Cooperation not incarceration: building the movement for cooperative work and affordable housing

TESA has been working closely with members of the Compost Co-op in Greenfield, MA since 2015, when the cooperative venture was still just an idea. At the time, we had just begun teaching about cooperatives in the Greenfield County House of Corrections. 

For those of you who are new to the Compost Co-op: they are a worker-owned compost hauler, focused on creating living wage jobs and ownership for those who have experienced incarceration.

Over the years, we have written a number of different blog posts about our work with the Compost Co-op, one focused on the Co-op Academy we ran inside the jail; and the other on the necessity and the challenges of developing co-ops for those who have experienced incarceration. This blog post is both an update on our work with them, and an ask to our community to support their most recent endeavor – purchasing a building and forming a housing cooperative to provide affordable and secure housing for members.

Five years ago, TESA was part of a group at the Greenfield Jail talking about the issue of  recidivism–people being pulled back into the prison system again and again, at great cost to themselves, their families, and society at large. In focus groups and in the class we ran inside the jail, we consistency faced this question: How could this process be interrupted? One of the solutions people kept returning to was “meaningful, living-wage work.”

This solution was the catalyst to start the Compost Co-op, and we have been providing assistance to the Compost Co-op since their beginning.

Since the co-op launched in 2018, it has diverted more than 300,000 pounds of waste from the landfill into composting operations that enrich the soil and sequester carbon. The co-op has also provided living wages and support for 10 people coming out of jail.

Still, the challenges posed by the prison industrial complex haunted members of the co-op. While the co-op was able to pay a living wage, provide ongoing support and advocacy, almost all of the members faced housing insecurity or homelessness during their time with the co-op.

One returned to his room at a halfway house for veterans and found his roommate dead of an overdose. Another lived in an unheated garage for part of a winter, when life at the homeless shelter got too stressful. To save on rent, a third moved out of town into the apartment of a cousin whose partner was selling drugs. Only last month did the first apprentice worker-owner of the co-op move into housing that is both affordable and safe.

Stable employment and worker-ownership are powerful tools to create a new economy, but they are not a panacea. These are some of the challenges we face as we work to build a world that is focused on justice and equity. 

We have to create a broad and holistic cooperative network – we need to provide more than living wages: people must have access to safe and affordable housing. For years we have been talking with members of the co-op about how we could solve the housing issue so many of their members faced. And so we decided we needed to not just be able to provide options for housing, but we wanted the co-op to own the housing. Furthermore, this could provide members with a chance to build equity, and to create a broader cooperative system that could offer support and security to members as they go through the destabilizing process of re-entry.

The Compost Co-op is now asking those who believe in their mission to support their efforts to come up with a downpayment for the building. Here they are in their own words: 

As we fight against climate change, racism, and structural inequality, we at TESA believe the Compost Co-op is part of the solution. Now, the Compost Co-op needs your help to expand its impact and continue to build a new economy.

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