Skip to main content

Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

#SolidarityCities: Philadelphia

Cooperative Lessons from "The City of Brotherly Love"

Article type
GEO Original
November 23, 2015
Body paragraph


This report is part of an ongoing process of documenting and making public the research that has informed the organizing of the Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City (CEANYC), a cross-sectoral organization incubated by SolidarityNYC. Past phases of this research include a qualitative interview project best summarized in this 2013 report, Growing a Resilient City: Possibilities for Collaboration in New York City's Solidarity Economy; and a series of focus groups led by CEANYC's steering committee best summarized in their 2014 Summary of Findings report. A more detailed explanation of the research and development process is available in this 2014 Shareable interview with SolidarityNYC organizers. CEANYC and SolidarityNYC continue to partner in researching cross-sectoral regional organizing and movement building. CEANYC is currently building its membership and you can join here!

#SolidarityCities is a project exploring how peer organizations facilitate cross-sectoral and regional organizing and grew from a desire to learn more about the challenges, victories, and movement-building of the solidarity economy movement. Field trips, readings, study, and building shared analysis helps generate movement by making strategic connections (personally, professionally, intellectually) and stretching radical imaginations. Beyond just disseminating information, the trips also help to support building community among regional solidarity economy organizers and their institutions. This is crucial as we grow our efforts and expand our horizons.

There is no fee to attend these programs and participants share the costs of travel, food, gifts, and hosting. To date, we have visited Philadelphia, Montreal, and Ithaca, with plans to visit Western Massachusetts currently in the works. Participants in the #SolidarityCities program have included members or representatives of the following groups: North American Students of Cooperation, Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, Responsible Endowments Coalition, Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, Kensington Community Food Co-op, Mariposa Food Co-op, Park Slope Food Co-op, New Economy Coalition, Anti-Oppression and Racism Training Alliance (AORTA) Collective, SolidarityNYC, U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, Data Commons Cooperative, Community Economies Collective, NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives, Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City, Worcester SAGE, Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Collective, Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union, and National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.


Case Study: Philadelphia

Our hosts in Philly included Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA), Mariposa Food Co-op, Solo Real Estate, and Kensington Food Co-op. We spent a full Saturday sharing strategies and stories with PACA in Mariposa’s community room—including a visit with solidarity economy research and mapping pioneer Professor Craig Borowiack of Haverford College and the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network. Then, Esteban Kelly, cooperator extraordinaire, led us on a walking tour of West Philadelphia that included Mariposa Food Co-op, Wooden Shoe Books, West Philadelphia Cooperative Preschool, The Cedar Works, Firehouse Bicycles, and several co-op homes within the Life Center Association (LCA) community land trust. That evening New York City and Philly folks connected over dinner, dancing, and a bonfire together in Kensington thanks to our host Jeff Carpineta of Solo Real Estate. On Sunday morning, participants (who had read Andrew Cornell’s book, Oppose and Propose – about solidarity economy organizing – before arrival) met with Andy and former members of Movement for a New Society (MNS) at an LCA co-op for brunch. Minds blown, the New York City folks returned to the five boroughs ready to apply what they had learned.


Historical Context

Philadelphia has a long history of cooperation and solidarity economics. Cross-sectoral cooperative organizations existed in the 1940s and 1980s and many of the people involved in those groups are still active organizers in the region. The area was also home to a national organization of activists who practiced and trained others in solidarity economics in the 1970s and 1980s, creating a cooperative culture that continues to support the work there today.

The Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance formed out of the organizing of a June 2012 conference comparing co-ops in Philadelphia and Madison. The communications and network that emerged from that event was later solidified through a steering committee’s labor, subsequent events including a co-op summit and happy hours, and the financial support and in-kind labor of members and the National Cooperative Business Association. (Caitlin Quigley’s excellent history of PACA is a great place to learn more.)

After two days of meetings, tours and conversations with folks representing incredible diversity within the movement, the #solidaritycities crew returned to NYC with many insights to share and apply to our work at home.


Lessons for co-ops

  1. Education is key to movement building

While many cooperatives recognize Principle 5: Education, Training, and Information as an opportunity to build political analysis among membership, the principle is more often interpreted as providing access to

the knowledge of cooperation held within the organization and larger movement. This creates a tension and division between “political” and “apolitical” cooperatives which is arbitrary, since all actions in our interdependent human society and ecosystem have an impact on others and thus carry economic, social, and subsequently political consequences. Co-ops are uniquely suited to provide peer-to-peer education on community issues and decisions that affect a co-op and its membership, often at little to no cost to the organization’s balance sheet.

