Southern Appalachian co-ops building new communities

The way media coverage is shared around networks often means that we end up talking a lot about larger cities, but those are not the only places where inspiring change is happening. In this excellent piece at Shareable, we discover some fantastic work being done by co-ops in the small town of Morganton, in the foothills of western North Carolina.

The author interviewed a number of people who are leading diverse projects with the shared goal of “reinvigorating the region’s once-struggling textile and furniture manufacturing industries, and refashioning them around egalitarianism and localism.”

The local movement is fiercely democratic, aimed at generating locally rooted wealth distributed equitably. Here’s one important takeaway; integrating workers’ insights.

For Sara Chester, co-executive director and founder of The Industrial Commons (TIC), a 501(c)3 organization that fosters employee ownership, in a solidarity economy “workers are appreciated not just for their labor but their ideas, insights, and innovations. Workers are not just a piece of the business, they are the reason the business exists.”

When one forgets about amassing profit and optimizing every cent, it’s possible to focus on other aspects, like enabling more resilient communities, emphasizing worker agency and ownership, environmental sustainability, and the value of place.

The power of the worker coop model can be found not only in its egalitarianism but its solution-making mechanism.

“Those closest to the process know the issues and solutions best,” Yang continues. “It’s a matter of giving them a voice, the opportunity for leadership development, and the organizational structure to enact change.”

The area lost more than half of its furniture manufacturing jobs between 1999 and 2009, which has paved the way for many of these projects to emerge. Another takeaway; revitalizing, not replacing.

What makes [Southern Appalachia] prime grounds for co-op and circular economic development is that we’re not trying to replace these existing industries, but revitalizing them by doing the work in a way that benefits everyone and the environment — not just a few people. — Tea Yang, manager of values and culture at TIC

TIC, which grew out of a worker-own textile plant, is an incubator for regional co-ops and service programs. They and the Carolina Textile District run numerous programs, like the youth sewing program; TOSS, a collection of arts initiatives; or “Hometown Walkabout (HW), a guided, educational tour of regional cultural landmarks, that highlights the diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural history of the surrounding county.”

More than creating jobs and renewing their town, TIC also works in a non-partisan way, welcomes criticism and curiosity, and works very holistically, taking a well-rounded grassroots approach.

”We know that providing a good job that pays a liveable wage is not the only solution to eradicating generational poverty, so we take a system-wide approach that includes bringing racial equity, diversity, and inclusion to the forefront of all of our work.” says Tea Yang. “So much of systemic racism is directly tied into economic mobility and stability.”

Image: The Industrial Commons, Franzi Charen.