50 Solutions: The MidwestMinnesota’s Real Estate Co-op, Kansas’ Rural Grocery Revolution, and Morescroll down arrow

Photo by Mary Anne Andrei for Bold Nebraska


Burmese Refugees Navigate Their New Home Together

Mai Mome needed help with her financial aid forms for a nursing program. Paw Tha Taw wanted to apply for U.S. citizenship. Lian Deih Mung figured he knew enough English to translate for his Chin Zomi-speaking neighbors.

Eventually, all three Burmese immigrants found a refugee advocacy office in rural Marshalltown, pop. 27,000 — 1,200 of whom are from Myanmar. The office, one of three Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC) locations statewide, was founded by and for Southeast Asian refugees as a community hub.

And, supporters say, a necessary one. That nearly 5 percent of Marshalltown’s population is Burmese hints at the larger impact of immigration within it: In 2007, the Burmese became the largest group to be resettled by the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services.

Since the 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese, Bosnian, and Sudanese refugees have settled in Iowa. But in the mid-2000s, when a few Burmese families grew to a few hundred — often arriving to work in meat-packing plants — advocates realized they faced a different immigration challenge: the variety of languages within and the cultural isolation of the larger Burmese community, many of whom had not been exposed to another dialect — let alone English — or life outside resettlement camps. The barriers were even more significant than with past refugee populations.

So leaders of the various Burmese refugee communities, alongside Henny Ohr, a Korean American advocate, established EMBARC to equip refugees with the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

Today, refugees trained as “navigators” help provide services, including parenting classes and health information, in an attempt to reach an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Burmese statewide.

“We want the power to come from the community,” says Ohr.

Taw, 29, now works at EMBARC as a family advocate, helping parents register children for school and interpreting paperwork.

“I’ve been able to get to know my own community too,” she says.


Bike Ride Connects Residents, Links Neighborhoods

Photo by 400tmax/iStock

Slow Roll Chicago worked with the city to expand safe bicycling infrastructure. Photo by 400tmax/iStock

Studies show that improving city bike infrastructure isn’t just good for reducing traffic congestion. More sidewalks and bike lanes also boost health, generate business for local merchants, and help people feel more connected to their communities. The reason is simple: Moving through a city at 10 miles per hour allows for taking in more than if zooming by in a car.

With those benefits in mind and inspired by a community bike project in Detroit, Jamal Julien and Oboi Reed launched Slow Roll Chicago in 2014. Every Wednesday night, they lead group members — sometimes a few, sometimes a few hundred — on bike rides to introduce them to Chicago neighborhoods. “People don’t patronize the local businesses here because of this narrative that there’s crime and violence and you’ll get killed,” says Julien. “So what we found is that taking these people on the slow-based community rides, they can enjoy the local culture despite what the media says.”

The program yielded an additional result. After riding through the South Side, cyclists were most alarmed by traffic, not violence, Julien says. Despite Chicago’s commitment to being one of the most bikeable cities in the country, the South Side and West Side neighborhoods lacked a network of bike lanes.

Later that year, Slow Roll Chicago, together with other local cycling groups, published an open letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel calling for the equitable distribution of bicycle resources across Chicago. They attended city meetings and cycling forums, spoke with officials, and organized with other cyclists to push the city to expand infrastructure.

Emanuel ultimately issued a revised plan promising every neighborhood a bike lane that connects to a greenway. Additionally, Slow Roll Chicago worked with the Department of Transportation to expand Divvy, the city’s bike sharing system, to the South Side and to establish a subsidized annual fee and the ability to sign up without a credit card.


Undergrads Take Down Unfair Drug Law

In 2007, four undergraduates from DePauw University showed up at the Indiana Senate to oppose a bill that would expand the state’s “drug-free zone” law to include bus stops and schools. Such policies have been adopted around the country since the 1970s, imposing harsher penalties on dealers doing business where children are present.

Though the premise made sense on paper, the law’s potential impacts in the college’s hometown of Indianapolis became a class project. When the students mapped out the proposed expansion in relation to Black and Latino neighborhoods, they found that Indianapolis would become a superzone: Virtually anywhere drugs were sold in the city fell within it, penalizing offenders with decades-long prison sentences.