Philadelphia’s co-ops give three great examples for how we might do this for any audience of any age: Mariposa Food Co-op maintains a book club to educate members about co-op principles and social justice issues within their community; West Philadelphia Cooperative Preschool is not only cooperatively operated by member families, it is also focused on inculcating cooperative culture and values in early childhood through games and democratic participation; and Life Center Association founders viewed co-ops not as an end in and of themselves but as a way to support community well-being and sustain action for social and racial justice and this tradition continues today. All three examples demonstrate how cooperatives can contribute to movement building within the solidarity economy and social justice movements.


Lessons for networks and infrastructure

1. Financial support

Cooperative networks can play a huge role in financing the development and expansion of democratic enterprise. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the successful fundraising efforts of Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philadelphia. Mariposa solicited loans, grants, and investment from co-ops, institutions, and members in order to survive and grow in a mixed income neighborhood where residents weren’t able to close the gap alone. Co-ops were especially helpful in amassing the early capital needed to make investment less risky to traditional institutions—a special role that co-ops are well-suited to play. (Check out Esteban Kelly’s thorough case study on Mariposa’s community financing to learn more.)

2. Staffing cross-sectoral efforts

Cooperative networks succeed when individual and organizational cooperators are committed to their success and are willing to put in time and money. PACA grew with the support of a volunteer steering committee and hired staff only after a national stakeholder, NCBA, provided seed funding and human resources capacity. PACA had accepted membership dues but it was not enough to meet the need alone. Volunteers came from co-ops and shared a culture of consensus decision-making and were crucial to maintaining momentum in the early stages. Some were even able to receive co-op member work credit or include some of the activities within their job duties for a participating co-op. The group also used both high profile day-long events and smaller networking or social gatherings to remain visible and grow support—appealing to the diverse social and political needs of co-ops and their members.


Lessons for organizing

  1. Importance of shared culture

Organizing that takes into account the material needs of activists and community members can create long-term solutions to community problems. While LCA may have originally been designed to support social action, it is now a bulwark against gentrification and an example of how affordable housing can be structured to sustain cooperation and social justice.

Prefigurative efforts must be careful to remain grounded in reality—which means responding with compassion when faced with the gaps between ideals and lived experience. MNS partially failed because the focus on prefigurative culture meant that issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of structural oppression became the center of attention, limiting the group’s ability to address its original mission of direct action and resistance. Internal dynamics were often self-destructive during this period. Segregation and oppression persisted in the group’s efforts, which led the way for the eventual decision to lay down the work. (For more a more extensive account of this work, check out Andrew Cornell’s book on the subject.)

MNS’s political education in direct democracy had far-reaching effects for the movement. Tens of thousands of people learned consensus decision-making and direct action tactics, including spokescouncils, from MNS. This ultimately led not only to a cultural shift in the movement to embrace these tools, but also a cohort of young people interested in social change who shared an understanding of democracy and cooperation. The latter enabled many cooperatives in Philadelphia, the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, Vermont, and the northeast to flourish because founders had a common language and basis for decision-making. (For more information on the Pioneer Valley co-ops check out this new book.) This cannot be underscored enough, since even as co-ops evolved and altered governance to meet their needs, this strong foundation enabled substantial growth in economic cooperation and solidarity economics.


Questions raised

1. Social and racial justice

Cooperation and solidarity economics in West Philadelphia are often grounded in the social justice movement, and vice versa. This raises an important question for those who believe economic cooperation should be utilized to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. How can we build movement between co-ops and solidarity economy groups and the wider struggle for social and racial justice?

We can start by expanding political education efforts in our own co-ops and solidarity economy groups through Cooperative Principle #5: Education and Training. Book clubs, film screenings, workshops, and field trips are all excellent ways to begin. Are we, as members, doing our part to shape what’s being shared in our co-ops and groups? In New York City many co-ops provide public educational events, but probably the largest program of this type is offered by the Park Slope Food Co-op. Those efforts are brought by members and reflect member interests, usually focusing on health, the politics of food, or individual consumer choices. Cross-sectoral cooperation could include a public education program to encourage deeper engagement with the issues our communities confront.

We can also seek to break down barriers between co-ops and solidarity economy groups and the wider social justice movement. Can we offer membership to those groups, specifically? Can we provide technical assistance or capital to help social justice groups launch their own solidarity economy initiatives? How can our co-ops and groups show up for the resistance struggles ongoing in so many of our neighborhoods and cities? We must examine the ways we are allies and identify where we can strengthen our efforts and address gaps. Cross-sectoral cooperation in the five boroughs could provide more muscle for resistance efforts and widen the circle of stakeholders to better leverage the privilege some groups and neighborhoods hold in citywide politics.

