From the Home Reporter News
In June 2006, the Center for Family Life (CFL) in Sunset Park started its first worker cooperative, Si Se Puede! (We Can Do It!), with a small group of women enrolled in CFL's English as a Second Language classes who had expressed interest in starting their own business. They wanted to ensure fair worker treatment and wages, yes, but also reveled in the opportunity to create something of their own and to take pride in providing high quality work for their clients and neighbors, explained Luz Maria Hernandez, Si Se Puede!'s current president and one of the original co-op members.
Now, after five years of hard work, the all-female cleaning cooperative excels at operating on its own. Its members support themselves as well as an office manager - their first employee - and their co-op serves as inspiration for two other cooperatives supported by CFL: Beyond Care!, a childcare co-op, and Golden Steps, a non-medical eldercare co-op launching this month.
The impact on Si Se Puede!'s members has been profound. "At first, I didn't take it that seriously because there was no assurance of success," admitted Hernandez. "[It was difficult because] when we were forming the cooperative, it took a year to start getting work. What got me through it was the women in the group and the support from CFL." Now she's seeing the fruits of her labor. "After attending meetings, meeting the women and finding out the issues, I started to become more invested," the Sunset Park mom explained. "The highlight for me is that we've gotten where we wanted to be. We're very informed on how to do quality work, to guarantee quality for the price we charge."
For single mom Irene Alcanta Gonzalez, aspiring for that success keeps her motivated through these first months of her co-op, Golden Steps, for which she was just elected secretary.
"At first, it was a really incredible feeling to be chosen out of 90 people. It gave me a feeling of value," said Gonzalez, who heard about the co-op from staff at a domestic violence support program. "I live in Brownsville [and] it's been a lot of sacrifice to balance working, taking care of my children and coming here. I want it to be successful. I believe it will work. I see everyone working hard and going to extra meetings. I hope for a good job and a just salary so that I can keep supporting my kids."
Golden Steps just finished a 12-week training program, which included business planning, learning the skills of the job, a graduate certificate and building a co-op, said Vanessa Bransburg, CFL's cooperative coordinator. "We are the incubator. We house it until they go off on their own. We act as consultants, helping them learn how to make [business] decisions. There's very low overhead because it is service-based." In addition to taking charge of her own future through her work, Hernandez says she believes in the ability of the co-op model to help others. "The work we're doing in co-op development, I believe it's very important in the community," she said. "I want to give back to the co-op as much as I've gotten from it... I want the growth of co-ops so [more] people have the opportunity for good jobs and a better life."
CFL modeled its cooperatives on successful versions in New York and California, and conducted surveys amongst its existing adult students to determine market demand and the skill set of those interested. Those selected to launch a co-op are chosen based on a combination of interest, ability, perceived dedication and availability.
Elected officials such as Councilmember Sara González and Council Speaker Christine Quinn have taken notice, both pledging their support for expanding the co-op models as a way to create economic development in immigrant communities. "I recognize these women as my neighbors and I'm delighted they have found a way to become successful while helping others in their own neighborhood" said González. "Programs like these serve as prime examples of why I'm proud to [support the work done by CFL]." CFL will also be helping to create a NYC Network of Worker Co-ops and be part of Quinn's goal of funding two more co-ops next year - one between CFL and the Urban Justice Center, and one in Queens. The only other NYC co-op incubator is the Greenworkers in the Bronx.