CCDS East Boston

CCDS East Boston

“A co-op neighborhood, a co-op world”: unlocking community and opportunity through solidarity.

In 2015, when Luz Zambrano first considered cooperativism, her community was in crisis. An historically immigrant, blue-collar neighborhood, East Boston had long struggled against declining and even dangerous conditions, as well as a sense of powerlessness when it came to municipal decision-making. Specifically, residents faced displacement from their homes and communities through gentrification.

Inspired by the collective potential of her friends and neighbors, Zambrano and Liliana Avendaño launched the Center for Cooperative Development and Solidarity, an experiment in cooperative enterprise. For Zambrano and Avendaño, employee-owned cooperatives mean that the fruits of workers’ labors are owned by the workers themselves. A cooperative economy builds value for workers’ families, their neighbors, and their community. Instead of expropriation, cooperative enterprise creates investment. Instead of competition, it empowers organized community.

CCDS’s first effort was an educational program in a cooperative organization. Students are taught the basics of cooperative organizing, including philosophical, legal, and financial foundations. Participants are also immersed in the organization’s vision of what Zambrano calls “a co-op neighborhood, a co-op world.” For CCDS, cooperative business organization is about “sowing into” your own community, as well as collective agency and solidarity. The organization encourages participants to explore business ownership while simultaneously thinking in terms of households and communities rather than individuals–to think, in cooperative program coordinator Catalina Rojas’s words, of “‘we’ instead of ‘me.’” 

CCDS has since run six iterations of this program in Boston, as well as programs in St. Louis, Chicago, Central Falls, RI, and Lynn, MA. The program remains a major focus for CCDS, offering training opportunities to many interested in cooperative businesses in East Boston and beyond. For those who have completed the program and wish to continue developing their skills and projects, CCDS also offers a holistic slate of programs to incubate and launch cooperative organizations and foster skill and educational development.

For cooperative organizations, CCDS has adopted an umbrella-style framework for providing legal assistance as well as support, follow-up, and guidance to independent cooperative businesses at various stages of development. That ecosystem currently includes food project Sazon, cleaning and maintenance cooperative CleanGreen, early childhood education center Resplandor, immigrant women’s seamstress cooperative Puntada, elder care project Renacer, soccer cooperative TaborKids, and interpretation company ENES. More such enterprises are in development.

CCDS has also been able to develop and support programs for educational accessibility that will help prepare community members for cooperative ownership and economic advancement. Twenty-five women are currently studying ffor associate’s degrees in education on full scholarship through a partnership with Urban College of Boston. Eight more individuals are obtaining certification in elder care to prepare for a cooperative enterprise. CCDS also now offers a three-year course in learning English with a focus on language useful in cooperative enterprise and business ownership. Some of the participants in these educational programs will go on to start or join a cooperative enterprise, while others may not. But the programs offer residents a foundation of knowledge that will help them thrive. 

The CCDS leadership believes that cooperative organization can mean more than simply a business opportunity: it can mean community transformation. Education and outreach coordinator Liliana Avendaño calls CCDS’s work with cooperative organization “a healing process, a transformation process, an inspiration process.” Through cooperative work, participants change the way they see themselves. CCDS hopes their cooperative ecosystem will produce the culture of solidarity necessary to battle legacies of dispossesion, dislocation, and discrimination.

In a solidarity-driven economy, as the individual goes, so goes the community. The flowering of interest in co-ops in East Boston reflects the CCDS values of “turning crisis into opportunity” and of giving people the “capacity and the skill to analyze and improve their situation.” East Boston was a community struggling against racial and linguistic discrimination, financial exploitation, and geographic marginalization. Yet, buoyed by a renewed spirit of resistance, the community was determined to, according to Zambrano, “insist, persist, and press on.”

Though under-resourced, East Boston is and has been a community endowed with skills, dreams, and knowledge that were hard-earned and valuable. For Zambrano, the recognition of both the challenges and assets of her own East Boston has led her to the belief that the “immigrant community is both at the bottom and at the top.” There is much need, but also great opportunity. With solidarity, it can be unlocked.

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