Co-ops don’t always show an immediate financial return, but that doesn’t mean they are failing
by Karen Kahn
Too often when we think about community wealth building, says Assata Richards, people think we are talking about monetary wealth. That’s important, she notes, but it isn’t the only variable that should concern us. Our work is about “community” as well, the social bonds that give us strength. In the language of sociology, community wealth building initiatives build both financial and social capital. As Richards explains, co-operatives are successful when they “meet social, cultural, and economic needs.”
A cooperative is a form of social capital. It’s people working together to provide solutions to their needs.
Richards is the founder and executive director of the Sankofa Research Institute, a community-centered research institute that engages Houston’s Black and low-income communities in developing and advancing strategies for social change. Richards says her interest in co-operatives emerged as she looked for solutions to gentrification. She saw a need to arm residents in low-income communities with strategies to address market failures. Individual solutions were insufficient so she looked to community wealth building solutions that also attended to the legacies and consequences of the trauma of white supremacy and systemic racism.
The Sankofa Research Institute’s most recent initiative is a caregiver and community health worker cooperative, which it has engaged with the faith-based community and partners at the University of Houston to launch in Houston’s Third Ward.
The co-op, which employs community health workers and home care aides, provides jobs and income for residents. But it is more, says Richards. It is responding to the community’s need for “trust, safety, security, and systems of reciprocity.” African Americans, she notes, feel alienated because they don’t experience a sense of belonging in many of the institutions they find themselves in. “The new co-op will provide for the social, cultural and economic needs of the community,” she says.
Assessing Community Needs
The co-op initiative grew out of a comprehensive needs survey in the Third Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood that is deeply impoverished and stratified, according to Richards. About half the residents earn less than $10,000 annually. The majority of residents are seniors, and many can’t work because of disability.
Richards found that among the residents, 7 percent had no running water; 10 percent had no air conditioning; and nearly half had pests such as rats infesting their housing. Yet, 80 percent of the respondents said they were satisfied living in the neighborhood. To Richards, that indicated there is something more than material things that sustain people. She says, “We have to not over-value monetary resources. What human beings need to thrive goes beyond what they earn.”
We have to not over-value monetary resources. What human beings need to thrive goes beyond what they earn.”–Assata Richards, founder and executive director of the Sankofa Research Institute
It’s community connection that is vital to survival, especially in low-income communities. As Richards discovered in her survey, neighbors were already helping neighbors in the Third Ward—supporting elders, providing childcare, giving each other rides. “That’s how people were surviving,” says Richards. “It’s not like the state of Texas is providing resources. They survive because they have one another.”
The top need residents identified: jobs. And with their experience caring for one another, many expressed interest in working in health care. Thus, the idea of a caregiving cooperative emerged. It could fill care gaps across the community, while providing a range of economic and social benefits for its members.
Jobs with a $15/hour wage floor
The new caregiving cooperative is uniquely designed to ensure fair wages for its members. It will train and employ both community health workers, who address structural and community level barriers to living a healthy life, and home care aides, who provide direct services to those who need assistance with dressing, bathing, cooking, and other daily activities.
There are multiple advantages to this structure, says Richards. “We can meet needs that are collective community needs by addressing health disparities that arise from poor housing, lead paint, pests and so on, while also attending to individual care needs.” But additionally, Richards points out, the addition of community health workers increases revenues for the co-operative, so that it can guarantee a wage floor of $15/hour. The state of Texas doesn’t reimburse home care services through its Medicaid program at a rate that would pay workers a livable wage. But community health workers are paid more, increasing revenues for the co-op.
“The co-op is committed to equity,” says Richards. “We will raise the floor for the home care aides, by reducing the ceiling for community health workers.” She explains, “Our workers understand both jobs are vitally important; it’s not the value of the work that determines the pay. We value community health workers equal to those who are providing caregiving, and that allows us to create a policy around equity that we’re operating around internally within our organization.”
Building social capital
The community connection that Richards found already exists in the Third Ward is what sociologists call “social capital.” “It is the web of relationships and the shared values that allow groups to work together effectively,” says Richards. “Through their social networks, people are able to secure benefits and invent solutions to the problems in their lives.” A cooperative, she explains is a form of social capital. It’s people working together to provide solutions to their needs.
The caregiving co-op is solving for multiple challenges faced by residents of the Third Ward. Despite the resources flowing to community health workers in the Houston area, Richards notes that these workers still face racism and classism in the institutions that hire them. “The systems they have to challenge are many times the systems delivering their paychecks,” says Richards.
By embedding these jobs in a cooperative, the community health workers take on the management and completion of projects. The cooperative structure empowers them and affirms their training, their focus on advocacy, and their ability to be effective when the systems are failing, Richards explains. It’s meeting social and cultural needs that go far beyond a paycheck.
Cooperatives can measure their success in building social capital, alongside measuring their financial success.
Additionally, says Richards, we found lots of people were being trained to be community health workers or home care aides, but they couldn’t find employment opportunities that fit their life circumstances. “We focus on a community approach: neighbors caring for neighbors. We ask people, who do you want to care for? We try to provide income for work they may already be doing, thereby reinforcing social bonds.”
Measuring social capital
Social capital might seem like a fuzzy thing, not easily measured. But as Robert D. Putman, author of Bowling Alone, points out:
Community connectedness is not just about warm fuzzy tales of civic triumph. In measurable and well-documented ways, social capital makes an enormous difference in our lives…. Social capital makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.
At the sixth annual National Home Care Conference sponsored by the Cooperative Development Foundation, Richards presented a session on measuring social capital. She noted there are three interlocking dimensions of social capital:
- Interconnected networks of relationships between individuals and groups
- Levels of trust that characterize these relationships
- Resources or benefits that are both gained and transferred by social connections and social participation.
The stronger the relationships, the stronger the social capital and the greater the returns for the individual and the organization. These returns are multiple, says Richards, including:
- Social trust
- Cooperation and collaboration
- Shared sense of identity
- Interpersonal relationships
- Shared understanding
- Reciprocity and social support
- Shared norms and values
Cooperatives, says Richards, can measure their success in building social capital, alongside measuring their financial success. In many cases, for co-op members, the social capital may be more meaningful than their earnings.
Says, Richards, “When we started conversations about the co-operative, people would often say, ‘I want to leave the money in the co-op, I just want to do this work, so other people can have those resources.’ What they were saying was, ‘I’m being compensated, Assata, I don’t need additional financial resources. I’m being compensated in terms of a sense of belonging, in terms of network and relationship building, in terms of trust and safety, in terms of being able to contribute [reciprocity].’ All of those things are the sustenance of healthy groups and healthy communities.”
Richards has developed some simple survey questions that co-ops can use to measure how well they are doing in building social capital for their members. In her presentation at the National Home Care Conference, she proposed asking members questions in four key areas:
Trust & Solidarity (members can rely on one another because they trust each other)
- Can most people in our co-op be trusted?
- Are most people in our co-op willing to help when needed?
Socializing/Sociability (personal relationships that go beyond working together)
- Do members socialize together, are they connected with each other?
Cooperation (mobilization of collective resources and willingness to share risk)
- Do members provide support for someone who experiences a death in the family or another crisis (illness, childcare, transportation)?
Agency and Political Action (sense of political power working together)
- Do people stand up together and engage government officials?
Even before a cooperative has a financial return on investment, says Richards, it is a community. As we build the organization, we can provide support, we can offer compassion. We can provide a safe place, where people can be heard and seen.”
Karen Kahn is a communications consultant and the editor of Employee Ownership News.
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