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Fellow Travelers

Profiles of Grassroots Economic Organizers

Fellow Travelers is a forum highlighting the lives and stories of individuals who are working to build more joyful, just and democratic forms of collective livelihood in their communities, states, regions, or countries. Would you like to share your own experiences, journeys and inspirations as a grassroots economic organizer? Is there an inspiring activist or organizer in your community that you’d like to interview or write about? Please send us your stories!  Email:


Hilary Abell of WAGES
Helping low-income Latinas create green cleaning co-ops on the California coast

by Jane Livingston and Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo


A defining moment in Hilary Abell’s life was witnessing the 1992 signing of the El Salvador Peace Accords. 


At the time Abell was working with Neighbor to Neighbor, organizing a boycott of Salvordan coffee used to fund death squads that were killing and terrorizing people who were trying to organize for a better life. The Peace Accords brought an end to the killing, helping Abell envision how her work with the boycott, and an alternative ”buy-cott” of coffee from cooperative farmers, could change people’s lives.


“Watching the signing of the Peace Accords gave me a deep sense of responsibility to build a more positive future and strengthened my commitment to work for social justice over the long haul,” she said.  “That was a formative moment.”


Fast forward fourteen years and Abell is now the executive director of Women's Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES), a nonprofit incubator helping women primarily from Central America and Mexico form “green” cleaning cooperatives in the San Francisco Bay Area.  WAGES, in its eleven years, has helped to form six cooperatives including three that are currently thriving – Natural Home Cleaning in East Bay, Eco-Care Professional Housecleaning in the South Bay and Emma’s Eco-Clean on the Peninsula. WAGES trains the women and provides technical assistance, helping them to make more money than they would on their own.


Organizing a “buy-cott” of cooperative coffee from El Salvador, and eventually other countries, turned out to be a good training ground for Abell's work with cooperatives in California.  She became a worker-owner at Equal Exchange, which was leading the nascent Fair Trade movement in the U.S. and working with Neighbor to Neighbor and Oxfam America to help Salvadoran farmer cooperatives earn better prices for their products. Abell’s work helped farmers take home one-dollar-a-pound of coffee through selling directly to Equal Exchange instead of the thirty to fourty cents they would have earned working through intermediaries.  She learned a lot about what makes cooperatives successful ―or not. In post-war El Salvador, Abell saw how cooperative members could get economies of scale, building their own marketing capacity by working together. In Colombia, she saw farmers earn windfalls by selling organic Fair Trade coffee, then divide it among themselves and fail to save any for operating reserves. They came to regret it later.


“When I met with coffee farmers in Colombia, and heard their reflections on their coop’s choices, I never thought it would influence a cooperative development strategy in California.  But when I talk to the WAGES cooperatives about building an operating reserve, it’s those farmers that I have in mind,” she said. 


“When I saw that business skills and practices could be used for social justice, it opened up my mind,” she said.  “That’s what I’m focusing on now [at WAGES]―using economic and business strategies to create a fairer economy and a just world.”


WAGES provides training on business skills, and governance, and how to clean houses without harmful chemicals. Once the cooperatives learn the skills, they go out on their own.   


"There's so much potential in this model," Abell declares. "The job quality is so much higher, the pay is better, it's a more positive and healthier work environment, there's mutual support both in the workplace and in the community. For every new position created, ten people express an interest in it."

The challenge, she says, is to design a model that is easily replicable so workers don't have to keep re-inventing the wheel, or feel they are wasting time or making mistakes that can prove costly or discouraging.


“One of the things that I love about coops is that they give every worker an opportunity to be a leader, whether you’re on the front lines at the cash register or cleaning houses.  You get to vote, to serve on the board or contribute in some other way,” Abell said.


One of the hardest parts of her job is building the big picture. 


“What we’re doing is pretty unique, and we’re hoping to do it on a larger scale. We don’t know how we are going to get to there.  It’s an interesting challenge, but you have to have faith, vision and tenacity,” Abell said.


Another difficulty is supporting the unique role of managers in the cooperatives. They need an entrepreneurial vision, to work well in the participatory process, foster leadership, be bilingual and bicultural. 


“It’s a challenge finding the right people to be coop managers and supporting them,” she said.

But the job has many soft moments as well.  Many of the women do not have many options; some speak little or no English, in other jobs they get low wages for work with dangerous chemicals and no medical benefits.


“To see them get health insurance for the first time in their lives is incredible,” Abell said. “On Memorial Day, when they got paid for six hours and didn’t have to work, they were so excited.”

Many were unsure about their ability to be owners.  “I love to see their confidence grow through training,” Abell said.  “I get really excited about that stuff.”  


"Most of the women in the WAGES cooperatives have never been asked what they think of a workplace policy. That may sound small, but really it's big, because it transfers to the rest of their lives. It can happen in any workplace, but it's more likely to happen in a coop structure because that value is already there. Worker cooperatives hold a very special place [in the economy]; that's one reason I'm so excited about the national federation forming."'


Abell, who turns 38 in September, is emphatic about the potential of cooperatives to improve people's lives.


"Coops are a powerful tool in the toolbox for economic justice," she remarks. "The coop idea has always held a specific excitement for me. I believe in what individuals are able to do, cooperatively. “When they’re done well, coops bring out the best in people.”


For more on WAGES go to:

Jane Livingston is an independent editor, writer and publicist for the cooperative movement.  Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo is a member of the GEO Collective and a Board member of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.



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