Nonviolent offenders — particularly people of color — were already disproportionately affected by sentencing laws. The students found that in Indiana, a Black man was 18 times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges than a White man, even though their rates of drug use are roughly the same. In Indianapolis, where 35 percent of the population is Black, harsher sentences would only exacerbate the disparity.

Kelsey Kauffman, the students’ professor, recalls a contentious meeting: “It turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight between the Democrats and Republicans.”

The bill was later defeated in the Indiana House of Representatives.

Similar bills were proposed in the years to come. By 2013, lawmakers had scaled back the size of the zones from a radius of 1,000 feet to 500 feet, making Indiana one of the most progressive states in the nation when it comes to drug-free zoning.


A Rural Grocery Store RevivalWhen small-town stores folded, local organizers brought shopping options

Photo by Jay Caldwell

Debbie Bearden, coordinator at the Allen County Farm Bureau Association, sits in southeast Kansas’ Mildred Store behind the deli’s original butcher block. The store, which was a well-loved fixture famous for its sandwiches, had closed when the original owner passed away. The Allen County GROW Food and Farm Council helped the new owners reopen in 2014. Now, the owners host free live music events once a month at the shop, which is filled with the rural region’s history. Photo by Jay Caldwell

For two months in 2012, longtime Iola, Kansas, resident Mary Ross trudged through the sweltering heat, waving gnats from her view as she walked door to door with a petition. It was the hottest summer since moving there with her family about 30 years ago, but Ross was determined to gather signatures requesting a grocery store be established in the small rural town of fewer than 6,000 people.

Melissa Hellmann

Melissa Hellmann is a YES! reporting fellow and graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @M_Hellmann.

Iola had lost its last independent grocery store four years earlier, shortly after the Walmart Supercenter — with its own expansive aisles — came to town and drove out all of the competition.

“I live in a small town. That was my choice,” she says. But since Iola’s three smaller grocery stores went out of business, she has to drive 8 to 20 miles to find healthy food choices and the specific ingredients for her home-cooked meals. “It’s like they’re trying to kill this small town,” she lamented. But the 800 signatures she gathered worked.

In October, Iola’s first grocery store in nearly a decade broke ground, thanks to a unique public-private partnership. Allen County agreed to sell property for it at a steep discount to G&W Foods Inc., a Missouri-based chain with stores scattered throughout the region.

“Basically, our community said that having a supermarket on this site is a priority, and we’re willing to put some skin in the game,” says David Toland, executive director of Thrive Allen County, a health and wellness center.

But the problem is bigger than Iola.

The absence of grocery stores in rural towns is a familiar tale throughout Kansas and the rest of the Midwest. In Kansas, nearly one-fifth of rural grocery stores went out of business over the span of four years, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Rural Affairs. Throughout rural America, 2.3 million people live in food deserts — areas 10 miles or more from a supermarket.

And when those rural towns lose their supermarkets, just as in Iola, workers lose their jobs and their health is negatively impacted. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked Allen County one of the unhealthiest in the state for a range of health concerns, including its high obesity and physical inactivity rates.

In response to the dwindling number of rural supermarkets, Kansas State University Center for Engagement and Community Development (CECD) partnered with storeowners and local organizations to create the Rural Grocery Initiative (RGI). Through this initiative, CECD aims to attract more customers to rural Kansas supermarkets by encouraging owners to sell additional goods like hardware, and offering support to communities with stores that have already closed. When the RGI was formed in 2007, there were 212 grocery stores in rural towns throughout the state that served populations of fewer than 2,500. Since that time, 33 of those stores closed and have not reopened, says David Procter, director of CECD.

To avoid further closures, the initiative is partly designed to inform communities of the importance of supporting local grocery stores, as well as show the financial and social consequences of their loss. The initiative’s community dialogue platform called FEAST (Food, Education, Agriculture and Solutions Together) involves a town hall-style meeting to talk about the local food system and the significance of the grocery stores.

It’s necessary to remind rural dwellers about the importance of grocery stores, says Procter, because there has not been as much research on rural food deserts as there has been on urban areas.

“[Kansas] is growing billions of bushels of wheat, which has turned into bread for everybody in the United States. It becomes tough for that to happen if there’s no community to support the ranchers and farmers that live in the rural parts of the state,” Procter argues. “If there’s no place for these folks to go to get food or to get hardware or to get pharmacy stuff, then it’s a domino effect, and at some point it’s going to impact the food that people in the cities are buying as well.”

