Xavier students are both studying and helping the Community Blend Coffee co-op in nearby Evanston
Building Engaged Communities: Why Xavier is promoting the cooperative movement
By Kristen Kranke
Oct 20, 2015 - When I spoke with Timothy Kraus, interim director of Interfaith Business Builders, he was in the middle of a history tour of the South, exploring significant landmarks related to abolition, the Civil Rights movement and blues music.
As a key player in Cincinnati’s cooperative movement, Kraus made a conscious decision to tour the South. Visiting these towns and landmarks is a part of his attempt to understand the history of a community strategy that is already taking flight in our city.
“People are slowly beginning to realize that cooperatives are not necessarily a new idea,” Kraus says. “Co-ops in the South were one of the strategies newly freed slaves used to sustain themselves. They have always been critical to pulling people through hard times.”
Today, Cincinnati’s role in the cooperative movement is rapidly expanding. Over the next year, by teaming up with a number of co-op organizations around town, Xavier University will host a three-part conference to spread the word about cooperative influence in Cincinnati and beyond; the first gathering is Nov. 12.
'Businesses rooted in the community better the community'
By definition, a cooperative business is one that exists for the benefit of those using it services. “User-owners” distribute profits and earnings among themselves. Cooperatives are often created for a specific cause or need, creating jobs for disenfranchised individuals or contributing to overall sustainable community development.
“Cooperative businesses can be great tools in low income neighborhoods to keep the money in the neighborhood,” Kraus says. “There’s a lot of money that flows through every neighborhood, but it never stays in the neighborhood.”
He says the number of “absentee landlords and business owners” in economically stressed communities is part of the problem cooperatives hope to solve.
“Businesses rooted in the community better the community,” Kraus says. “They're a way to bolster a struggling economy in a local neighborhood.”
After a long career in teaching, Kraus retired in the hopes of putting his energy into something completely different. Enter Interfaith Business Builders, one of Cincinnati’s most established worker-owned cooperative builders. Since 1983, IBB has worked with over 400 underemployed or chronically unemployed people to help them find a place in their community’s economy.
According to Kraus, IBB began as Jobs for People, the religious community's attempt to find the root causes of unemployment and poverty. The organization recognized that solution required more than employment opportunities. They needed to create ways for chronically unemployed people to find pride and ownership in their work.
“Marginalized people should be able to be participants in the economy,” Kraus says.
One of their longstanding businesses, Cooperative Janitorial Services, has been in existence for 20 years and supports 15 individuals and their families. These same families are user-owners of the profitable cooperative, which boasts an impressive client base ranging from churches and social services agencies to Towne Properties apartment complexes.
Another example of IBB's influence is Community Blend Coffee, an Evanston-based coffeehouse that's been in existence for about a year and a half. Like any brand new business, Community Blend is still fighting for break-even status, though its impact on the neighborhood is already apparent.
Community Blend's impact is exactly why Xavier University has turned its attention to the cooperative movement.
“Through that co-op in particular, Xavier became more interested in what was going on,” says Gabe Gottlieb, philosophy professor and director of Xavier's Ethics/Religion and Society program. “We saw it as both an educational opportunity and an opportunity to support and help out the blossoming movement.”
Xavier's newfound mission to educate both students and the community about these economic business models stems from the school's longstanding values. Its Ethics/Religion and Society Department as well as its Sustainability Department have been studying the impacts of co-ops for years; members of Xavier’s own Board of Trustees are actively involved in cooperative organizations across the country.
Not only that, but as a Jesuit institution, Xavier is always looking for more ways to provide service to those in need.