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From Spain to the Bronx: A New Weapon in the Fight Against Income Inequality

   /   Nov 6th, 2013Business, National, New York City

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A look at IRS figures dating back to 1913 reveals that the gulf separating the richest and poorest Americans is wider today than it has been in more than 80 years. Perhaps nowhere is that divide more stark than in New York City, where some of the nation’s richest and poorest neighborhoods are separated by just a few stops on the subway. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual income in some Bronx neighborhoods falls below $9,000 — but the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative is working to change that number.

Born in 2009, the BCDI arms itself with examples of economic democracy from as far away as Europe in the fight against income inequality in the Bronx.

Stopping the wealth drain

Despite localized poverty, the Bronx generates considerable wealth through national icons like Yankee Stadium, the world’s largest wholesale produce market and Montefiore Medical Center, which boasts the second-largest medical residency program in the country. Tired of seeing the wealth surrounding these institutions leave the community, the BCDI aims to redirect economic activity back into the Bronx and drive up the borough’s average income.

“The idea is to analyze what they’re spending in the Bronx, in the region and outside the region,” explained Yorman Nuñez, BCDI program coordinator and Bronx native. “From what they’re spending outside the region we then look at whether there are opportunities to establish businesses that can capture that and localize their supply chain, spurring business creation.”

But not just any kind of businesses, Nuñez notes — specifically worker-owned, economically democratic businesses, known as cooperatives.

To do this, the group looks to the examples of cooperatives pioneered in Spain and Ohio, where communities are turning to institutions jointly owned and operated by employees.

One Spanish model, the Mondragon Cooperative Complex, started in 1956 as a manufacturer of paraffin stoves, but has since grown to include a web of businesses and institutions, including the Escuela Politecnica technical school and the applied industrial research cooperative Ikerlan.

BCDI hopes to emulate Mondragon’s sustainable network model.

“Mondragon uses the power of a network to stabilize an entire region in Spain,” Nuñez said. “That’s what we want to do in the Bronx — a network of many types of institutions that coordinate strategically to stabilize the local economy and are actually able to conceptualize and execute a development strategy for any location.”

Making allies

Achieving this, Nuñez explains, is a multi-step process that includes building relationships with community anchor institutions — a process laid out in the case of Ohio’s Evergreen Cooperatives.

Early on, Evergreen allied itself with institutions such as the Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Doing so expanded not only its own resources, but gave way to a process developed in Spain known as “import displacement.” By identifying demands by local institutions that were being outsourced, Evergreen managed to shift production locally and prevent wealth from “leaking out,” as Nuñez puts it.

Besides an array of community partners, including the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and Green Worker Cooperatives, among others, BCDI has partnered with Montefiore Medical Center, one of the largest employers in New York. While not yet at the stage of establishing businesses that could, for example, manage the hospital’s laundry or provide produce for its kitchen, Nuñez says they’ve been successful in convincing managers that working with local cooperative businesses would be a mutually beneficial choice.

“It’s about convincing places like Montefiore that when they’re making their decisions on who their vendors are, they should enter into their calculus social and environmental impact,” Nuñez said. “It’s not just who will give me the lowest price for the apple, but who will also develop my neighborhood.”

Reframing the conversation

In addition to reframing the conversation with potential business partners, BCDI works with like-minded community partners to change the Bronx’s economic outlook.

Among those organizers is Elisabeth Ortega of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. The Alliance led a 2009 campaign that ultimately thwarted Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to transform the 575,000 square foot abandoned armory into a shopping mall. Ortega and others successfully argued that by offering merely part-time, minimum wage jobs, the mall would do little to create local wealth. Today, she and others oversee the development of new Armory plans aimed at creating living-wage jobs as well as spurring local business.

Helping her adjust the conversation both for herself and others is a training program called the Economic Democracy Training Series. Devised by Nuñez and Nick Iuviene, one of the founders of BCDI, the curriculum includes 10 workshops covering a range of topics, starting with classical economic theory. This is followed by a conversation on ways to strengthen the local economy, at which point participants are presented with the concept of worker-owned cooperatives and asset-based development, among other things. Finally, the curriculum covers the subject of oppression within the economy, whether through race, gender or otherwise.

For Ortega, it wasn’t so much learning a new paradigm as it was putting into words the paradigm she already had. Economic democracy was already a part of her and her colleagues’ worldview, she explained, only “now we have the language.”

She says one change that did occur in her thinking as a result of the training series was the way she views her role as a community organizer.

“We were always responding to an issue and now we’re creating solutions so those problems won’t arise,” she explained. “So instead of always fixing, we are creating.”

Sandra Lobo, the board president of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “Rather than being reactionary, we first establish a vision for the community and then whatever vision we want to create to pursue that in a way that benefits the collective in the long term.”

And this, Nuñez explains, is the key.

“Of course smarty-pants can come in and try to do this,” he said, “but we believe it will ultimately fail because you need to tie it to the local community and it needs to be drive and owned by the local community.”

Photo courtesy of Tony Fischer (Flickr).

2 Responses

  1. Jorge Vasquez says:

    This article is both engaging and informative. It demonstrates a clarity of thinking so often lacking in nonprofit social advocacy.

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