Within the past few months, the RGI has received calls from food policy councils and wellness groups from two communities in Kansas that are struggling to maintain their supermarkets. Procter’s team plans to visit those towns to hold community dialogues, and work closely with leaders there to develop strategies that increase healthy food access.

[Kansas] is growing billions of bushels of wheat, which has turned into bread for everybody in the United States. It becomes tough for that to happen if there’s no community to support the ranchers and farmers that live in the rural parts of the state."
—David Procter, director of Kansas State University Center for Engagement and Community Development

In addition, there’s a rural grocery toolkit component to the initiative that addresses many of the challenges storeowners face. Within the toolkit, located on the RGI website, are several examples of how to do a marketing analysis, as well as a list of the legal requirements and licensing that new grocery stores will need. Financing opportunities and marketing plans are also available through open source, meaning that they’re freely accessible to the public. Also shown on the website, these open source models and case studies can be replicated in rural communities throughout the country.

Procter says many Kansas communities are looking at the RGI suggestions of community-owned, nonprofit, and school-based models (in which grocery stores operate through the local school system) as they learn how to navigate the next steps of dealing with the supermarket closings. Many stores that have become nonprofits have extended their missions to improve the overall health and wellness of their communities, he notes.

Among some of the innovative solutions to food deserts in Kansas, the Allen County GROW (Growing Rural Opportunities Works) Food and Farm Council is one that, in August 2014, was created as a resolution passed by the Allen County Commissioners. It was the first rural food and farm council in the state, and has spearheaded the launch of several others. Debbie Bearden, coordinator at the Allen County Farm Bureau Association, helped develop the council, and speaks at regional events about the importance of rural food committees. She encourages county leaders to think more broadly about how to achieve health and wellness.

“Getting a grocery store is a project and once it’s obtained, then we’re done. But if we were to create a food policy council, that’s a much broader umbrella,” Bearden says.

Over the past few years, the council has worked tirelessly to improve the county’s health ranking. It has pushed for the farmers market to operate an extra day and to also offer food demonstrations using fresh, local produce. The council is now working with five restaurants in Allen County to include nutritional labels on their menus. To further promote healthy eating, one council member, who is also a caterer, operates a food truck that sells salads and wraps in front of business complexes during lunch breaks.

“The towns that are going to survive are the ones that are creative with solutions, and building partnerships between supermarkets, local producers, and local governments to fix these food access problems,” says Toland, of Thrive.

Through Thrive’s work and the community’s efforts, Allen County plans to open the G&W Foods in Iola next spring. For Mary Ross, the opening of the market, only a half-mile from her home, signifies that the town is not dying. In fact, it’s a rebirth of sorts.

Now, not only will she have access to healthy food selections for her family, but she’ll also be able to find the ingredients she needs to experiment with different meals again. Ross says it was necessary that the community come together as they did to bring a new grocery store to town.

“If we don’t help each other, we will become an island unto ourselves,” says Ross. “Everybody is supposed to help everyone else.”

Melissa Hellmann

Melissa Hellmann is a YES! reporting fellow and graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @M_Hellmann.


Civil Rights Legacy Helps Detroiters Fix Struggling Schools

Photo by Zenobia Jeffries

Victor Gibson teaches math to middle schoolers at the Dexter-Elmhurst Center. The retired teacher signed up to work for the Detroit Independent Freedom School Movement. Photo by Zenobia Jeffries

To outsiders like Donald Trump, Detroit is like “an urban dystopia of poverty, crime, and blight.” But to Detroiters and those committed to the city’s revitalization, it’s a city full of promise — with the notable exception of its school system. Following multiple state takeovers, the largest school district in Michigan continues to suffer teacher layoffs, crowded classrooms, and financial mismanagement. And longtime residents and activists have had enough, turning to a legacy of the civil rights movement’s Freedom Schools to serve their children.

In February, parent Aliya Moore’s call to boycott schools on Count Day — when the state uses student attendance to calculate per-pupil funding — prompted a local group, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, to reimagine education for Detroit schoolchildren and launch the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement.

Organized by African Americans in the 1960s around sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues, the Freedom Schools presented an alternative setting for all ages centered mostly on voter registration and social change, as well as academic components — mainly reading skills — for young people. Since then, civil rights and racial justice organizations, along with grassroots movements, have resurrected the Freedom School model for their work in African American communities still faced with inadequate education, disenfranchisement, and racial discrimination.

