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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Like Compost, But For Work

An Interview with Charity Schmidt

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August 15, 2022
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Today on the Tuesday 8:00 Buzz with Dr. Damita Brown, Charity Schmidt from University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives and Madison Cooperative Development Coalition joins us to talk about cooperatives and her work helping cooperatives develop!

As a cooperative development specialist at the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, Charity provides technical assistance to start-up co-ops and facilitates outreach efforts to cooperators and community-based organizations. She coordinates the work of the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition (MCDC), the City of Madison’s funded initiative to form worker cooperatives that address income inequality and racial disparities by creating living-wage and sustainable jobs. She takes pride in creating spaces for co-op education and coordination, building relationships between entrepreneurs and community organizations, and contributing to community-driven economic development in Madison.

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Damita Brown: Thank you for listening to the Tuesday 8:00 Buzz here on WORT. I'm your host, Damita Brown. If you enjoy this program and other programs on WORT go to and donate.

We are going to be talking with Charity Schmidt, a cooperative development specialist at the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. Charity provides technical assistance to startup co-ops and facilitates outreach efforts to cooperators and community based organizations. She coordinates the work of the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition, the City of Madison's funded initiative to form worker cooperatives that address income inequality and racial disparities by creating living, wage and sustainable jobs. She takes pride in creating spaces for co-op, education and coordination, building relationships between entrepreneurs and community organizations, and contributing to community driven economic development in Madison. Welcome, Charity Schmidt.

Charity Schmidt: Hi, Damita. Thank you so much. I'm excited to be in conversation with you this morning.

Damita Brown: Yeah. And what exciting work you do. Just such an amazing thing to spend your time doing all day.

Charity Schmidt: It really is. It's exciting to help people become their own bosses and create their own pathways.

Damita Brown: I like it when you put it that way. Become your own boss. That's what's up.

Charity Schmidt: Right.

Damita Brown: So you help people convert to co-ops, or just build one from the ground up, right?

Charity Schmidt: Yeah, we do both. So, helping people with start ups, forming groups to start their own cooperatives, or taking existing businesses and converting them to cooperatives. So, an existing business owner selling the business to the workers who are already running the business day-to-day. And that's really relevant when we look at the wave of baby boomers that are business owners and are about to retire. So instead of losing businesses, and jobs, and important services in our community, turning those businesses to employee ownership as a way to save those jobs and save those businesses.

Damita Brown: Wow, I never thought about that. Excellent. It's kind of like composting or something.

Charity Schmidt: Yeah. You know, there's some really great composting co-ops out there. Not in Madison yet, but...

Damita Brown: You know, one of my favorite co-op people is Richard Wolff. He does Democracy@Work and they just go around and they help a lot of – they build a lot of information behind it. But one of the things he says that just sticks with me is that the workplace is the least democratic space in US culture, which is kind of a huge, and weird, and strange contradiction. Can you talk about that a little bit, and is that one of the reasons why people co-op, as well?

Charity Schmidt: Absolutely. Most people don't have a lot of control and say in the work that they do every day; whether it be time, or schedule, or just the conditions of work. And so workplace democracy through cooperatives is a huge benefit, and a benefit to us all. You know, when you said that, the example that popped into my head was, we work with an organization in town called a workers' rights center– sorry, it's called Worker Justice Wisconsin – it's a workers' rights center. And one thing that we were seeing during the pandemic, was some people from cleaning businesses – workers of cleaning businesses – were coming in and saying, "We're being sent in to people's homes without proper PPE. We have no say. And if we don't do it, we lose our jobs." And so that's just a ripe example of not having control or say in the work that you do, and how you do it. And really, again, going back to the way that work – and the lack of democracy at work – shows itself these days, is putting workers at risk in real ways.

Damita Brown: Mm hmm. Yeah. So two questions: the first one is related to how the city and the university – and is that a collaborative relationship that they have, to support this work? How did that come together? What is the nature of that relationship?

Charity Schmidt: Yeah, we work closely with the Office of Business Resources at the city. So that's kind of where the initial funding and initial impetus for the programing came about. And then the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, along with the city, kind of runs the board for the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition. So we work very closely to set programing, and to set goals, and to work on it. We're in our fifth year now of the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition. So yeah, that's been a really fruitful relationship.

Damita Brown: What is the success rate like? I mean, especially compared to people who start LLCs, or something for profit, or nonprofits. What how does the success rate compare for cooperatives?

Charity Schmidt: If you're talking with the actual business being able to maintain itself, I don't have the figure in front of me, but there's something like – when you look at a business after three years, if it's a cooperative, it's much more likely to have succeeded and to carry through. If you look at, for example, during recessions, or during downturns, or during things like pandemics – because [in] cooperatives the workers are making collective decisions, they can decide to do rolling layoffs. You know, cooperative is a space of shared risk and shared reward, and so you weather the storm, so to speak, when the people who are most impacted are actually making those decisions-day-to day.

