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Empowering Low-Income Women as Owners and Decision Makers

Empowering Low-Income Women as Owners and Decision Makers

Eleanor J. Bader describes the diversity of the United States' co-op movement: "There are co-op bakeries, catering companies, tortilla-makers and cafes; bike repair shops; taxi companies; dog-walking and cat-sitting services; and upholsterers. There are also worker-owned farms, elder- and child-care agencies, tutoring programs, and factory and construction businesses." And in many ways, low-income and immigrant women are some of the most enthusiastic adopters of the cooperative model. Workers cooperatives give these women stability and power in the workforce that the traditional employment model lacks, while helping to build leadership and entrepreneurial skills. The cooperative structure of employment can benefit the whole family, with mothers having more flexibility to structure their schedules to spend with their children, and children in turn seeing "their mothers, aunts, cousins and grandmothers as leaders and innovators."

There are, however, several barriers to forming a worker cooperative. First, a lot of people simply don't know that a cooperative is an option. And once they do, there is a slew of skills that need to be learnt in order to manage a company, with particular skills unique to a worker owned company. And then there is the large barrier of capital. Not only is lack of capital problematic, but financial institutions also tend to disfavor cooperative enterprises.

And perhaps the largest barrier of all is an ideological barrier. Daphne Berry explains the need for "a psychological shift away from doing something that benefits just you, to doing something that benefits a whole group." In the United States, where the narrative of the individual and self reliance is ubiquitous, it can be hard to transition away from the "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" thinking and realize how much we have always depended on a large network of human work for even the most mundane aspects of our lives — eating food we neither sowed nor reaped, drinking water from wells we did not dig, sleeping in houses we did not build, and traveling on roads we did not pave. It is this appreciation of human connection and all human labor that underpins the worker cooperative model.

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