The organizers of DIFS created a program that was piloted this summer at a local recreation center, where volunteer teachers provided cultural activities and lessons in the core subjects of math, science, English/language arts, and social studies. Other institutions, including the Charles H. Wright African American Museum, have signed on to host the DIFS program at their facilities this fall.

Gloria Aneb House, a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a member of D-REM, helped to organize the local Freedom Schools movement. “Our intention is to do as much in outreach around the city and get into as many churches and community centers where they’re happy to have us,” House says.


Together, Neighbors Buy Vacant BuildingsTo create the neighborhood they wanted to live in, neighbors formed a real estate co-op

Photo by Davin Haukebo-Bol

Fair State’s annual Co-Optoberfest brings Northeast Minneapolis together through beer, brats, and Bavarian-style merriment every fall. Photo by Davin Haukebo-Bol

After years of brewing at home, Evan Sallee and his partners at Fair State Brewing, Minnesota’s first consumer-owned beer cooperative, were finally ready to open a taproom in Minneapolis. They needed a spot that could accommodate brewing, with a storefront that invited people in off the street. That combination was hard to find until they looked at a space on Central Avenue in the city’s Northeast neighborhood.

Christa Hillstrom

Christa Hillstrom is a senior editor at YES! She writes about the local economies movement.

At first they thought it wouldn’t work. The wooden floors wouldn’t support heavy equipment, and the back rooms were sorely in need of repair. In their experience, problems like these were deal breakers. But here, the landlords had prioritized renting to local entrepreneurs and would pay for the necessary renovations — in part, because they wanted to drink there themselves.

“Our entire goal in creating it was to make it a central hub for community to get together,” Sallee said.

The building wasn’t held by absentee landlords or faraway developers, but by around 200 local people who owned the property collectively. They’re part of the Northeast Investment Cooperative, a first-of-its-kind co-op in the U.S. that pools members’ money to invest in commercial real estate. They share profits, decision-making, and the community rewards of having, among other things, locally owned shops they want in their neighborhood.

Around the country, property values have soared with a renewed interest in urban living — a trend that’s created lucrative new markets for developers. As lease costs rise, local businesses are often shuttered and deep-rooted residents displaced. The resulting turnover has changed the character of many neighborhoods.

The friends who founded NEIC didn’t want that to happen in Northeast. Though they were initially concerned about their neighborhood’s vacant and underused buildings, they also knew that larger developers would follow close behind the growing residential interest in the area. If local control of property could help support independent businesses, they wondered, perhaps there was a way to own it together.

A longtime destination for working-class immigrants, Northeast is still dotted with Eastern Orthodox churches and the large husks of grain elevators that once drove the city’s industry. Many people who grew up here still live here. “There was a lot more sense of place,” Recovery Bike Shop owner Seth Stattmiller said, comparing it to the neighborhood where his previous shop was located. “People are here for their lives.”

In Minneapolis, like in many cities around the country, rising real estate demand meant independent stores were gradually replaced by bank branches, phone retailers, and upscale restaurants. From 2014 to 2016, commercial rent rose by 8 percent — more than four times the rate of inflation.

Nationwide, speculation-fueled rent increases are far outpacing the ability of small businesses to profit in sales from the growth, according to a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis-based think tank. The result is that many businesses lose their leases to large national chains, whose brands give them leverage in rent negotiations.

“Too often, what we are seeing is that local businesses and people are bringing neighborhoods back, and then the value that is created by them collectively is being siphoned off by a small number of investors who don’t live in the neighborhood,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the ILSR, pointing to the “loss of control” many Americans feel over their neighborhoods’ waning affordability and increasing sense of sameness. “Owning commercial real estate is the ultimate way to guard against being at the mercy of those forces.”

Photo by Christa Hillstrom

Employee Dann Zinke works on a bike at Recovery Bike Shop. The store owners bought their building on Central Avenue with NEIC’s help. Photo by Christa Hillstrom

Before NEIC formed, the group behind it — some of whom knew each other through the local food co-op — wanted to get a foothold in the real estate market before this happened to their neighborhood. Board member Leslie Watson, one of the cooperative’s architects, said they would bat ideas around when they ran into each other at neighborhood classes and meetings: What if they headed off rising costs by buying up houses together? Or maybe commercial real estate? And what if they did it as an official cooperative?