Damita Brown: Mm hmm. Yeah, that sounds fantastic, because it seems like people can be more flexible, and they can be more attuned to what is it actually needed because they're in the space making the decisions. And they have the feet on the ground, so to speak. That makes sense.

And I think I when I try to wrap my brain around how a co-op can be a sustainable and feasible thing, I think, "Well, you know, transitioning away from older ways of doing – maybe not older, but yeah, older ways of doing things – like business practices that don't necessarily match up with what a cooperative might think is the best way to go forward. So, and then I'm like, "How do you make that work?" Because it seems like there has to be a – innovation plays a different role for cooperatives than it does in your more traditional arrangements.

Charity Schmidt: Well, that's an interesting point. And I think it's really when we actually go back to the development of where we are now, in late-stage capitalism, people have to come together, and work together, and create their own jobs and institutions. And so,it's in some ways getting back to that: mutual aid societies, farmers forming co-ops. And we have a long tradition in Wisconsin of cooperatives, because of that early coordination and cooperation, because people had to. So, we're kind of seeing that similar trend now, where worker cooperatives actually had a jump of activity during the pandemic, as people had to come together, communities had to come together, to solve their own needs, right? You know, the way the pandemic really revealed some ways that the economy is failing us. And so it's in those times where people need to cooperate that we can see co-ops flourishing. And, the driver in the – again, I work with worker cooperatives where the workers themselves are the owners. There are lots of different types of cooperative: consumer co-ops, like grocery store co-ops, for example; or GHC is a health care co-op. But with worker cooperatives, we see the main drivers right now being women, and black, indigenous, and Latinx communities. So it's a really interesting trend in the worker cooperative world and the co-op world more broadly right now.

Damita Brown: Yeah. And I think it's helpful to contextualize late-capitalism as well, and the fact that the track record we have of coming together and cooperating has always been something humans have done. And so maybe we have to kind of digest this really ridiculous idea in capitalism of 'might makes right,' and hierarchies in exploiting each other. We can kind of digest that out, and then go back to actually what works better for us, which is cooperation as opposed to exploitation. And so we can rely on that track record.

Charity Schmidt: Well put. Yeah.

Damita Brown: So when you talk to people who are building co-ops, what are some of the reasons that – well, what are some of the challenges that they have when they're trying to transition? And what are some of the things you you help them do to get over the hump?

Charity Schmidt: Well, we've provided a lot of assistance around governance. What will be the agreement of how you all are going to work together? What is everyone's vision? And then putting that down on paper through bylaws and mutual agreements? So, I work with a lot of groups in that exploratory stage. Like, how do you want the business to actually look? How do you all want to actually work together?

And then another way that we support startups or conversions is through removing some of the barriers to collective entrepreneurship. And that also means a lot of money. So one way we support cooperatives is through MCDC – the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition provides grants up to $10,000 for those early business startup costs. So, paying service providers to help you out, like attorneys, accountants, marketers building your brand. So that is one way that we also support co-ops.

And then another way is through funding – through grants – community based organizations who can build their own capacity to support cooperative development. So, for example, last year we gave a grant of $30,000 to a partnership of Nehemiah and gener8tor, so that Nehemiah can build a pipeline with returning citizens, and then gener8tor can support them with tailored technical assistance to start that business. They're our business accelerator program. So that's just one example of ways that MCDC does stuff. But we also are really trying to build out a cooperative ecosystem, so that we have lots of entities in our city that are supporting the development of worker co-ops, and supporting building democratic workplaces.

Damita Brown: Yeah, and it makes sense. So was that a hybrid then, the one with Nehemiah? So like, is there like a co-op and nonprofit?

Charity Schmidt: Well, Nehemiah is a nonprofit, I believe. So we're going to do outreach and really talking to people who might be interested in starting their own business or giving –

Damita Brown: Oh, I see.

Charity Schmidt: Especially people who are formerly incarcerated, who have lots of barriers to employment, right? Well, people aren't going to hire you, or if they do it's not going to be a great job. So, let's build a pipeline, and do education around this option of exploring a worker cooperative, and building your own business. And then that partnership with gener8tor means that gener8tor as a business accelerator can really work with people – with groups – with tailored technical assistance to help them along the way in starting that business.

Damita Brown: That's fantastic.

Charity Schmidt: Yeah.

Damita Brown: It cuts through so many disparities at the same time, so many ways that, like you were saying, people re-entering the community have such a difficult time getting the trust that they deserve to have a fresh start. But they're getting the leg up to do their own fresh start, to build their own. And that cuts through a lot of issues and problems. That's fantastic: hybrid.

I do think, though, sometimes – I know a few co-ops in this town that are just awesome, and amazing, and doing good stuff – and some of the training that we all have in this existing system of capitalistic thinking and those kinds of mindsets – some of that stuff is just hanging on for dear life and we take that culture into the co-op. Do you talk to people about that kind of stuff, or what have you seen? What can you say about that?

