Cooperative fans and caffeine aficionados rejoiced when White Electric Coffee at 711 Westminster Street reopened in May. Over the past year, a group of former employees from Providence’s beloved coffee shop formed the worker-owned CUPS Cooperative and purchased the business from the former owner.
Worker-owner Chloe Chassaing joined Local Return directors Raul Figueroa and Josh Daly to talk about the transition. While customers probably won’t see much of a change, Chloe said, “Internally it does feel differently, because we all have a stake, have a voice, have shared decision making power and responsibilities. We’re all just personally more invested, and it feels really good. It feels like we’re modeling on a small scale some of the things we’d like to see in society.”
The group looked to a cooperative structure because they’re known to be more resilient while also offering better wages and greater dignity. And there’s an added bonus for customers: you can know that the workers you encounter are receiving living wages. “All the people you see behind the counter there working are all the co-owners,” noted Chloe, “and they’re all the ones making the decisions, and they’re all the ones benefiting from your purchase of that bagel with cream cheese and avocado.”
Ever wanted to make Aunt Carrie’s clam cakes at home or serve sweet corn cakes from La Arepa at your next dinner party? This is your chance.
On May 21, a crowd gathered at Dave’s Marketplace in East Greenwich to celebrate Dish Up RI, a new initiative of Hope & Main. With a CARES Act grant from Commerce RI and support from a slew of excellent partners, Dish Up RI brings some of Rhode Island’s beloved restaurants into the grocery aisle. More than 25 participating “resto-preneurs” worked with a team of experts to bring their products to market.
Hope & Main President and Founder Lisa Raiola (also a Local Return board member) calculated the financial benefit of just one round of stocking the shelves with Dish Up RI products. “The funds that the federal government invested in this program are right back in circulation in our local economy,” she noted. “This is the power — the multiplier effect — of local, sustainable investment! Right there, we created alternative revenue streams for small businesses. We are building a distinct new food sector for Dave’s Market and other local grocers. And we are providing the Rhode Island consumer with dozens of new ways to enjoy their local favorites at home.”
If COVID has taught us anything, she continued, “it’s that we have radical permission to create something new.” Indeed! Thanks to Dish Up RI, you can get some delicious help with dinner, and feel good about where your money is going.
“I think a lot about the Old Testament and the ten plagues. For me, Moses was the first and best community organizer.” This is the kind of thing that comes up when two community organizers get together.
Local Return director (and community organizer) Raul Figueroa sat down with family physician, author, and long-time organizer Dr. Michael Fine. “Our job,” Dr. Fine said, “is to keep bringing people together in a new way so they experience their own agency and they experience their own power.”
Dr. Fine describes COVID-19 as The Great Revealer, no longer allowing us to live in denial of the chasm between rich and poor. The most important step to dealing with this inequality would be a $25/hour minimum wage, so nobody has to work two or three jobs to afford a decent home. He also suggests bringing back the requirement that public employees live in the communities they serve, thereby investing their dollars in the local economy.
At the end of the day, whether healing, writing, or organizing, it’s about coming together. “I’m writing fiction,” said Dr. Fine, “to try to find some language, some imagination to help people understand what it’s like to be one people, and not to let ourselves get split apart about things that don’t matter so that we can defend ourselves from things that do.”
“It’s really amazing to me to see how much folks are growing sometimes on very small pieces of land,” noted Jazandra Barros, Community Outreach Coordinator for Southside Community Land Trust.
SCLT would know. They’ve been around for 40 years, building infrastructure for urban gardens and farms. Jazandra spoke with Local Return director Sue AnderBois about their agricultural history and their more recent efforts to strengthen the local food system as a whole. “We’re meant to be in community by nature,” Jazandra said. “We thrive and grow in community.”
And community investors, take note! Jazandra highlighted an exciting development at 404 Broad Street, where SCLT is creating a small-scale, neighborhood-specific food hub. This hub will provide a processing facility for farmers who work with SCLT to wash, pack, and store food, and it will offer retail spaces for local food entrepreneurs. As Jazandra described, “The food is grown here, it’s processed here, and it’s distributed here.”
That’s exactly the kind of full-cycle investment we need to make, for the benefit of our people, communities, and economy.
Eva Agudelo, founder and executive director of Hope’s Harvest RI, joined Local Return director Jessica David to talk about the importance of a strong local food ecosystem. Hope’s Harvest mobilizes volunteers to recover surplus food from local farms and distributes it to local hunger relief agencies. The organization has expanded rapidly over its three years, and it played a vital role in providing healthy food during the pandemic.
Standing up such a top-notch gleaning operation requires incredible attention to logistical details, which Eva demonstrates in spades. She sees her work, though, as continuing an ancient practice of justice and love. “When we’re nourishing our community, it’s an act of love,” Eva asserts. “We do it as an act of love, because we know that it’s something that makes people healthier and happier. And it’s an act of care.”
Kudos to Hope’s Harvest for stepping in to fill an important gap in our food system. There are lots of ways to support Hope’s Harvest (getting your hands dirty is optional)!
Andy Posner, president and CEO of the Capital Good Fund, joined Local Return board member Jessica David to talk about the lessons he’s learned over 12 years of providing an alternative to predatory payday loans. Capital Good Fund has saved clients an estimated $5.5 million, and borrowers increase their credit scores by an average of 75 points.
Andy covers the challenges of growing the Fund to sustainability, his goal to democratize impact investing, and how we might change the narrative around financial management. “The problem is not that poor people don’t know how to manage money,” he points out. “They’re amazing at it. What they don’t have is money to manage.”
Building community wealth requires practical solutions to the very real barriers to financial stability. Thanks to Capital Good Fund for developing a creative solution that offers affordable credit and accessible investment.
For local communities to fully reclaim finance as a tool for generating prosperity, we must remove the obstacle of payday lending. Disproportionately concentrated in majority Black communities, payday lenders like to claim they are providing much-needed funds to people who have no other recourse. This claim is wrong on two counts. First, payday lenders are not offering genuine assistance, but rather setting a debt trap with interest rates above 200 percent, luring people into a cycle of debt that can last years and ruin lives. Second, alternatives are available. For instance, the Capital Good Fund, Navigant Credit Union, and Bank of America all offer small loans, with low fees and interest rates ranging from 5 to 30 percent.
Rhode Island remains the only state in New England with no protections against the payday lending debt trap. It is time to prohibit payday lending and for finance to help local communities build wealth.
The Economic Progress Institute – formerly The Poverty Institute – is a nonpartisan research and policy organization dedicated to improving the economic well-being of low- and modest-income Rhode Islanders. Since the organization was founded in 1999, it has become a respected authority on issues impacting the economic vitality of our residents and our state.
When I read your call to action, I immediately thought of South Providence and the consistent disinvestment in that community, which is bearing the brunt of many polluting businesses along the Port of Providence. There has been much attention to environmental racisism, equity, inclusion, and equitable solutions at the city level with respect to communities bordering the port, but so much feels like lip service with no real action taking place. For there to be real opportunity for those neighborhoods to thrive and have power, they need an economic leg up. (The level of pollution experienced in South Providence would never happen on the East Side of Providence, which holds so much wealth.)
I wonder what real investment would look like in South Providence—investment that actually comes from the community and not from gentrifying forces…
Joanna Detz is publisher of ecoRI News. ecoRI News covers environmental news for southern New England. Sign up for their weekly e-newsletter at http://ecori.org/read.