By late 2011, they settled on an investment model that didn’t exist anywhere else in the country (another group had started a similar cooperative independently in Alberta, Canada). The 39 members had invested at least $1,000 each, drawing on their expertise in cooperatives, law, finance, and other disciplines to develop it. In community meetings, members got to know longtime residents who remembered the area as a once-bustling shopping corridor and newer residents who were just settling in. They showed pictures of underutilized buildings for sale and asked residents what kinds of businesses they wanted to see there. Watson remembers one member identifying Central Avenue’s potential as “a beautiful smile that’s just missing a few teeth.” Board member Jackie Francis and her husband, Justin, invested their entire savings of $2,000 to become members after attending a community meeting.

For much of the neighborhood, $1,000 was a high bar to entry, and the group often discussed how to diversify membership while helping grow the neighborhood. “We want to enhance what’s already here, not push people out,” board member Colleen O’Connor said of their vision.

By the end of 2011, 90 members had committed to purchasing NEIC’s first buildings. Stattmiller remembers the buildings as hideous, hulking eyesores with peeling yellow paint and a single rundown bathroom in one of the basements. “They wanted to basically buy the ugliest property on Central [Avenue] and do something with it,” he said. As a cooperative, they pooled $80,000 to buy two vacant buildings.

In 2014 — when NEIC had about 200 members — three businesses opened, employing 25 people between them: Recovery Bike Shop, which purchased one of the buildings with NEIC’s help; and tenants Fair State Brewing and bakery Aki’s BreadHaus. The idea was that when local people make long-term, collaborative decisions about the places they live in, neighborhoods would thrive.

That NEIC was able to finance property cooperatively reflects Minnesota’s deeply cooperative root system, which reaches back more than 100 years to producer-owned cooperatives that invested together in grain elevators, then used those connections to form vast sellers’ cooperatives like Land O’ Lakes. With more than 800, Minnesota has the largest number of co-ops in the country, a list that includes Fortune 500 companies.

YES! Infographic

YES! Infographic

This gives Minnesota a relaxed regulatory environment for co-ops. While securities laws designed to protect small investors directly limit the amount of money that can be invested in businesses, Minnesota exempts investments in co-ops — which allowed NEIC to raise needed capital from members who contributed more than $1,000. Only about half the states allow this exemption, and most cap the amount that can be invested.

So far, the community bottom line has been the biggest payoff for NEIC investors. In 2015, the co-op paid its first returns of a just over 4 percent capital credit allocation on basic $1,000 investments; less on larger shares. That such dividends are modest and not guaranteed shows that investors’ real interest is in the long-term life of the neighborhood.

This fall, NEIC plans to invest in a second property two miles away — a former heating and air conditioning shop whose stone façade is just as dated as that of the last buildings. They’re already fielding calls from prospective tenants.

Christa Hillstrom

Christa Hillstrom is a senior editor at YES! She writes about the local economies movement.


After Ferguson, a Homegrown Space Fosters Healing

In the weeks following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, Wellspring Church in Ferguson became a space for protestors to meet, talk about issues, and strategize for change. Two years have passed, but Wellspring’s pastor, the Rev. F. Willis Johnson Jr., wants to keep those conversations going.

He teamed up with another local church to create The Center for Social Empowerment, hoped to be an incubator for social justice solutions in Ferguson. The center stems from the idea that while policy changes are needed — like those recommended in a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report — they don’t address the problem of racism within the community. To do that, Johnson says, the experiences of individual community members need to be considered.

The center holds monthly conversations that are open to the community and partners with organizations and schools to bring discussions to them. The meetings engage participants in reflecting on their own experiences with race and hearing the stories of others. This creates a shift from “debate rhetoric” to dialogue, says Nicki Reinhardt-Swierk, one of the program’s coordinators. “When we can get people to realize that the world as they understand it is not the world as experienced by other people, that’s how you start seeding change and sprouting action.”

In these forums, participants discuss actions they can implement in their own lives to change the role race plays in their community. Those actions don’t always include protesting, explains Reinhardt-Swierk. They might be recognizing the racist connotations of the word “thug” or changing the way an elderly woman interacts with a cashier.

