Wellspring Collaborative is a community-based cooperative development organization with a mission to create a network of worker-owned firms in inner-city Springfield, Massachusetts, which will provide on-the-job training, employment and wealth creation opportunities for low income and unemployed residents of the city. Wellspring’s approach is to generate businesses that meet the demand for goods and services from local nonprofit universities and hospitals.
With a modest amount of start-up money—about $160,000—Wellspring incubated an upholstery cooperative currently employing five individuals, two of whom are citizens returning from the incarceration system. Six people are expected to become cooperative members in the first year, with further build-up over the second. A modular greenhouse to produce local greens is also under development with a hospital's letter of intent supporting its financing. It is expected to employ a dozen worker-owners at first, with room for expansion.
Fred Rose and Emily Kawano are the two co-directors and co-founders of the initiative. Rose spent 15 years engaging in community organizing with faith and labor groups in Springfield and brought a wealth of personal relationships within the city to the project. Emily was the director of Center for Popular Economics for nine years and brought her experience from educational work on the features of a solidarity economy. She received a Ph.D. in economics from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Kawano's familiarity with the Cleveland Model, a network of three cooperative businesses which satisfy the procurement needs of universities and hospitals, led her to ask, "Could we replicate it and build on that model?" Kawano and Rose first approached Steve Bradley, Vice President Community Relations at Bay State Hospital, and Ira Rubenzahl, the president of Springfield Technical Community College with the proposal, based on Rose’s relationships with them. Through a long process of meetings, Rose and Kawano were able to secure the buy-in from leading anchor institutions.
Area colleges, universities and hospitals, they found, purchase over $1.5 billion worth of goods and services a year. Their research indicated that less than 10 percent of these funds are spent within Springfield, and far less circulated in the low-income neighborhoods that surround the city’s anchor institutions. UMass alone spends 67 percent of its procurement dollars outside of Western Massachusetts, and while the state-wide unemployment rate hovered at 7.2 percent, Springfield suffered an 11.6 percent rate of unemployment--doubling in the case of the formerly incarcerated.
"There were so many times where our mission could have been diverted," says Kawano. "'Anchor institutions like hospitals and universities are great, so let's capture that purchasing power for existing businesses so they can have more jobs,' we were told." But the co-founders' commitment to communities of color and the democratization of wealth ownership led them to persevere in realizing Wellspring’s current structures of worker cooperatives.
Lessons for Community Wealth Building
Activists and organizers can adapt a Cleveland-style wealth-building strategy to their communities: Rose and Kawano have proven over two years of work that it is indeed possible for community members to create an Evergreen-style development plan from the bottom up. Wellspring's progenitors were not philanthropists or anchor executives but dedicated activists who proceeded along a path of research, coalition- and consensus-building, securing foundation support, and developing the businesses.
Broad stakeholder engagement was instrumental to Wellspring's launch: Fred Rose began the process by relating to people as an organizer. "I had lots of conversations about economics and poverty in Springfield, learning about core issues, common interests, and how they relate. That's where we started. People said why the lack of jobs impacts their institutions and I'd ask what they might be willing to do about that." Ultimately, seven institutions committed as anchors, and an additional 16 key partners became involved—a remarkably long list for a small operation.
Community wealth building can take advantage of government training dollars going to private sector: Wellspring's partner, the Regional Employment Board, helped access training dollars so all three initial workers were subsidized at 90 percent of their salaries for four months. Kawano explains: "That gives us time for them to get up to speed and become efficient enough to do competitive work." This funding comes "from having REB at the table for a long time--they've been a good partner. It's a maze to access those funds and they've massaged things to accommodate us. The co-op world in general hasn't been able to access public training money."
Learning journeys strengthen both understanding and commitment: Field trips to visit similar initiatives—to observe their operations, ask situational questions, and to draw inspiration—often have played a key role in building group vision and cohesion. Wellspring Collaborative brought its partners within local government, area universities, and hospitals to explore the example of the Evergreen cooperatives in Cleveland, which informed Wellspring’s own work. “It was important to see the businesses in action; to touch them and feel them,” recalls the president of Springfield’s Technical Community College.