Occupy Sandy volunteers help to set up co-ops in New York

Following the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many firms in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York are shutting down, but a group of 25 residents in Far...

Following the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many firms in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York are shutting down, but a group of 25 residents in Far Rockaway are uniting to provide a better life for themselves and their families.

People’s homes were destroyed, jobs were lost and transportation was disrupted. But, over the past few months, Occupy Sandy volunteers have been working with people in Far Rockaway by sharing ideas and develop new co-operative enterprises.

Occupy Sandy evolved out of Occupy Wall Street. “The storm hit and a few of us started Occupy Sandy," explained Tamara Shapiro, one of the founding members of the group. She said the volunteers initially had no plan, but in witnessing how people were struggling to recover from the storm, they came together to discuss what could be done.  

Even though it is part of New York, Far Rockaway is referred to as a 'Peninsula'. “On top of the fact that Far Rockaway is an area particularly poor, it lived in a disaster before the storm and in a natural disaster afterwards,” said Tamara.

Tamara was at the time involved in InterOccupy, an online platform set up to foster communication between individuals, Working Groups and local General Assemblies, across the Occupy movement. 

After the storm, Occupy Sandy offered relief to people in the affected areas and distribution hubs were set up all over Brooklyn, as well as Rockaway.

Occupy Sandy volunteers were the first ones to offer any type of relief to those affected by the hurricane, even before organisations such as Red Cross and other similar agencies had intervened. 

Due to their support, the Occupy Sandy volunteers gained the trust of Far Rockaway residents. Three months after the storm, the Occupy Sandy members started transitioning from immediate relief to long-term community projects. Co-operatives are key to achieving this goal.

“After the storm people started talking about co-ops,” recalled Tamara. Occupy Sandy members worked with The Working World, an NGO working on creating employment in disadvantaged communities. The Working World had helped to set up co-ops in the US, Argentina and Nicaragua. In late December the Occupy Sandy volunteers had a meeting with all those interested in co-ops. People in some of the distribution hubs also took part in the discussions. Local people in Far Rockaway met with Occupy Sandy members to talk about the next steps in the community’s development.

Occupy Sandy had raised a considerable amount of money during the storm. Members decided that $100,000 would go to funding co-ops in impacted areas.

Twelve-week workshops are run to introduce the residents of Far Rockaway to co-operative principles. Five groups are currently trying to set up co-operatives with the help of Occupy Sandy.

“The co-op project is about two thirds Spanish speaking folks, that can’t find jobs, one third from African American community,” explained Tamara.

In the first five weeks of the workshops, people were introduced to co-op principles and the different forms of decision-making. Workshops on finance and business management will also take place. Residents plan to create one grocery store and four worker co-ops.

“The hope is that we can use funds for new co-ops if these ones are successful.We are offering funding we don’t want people coming just because they are excited about seed funding, we want them to embrace the co-op principles. We had people talk about the benefits of co-ops.

“Small businesses are hard to get off the ground. People are struggling and starting any type of business is difficult.”

Far Rockaway residents are also looking into developing new tourism enterprises. “The Rockaways have the nicest beaches in New York City,” said Tamara, adding that they hoped to use the summer season to attract customers into these businesses.

The project is currently undergoing, but Tamara hopes the new worker co-ops are successful. The loans members receive are only returned if the co-ops are successful.

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