These are precarious times. Wealth inequality across the nation is increasing at an alarming rate. The ability to earn a livable wage and create wealth for families is vital for a healthy society. According to the U.S. Census data, 10% of Alaskans live in poverty; that’s more than 73,000 people. In Alaska, 14% of children; 11% of women and 7.40% of seniors live in poverty. And 22% of working families are 200% below the poverty line.
Even with this backdrop, it is still possible to envision prosperity, especially when we look to nature. The matsutake mushroom miraculously grows in human-disturbed forests in the northern hemisphere. They cannot be artificially cultivated, and harvesting them in their natural environment is the work of a complex web of unorganized human networks. These mushrooms are worth billions of dollars on the global market, and what allows them to exist and be harvested is the collaboration of nature and humans in organic and unorthodox ways. There is no invisible hand of the market at play; the value creation is transparent and the people in this enterprise system are prospering.
We see a parallel phenomenon in our communities’ web of economic activities — business enterprises that prosper because of their focus on cooperation and the prosperity of multiple stakeholders. The entrepreneurial world often frames prosperity as individual wealth and emphasizes the need to compete for finite resources. Cooperatives, on the other hand, are democratic and designed for collaboration and building community wealth.
Even in this COVID-affected economy, we are increasingly hearing stories of resilient, worker-owned, place-based and collaborative small-business operations. Their resilience stems from their focus on the interest of all stakeholders: employees, communities and local investors. Collaborations between concerned citizens and community organizations can bring about this kind of cooperative action. Imagine if business operations that offer living wages to employees with opportunities to share profits were the norm and not the exception. Imagine if inclusive and democratic working conditions and an empowered workforce were the norm and not the exception. A just society could be our new normal.
In this scenario, Alaska businesses thrive and our communities are inclusive. Jobs with living wages, equitable pay, good working conditions, and opportunities for employees to create generational wealth through profit-sharing leads to upward mobility of the working poor. These are not imagined realities. We are inspired by Evergreen Cooperative and other countless examples to build community-supported, worker-owned cooperatives in Alaska.
Evergreen Cooperative, also known as the Cleveland model, has proven these outcomes are possible. Seeded by foundations and anchor institutions in Cleveland, Evergreen Cooperative was created to provide employment and living-wage jobs to low-income individuals. This grassroots effort aimed to build the economy from ground up, started in 2008 as a laundry. The cooperative has now grown into large-scale operations of employee-owned businesses creating community wealth at scale.
Community-supported collaborative and cooperative initiatives such as this could transform Alaska. Worker-owned cooperatives would offer low-wealth and low-wage earners opportunities to build wealth and would be an exciting addition to Alaska’s economic ecosystem.
Yaso Thiru is the founder of First Entrepreneur LLC, and is Professor of Business at Alaska Pacific University. Theresa Lyons is CEO of YWCA Alaska. YWCA Alaska is committed to the economic empowerment of women and the dignity of all peoples. The authors are collaborating on an initiative to incubate community-supported, worker-owned cooperatives in Alaska.
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