Building a Solidarity Economy
Jackie Amezquita isn’t your typical nanny. During the workday, she cares for her clients’ young children, educating and nurturing them. But as president of Beyond Care, a 19-member childcare cooperative based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, her reach extends far beyond those individual families.
Beyond Care is a part of the emergent Solidarity Economy Network, a group of socially responsible businesses, non-profits, and cooperatives that collaborate with one another—at local, regional, and national levels—to create a more just economy. Beyond Care also receives very real benefits from its involvement in the solidarity economy movement.
As a cooperative, Beyond Care is structured according to the principles of cooperation and shared responsibility—workers are also owners, with a stake in the long-term health of the organization and its community. Jackie meets regularly with the other members of the cooperative to share ideas, participate in trainings and workshops, and strategize about outreach and publicity. Each month, she donates 2 percent of her earnings to the co-op.
Jackie explains that the cooperative forms a valuable support network for its members, who would otherwise be independent contractors: “I have a backing—a backing of a group of women, working for dignity and respect, working to empower the children that we are helping develop in this world. I have a real sense of solidarity with these women.”
Beyond Care also benefits from hundreds of other partnerships. In its Brooklyn neighborhood, Sunset Park, Beyond Care collaborates closely with two other cooperatives—Si Se Puede! (We Can Do It!), a women's housekeeping cooperative, and We Can Fix It!, a cooperative remodeling business.
Their strong connection to one another, and to their community, provides real benefits: the three cooperatives distribute marketing literature for one another at least three hours each month; present at conferences together; host collaborative events; and are all part of Sunset Park’s community time bank. Members of the three co-ops have started up a babysitting collective internally. Most importantly, they have the mutual support and backing of one another. It’s a true social network, says Jackie: “The best thing we’ve gotten out of this is the camaraderie that we’ve gained—we talk, and say ‘How are you doing right now?’"
The cooperatives offer a unique solution to the growing problem of unemployment in the Sunset Park neighborhood, where many residents are Latino immigrants. The three co-ops currently provide 46 jobs for residents of Sunset Park—jobs that empower their members to take control of their lives and livelihoods. It’s a different experience than wage labor, explains one member of Beyond Care: “We’re gonna turn it around. We’re gonna be the bosses.”
Beyond Care, Si Se Puede!, and We Can Fix It! have found creative ways to partner with other worker-owned co-ops in the area: offering their services in exchange for acupuncture and massage from the Rock Dove Health Care Collective or for cooking classes at Manhattan’s first cooperatively owned restaurant, Colors. These exchanges not only allow each party to obtain new skills for free, but also expand a new economy whose currency is based on mutual aid and solidarity rather than on dollars and cents.
Earlier this year, Beyond Care became part of the New York City Solidarity Economy mapping project, a directory for organizations, cooperatives, and businesses in New York that promote economic justice. The mapping project identifies Beyond Care and groups like it as actors in the burgeoning solidarity economy, a framework for a new economy that values people and planet over profit. It encourages cooperation and support by helping such businesses find one another.
The New York map is “kind of like a sustainable and socially just Yellow Pages,” says Cheyenna Weber, a founder of the project. Activists, entrepreneurs, and individuals looking for services can visit the website and find Beyond Care, Si Se Puede!, We Can Fix It!, and 68 other co-ops, businesses, and time banks that promote a more just economy in New York. Eventually, these groups may be able to use their affiliation with the solidarity economy to market themselves; promotion strategies such as a seal to be displayed in store windows are being developed.
Beyond Care is also a member of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, which formed in 2007 following the first U.S. Social Forum. The network, dedicated to creating a movement to support and promote a more socially just and responsible economy, serves as a powerful tool to organize and connect small, fragmented groups and cooperatives at a national level. At its first national conference, held last March at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Beyond Care members joined 400 other participants in a wide array of workshops, panels, cultural performances, and a tour of local solidarity economy initiatives.
The forum helped participants think of themselves as working toward the greater goal of creating an economy founded not on profit maximization but on values like teamwork, social justice, and democracy—a big-picture idea for a small co-op like Beyond Care. Yet Jackie says that she and the women she works with are already thinking this way: “As long as women and men are working together, it’s not just about the business. It’s about bettering the community.”
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Really, the goal of the larger network is to build on the principles of cooperation and justice on which co-ops like Beyond Care are already founded, says Vanessa Bransburg, cooperative coordinator at the Center for Family Life, the non-profit that helped raise Beyond Care’s start-up capital and a fellow member of the Solidarity Economy Network.
“When you have something small, like a co-op, you have limited resources—you just have those individuals,” she says. “When you put those groups together, you have access to more resources and more power with more people. The forum created a space to really think about how we want to have solidarity around economic justice issues—issues that touch everybody.”
The national network has enabled the Sunset Park cooperatives to expand their own impact beyond the community they serve. Other groups are now looking to them for inspiration: soon after the March forum, a group called Randolph Community Partnerships, Inc. drove down from Massachusetts to visit the Si Se Puede! co-op. Looking for job opportunities for participants in their adult empowerment and literacy center, they wanted to learn more about developing a women’s cleaning cooperative themselves.
Si Se Puede! was able to offer them detailed advice: its members were in a similar position in 2006, when they visited four worker-run housecleaning co-ops in the Bay Area of California. Si Se Puede! formed as a result of that visit.
This kind of information sharing and networking is the strength of the cooperative movement: instead of competing, they are collaborating.
For Si Se Puede!, Beyond Care, and their fellow cooperatives, inspiring new co-ops is just another way they're building more than an empowering career for themselves. They’re building a movement.
Annie McShiras wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a nonprofit national media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Annie is a writer, advocate for economic justice, and member of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network. Annie lives and works in Vermont, where she focuses on promoting local, organic food systems.
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