2. Building with national actors

PACA’s successful transition from volunteer effort to professional organization was supported with funding and capacity provided by a large national (and international) cooperative advocacy nonprofit. Without an angel donor or fiscal sponsor of this magnitude, how can cross-sectoral efforts grow to reach the scale necessary to sustain programs?

PACA succeeded with support from member dues, event sponsorship, and in-kind donations prior to receiving national funding. Unfortunately, grassroots funding is rarely able to sustain a program budget and full-time staff. A cooperative loan fund or other vehicle that accrues interest that can be allocated to the organization is one idea worth exploring. City funding, such as that made available to worker cooperative development organizations in New York City and elsewhere, is another potential source of support. Crowdfunding can support some small projects, although it is a highly labor intensive approach and requires significant volunteer capacity. Last, groups can always approach traditional philanthropic foundations, although many do not yet see or understand the cooperative difference and must be convinced of the value solidarity economy groups add to their programs. Strong national cooperative and solidarity economy organizations with an understanding that scale is built from the grassroots would do well to not only provide seed funding for groups but to also provide technical assistance and innovation grants to build the movement.

3. Role of land

Our cities are experiencing unprecedented growth and displacement. In New York, the problem is particularly pronounced in Brooklyn, but the circle is widening to include Queens and the Bronx. Community land trusts are one way to ensure that land remains in use for the community, rather than privatized for the rich, and that housing remains affordable. Given the strength of the LCA example, how can NYC’s solidarity economy and cooperative movement support the use of community land trusts, mutual housing associations, and limited equity housing co-ops?

The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, Cooper Square Committee, Picture the Homeless, NYC Community Land Initiative, North American Students of Cooperation, Brooklyn Queens Community Land Trust, NYC Community Gardens Coalition, 596 Acres, Mutual Housing Associations, and many more are all actively seeking to sustain cooperative and solidarity approaches to land and housing use. It is a daunting task to bring these groups together for a shared platform, but that would be one approach. Attention could also be given to forming new community land trusts or cooperative vehicles, such as the Real Estate Investment Cooperative, to provide for democratic approaches to economic development. Perhaps the most exciting, however, would be to use what NYC is learning through the participatory budgeting initiatives spearheaded by the Participatory Budgeting Project to introduce participatory planning and economic cooperation to neighborhoods, starting with city-owned property. Given the significant differences between real estate markets in Philadelphia and New York, it is likely that state support would be needed since private developers have greater access to resources than average New Yorkers.

4. Role of research

Academic support for solidarity economy organizing can enhance a group’s ability to pursue strategic growth. In Philadelphia, PACA maintains a relationship with Craig Borowiack and his students at Haverford College, which sustains the maintenance of an area solidarity economy map and supported a co-op member survey to gather data about economic impact. In New York City, SolidarityNYC (and by extension, CEANYC) maintains relationships with academics at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, City University of New York, and Rutgers University and relies on these relationships to provide mapping data and maintenance and both qualitative and quantitative data about the solidarity economy in the five boroughs. Both groups discussed the important role research and academic support can play in expanding and understanding solidarity economics and cooperation.

Despite the value of these relationships tensions do emerge: academic and organizing timelines do not always correlate, particularly when concerning funding; they serve different audiences; there are often cultural differences between collectively run groups and the often individualistic nature of scholarship. These differences can overwhelm much-needed partnerships. How can co-ops and academics best cooperate for mutual benefit?

It is best to embed academics into the project from the start. In Philadelphia academics were outside the steering committee and the cooperative economy, which made it more difficult to communicate. In the NYC example academics became members of the collective, SolidarityNYC, and shared the responsibilities and roles necessary to complete the collective’s work alongside organizers for CEANYC. This ensured that academic participants in the process were looped into the whole process, had an active role in decision-making, and were accountable to organizers. It also ensures that organizers understood the needs and limitations of academic participation and were prepared to make the most of the skills and capacity they offered. In the future academics should be invited to join CEANYC’s board of directors to maintain this reciprocity.


Go to the GEO front page


SolidarityNYC (2015).  #SolidarityCities: Philadelphia:  Cooperative Lessons from "The City of Brotherly Love".  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA This question is to verify that you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam.

What does the G in GEO stand for?