Charity Schmidt: Hmm. How to answer that one? Well, I think a lot of it is in relationship building and finding the right group of folks to start the co-op with, and starting with some baselines about really thinking about each other as equal. Everyone having an equal say, like I said, shared risk, shared reward. And so making sure from the get-go that you're building that culture of cooperation and of equity within your co-op. And so finding the right group of people is really important, and people that really want to have a vision of a different workplace, and a different vision of a different lifestyle. Having say over your hours and your schedule, and being able to bring your full self, to that work in ways that most people are not able to do.

Damita Brown: Yeah. I mean, I think there are people who really, really, really want to do cooperative work and still have the habitual pattern of – "I have no idea what it means to have such a liberated workspace that I need to make all these kinds of decisions with others for ourselves." That's maybe the crudest way to put it. But then, we also have our attachments to our training. We're attached to some really weird ideas about individualism – some toxic individualism – in this culture, is the term I like to call it. And I think unlearning that is – I don't know, I still believe that cooperatives are the best alternative. Even if you think about unions, I'd rather see people do co-ops; but I'd rather have both if we have to have both. But even so, I'm just thinking about – I guess the way I'm thinking about it right now, listening to you talk, is to have some kind of forgiving space where we can unlearn the – I mean, a serious head trip has been done on all of us to be complicit in the way economic exploitation is happening right now. So we need a lot of time with each other, just to kind of look across the table and go, "Oh, you're not over there, separate from me. We're in this together," you know?

Charity Schmidt: Yeah. You're speaking so many truths right now. And just forming a co-op isn't going to solve all of that, like you said.

Damita Brown: But it should, Charity, it should! No, just kidding.

Charity Schmidt: Well, that's why it's important to really think through, and be really intentional about the structures that you set up, so that you can counter all those things, so that you can balance all those things, so that they don't play out. And so that's why developers or a technical assistance provider is really important in helping a co-op to think through those. How do we build a structure? What are our agreements when working together? To balance out those, and to be really intentional about thinking through those. And sometimes that's, "what is the worst case scenario? How would we deal with it? Let's think it through now before it actually happens." So co-ops aren't just going to solve all those problems that we bring with us as individuals and humans. But if you set up a structure that really helps to guide those or to balance them out. That's why the cost structure is so important. It's such a flexible structure, but it's up to people to create it, which is a really exciting thing, to be working with people as they're creating this vision and the structure to fit it.

Damita Brown: Absolutely. And what kinds of things do you want listeners to know in terms of how they can, if they're thinking about becoming a co-op, how they can access what you guys do?

Charity Schmidt: Yeah. I mean you can just check out the website,, and we'll have a lot of information. There's a 'Start a Co-op,' page if your group is interested in starting a Co-op, there's resources there. There's our grant application right there, and there's also 'Support Co-ops,' for our community based organization partners, and they can learn how to be part of the programming in that way. Coming up I'm doing a Co-op 101, which is just a presentation around what is a worker cooperative, why do people start a worker cooperative, what are the resources that are available to you in Madison to start a worker co-op? So I'm doing one of those Co-op 101 programs coming up on April 20th at 6:30 p.m. at the Pinney Branch Library. So again, April 20th, 6:30 p.m. at the Pinney Library, and there'll be that kind of discussion, and that's a great place also to ask questions. But yes, come find out, learn more, learn the supports that are really available for you. So that's a great way to learn more.

Damita Brown: Wow, that sounds like a very good event. Do you guys do those regularly? Just having the conversations where you give the information for folks.

Charity Schmidt: Yeah, we're just bringing them back live. You know, we of course didn't do them for quite awhile, so I'm excited to get back to that. It's a really fun way to have conversations with people, and hear people's ideas about what kind of businesses they want to build, and why they want to build them. I think people are getting really creative around trying to solve community needs, or wanting to build their own type of workplace instead of going back to the, quote unquote normal.

Damita Brown: Yeah. I mean, that might be one of the positive things that came out of having so much disruption to work for people is that people are, "hey, wha-" You know, maybe it's similar to why some people are resigning. They're like, "Well, I don't have to go sign up for that kind of punishment. I'm going to go I'm going to go build my own." I mean, it could be a good thing coming out of the pandemic, you know?

Charity Schmidt: Yeah.

Damita Brown: Well, I really appreciate the work that you guys are doing. I don't think we can be doing anything more important than that personally. And I'm glad to hear that it's cutting through some of the the race and class disparities in the community, that lots of folks are stepping up to do this who have been underrepresented in owning their own businesses, so that's fantastic.

We've been talking to Charity Schmidt, who does cooperative development with the University of Wisconsin, and through a collaboration with those guys in the City of Madison, the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition and the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. Charity Schmidt, thank you so much for being with us this morning. Keep up the great work that you're doing.

Charity Schmidt: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. This is great.

Damita Brown: You bet. Have a great day.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.

Header image: Soaring Independent Cooperative members and supporters, via MCDC.



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