How One Worker-Owned Cooperative Offered Hope and Economic Development

When the big industry in a region closes its doors, or moves out of state or out of the country, there is justified anger, grief, and hand-wringing. Workers who depended on the jobs, checks, and benefits may have few employment alternatives.

Unemployment benefits can’t make up the lost income. The economy sags. The human toll follows.

But Opportunity Threads, a group that receives funding from the Catholic bishops through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), offers a story of hope amid such adversity.

For much of the last century the economy of western North Carolina has depended on furniture and textile industries. But when these industries closed operations in the area, local people stepped in to develop an alternative model of economic development.

Opportunity Threads is a “cut-and-sew” cooperative that employs 23 full-time workers, who in turn support at least 100 family members. Molly Hemstreet, now the general manager of Opportunity Threads, grew up in the area and taught English as a Second Language to recent immigrants. She and several community members pals identified a growing consumer interest in local, sustainable goods that support the “triple bottom line” of social, economic, and environmental benefits to a community.

Working with one used sewing machine after hours in a borrowed room, they helped start a local renaissance in micro-manufacturing. Together they turned the excess inventory of irregular socks from a local small producer into winsome stuffed animals, and introduced “up-cycling” to the area.

With grant assistance from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. Catholic bishops’ domestic, anti-poverty program, Opportunity Threads was soon established as a worker-owned business that draws on skilled un- and underemployed people in the community of Burke County, North Carolina, to create sustainable livelihoods and put a new face on textile production in the rural South.

Molly supports worker ownership because it gives people responsibility and a voice in the company and promotes dignity and respect. The long route to worker-owner may take a worker up to 18 months, but the painstaking training and vetting pays off by creating a group that works together as a balanced team. As further proof, Opportunity Threads has yet to lose an owner or “pre-member” to a vote of the worker-owners.

But that’s not all. Opportunity Threads has actively helped other suppliers and producers work together and share jobs. Molly calls it “co-opetition.” The work has developed into the Carolina Textile District, which aggregates work, screens producers, and determines who’s best for a job. Molly said the pie of the textile industry is large enough for everyone to have a piece without competing and being at each other’s throats.

In fact, so many other groups have asked Opportunity Threads how to establish a successful worker-owned model that Molly and others formed The Industrial Commons, which also got a grant from CCHD. The Industrial Commons now helps small- to mid-sized industrial firms and networks create economic opportunity for low-income workers, improve livelihoods, develop democratic workplaces, and root ownership in communities to create sustainable change.

From where I sit, that looks like a tremendously positive alternative to handwringing and despair.

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

 Going Deeper

In most dioceses in the U.S., Nov. 18-19, 2017, was the national collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Nov. 19 was also the first World Day of the Poor.  Use this Poverty Map to find out about work in your part of the country that is supported by the bishops through CCHD.

Five Things You Need to Know about Poverty in America

Connor Bannon, intern for the Catholic Campaign/USCCB

If Pope Francis has taught us anything during these last four years (and I would submit that he has taught us quite a few things), it is that “poverty in the world is a scandal.”  It is a cry “in a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone.”  It is especially a scandal in a nation like the United States, which, despite possessing more than enough money to end material poverty, consistently exhibits one of the highest rates of poverty in the “developed” world.

Recently released to little fanfare, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 report on Income and Poverty in the United States reveals that 40.6 million, or 12.7 percent, of Americans live in poverty.

After spending several days pouring over this report and its close relative, The Supplemental Poverty Measure, I’d like to share five things that you should know about poverty in the United States.

1. Family matters.

Family Matters is not just an iconic television show.  It is also an important fact about poverty in America.  The Census report reveals that 13.1 percent of families with a single male householder and 26.6 percent of families with a single female householder live in poverty, whereas only 5.1 percent of married households live in poverty.

At the same time, nearly one in five children are living in poverty. That’s 13.3 million kids. Although children only make up 23% of the U.S. population, they disproportionally represent 33% of people living in poverty.

 2. Education matters.

Education Matters is not an iconic television show.  Nevertheless, it is an important fact about poverty in America.  This year’s Census data shows that formally educated Americans are much less likely to live in poverty than Americans without formal education.  More precisely, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that, whereas 4.5 percent of people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher lived in poverty, 9.4 percent of people with only some college lived in poverty, 13.3 percent of people with only a high school diploma lived in poverty, and 24.8 percent of people without a high school diploma lived in poverty.

3. Work works, except when it doesn’t.

It has been said many times and in many ways, but the fact remains: the best anti-poverty program is a good job.  The current Census report shows that only 5.8 percent of all workers live in poverty.  That said, it also reveals a dichotomy between full-time, year-round workers (2.2 percent of whom live in poverty) and part-time, year-round workers (14.7 percent of whom live in poverty).  The best anti-poverty program is not just any job.  The best anti-poverty is a good job, which is to say a full time, year-round, job that pays a living wage. Learn more: Demanding a Living Wage

4. The safety net saves.

While it is true that the best anti-poverty program is a good job, it is also true that the social safety net saves many vulnerable men, women, and children from the grips of poverty.  In this regard, the supplemental poverty report reveals that Social Security keeps 26.1 million people, including 1 in 3 seniors, from living in poverty.  Moreover, the reports show that refundable tax credits, food stamps (i.e. SNAP), Supplemental Security Income, and housing subsidies keep a combined 18.2 million people out of poverty.  Learn more: Safeguarding and Strengthening the Social Safety Net

5. Healthcare costs.

The Census Bureau also measures the impact of select household expenses on low-income families and individuals. The Census Bureau found that an astonishing 10.5 million people were made poor because of high healthcare costs and that “medical expenses were the largest contributing cost to increasing the number of individuals in poverty.”  Achieving affordable healthcare, in other words, is not merely a matter of healthcare policy, it is an essential part of any “war on poverty.” Learn More: Making Healthcare Affordable

Learn more! Our interactive map at PovertyUSA.org now has updated statistics for your state to inform your advocacy efforts.  Additionally, the county-level view of our map highlights programs across the country doing this critical work with help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Connor Bannon an intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a student at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Going Deeper!

During Poverty Awareness Month, join the U.S. Bishops, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and the Catholic community in the United States in taking up Pope Francis’ challenge to live in solidarity with the poor!  Join us this January, as we reflect daily on the reality of poverty and respond with charity and justice.  Sign up to receive daily reflections in your inbox during Poverty Awareness Month.

How Can You Honor Workers? A Perspective from Austin

Our faith teachings call us, Catholics and all people of faith, to care for our neighbor and to work for justice for all. As a long-time organizer, I have worked alongside leaders to address pressures on families and improve their lives through acting on issues. We identify these issues from relational conversations, such as those that members of our communities have with each other. Then together we address them to bring change. With support from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Austin Interfaith Sponsoring Committee leaders have organized to create initiatives and marshal resources that have benefited Austin-area children, families, and residents.

Austin Interfaith leaders gather at city hall to call for a living wage (2013)

One area of particular concern is ensuring that more workers have meaningful work, livable wages, and worker protections. We are taught that the dignity of the human person is tied to the dignity of work.  In Laudato Si’ no. 128, Pope Francis writes that “We were created with a vocation to work. … (and) To stop investing in people…is bad business for society.” That’s why Austin Interfaith has led the campaign in Austin to increase the city living wage floor over time to now $13.50/hour for all city workers and workers employed through contractors with the city. In addition, we’ve worked with allies to require worker protections for all construction workers on city contracted projects.

Our perspective, like that of a grandparent, is not simply on the next year or the next election cycle, but on the next generation.  In 1998, the congregations of Austin Interfaith created the Capital IDEA job training and workforce intermediary, which provides a pathway for low-income Austin residents to access new, high-paying opportunities in healthcare, technology, and manufacturing trades – jobs that provide benefits and a career path. Nearly twenty years later, over 1,400 low income adults have started new lives as nurses, sonographers, network administrators, electronic technicians, electricians, and many other careers. In 2016, Capital IDEA participants went from earning an average salary of $10,500 to an average beginning salary of almost $41,000.

An immigrant from Mexico, Elizabeth Soltero cleaned university offices overnight and cared for her young daughter during the day while her husband worked construction. They barely saw each other as a family. For three years, Capital IDEA provided tuition, fees, books, child care, and case management so Elizabeth could attend and graduate from the local community college as a network administrator. Elizabeth Soltero became Capital IDEA’s 1,000th graduate in 2012. With a specialization in information security, she now she manages a computer network for IBM, works during the day, and has bought a new house.

An even more fundamental achievement is the next generation. Through Elizabeth’s example, her daughter is well along a path to become a college graduate herself. An analysis of local school district data found that 70 percent of the children of Capital IDEA graduates go directly to college after high school – 25 percentage points higher than otherwise expected.

Capital IDEA is part of a network of model workforce programs that bring the civic, business, and public sectors together in partnership to expand opportunities for more workers to get training to qualify for jobs that can support them and their families.

As we celebrate Labor Day, we recall the contributions and sacrifices of workers that are critical to all of our lives, and call for all to work together across income levels to bring public policy and resource changes in your communities to increase opportunities of low-wage workers.

Kathleen Davis is Lead Organizer with Austin Interfaith — a broad based, nonpartisan, multi-ethnic, multi-issue organization of congregations and institutions that together develop the leadership to address issues that affect the well-being of low and moderate income families in the Austin area.


Going Deeper

Read the U.S. Catholic bishops’ annual Labor Day statement here, and learn more about Catholic teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers here.

 

Developing Housing and Jobs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Some of the most intriguing and successful CCHD-funded groups are those that surmount the biggest obstacles. The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Porcupine, South Dakota, is one of them.

The group works on the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a huge expanse that takes two hours to cross in a car. It’s no secret that Native Americans have been marginalized and mistreated in the history of our country. Government, church, and private efforts to improve their living conditions and prospects for the future have enjoyed mixed success. To be fair, there have been missteps on all sides, but one of the recurring stumbling blocks has been the attempt by outsiders to determine what the native people need and want.

Three young adults smile in front of a Thunder Valley CDC sign

These young adults were part of Thunder Valley CDC’s Workforce Development Through Sustainable Construction program where they learned construction skills, advanced their education, and developed individual success plans.

We were cautiously optimistic when we heard about Thunder Valley CDC, a relatively new group of young people committed to building sustainable communities in the very tough economy of the reservation. Jobs are scarce. Housing is substandard. Infrastructure barely exists. The reservation is in the poorest county in the country. But the people have hope and determination. The Thunder Valley CDC organizers began by talking to their neighbors and ASKING what they needed to improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. Housing and jobs were at the top of the list. They were not asking for charity but the opportunity to create systemic change and achieve self-sufficiency.

A team of people push up a frame of a wall on a cleared lot

Thunder Valley CDC staff raises a wall for the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center where youth and families will be able to learn about healthy local foods.

Two young Lakota girls in athletic gear and holding small basketballs smiling

Through Thunder Valley CDC, Lakota children participate in sports and wellness activities that are run by older Lakota youth in the Youth Leadership Development program.

Thunder Valley CDC identified land near an important crossroad on the reservation. They purchased it, and with CCHD’s help, they are implementing an ambitious master plan that includes infrastructure, home ownership, jobs, education, training, and mentorship.

Thunder Valley CDC takes CCHD’s mission to heart: the group is led by the people it serves and the people who participate have a stake in the outcome. By listening carefully and planning meticulously, Thunder Valley CDC is creating tangible, sustainable change in the community. It has become a force for justice in an area that longs for it. CCHD is honored to support the effort.

Thank you, as always, for your prayers and support of CCHD.

You are a crucial partner in our ceaseless mission to break the cycle of poverty.

Photos Courtesy of Thunder Valley CDC

Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Learn more about the work of CCHD.


Learn more about Thunder Valley CDC in the latest edition of the CCHD quarterly newsletter Helping People Help Themselves.

See other CCHD groups’ Stories of Hope on PovertyUSA.

Disrupting a Culture of Resentment, Rebuilding a Culture of Encounter

In February, nine Latino, African-American, and Caucasian leaders from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati flew to Modesto, California, for the U.S. World Meeting of Popular Movements (WMPM). Organized by the Vatican, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development/USCCB, and PICO National Network, the gathering of 700 grassroots leaders from across the country focused on the issues of racism, migration, housing, jobs, and environmental justice.

