City residents are fighting a history of exploitation through collective ownership of food, labor, and land, showing that another world is possible.
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
For decades, low wage work and exploitive housing policies have reigned supreme in Baltimore. Today there are tremendous disparities in wealth and health outcomes and a lack of access to affordable housing, but a growing number of residents are fighting exploitation through collective ownership of food, labor, and land, showing that another world is possible. Worker owners and community leaders discussed these efforts at the 2019 East Coast Workplace Democracy Conference, which included tours of local worker run cooperatives, land trusts, and community gardens focused on community empowerment. Many are located in low income working class black neighborhoods facing a lack of investment and opportunities as well as corrupt policing.
JOHN DUDA: The conference location is located right on the spine of the White L. We’re going to get outside of that today. We’re going to head down first to Curtis Bay, which is a working class neighborhood on the south side of the harbor, where we’re going to talk to folks doing youth organizing against environmental racism. They’ve got some really amazing stuff around land trusts and compost and all sorts of great stuff that’s going on. Then we’ll head over to Cherry Hill, another neighborhood in the south side of Baltimore, where we’ll learn about some efforts going on around food access and food sovereignty. And then we’ll head up to West Baltimore, blocks from where Freddie Gray was murdered by police.
JAISAL NOOR: In Curtis Bay, a neighborhood in South Baltimore, Free Your Voice and United Workers are creating affordable and democratically controlled housing through community land trusts. Recently, they helped secure a $20 million a year commitment from local officials to fund affordable housing throughout the city.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL: Started our land trust that’s called the South Baltimore Community Land Trust here. We built a little space with the land that we have that residents have come out and said what they wanted to see. Because it’s governed by residents, let me put that out there. And they come out to say what they wanted to see. And not only did they come out to say what they wanted to see, they actually built it. So everything that you’re going to see on this lot was built by the hands of this community.
JAISAL NOOR: And are also pushing the city to end its reliance on trash burning incinerators. In the nearby Cherry Hill neighborhood, The Black Yield Institute has launched a successful urban farm. Over the past year it’s produced over 5,000 pounds of food and fed some 500 local residents.
LEE JORDAN: We work to create self-sustaining communities. We do that by cultivating black land and food sovereignty. Okay? One of the things we were very clear about is how we talk about our work and how in the language you use around the problems that we face. Okay, one of the major things we talk about is this term called food apartheid. Have y’all heard that right before, apartheid? So we talk about food apartheid. Before it was healthy food… Well, now it’s healthy food priority areas. Before that it was food deserts; it was food deserts. That was one of the issues that we fight here. We do that by we combat apartheid by growing food and actually selling it in our community.
JAISAL NOOR: Their next project is in the works. They plan to open what would be the only grocery store in the neighborhood, which would also be cooperatively owned.
LEE JORDAN: Okay. One of our major projects right now; we’re working to build a cooperatively owned grocery store right here in Cherry Hill. In the last 15… Oh, thank y’all. We can clap that up. I appreciate that; I appreciate that. Now in the last 15 years, there hasn’t been a grocery store here in Cherry Hill.
JAISAL NOOR: Further north, Tubman House has reclaimed several tracks of land in Sandtown-Winchester–the West Baltimore neighborhood where 25 year old Freddie Gray grew up and was killed by police–to create an urban farm for the local community.
KEVIN WHEELER: So right here, this red means that anybody who lives here can just come in and if they want some kale, they can just yank it on out. You follow me? So anybody who’s here, they can just come and yank it out. This is something that Rebecca, who’s the other farm lead decided on. And it’s a really great system because now people can actually understand that this is for them.
JAISAL NOOR: Conference participants also visited four local worker run cooperatives.
KATE KHATIB: Baltimore has actually a pretty rich cooperative ecosystem, and it’s one that has really been built from the ground up. It’s really been built from workers coming together in their communities, forming businesses, figuring out how to build the kinds of support that they need to thrive and survive.
JAISAL NOOR: The first was a radical bookstore and coffee shop, Red Emma’s, run by 15 worker owners and another 10 on the path to become owners.
KATE KHATIB: We have about 25 people employed here in sustainable living-ish wage jobs, as close as we can get. And we’ve been around since 2004. We’re actually celebrating our 15th anniversary.
JAISAL NOOR: Over the years, Red Emma’s has incubated a number of other coops. One is Thread Coffee, a woman and queer run coffee roasting company, sourcing coffee from farm owned collectives.
CASEY MCKEEL: We’re working on building a model where we can actually offer shares to the coffee farmers that we work with, so that as we grow, we have a way of actually splitting the profit with the farmers that we work with. As like another way of just kind of sending money back to the farmers to make it a little bit more equitable since we’re making profit off of their product.
JAISAL NOOR: The next stop on the tour was Baltimore Bicycle Works, a full service bike store run by five worker owners and five apprentices who are on the path to ownership. Founded in 2008, BBW just opened a second location.
BERNARDO VIGIL: Well, in addition to providing the best service in the city, we are the only worker owned and operated bike shop. What that means is that everybody that you interact with at the store is either an equal owner of the business or is part of our apprenticeship program training up to become a full owner of the business.
JAISAL NOOR: And finally the staffing cooperative. A worker owned holding company, which controls Core Staffing, a staffing cooperative of previously incarcerated individuals who collectively organize for better pay and working conditions?
JOSEPH CURETON: Well, we’ve had about 35 members come through. Pretty much everybody has left with a job. But when they leave and get placed, they’re in full time employment, making more money than they did at the coop, which is great. And also people haven’t gone back to jail. So in Baltimore city it’s about 51% recidivism rate, which is just bonkers. But for us it’s 100% not recidivism rate or zero.
JAISAL NOOR: Another is Tribe, a staffing cooperative for worker owners in the tech sector. The Baltimore Round Table for Economic Democracy, a collective of Maryland based worker owners provides technical assistance and access to capital for the cooperative economy and has lent out close to a million dollars in the past three years to support these efforts.
BERNARDO VIGIL: The non-extractive model of lending that the Baltimore Round Table provides allowed us to take out loans necessary in order to build out this location. They did that without requiring any personal guarantees from any of our workers, which was really, really important. Because while we are endeavoring to pay everybody a living wage, we are still low wage workers and having a huge liability personally for the expansion of the business, was simply not tenable, since none of us really come from positions of great wealth.
JAISAL NOOR: Advocates say these projects will only continue to expand.
BERNARDO VIGIL: We really do see ourselves as a sort of prefigurative model for what a democratically controlled economy can look like. We’re sort of doing the work of figuring out the nuts and bolts of like, what does a world without bosses, what does a world without extractive capitalists actually look like and how can it function. So that when other folks are interested in taking this model and running with it, either in a different industry or in a different context, they’re able to look to our successes. They’re able to look to our failures and grow and expand from there.
JAISAL NOOR: For The Real News, this is Jaisal Noor.
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