Emily Kawano got her PhD in economics because she wanted to strengthen her skills as an activist. She also decided to pursue the degree because she felt that she could not teach herself the details of the field. Whatever the reasons, Emily now uses her degree for social change as the co-director of the Wellspring Cooperative based in Springfield, MA. Wellspring Cooperative is a nonprofit that is building a network of worker co-ops that supports and benefits the local economic development in the lower Pioneer valley. As it turns out, her PhD dissertation has proved relevant to her current work. She focused on the Japanese model of production, which involves team production, and total quality management. And now a fair amount of her current work at Wellspring Cooperative involves in-house training for co-ops to think about organizational structure, team building, and ownership culture.
Emily’s time in academia also brought her the opportunity to discover the concept of the solidarity economy when she joined the Center for Popular Economics. To Emily, “solidarity economy is a framework that brings together economic practices and practitioners that align with a set of values…the concept is about connecting up these practices that are grounded in very different values than under capitalism.” Many different seemingly unrelated concepts are all parts of the solidarity economy, such as credit unions, community land trusts, participatory budgeting, mutual aid, housing coops, and the care economy. The solidarity economy is a global movement, with engagement from internationally recognized entities such as a United Nations Task Force on the Social Solidarity Economy, RIPESS (Intercontinental Social and Solidarity Economy Network) and the ILO (International Labor Organization).
To Emily, worker co-ops are an essential piece of the solidarity economy. The Wellspring Cooperative’s mission is to develop a network of mutually supportive worker co-ops in the greater Springfield area. As of fall 2021, they have broadened their mission to include supporting cooperative initiatives at the community level, such as mutual aid organizations and community gardens. Their work ranges from supporting economic conversions of traditional businesses to worker co-ops to developing relationships with anchor institutions such as hospitals and colleges. Emily is proud of many things about Wellspring Cooperative. “Our mission is developing worker cooperatives in Springfield’s underserved communities. That is incredibly hard…I’m just proud that Wellspring has survived this long and that our businesses have survived the pandemic. All of our businesses were hard hit by the pandemic and some are still struggling, but some of them have recovered pretty well.”
Another important piece of solidarity economy activism is raising awareness of the variety of alternative economies and sharing a vision of an post-capitalist economy. The Wellspring Cooperative became a CDC and became a member of MACDC, where Emily learned about the work of the Mel King Institute at a Western Massachusetts Peer Group meeting. This connection inspired her to become an MKI practitioner instructor herself, and her training last month called “Exploring the Role of Worker Co-ops in Economic Development” received lots of interest among Community Development Corporations as well as other organizations like hospitals and small businesses.
One of the amazing parts about worker co-ops is the rippling positive effects of collective ownership. One of Emily’s favorite stories comes from speaking with a worker at Wellspring Upholstery. As Emily states it, for this individual “working in a cooperative and engaging in decision making processes spilled out into his own personal and civic life and helped to develop his listening and leadership skills.” The model of collective ownership and responsibility is a model for the kind of comprehensive, community-driven development the field strives for.
Interested in learning more? Sign up for the Wellspring Cooperative boot camp in English (Tuesdays, 6-9pm March 1-May 31, EN registration link) or in Spanish (Thursdays, 6-9pm March 24-June 23, ES registration link) For more information, please visit our Co-op Boot Camp webpage.