“From [conversations] we can raise a healthy and loving challenge,” adds Johnson. “Now that I know better, I can push myself to do better. I can see my role in reconciliation and in my community.”


“Made in the Neb” Creates a Network of Local Farms, Businesses

Photo by Mary Anne Andrei for Bold Nebraska

At Davey Road Ranch in Lancaster County, Nebraska, Ben Gotschall, energy and local food director of Bold Nebraska, produces artisanal meats and cheeses, including grass-fed beef, free-range duck, and handmade cheese, while building grassland health and quality. Photo by Mary Anne Andrei for Bold Nebraska

In 2012, a group of Nebraska ranchers learned the Keystone XL pipeline would pass through their lands. Determined to stop it, they teamed up with environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska and tribal communities along the proposed pipeline route to create the Cowboy and Indian Alliance. The coalition protested in members’ home states and in Washington, D.C., eventually winning a veto from President Obama that halted construction.

Coming together around an anti-corporate project got Nebraskans organized and introduced them to one another, says Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska’s founder. After succeeding, Kleeb says, locals started to explore moving away from a dependence on fossil fuels while supporting local farmers and businesses.

So they started Made in the Neb, a directory of more than two dozen sustainable Nebraskan businesses that range from ranches to small shops selling skateboards or artisanal soaps. Made in the Neb aims not only to encourage people to buy local but also to provide examples of what is possible. “[We want to] show there are alternatives — alternative ways to buy meat, alternative ways to put up energy,” says Kleeb, who hopes the project will help overcome Nebraska’s reputation as a red state with little interest in the environment.

Art Tanderup joined Bold Nebraska after learning that the Keystone XL pipeline would pass 600 feet from his corn, soy, and rye fields. He started investigating solar energy and eventually installed panels on his land. Since the launch of Made in the Neb in May, Tanderup says he’s had more than 400 people come by his farm to learn how he did it: “It’s something people see that they can do to make a difference.”

North Dakota

The Citizens That Kicked Out Corporate Farmers—Twice

In a state where agriculture provides nearly one-quarter of the jobs, voters have dictated just what kind of agriculture they want.

With their long history of supporting family and local farm ownership, North Dakotans in June overturned a new law that would have allowed the operation of corporate hog and dairy farms. The right to overrule a government decision by popular vote was critical to the win — and it was achieved by North Dakotans in a movement that started nearly a century earlier.

In the early 1900s, North Dakota farmers used flour mills owned by Minnesota companies. Local people were left dependent on outside corporate interests, and became tired of this influence on the economy. A movement grew to develop more local control. In addition to prohibiting corporate farms, voters created state-owned and -run options for institutions, such as a flour mill and a bank (to keep money in North Dakota) that still operate today.

So when the North Dakota Legislative Assembly passed a bill in early 2015 to welcome corporate hog and dairy farming back into the state, many locals believed they didn’t have a say in the decision.

“There was really no indication that the people of North Dakota had changed their minds on this,” said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. “As farmers, we believe the permaculture and food is best handled in the hands of family farmers.”

After the bill passed, the farmers union collected more than 20,000 signatures and canvassed door to door to put the measure on the ballot. In June, the law was overturned by 75 percent of the vote.

It was another example of local ownership winning out over outside power.

“The citizens believe that they should have the right to determine what style and what types of businesses should operate within the state,” Watne said.


Co-ops Are for Unions, Too: Learning from Spain’s Mondragon

Photo from <em>The Revolution Where You Live</em>

Peruvian immigrant Flequer Vera’s cooperative, Sustainergy, is supported by the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative. Sustainergy creates well-paying jobs by retrofitting homes to improve energy efficiency—helping the environment and saving homeowners hundreds of dollars a year in bills. Photo from The Revolution Where You Live

In the decades after World War II, the union movement was one of the main forces boosting the incomes and security of working people. But the number of union members peaked in 1979, and in many places unions have struggled since then.

In 2009, United Steelworkers sought to change that. They met with representatives from Spain-based Mondragon, the world’s largest worker cooperative, to develop a plan for industrial steel workers to transition into worker-ownership. Cooperatives, they believed, would put more power in the hands of workers.

The partnership sparked an idea with labor organizers in Cincinnati. And in 2012, labor representatives founded the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI), a union co-op incubator that nurtures startups, aiming to create an integrated network of union co-ops that sustain and support each other.

