Uplifting and Strengthening our Community: A Showcase of Cooperatives in New Orleans

By Jessica Gordon Nembhard (GEO, U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, and The U.S. Solidarity Economy Network)

Flood waters after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans August 2005 closed down St. Margaret's Daughters' Nursing Home, a faith-based non-profit which has been caring for the elderly in the Lower 9th Ward for 77 years. However, undeterred by tragedy, in the aftermath of the hurricane, St. Margaret's worked not only to reopen the nursing home but to support their workers and rebuild their community. According to co-op developer Melbah Smith from the Mississippi Center for Cooperative Development, St. Margaret's generously paid the staff a portion of their salaries while the nursing home was closed. Moreover, Smith told the audience of the New Orleans "Showcase of Cooperatives" that "St. Margaret's wanted to reopen the nursing home, but also to do something for their employees: create ownership opportunities, and create new businesses for the community." They brought in the Mississippi Center (an affiliate of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund) to help their employees create the Lagniappe Lifestyle Service Cooperative. The plan is for Lagniappe Cooperative to work as a contractor for St. Margaret's providing laundry, cleaning and food services in the nursing home. The co-op will then expand their customer base providing similar services in the community.

Lagniappe means "giving a little extra" - with the slogan: "We go the extra mile to make you smile." Twelve continuing employees and 12 additional employees led by three long-term members of the nursing home staff are starting this worker cooperative. They aim to provide state of the art health care services delivering the best elder care possible through excellent customer service, a healthy environment, convenience, location, and reputation.
In an effort to "rebuild the community around St. Margaret's," the co-op will begin with healthy meals (dietary food) and laundry services, explained one of the leaders, Steven Williams, at the Showcase. "I always did want to own my own business. This is a good thing!"

Camille Smith, the dietary manager, adds, "We already serve good and nutritious meals to everyone in the community." Their vision is for the co-op to provide a coffee shop café and dietary food services, laundry services, cleaning services and ultimately a beauty shop for both the nursing home and the Lower Ninth Ward community. This move saves the workers' jobs, and allows the clients to continue to receive quality care - creating a powerful lesson for the value of the solidarity economy.

Members of Lagniappe were joined by six speakers at the Showcase, a pre-session for the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives' (USFWC) 3rd biannual conference held at Loyola University in New Orleans in late June, 2008. The showcase was designed to show participants the different ways that cooperatives contribute to economic development in neighborhoods by creating dignified jobs and alternative employment, saving good jobs, catering to communities, and pooling alternative financing.

Josué Revolorio of Women's Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES) in Oakland explained WAGES' mission to build worker-owned businesses that create healthy dignified jobs for women, focusing on developing and supporting ecological cleaning services cooperatives. They have developed three cooperatives already and plan to develop another three by 2010. Using a democratic LLC (limited liability corporation) business model, in addition to safe working conditions using eco-friendly cleaning products, each cooperative provides member-owners with comprehensive health insurance, chiropractic and massage services, and paid holidays - unprecedented in the house cleaning industry.

Similarly, Omar Friella, of Green Worker Cooperatives, and members of the new ReBuilder's Source in the South Bronx, explained their model of creating inner-city jobs and businesses based on "green" principles. ReBuilder's Source is the first worker-cooperative reuse center for building materials in the U.S. Two members told the crowd about how it feels to own their own business for the first time.

Tim Huet of Arizmendi Development and Support Cooperative in San Francisco explained the Arizmendi model of creating new cooperatives from successful existing cooperatives. He reminded the audience that all of our work should focus on creating democratic jobs in all lines of business, to develop a democratic regional economy. There are now many strategies "to start this economic engine to create democratic community-controlled growth in your region."

Another speaker, Terry Daniels, of Long Island Home Enterprise in New York, highlighted ways to connect cooperative ownership with barter and local currency exchange to make home building affordable. Members of Long Island Home Enterprise trade renovation and construction jobs, teach each other a variety of construction skills, and help others in their communities renovate and build houses.

Khalil Shahyd, Director of the New Orleans Citizen Participation Project and a native of New Orleans, provided closing comments. He emphasized the importance of democratic participation and economic empowerment in rebuilding New Orleans. He thanked the panel for inspiring new strategies for democratic community economic development and for their candor in pointing out challenges along with the successes of worker cooperatives.

The Showcase of Cooperatives, "Uplifting and Strengthening our Community: Alternative Economic Development Strategies," took place on June 20, 2008 at Pilgrim's Progress Community Church, Central City, New Orleans. It was co-sponsored by Grassroots Economic Organizing (Ecological Democracy Institute of North America), the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, The Cooperative Development Fund, All Congregations Together, The Episcopalian Archdiocese, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, the US Solidarity Economy Network, and The Joint Studio for Community, Strategy, & Innovation.

A networking reception and dinner followed the panel presentation, allowing the various groups to exchange information and ideas about alternative economic development strategies, the solidarity economy, worker co-ops, and what it would take to pursue cooperative economic strategies for economic renewal in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

This initiated a Gulf Coast-wide discussion about these topics which continued throughout the USFWC conference and during the volunteer work week right after the conference (see article on this in this issue). This dialogue continues currently through conference calls initiated after the work week discussions; and organized by Erin Rice, Andrew McLeod, and Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Proposals for more collaboration between the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and entities in the region such as the Louisiana Association of Cooperatives, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, are being considered.

Program

Welcomes:

  • Shakoor Aljuwani - Episcopalian Archdiocese of Louisiana, and All Congregations Together
  • Ajowa Ifateyo - Grassroots Economic Organizing, Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, and US Federation of Worker Cooperatives
  • Ben Burkett - Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund

Showcase:

  • Moderator: Jessica Gordon Nembhard - GEO, ECWD, USFWC, US-SEN

The Solidarity Economy
Emily Kawano - US Solidarity Economy Network

Construction, Housing and Time Banking
Terry Daniels - Long Island Home Enterprise

Growing Networks Of Bakery And School Co-Ops
Tim Huet - Arizmendi Development and Support Cooperative

Lagniappe Lifestyle Services Cooperative
Melbah Smith - MS Center for Cooperative Development

Women's Cooperatives, Occupational Safety, and Ecological Cleaning
Josue Revolorio - Women's Action to Gain Economic Security

Environment, Employment, and Worker Ownership
Omar Freilla - Green Worker Cooperatives

Local Respondent: Khalil Shahyd - New Orleans Citizen Participation Project


GEO Volume 2: