Cincinnati’s visionary builder of cooperatives, bridges of interfaith cooperation, and community revitalization
A movement to build worker cooperatives as a tool of economic and community development is blossoming in Cincinnati. Much of that work is attributable to three decades of work and personal sacrifice by Raymond West, a cooperative developer who was also a Catholic who tried to live out his values and who encouraged other religious leaders to do the same. He inspired many worker-owners, community leaders, politicians and business leaders to support cooperatives as a way to help others faltering under the current economic system.
West, 67, who had been working 60-70 hours a week over the past few years as executive director of Interfaith Business Builders, died unexpectedly August 20 from heart complications. He leaves a 30-year legacy which includes helping to change Ohio state law to make it friendly to cooperative development, organizing an interfaith team to address economic disenfranchisement by raising money for start-up capital, helping to form a janitorial worker cooperative, a construction worker cooperative, a community coffee shop with a hope of revitalizing a community deeply crippled by so-called "urban renewal," starting a movement to educate young people about cooperatives and getting a local Jesuit university to be more active in promoting and living out their values through the community.
"Ray dedicated his life to the movement for a just economy," said Laura Hanson Schlachter, a University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral student studying the cooperative movement in Cincinnati. "Ray inspired many people to think about worker cooperatives as a manifestation of cooperation in the economy. He dedicated three decades of his life to the movement and continued to show his compassion and dedication. He was building worker cooperatives until the day he passed. He was just an incredibly humble person who worked tirelessly for decades and touched many, many lives."
Early in His Life, West Challenged the Politics of the Day
Ray West's life story is one in which he worked as an activist for most of his life to change the world and to help to empower people in Cincinnati left out of the economy, as well as revitalizing their decimated neighborhoods.
West was born in Jacksonville, Florida on August 9, 1948 to Mary and Carl West. Mary West was a homemaker and Carl West was a World War II veteran who had participated in the D-Day operation by dropping from a plane into enemy territory. Soon after Ray West was born, the family had moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where his retired military father worked at Bowman Transportation as a salesman.
Ray West attended Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga and later went to a Jesuit school, Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Alabama for two years. Afterwards, he attended St. Louis University, another Jesuit school where he majored in history and earned a teacher's certificate. While at St. Louis University, the young Ray West took a different path than his father’s and spoke out against the Vietnam war. He also protested at the historic 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
"In the ’60s and ’70s, he was challenging many of the day's practices in the country's political tendencies," West's ex-wife Chole Mullen told GEO. "It was a turbulent time for many young adults, and he was a challenger."
Ray West returned to Chattanooga where he had grown up and began teaching high schoolers for a year. He realized that teaching teens was not his calling.
There, opposed to the U.S. war against Vietnam, he challenged the prevailing norm and became Chattanooga's first conscientious objector.
"His family was not happy with this decision," Mullen said.
West met Chole Garibay, in St. Louis, Missouri in 1973 at Neighborhood Pride, a community development organization.
Garibay had grown up in St. Louis. She was on the board when Neighborhood Pride was recruiting a director. One of her professors at Webster College, where she was studying sociology, had given her Ray West's name to consider for the position.
"When he came in for an interview, we were impressed by one another, and had many similar thoughts about working with the poor in this community," she called. "He was so outstanding in his intelligence, knowledge and attitudes that we hit if off within a few weeks."
West got the job. He and Garibay worked at a community center stopping the redlining of poor neighborhoods. They also started a health program by getting chiropracters from Logan Chiropractic College to work with the poor. They also did the same thing with doctors from St. Louis University who came to the center to talk to community members about health.
West and Garibay married in 1975 and moved to Cincinnati where he had gotten a job with the Urban Appalachian Council. He worked with them for one year. In 1982, West started a nonprofit cooperative incubator, Jobs for People, diligently writing grants and getting funding to put his own ideas and values to work. Amidst a broader conservative political climate in Cincinnati,West developed extensive support and cultivated a strong board of directors.
In the meantime, he and Chole had a son, Carl. Later his wife went to medical school. Then they had a daughter, Esther. After 28 years of marriage, the couple split in 2001.
