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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Evergreen and Our Movements Great Conundrum

March 14, 2016
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(Movements Moving Together 19)                      

My GEO colleague Josh Davis, has recently posted two blogs critical of the Evergreen project. In the first one, What’s Up with Evergreen, he raised several questions about what is going on there because there seems to be more hype than substantial information coming from Evergreen about how the project is going. I think the questions he raises are substantial as there is no way for our movements and the public to evaluate progress and the model itself without substantial disclosure.

In his second blog, A Critical Look at the Evergreen Model, his criticism is much stronger. I go with him in some of it, like here:

Failing to provide accurate market projections and failing to understand the existing skills of workers...and these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rookie mistakes by the professionals. In fact, from everything I've read about Evergreen, despite the rosy spin most of it has had, I am unable to escape the conclusion that Evergreen's organizers essentially convinced a bunch of poor people to take part in a poorly thought-out experiment that very nearly crashed and burned. And when that happened, who stepped in to save the day? Was it the workers, having some hard conversations and deciding on a course of action? No. It was Evergreen executives bringing in new management to fire workers and cut wages from, in some cases, $20 per hour to $9.

What stands out for me is his saying “I am unable to escape the conclusion that Evergreen's organizers essentially convinced a bunch of poor people to take part in a poorly thought-out experiment that very nearly crashed and burned.” I am kind of in the same place. Given several critical reports that have come out, like the one from Politico that Josh links to above, very harsh stories I have heard second-hand, and critical observations made by seasoned movement people, it’s almost impossible “to escape” from drawing uneasy if not negative conclusions.

However, it is the lack of any substantial information coming from Evergreen itself about their struggles and successes that leave people who want to support the growth of the project quite disappointed. A project as original and as imaginative and as daring as Evergreen was bound to have substantial failures. Tuned-in common sense expects such projects to go through a lot of trial-and-error and a whole lot of learning. It is as much a research project for the public and the whole movement to learn from as it is an alternative business project. So I find it quite disheartening to sense that the model was being “sold” before having gone through a substantial trial-and-error process that was open to the public in a meaningfully way. 

At the same time that I concur with Josh on the above concerns, I think he was off track in several ways in his second blog. I am sure the “white male” thing was a factor. It’s an embedded part of our whole lives everywhere, and that includes within our movements. However, it seems clear to me that there is no way a project like Evergreen could have ever gotten off the ground without the expertise a bunch of sophisticated people in these matters could bring to the task. And it’s a given that will involve a lot of white guys. Certainly, the minority people in the inner city of Cleveland did not have anywhere near the expertise or resources to attempt such a project. So it had to begin with that profound imbalance.

Still, I haven’t gotten any clear picture that there was serious efforts made to involve local folks in the design and development stages. And there is very little evidence of any in-depth effort at developing a worker co-operative culture among the people hired. Assuming this is true, and it is reported by many experienced developers and scholars, it is a major failure of the project.

I also have to disagree with Josh on this:

…how bizarre is it that worker cooperatives were designed based on the needs and interests of institutions and funders, and not on the needs, interests, skills and abilities of the worker-owners?

First, the core idea of the model the project is based on is to connect the business needs and interests of the anchor institutions in Cleveland to the job needs of the people living in an economically devastated inner city. Part of the very nature of all businesses—co-operative and otherwise—is to create livelihood by supplying what people need and desire. The designers were trying to do this in a unique way that would kick start substantial alternative community economic development in a place in dire need of it. Josh quoted the following from the report on Evergreen released by REDF:

The businesses were chosen based on opportunities, the needs of the Anchor institutions, and the interests of funders, but without the industry expertise necessary to operate efficiently. (pg. 7) [emphasis added]

In my mind the important part of this quote is what he did not put in bold. That was a major deficiency! (but not anymore major than the failure of giving top priority to developing a worker co-op culture). It is something that should be analyzed thoroughly and discussed broadly since the Evergreen project has been intensely promoted as the beginning of a new way to promote co-operative/solidarity economics in this country. For it to be the kind of project it needs and wants to be, Evergreen has needed all along to be telling us what is happening that’s not working. And inviting input to how to make things better. And promoting discussions designed to maximize awareness and learning of what works and what doesn’t. Instead, we have been getting mostly promotional material designed as “evaluations.”

But let’s be straight. Evergreen is also a victim in all of this. Where in our movements do we find open, meaningful and growthful discussion about our mistakes, failures and conflicts so that all of us and the movement as a whole can learn what it needs to learn in order to work better? To become more powerful and achieve more impact.  Where does this happen to any substantial degree among us face-to-face, within our collectives, within and between our organizations, throughout our movements?

Very little in my experience. We are so tragically prone to tear each other up both by the criticisms and feedback we put out, or to receive such information as if it is an attack when it wasn’t meant to be that. So I can see some wisdom in Evergreen protecting itself. Why would they assume it would be safe to do that? Who wants to be torn apart? Not me. You?

This is our great conundrum. Sadly, it is Evergreen’s profound loss not to engage in open reflection on what it is working and not working. Worse, this is only a reflection of the profound loss our worlds suffer from being so conflicted about giving and receiving the information that is so essential for knowing what is not working and figuring out why. It’s essential for making things work better.

If you doubt this, think about our Grand Ole Party—the GOP—and what it is going through right now. We couldn’t ask for a better example of the consequences of a project blinding itself to what is going on in its ranks.


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