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Evergreen Cooperatives take the spotlight in Cleveland, OH during GOP Convention

The employee-owned trio of social enterprises exemplifies equity and sustainability
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Michelle Stearn & John Duda

The presence of the 2016 Republican National Convention cast a national spotlight on Cleveland, Ohio. Looking to highlight the struggles and hopes of ordinary low-income local residents, many visiting journalists found their way to the Evergreen Cooperatives, a group of three linked employee-owned social enterprises based in the Greater University Circle area of Cleveland's East Side. Evergreen's groundbreaking model (known fondly as the Cleveland Model) emerged through a collaboration between the Cleveland Foundation and the Democracy Collaborative as they sought to create an ecosystem of linked institutions working for the common good, and has provided a visionary example of how to create a financially and environmentally sustainable business model that puts workers and communities first.  While the GOP made their case for what was wrong with America at their convention, reporters were able to tell a different story, lifting up the Evergreen Cooperatives as practical and non-rhetorical strategy for building community wealth.

Green City Growers, the U.S.'s largest industrial-scale greenhouse in a core urban area, is one of three cooperatives under the Evergreen umbrella that is rooted in place and community. By supplying Cleveland's anchor institutions and larger supermarkets with fresh, locally grown greens and herbs, Green City Growers has doubled its sales in the past year. In a video from The Huffington Post's HuffPost Rise, we see these workers in action.  The greenhouse's financial success is a huge accomplishment for the organization, which boasts a team of worker-owners earning a living wage and a generous benefits package:

Earlier this year, the co-op also gained attention from CNBC's Nightly News Business Report, which highlighted their progress in helping worker-owners purchase their own homes:

 

Evergreen's potential to inspire new strategies for addressing deeply entrenched urban poverty, while providing much-needed jobs for a city where nearly two in five live below the poverty line, reached a new audience thanks to the presence of the GOP. John Seewer, writing for the Associated Press about Cleveland as a "fractured city," highlighted the cooperatives' ability to employ formerly incarcerated people, allowing them carve out a new path for themselves:

Tough is a good way to describe Cleveland’s east side, where blacks from the South filled industrial jobs and settled during and after World War II. It’s now marked by high crime and abandoned factories. Over half the children live in poverty.

Chris Brown, a 41-year-old black man and lifelong Clevelander, admits he was part of the problem in his younger days. “I was a thug, almost. On a highway going nowhere fast,” he said.

Caught selling drugs, he went to prison for three years. Afterward, getting by was a struggle until he started working at a commercial laundry four years ago.

Funded by civic leaders, foundations and local institutions, the laundry is part of a wider mission to stabilize east side neighborhoods by creating jobs. Built inside a former torpedo factory, it employs about 40 people, most of whom have done time in prison, and operates as a worker-owned cooperative. The employees can use their wages to buy a piece of the company and get a split of the profits.

Brown took advantage of its loan program to buy his first house on the east side, where 1 in 5 homes is vacant. “Where we come from, there ain’t many guys like that,” Brown said.

Those behind the cooperative, which also operates a greenhouse and a renewable-energy business, aren’t selling it as a solution to pervasive unemployment. But it’s a bright spot in an area desperately needing something positive, said plant manager Claudia Oates. “It shows we work, we believe in work,” she said.

The spirit of worker-ownership at the trio of cooperatives, and the business linkages to the procurement needs of surrounding hospitals (such as the Cleveland Clinic) and universities are allowing the enterprises to thrive—below, a chart from REDF's recent profile of the Evergreen initative shows the project's trajectory of promise and results:

 

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dale Maharidge's article on the convention and Cleveland for The Nation, an ode to the city he grew up in, highlighted just how significant this Evergreen success story is against the backdrop of Cleveland's decline as a center of industry: 

When I was still living there, there were three big steel mills along the Cuyahoga River. Just one remains, with one of the few operated blast furnaces left in the country. The smaller “job shops” that did steel-related work have also been hurt. When I visited my father’s old industrial tool-grinding shop a few years ago, the man who bought the business told me that he was barely hanging on.

But now Cleveland is at the vanguard of economic experimentation. Last year I went back to my hometown two different times to report on a book project about emerging economic models. During my December trip, I first went to the old South Side neighborhood and ate pierogi at Sokolowski’s University Inn, a vestige of Slavic culture. I left and drove over a bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River, which now supports wildlife. On either side were blank spots on the valley floor where there had been a blast furnace and the B&O Railroad roundhouse, now leveled, where both my grandfathers had worked.

My destination was one of the three worker-owned Evergreen Cooperatives. Evergreen is patterned after a hybrid capitalist-socialist corporation in Spain that employs over 80,000 workers. Since the first of the Evergreen companies opened in 2009, an increasing number of cities and local governments are studying and copying what has become known as the “Cleveland Model,” from Richmond, Virginia, to Rochester, New York, to an Indian Reservation in North Dakota, and many others.

Evergreen was started by the Democracy Collaborative, in conjunction with the Cleveland Foundation. There were three companies at the beginning: a laundry, a solar-power installation company, and the largest commercial greenhouse in the United States, at just over three acres under glass. They employ low-income city residents. The idea was to use “anchor institutions,” such as the Cleveland Clinic, that would feed laundry to the new business.

At the greenhouse on the impoverished near East Side of Cleveland, I watched worker-owners packing boxes of “Cleveland Crisp,” a cross between leaf and iceberg lettuce, for shipment around the region.

There are now 134 workers in the three companies, said Executive Director Ted Howard. The goal is 1,000 workers. There was a rocky start, but the Evergreen Cooperative Corporation had revenue of $6.3 million in 2015. The cooperative is working on opening its next two companies: a creamery and a bakery.

How might the attendees of the RNC reacted had they known a worker-owned business based on shared values was alive and thriving just across town? In Maharidge's piece, Democracy Collaborative co-founder and President Ted Howard shared a story about presenting the Cleveland Model in a deeply conservative city: 

It’s a new kind of economic radicalism that doesn’t look all that radical to conservatives. Howard told of the time he was asked to visit Amarillo, Texas, by the local community foundation.

“Amarillo is the ‘reddest’ place,” Howard said. “I don’t think you can get elected as dogcatcher in Amarillo if you’re a Democrat. They call the people in Austin ‘pinkos.’”

He gave a speech and “I talked about shared ownership,” he said. Howard said he didn’t try to “pull any punches” in that talk, even though the Republican mayor was in the audience. When the question period came, Howard was nervous. The mayor raised his hand. Howard braced for a verbal assault.

Instead, “he says this thing where everybody owns a piece, that really makes sense to me.” Howard said he’s found that kind of acceptance from conservative politicians and business people in other cities. The term “worker owned” is a language they can understand and embrace.

As Howard emphasized, the idea of "worker ownership" has the potential to garner bipartisan support from politicians and business leaders—from anyone truly concerned with creating opportunities to create community wealth in the neighborhoods and cities our economy has left behind. As projects like Evergreen continue to grow and multiply, we can only hope that more stories like those told during the week of the convention continue to reach more people across the country and globe.