"We remained friends these last 14 years and maintained our mutual love and support of our wonderful children, now adults," Chole Mullen wrote this writer. She remarried and became Mullen.
Ray West never remarried.
"He dedicated his entire life to improving the lots of the poor and marginal in our society," Mullen said. "He was kind and helpful to hundreds of people in his life. He was respected by many in Cincinnati."
West Invented His Own Organization To Make a Difference
Mullen said that West developed many programs with successful grant money in the South Fairmount neighborhood of Cincinnati. One of those programs was Jobs for People, a temporary labor agency for people who had a hard time finding work. Supported by city officials and local Protestant and Catholic leaders, Jobs for People was "a response from the faith community to the devastation to the economy from tax cuts that [President Ronald] Reagan made in 1981,” said Tim Kraus, IBB’s interim director. The cuts precipitated a serious recession, he said, and Cincinnati was hit very hard by that recession.
Jobs for People operated for 11 years, and transformed into Interfaith Business Builders in 1982. West remained its director and project manager.
"By 1983, it was clear we were entering an era where there would be a large underclass who would be unable to make adjustments to the new economy based on globalism and a new wage labor," said Kraus, who joined the IBB board in 1983. Faith leaders reclaimed a new underclass of people, and an alternative economic structure needed to be found to create solutions. IBB, with its mission to start democratically-run cooperative businesses in the community, was West’s innovative way to build that structure. He also made trips to Ohio’s capital, Columbus, to successfully push for legislation to make it possible to start worker cooperatives.
IBB started Cooperative Builders, a cooperative construction company, which lasted for 10 years despite financial and political obstacles. Kraus said that the late ’80's and early ’90's were not particularly kind to the construction industry and new or fragile companies had a harder time surviving.
“Cooperative Builders also tried to work within the construction trades union environment of that time period and they ran into many obstacles that made it difficult for the minorities and women who were the worker-owners of that business,” he explained. “Things have changed today and the 21st century union movement is much more supportive of co-ops and a differentiated workforce.”
West went on to help found Cooperative Janitorial Services in 1995. The business is small with 15 worker-owners -- some immigrants, former prisoners/returning citizens, chronically unemployed people -- “that pool of people that the economy forgets most of the time," Kraus said. The business consistently makes a profit and pays its workers an average wage of $10.40 per hour, and workers received several hundred dollars in profit-sharing a year, he said. According to the IBB website, the average worker has been with them for five years and the average customer for five and a half years.
West served as CJS’s back office manager and “new prospect generator.”
A big challenge now with the loss of West, Kraus said, is for CJS not to stretch themselves too thin and to not risk quality control.
“His death created a hole in their operation that they are filling in terms of the accounting, payroll, and record keeping, but they have yet to figure out how they will fulfill all of the other responsibilities,” Kraus said. “It is good that the worker-owners are stepping up to get the job done, but it is never easy to replace someone like Ray.”
In May 2014, Community Blend, a fair trade worker-owned coffee shop, opened near Xavier University in the Evanston part of Cincinnati that had been destroyed by so-called Urban Renewal, when the building of the Interstate 71 highway split a successful black community. It was the same neighborhood where King Records was located. King Records signed James Brown, Hank Ballard and bluegrass musicians who got their start. The community was multicultural in the 1950s and 1960s, Kraus said. West's dream was that the coffee shop would help spur economic development in the neighborhood that never recovered.
The coffee shop is the first retail co-op that IBB organized, and it provides jobs for 10 people. IBB provided start-up capital as well as working capital. Newly formed, the co-op “inches toward” a break-even point. Part of the mission for the coffee shop was to create a visible cooperative retail business instead of a “behind the scenes” service business that does not have the same kind of public visibility, Kraus said.
“There are many community supporters for Community Blend and that is essential for the business to survive,” Kraus said. “In many ways the coffee shop is an outpost for the Evanston Community as they try to rebuild a business district for their neighborhood.”
In the long term the shop’s survival is believed to be tied to affordable housing and businesses investing in the neighborhood again.
“The potential is there and we are working in the best ways we know to make that possible,” Kraus said.
