she says, is a place where people give their time and energy to support one another and learn together, so that everyone has a better chance of making it as small-business owners. Currently, the network includes five member businesses spanning accounting, translation, property management, child care and cleaning services.

“It can be overwhelming to start a small business regardless, but to start a small business if you’re facing myriad of barriers — most of our cooperatives are majority Spanish speakers — the peer network is really important for people not to have to develop their business in isolation,” notes Golden. “Rather than looking at it as separate businesses, we look at how the sum of the whole can really build an economy that works for both the members of the co-op and the community around us.”

PODER Emma has also partnered with The Industrial Commons, a cooperative network based in Morganton, N.C., to create Power of the Commons, a collaborative ecosystem that shares resources across the different networks. Industrial Commons co-founder Molly Hemstreet sees the model as a way to invest locally.

“Often, immigrant communities are largely laborers working for someone else, creating wealth for a white owner,” she explains. “The cooperative model shifts this wealth back to the worker, into a family and back into the community.”

Growing a network

Like many cooperative worker-owners, Jackie Fitzgerald wears a lot of different hats. She’s one of eight worker-owners of Cenzontle Language Justice Cooperative, which provides English/Spanish interpretation and translation services. Besides serving as the worker co-op network’s coordinator, she helps translate many of its business trainings for Spanish-speaking members.

SHARED SERVICES: Cenzontle worker-owner Rocio Quintero, bottom, provides interpretation for members of Opportunity Threads, above, a Morganton-based cooperative that shares resources, including business training and coaching, with PODER Emma, an organization that supports three cooperative networks in Buncombe County. Photo courtesy of Cenzontle

Everyone in the network is connected, she says, yet every business has its own individual strengths.

There’s Preescolar La Bugambilia, which provides half-day preschool and after-school care for Spanish-speaking children in the Emma community. Children are excited to learn in their first language, says worker-owner Camille Cushman, and the program gives parents and kids alike a sense of home and belonging.

Chispas, the cooperative Porras helps run, manages properties owned by other network members. The Hendersonville-based Green Muse Cleaning Co-op, which is currently expanding into Buncombe County, provides an array of cleaning services.

Power in Numbers Bookkeeping was formed to support grassroots organizations and cooperatives working for social justice, says worker-owner Becky Brown. The co-op’s roughly 30 clients include Preescolar La Bugambilia, Chispas and Cenzontle.

“It’s a nice constellation of building out a larger cooperative economy as we need to,” says Brown. “As we develop the network, it’s been exciting to see what needs arise and how we can provide that service through a co-op.”

By the seat of their pants

Launching a small business is never easy, but it’s even harder when the proprietors face systemic obstacles to business ownership. Fitzgerald as well as members of the team at Preescolar La Bugambilia say they often feel they’re flying by the seat of their pants. But what network members don’t know, they learn together.

PODER Emma gives the cooperatives access to training in financial literacy, marketing strategies and human relations development, Golden explains. They share templates for things like contracts, operating agreements and bylaws. In addition, the network’s five member businesses meet several times a year to discuss common problems and find solutions.

The business and financial training has been invaluable, says Cushman: Neither she nor co-owner Keyla Estrada had any business experience before starting Preescolar La Bugambilia, but one-on-one coaching has helped them think through the cooperative’s financial situation to keep its services accessible and affordable for community residents.

Language justice is another crucial element of the PODER Emma network, stresses Porras. All trainings are bilingual, ensuring that all worker-owners can fully access and understand the materials presented.

Business curricula are typically created in English, using American scenarios and examples that aren’t culturally relevant for Spanish-speaking immigrant communities, Fitzgerald points out. Add in the fact that an attendee may be simultaneously watching an English speaker talk and listening to someone else repeat the information in Spanish, and it can make dense seminars hard to follow.

“In our community, a lot of people have been workers for years and have tons of experience with business, but maybe not from the administrative side of things,” says Fitzgerald. “When you put a language-justice lens on it, we start to ask how can we take this information and make it more accessible.”

Dignity and equity

After years of working for others, the shift to becoming a co-op owner is nothing short of transformational, notes Golden. “It changes the relationship you have with yourself, with your family, with the people around you, she says. “It’s so inspiring to see the ways it impacts both individuals and the entirety of the place we live in.”

PODER Emma focuses on meeting concrete metrics such as providing a living wage, enabling workers to generate savings for their families, and offering opportunities to grow one’s skill set and take on leadership roles, Golden explains. But equally important, she maintains — and harder to quantify — is finding a job that feels meaningful and fulfilling.

Cushman, for example, says that after years of working as a teacher within the “very hierarchical” Asheville City Schools system, she feels that Preescolar La Bugambilia’s horizontal structure creates an environment of equity. “Everybody feels like they’re equally committed and equally compensated,” she emphasizes. “It lends itself to our value of helping and supporting each other, because rather than it being a job that you just show up to, I feel this in my heart.”

Fitzgerald agrees. The collective vision of community empowerment transcends each individual co-op, she believes.

“It’s beautiful to have this vision of what we’re trying to do in this neighborhood and in this part of the community,” Fitzgerald maintains. “My children and the children from the housing co-ops participate in La Bugambilia. The parents live and work in some of the buildings where Chispas is doing property maintenance. We know and trust that they’re doing it with love, that they’re thorough and that they care.

“All of this work, it builds a platform for people to be heard and supported.”

PULL QUOTE

“Everybody feels like they’re equally committed and equally compensated.”

— Camille Cushman, Preescolar La Bugambilia

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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