Several Chicago youths are taking part in efforts to increase democracy in the workplace while tackling economic and environmental issues in their neighborhoods through the use of innovative business cooperatives owned and controlled by workers.
Young people from the city's Austin and Rogers Park communities discussed their involvement with cooperative businesses, which are entities owned and managed collectively by workers, at a 2014 Worker Cooperative National Conference held over the weekend at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In the West Side neighborhood of Austin, an impoverished community struggling with high rates of unemployment and crime, students at the manufacturing-focused Austin Polytechnical Academy launched a business cooperative at their school last year called Mech Creations, which makes trumpet mouthpieces. And on the city's far North Side in Rogers Park, which also faces issues of unemployment and crime, young people are participating in a worker cooperative focused on green infrastructure called Grassroots Ecology. The North Side youth-focused cooperative started building green infrastructure, including rain gardens and barrels to mitigate flooding, in 2012 and plans to incorporate as a limited liability company with cooperative by-laws this fall.
"All forms of oppressions are connected, and if you look at a business there are forms of oppression when people are at the top and people are at the bottom. So we need to break that down in the way that we are working and organizing together," said Molly Costello, 25, a worker-member of Grassroots Ecology. "We really need to create spaces where everyone is equal and everyone is heard and everyone's thoughts and positions are valued equally."
In Austin, the youth-led business co-op serves as a constructive extracurricular program where students can hone their manufacturing skills learned in school and apply them to an entrepreneurial project.
"Knowing that I'm a young African-American woman, it's very hard for me to actually make it in the neighborhood that I'm in," said Azariah Hutchinson, 15, an Austin Polytechnical Academy sophomore and a worker-member of Mech Creations. "What that school brought to me was eye-opening, that I have another opportunity."
Mech Creations is supported by the Center for Workplace Democracy and the Chicago-based non-profit Manufacturing Renaissance, one of the organizations that founded Austin Polytechnical Academy, located at 231 N. Pine Ave. in the former Austin Community Academy High School building.
The 10 students currently involved with Mech Creations hold business meetings during their lunch periods and manufacture the trumpet mouthpieces after school. Hutchinson said students take turns serving in different leadership positions at the co-op, such as general manager and timekeeper.
"We really don't try to assign jobs as 'you being head of this or you being head of that' because we're [a] co-op," she said. "We like to work together and share these jobs."
Erica Swinney, the Manufacturing Renaissance's program director, said students came up with the Mech Creations idea about three years ago. At the time, the students were unsure about what they wanted to manufacture. That's when a machining instructor at the school, who also plays the trumpet, suggested that the students make trumpet mouthpieces.
"And sure enough, (the students said), 'Yeah, this makes sense,'" Swinney said. "It's something tangible, opposed to trying to make gears or something. ... And there's a real connection to our local culture. This is about [jazz and] black music, and that is something they really want to build on."
Mech Creations, which has sold a few trumpet mouthpieces thus far, is not yet incorporated, Swinney said.
"We'd love to see this business get to a point, hopefully in the next couple years, where it can incorporate," she said, adding that the goal for Mech Creations is to eventually include adult worker-members from the community.
"We would like to almost think of it as a local community-owned structure where the students play an apprenticeship role," she added.
Some of the short-term goals for the students involved with Mech Creations include developing order forms and launching a website and marketing campaign, including outreach to local music programs.
Hutchinson said she wants to see more youth-focused cooperative businesses like Mech Creations take off on the West Side and across the city.
"We can have jobs, and the teens that are on the corner selling drugs or doing wrong things, they can [instead] be in a machine shop ... working with a company instead of doing it the wrong way, having to look over their shoulder," she said. "They'll know that they're safe in the machine shop working hands-on and learning new things daily."
Meanwhile, the Grassroots Ecology cooperative on the far North Side sprouted from a summer youth program run by the non-profit Let's Go Chicago, which teaches young people in Rogers Park about gardening, sustainability and other issues. Organizers with Grassroots Ecology said they expect roughly 40 people to participate in the co-op over the summer building rain gardens and barrels as well as vegetable gardens at mostly single-family residences on the North Side.
"A number of us were recognizing that we just needed more opportunities for young people to be engaging in the issues that are present in our generation, which some of the main ones that we're recognizing is increased economic issues, increasing climate issues that previous generations have not faced and then the ever-present social justice issues we see in our communities," Costello said. "Essentially, we are recognizing that young people in our generation, we really need the skills and opportunities to be moving in the world and addressing these issues."
Marlon English, 23, a worker-owner of Grassroots Ecology, said the biggest challenge for the cooperative is funding. Whatever profit the cooperative receives from installing green infrastructure is used to compensate workers for their labor, he said. The group also raises some money through fundraising throughout the year, but Marlon said the goal is to build up the co-op so it can be self-sufficient. To help meet this goal, the group plans to do more canvassing and marketing in the neighborhood soon to attract more customers. Additionally, Costello said she would like to see state lawmakers enact policy that would make it easier for worker cooperatives to form in Illinois.
Youth from the St. Louis-based Sweet Sensations business cooperative were also at the Chicago conference. The youth-led cooperative sells honey as well as a line of natural "Honey Master Products," such as lip balm and lotion. Young people from Worcester, Massachusetts also discussed their worker cooperative called Toxic Soil Busters, which offers education, outreach and direct action to address problems of lead-contaminated soil.
When it comes to adult-led cooperative businesses, one of the more well-known examples in Chicago is the worker-controlled window factory New Era Window Cooperative in the Little Village neighborhood, which was opened last year by former employees of Republic Windows and Doors. The company was formerly located on Goose Island and closed abruptly in 2008.
Although adult- and youth-led worker cooperatives are gaining traction across the United States, including in Chicago, too few people still know about them, English said.
"Most institutions and schools don't really teach people how to do cooperative work," he said. "They want to train people to be employees. They don't really want to train people to be worker-owners, so we want to be able to put the power into the people's hands, and we want to build awareness of these type of things. If more people know about it, more people will take initiative into trying to create these models."