West worked towards formulating the holistic relationships of co-ops and community.
"Ray understood that worker cooperatives were a tool for struggling neighborhoods to reinvent themselves," Kraus stated. "He understood that money in the neighborhood doesn't stay in the neighborhood. Building a co-op means that money stays in that neighborhood. He understood and the community understood that if they were going to dig themselves out of the terrible economic depression that they suffered for 40 years, that the money would have to stay there."
IBB co-ops are a success. Since 1983 they have employed over 400 people, and according to the IBB website, the cooperative business had generated $4,500,000 in sales and $2,750,000 in wages from 1983 through June 30, 2014.
Despite the loss of West, the work to continue building cooperatives continues.
"IBB is still engaged in helping to build other cooperative businesses in Cincinnati where we partner with communities in creating the businesses,” Kraus said. “The next project is a laundry business in a community that has no laundry facilities. That was the next co-op Ray was planning to work on."
West Viewed Cooeratives as a Community Development Tool
Kraus said that West came to realize the importance of cooperative work, including, though also going beyond, the workers’ immediate benefit. "The notion of cooperative businesses as a community development tool was part of his revolutionary thinking," Kraus said. "It wasn't the initial motivation. It became an evolutionary realization that building cooperatively owned business could help communities revitalize themselves.”
"For as long as I've known Ray, he has had a very deep sense of social justice," Kraus said. He said West witnessed and participated in the Civil Rights movement. He saw the migration of Appalachians and African Americans to the north escaping the devastation left behind by the coal industry as well as the economic and social terror created by Jim Crow America, and he deeply understood what they went through.
"As a social justice organizer he realized that his social work, although important, was merely putting a bandage on the cancer of chronic unemployment and dysfunction found in low income communities," Kraus said.
“Ray had the ability to touch people deeply on both sides of the American political spectrum, both conservatives and liberals. He could touch the conscience of a conservative who was well meaning and ethical," he said.
Kraus explained that West was able to win support for cooperatives in the state legislature in Ohio among Republicans because they saw cooperatives as supporting the idea of small businesses.
"The Republicans were ideologically predisposed to supporting anything that contributes to local businesses," he said. "The Democrats supported co-ops because they supported democratic workplaces. They saw the work of co-ops as a way of providing a chance for collective action for people in the workplace," Kraus said. "They came from different directions and opened their eyes and looked and realized that they were allies," he said.
West "was always seeing ways of building common ground among people," Kraus said. "He was much better than most activists in talking to people one on one, persuading them with his logic, appealing to their conscience and higher selves and persuading them that it was in their own interest to give money to something like that. Ray West was truly a remarkable human being."
Kraus, who is now IBB interim director said, "In some ways I'm taking on the job of interim director because I am inspired by Ray."
Kraus said that West’s religious values and love of people inspired his work.
In the final analysis, Ray was a very devoted Catholic and a Catholic with a decidedly progressive and left-wing agenda. He is the kind of person who would wake up and remind himself that his work was the right thing to do. He always made judgements and decisions based on what was right. He walked the walk because he deeply cared about people and about people who struggled."
In 2012, the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative awarded West for "Keeping the Cooperative Spirit Alive in Cincinnati for Decades.”
Kristin Barker, executive director for CUCI, praised West’s contribution to the cooperative movement: “We are grateful to him for all his work fanning the flames of cooperativism in Cincinnati over the years. We appreciate his dedication and tenacity, his commitment to bring about opportunities for work and ownership for people who have been traditionally left out of the economy."
CUCI has developed Our Harvest Cooperative, which employs 18 people who work on two farms growing organic produce and creating a food hub for the community. They have also organized the Apple Street Market with the UFCW Local 75 which has 1,000 community owners.
A Remarkable Father and Counselor to Many
As a father, Ray West was just as remarkable.
His son Carl, 39, a social worker who lives in Hamilton, Ohio, said that “[my father] taught me to really value people over things -- to look at people not through a lens but to give your respect, and honor the dignity of whoever you met out there… That love for people in general was a huge thing he gave me. My dad was a master of being genuine."