The union component makes it possible to scale a co-op, says Kristen Barker, the executive director of CUCI. Even with the assurance of “one worker, one vote,” worker-owners still fill different roles, which can lead to division. Unions help remedy that by backing workers independently of the co-op.

In the CUCI network each co-op — currently three, with four more in the works — pays 10 percent of its profits into a fund to help other businesses when they’re trying to expand or when markets are slow.

South Dakota

An Economic Future Based On Lakota Values

YES! Photo by Christa Hillstrom

Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation’s Andrew Ironshell, who lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation with his family, said large families often pack into poor-quality trailers with little insulation. A typical South Dakota winter can blow in utility bills of hundreds of dollars a month. YES! Photo by Christa Hillstrom

The Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation might seem a surprising spot for an economic renaissance: It sprawls nearly 3 million acres between the Black Hills and the Badlands. There, the unemployment rate is more than 50 percent, and the average annual income is a little more than $4,000. But a growing movement of locals is looking to traditional Lakota values to build an economic future.

In 2007, local residents formed the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation to address the community’s poverty, lack of infrastructure, and health crises — starting with housing. Pine Ridge has few vacant units, and those looking to rent or buy must often take their money off-reservation: More than half of the 2,000 people employed on Pine Ridge live elsewhere.

“There’s actually a lot of dollars that come through the reservation, but it’s a question of how to make sure those dollars turn over more than once,” said Cecily Engelhart, communications director of TVCDC. “We’re trying to create that system here so that all the things people need are local.”

Supported in part by federal funding, one of Thunder Valley’s main projects is a “regenerative community” — a planned, net-zero neighborhood of green, affordable housing designed through a community feedback process. Because interested residents wanted a neighborhood layout that reflected Lakota values, for example, circular streets were designed to mimic traditional Lakota settlements. Construction on the first houses is set to begin in the next year, with four future homeowners signed on to help build them together. By contributing their labor, they’ll gain equity in their houses. Also underway is a training program for sustainable construction that teaches young, mostly Native workers sustainable construction skills.

The project, though in its early stages, has received attention for its promise, including from President Obama, who praised its approach to boosting affordable housing, clean energy, and small businesses.

“No one’s going to care about our community as much as we do,” Engelhart said. “So we are the ones who have to take ownership.”


Ojibwe Tribe Pushes Industry to Abandon Plans for Open-Pit Mine

Photo courtesy of Paul DeMain

Activists Joe Rose, Gary Quaderer, and Paul DeMain, all of Ojibwe descent, tie eagle feathers to a staff erected at the entrance of the Harvest Education Learning Project Camp in Wisconsin. Music, food, and ceremony are part of the teaching process at the camp. Photo courtesy of Paul DeMain

The drill rigs are gone. A couple of dozen boreholes lie abandoned where mining company Gogebic Taconite had dug core samples for what was to be the largest open pit mine in the United States.

Until last year, construction of the GTAC iron ore mine was underway in Wisconsin’s Northwoods despite protests from environmental activists. But opposition grew stronger as a coalition of local scientists, activists, and Native Americans worked to fight the mining proposal, which they argued would have contaminated vital wetlands. Ojibwe tribal member Paul DeMain says tailings from the mine would have harmed thousands of species of plants and animals in the Penokee Range and destroyed the Ojibwe tribe’s livelihood by tainting its water supply. Ojibwe members who live on the Bad River Reservation just south of the proposed mine site rely on water from the Penokee Hills, which flows down the lower basin of Lake Superior and the Bad River.

In March 2015, GTAC announced it was dropping plans to build the $1.5 billion mine. The decision followed an independent environmental assessment conducted by local scientists from nearby Northland College, who worked with the Ojibwe tribe to map out all the potential hazards. According to Glenn Stoddard, an attorney for the tribe, their treaty with the U.S. government guarantees the Ojibwe the right to hunt, fish, and gather on that very land. But what halted the mine, he says, was public pressure on GTAC from groups inside and outside the reservation.

Raising awareness about the mining project and its environmental risks was therefore critical, says DeMain, who started the Harvest Education and Learning Program. Operating alongside the mine site on public land, HELP teaches Natives and non-Natives about the Ojibwe’s dependence on Bad River’s water and land. “When you’re fighting the potential for contamination, water becomes the bottom line,” he says.