In December I attended Co-op Power’s Annual Membership Meeting and Sustainable Energy Summit in Springfield. Co-op Power is a network of local Clean Energy Cooperatives throughout New England and in New York City. Each local coop creates a network of businesses to serve its members clean energy needs. They work with existing businesses to provide discounts to members, and where there are gaps in the clean energy economy, they create new coops to serve those needs. So far, they’ve created a biodiesel coop, an energy efficiency company, and several solar installers. (More on Co-op Power in a future post.)

The day started with a tour of the Wellspring Harvest Cooperative Greenhouse. Launched in August, Wellspring Harvest is the fourth cooperative incubated by the Wellspring Cooperative, a non-profit dedicated to building a network of worker-owned coops to create jobs and wealth-building opportunities in Springfield’s underserved neighborhoods. The quarter-acre hydroponic greenhouse will supply year-round lettuces, herbs, and other greens to the Springfield Public Schools and Mercy Medical Center, along with area food coops and supermarkets. Eight workers, many of whom live in the immediate neighborhood, currently work at the greenhouse. Like all workers in Wellspring businesses, they will be eligible to become co-owners of the greenhouse after a trial employment period.

The tour was led by Wellspring Co-director Emily Kawano. Kawano was one of the founders of the US Solidarity Economy Network in 2007 and its Coordinator for many years thereafter. She was also the Director of the Center for Popular Economics at UMass Amherst. In 2011, she and Fred Rose founded Wellspring. Initial funding came from a Roadmaps to Health grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — matched by local hospitals and foundations — to create a long-term strategy to reduce health inequalities through community economic development. The grant supported an assessment of local institutional purchasing needs that might be supplied by worker coops, business planning, and the launch of the first business, an upholstery cooperative that serves local colleges, universities, and hospitals. Now in its fifth year, the upholstery coop has six workers, half of whom are owners.

The northern half of the Pioneer Valley — the Amherst/Northampton area — is rich in cooperatives, including several worker-owned coops. South of what Co-director Emily Kawano affectionately calls the “tofu curtain”, however, in some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the Northeast, there are very few. “If we can’t make coops relevant and workable in places like this, we aren’t building the world we want to,” Kawano says. These are the communities Wellspring is committed to serving.

“If we can’t make coops relevant and workable in places like this, we aren’t building the world we want to.”

Wellspring offers an array of services to support coop development, including identifying and incubating new businesses to serve local anchor purchasing needs — such as the greenhouse — and a “coop academy” for those interested in starting their own coops. The academy consists of two courses, offered through the Workforce Development Program of Springfield Technical Community College and co-sponsored by an array of community and labor groups. A four-week course introduces cooperatives and their benefits, economic democracy, and the role of coops in social and economic justice movements. Students explore what it means to be a worker-owner rather than a worker and begin the process of planning their own cooperatives. The follow-on course offers a ten-week dive into building a cooperative business, covering business model design, legal and human resources issues, sustainability, marketing, financing, and financial management. So far, a handful of cooperatives in Springfield and Pittsfield are in various stages of development coming out of the academy.

The greenhouse is the latest coop launched by Wellspring. Its $1.75 million investment was financed by a complex portfolio of loans from dedicated coop and community development lenders, along with a direct public offering that raised over a quarter of a million dollars.

I got a chance to talk some more with Emily a couple of weeks after the Coop Power meeting. I told her that here in our region, we have a lot of ties to New York City. When we look at the city’s $8 million-plus investment in supporting worker-owned cooperatives, it can feel impossible for us. We don’t have a local government with that kind of money to put into a good idea.

“As we were leaving the greenhouse on the tour,” I told her, “it occurred to me that Western Mass might really be a better analog for our region in terms of its demographics and resources. It seems that you are really bootstrapping a Cleveland-type strategy. How has that worked?”

Emily laughed and said, “Even NYC has been bootstrapping it for years. It’s slow work. That’s a lesson for everybody. Before the city invested, the largest coop developer there, Brooklyn’s Center for Family Life, had been working on coop development for a decade. In that time they had developed maybe three or four. It was similarly slow for other organizations. But during that time they were also building relationships and laying the groundwork, so that when the city invested, they were ready to work together. Hopefully our cities will all eventually invest, but when you’re starting off, it might be good to bootstrap anyway, build your relationships and your authenticity, before you scale.”

She went on to emphasize the potential tensions between an anchor institution strategy and more grassroots coop development. “The anchor model by definition is not pure grassroots. You are consulting with the institutions and figuring out what businesses you can start to meet their needs. So we were acutely aware of wanting to make sure we had grassroots involvement from the get-go. We were a collaborative before we were a nonprofit, and we connected with every organization that had any activity in economic development.” Wellspring’s board continues that broad community engagement, with representatives from local anchor institutions, community and labor organizations, and the various Wellspring cooperatives. “We were very deliberate about how we built out that table,” she said.

I asked her why coop development is such slow work. “Part of it,” she said, “is that putting together a business is just slow work. Something like the hula hoop coop that came out of our academy, that can start over night. But if you have to raise capital… the higher stakes, the longer it takes.” Finding land and doing the development work for the greenhouse together was a particularly lengthy process, requiring a lot of legal work and negotiations.

“Part of it,” she said, “is that putting together a business is just slow work.

Then there’s the cultural piece unique to coops. “Mondragon would say it takes at least two years,” she said, to create a culture of collective ownership and collaboration. “We’ve spent an enormous amount of training time on conflict resolution, communication skills, and just trying to get to the understanding that meetings are not just blowing hot air.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked her what advice would she give folks starting up a cooperative support ecosystem in a new region. She surprised me by pointing straight back to the values that underlie the solidarity economy movement.

“Wearing my solidarity economy hat, we do try to center the equity issue, so it doesn’t get lost. We aren’t doing what we mean to do if we’re just creating great democratic processes in more affluent communities. Coops are flourishing in the Upper Valley, but we need co-ops and economic democracy in the Lower Valley as well, where there’s a concentration of communities of color, and low income communities who are struggling with high rates of under- or unemployment. We need coop businesses that are providing jobs for all kinds of people.”

“As you’re getting started, who you reach out to as stakeholders will determine which direction you go,” she went on. “Is the economic/social justice stuff centered, or will it just be economic democracy/local economy, which is fine, but those are pretty different paths.”

“We’re happy to continue talking as you start building in your region,” she concluded. “If you want to bring a group out to visit, or we can come out to you. We’re happy to be supportive however we can.” I hope we can take her up on that sometime later this year!

You can read more about Wellspring (as well as PUSH Buffalo, another great regional success) in the Democracy Collaborative’s excellent report on community wealth building.