Ray West’s understanding of life and love of people made him a great counselor, and mentor to both the young, his peers and those in the cooperatives that he helped to build, Carl West said. At his memorial service, Carl West said that people expressed their appreciation for what a difference Ray West made in their lives.
“My dad was a natural counselor and a great comfort to so many people,” he said. “It’s great that so many people looked up to him like he was a dad or a brother. Boy that was something else to see. He was always a great counselor to myself and my sister.”
Carl West reminisced on how his father worked hard and silently in quiet settings, living simply in the spirit of monastic and contemplative traditions. At one point, years ago, he even had an office in the church tower at Emanuel Church in South Fairmount.
Carl West said that his father read widely books on history, theology, Eastern religions, ancient texts, mythology, classical texts, and of course all kinds of books about cooperatives. For Carl West, two titles stood out to show the range of his father’s study: Paulo Freire’s important foundational and classic work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
Ray West's daughter, Esther, is deeply inspired by her father in her own life. She was a worker-owner at Equal Exchange worker cooperative from 2008-2013. “It was very meaningful and special that I was able to be a part of a co-op that had such a great mission,” she said. Equal Exchange was instrumental in starting the U.S. fair trade coffee movement in 1986 by making it possible for coffee farmers to gain more income for their work.
Esther West was also a part of the board leadership for the Eastern Coordinating Committee for the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. Now she’s working on her master’s in environmental studies and urban planning in Cleveland, where she also does research on worker cooperatives.
Esther West said her father studied and read a great deal in his thirst for knowledge and growth, and that he absolutely loved nature. She also describes how "He deeply believed in people. He was constantly thinking about how to create long-lasting, sustainable change.”
Ray West modeled for his daughter "what it means to engage deeply with life and to keep trying diligently to make it the best possible,” she said. “This means the world to me, and I am very lucky and grateful. I will continue to learn from what he taught me. His entire life, he strove to create a more socially just world."
Cincinnati's Big Co-op Conference Planned For April
Ray West died before he could see all of the ripening of fruits of his lifelong labor. On November 12, a panel discussion in Cincinnati which he had helped to organize as a build-up to a larger conference in April, honored West's memory. He had seen these conferences both assignifying broader community engagement in worker cooperatives, as well as the beginning of further worker cooperative dreams he had, Esther West said.
The panel, “The Cooperative Economy: A Panel on How Cooperatives Are Shaping the New Economy,” at Xavier University’s Cintas Center in the Evanston neighborhood of Cincinnati was attended by about 125 people. The panel participants were: Tim Kraus, interim director of Interfaith Business Builders; Kristin Barker, director of Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative; Bilal Muhammad, a member-owner at Cooperative Janitorial Services; Michael Elsas, CEO of Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York City; and Tim Kloppenbuerg, emeritus professor of management at Xavier who is currently researching cooperatives. Hanson moderated the panel and also spoke.
"We would not be here tonight if it was not for Ray," said Gabriel Gottlieb, a professor at Xavier University’s humanities program “Ethics/Religion, and Society.”
"The idea to develop a series of events at Xavier on cooperatives originated in conversation with Ray last year, and his enthusiasm for cooperatives and working with Xavier was essential to moving this project forward. I'm thankful for his guidance and wish he could be here to enjoy the fruit of his work ideas, and his commitment to the cooperative movement."
The November 12 panel is a lead up to a conference titled "The Cooperative Economy: Building a Sustainable Future," also at Xavier, on April 21 and April 22. The keynote speakers are GEO co-editor Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Associate Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College, City University of New York, and Melissa Hoover, Executive Director of the Democracy at Work Institute.
The purposes of the conference, according to Gottlieb, are to 1) reflect upon the history of cooperative movements, and 2) promote dialogue about their contemporary social and economic significance.
Donations to help Interfaith Business Builders continue its work and West’s legacy can be sent to IBB, 1707 Westwood Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45214.
Go to the GEO front page
Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo (2015). A Tribute to Ray West: Cincinnati’s visionary builder of cooperatives, bridges of interfaith cooperation, and community revitalization. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/tribute-ray-west