For the immigrant victim of wage theft, the community leader fighting against foreclosures in his neighborhood, and the African-American woman tackling racial injustice, the issues of the gathering were all ones that directly impacted our delegation’s members. The WMPM injected all of us with new energy and hope, as participants shared each other’s stories, affirmed each other’s struggles for life and dignity, and celebrated our oneness in the Body of Christ.

But the real outcome of the WMPM for our delegation still hinges upon what we can do differently at home in our own archdiocese.

As Pope Francis exclaimed in his message to the WMPM: “It makes me very happy to see you working together towards social justice! How I wish that such constructive energy would spread to all dioceses, because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals. These are bridges that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance.”

We all arrived at the Modesto gathering with the sense that we are immersed in a culture of resentment.  Whether it’s between pro-life and social justice advocates, immigrants and non-immigrants, Christians and Muslims, or black and white people, forces in our culture are encouraging us to see someone else as an “other.”  Yet, in his rousing address at the WMPM, Bishop Robert McElroy spoke of the urgency for us to “disrupt” and to “rebuild.”

We left this gathering with a call to disrupt such a false, divisive narrative about ourselves.  We committed ourselves in turn to rebuild it with a “culture of encounter.”

Some institution in our society must be bold enough to turn our heads towards the “Jesus in disguise” in each other, especially in the most poor and vulnerable among us. We, as the Church, can strive to rebuild a sense of universality among currently polarized peoples by creating spaces where we recognize our shared struggles for human life and dignity.  With our comprehensive Catholic moral and social teachings, we have the vision that few political, economic, or social entities can offer to such an urgent task.

A day after our return, our leaders shared their excitement for the gathering with our local Archbishop Dennis Schnurr. “You just made my day,” he responded with a smile.  We agreed to begin organizing a gathering of pro-life and social justice parish leaders, immigrants, people released from prison, crisis pregnancy volunteers, those experiencing environmental injustice, and others.  Not only do we want to see greater justice for all these people, but we also aim to disrupt the culture that tries to pit us against each other, especially by boxing us into “conservative” and “liberal” corners.

We aim to rebuild it with a sense that we are all each other’s neighbors; that everyday people, not politicians or other figureheads, are our own solutions. Our task now is to imagine and create such a space of encounter and dialogue.

If there’s one thing the WMPM showed me, it’s how much our nation sorely needs a faith community that trusts that we can overcome our divisions.

 

Tony Stieritz is the Director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Catholic Social Action Office


Going Deeper

Find out how Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati are responding to the call to be “disruptors” for Christ—through an annual World Day of Peace mass, work to accompany formerly incarcerated individuals, religious sisters fighting human trafficking, and new programs to care for God’s creation.

¡Si Se Puede!

Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union in 1962, is pictured in an undated photo. Chavez, who died in 1993, began grass-roots organizing in the 1950s while working in the fruit and vegetable fields of California and defined the farmworker union movement. (CNS file photo)

 

Si se puede – yes we can! It was the mantra of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) and the movement that they and its leaders, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, popularized. It captured an attitude that things, no matter how bad they appeared, could be changed.

At 24 years of age, I joined the United Farmworker’s movement on the staff of their national boycott. I went to work for the UFW as an organizer, not knowing what organizing was, only what some of the outcomes of the organizing had been. One of those outcomes was managing to convince millions of people to forgo eating grapes and lettuce from California. The UFW had organized a national boycott of grapes and lettuce, which brought striking farm laborers from California to tell Americans across the country of the meager wages and horrible working conditions they labored under. They waged their battle non-violently, embracing the tactics and vision of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

I was impressed by the work of their founder, Cesar Chavez, a diminutive Chicano, born in Arizona to Mexican parents who had lost their small homestead in Arizona to foreclosure and then migrated to California to work as farm workers. Chavez dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work with his family in the fields picking peas and lettuce, cherries and beans, corn and grapes.

What attracted me and thousands of other volunteers and organizers to “the Union” was Chavez. He was a different kind of leader. He was not flashy; he did not wear a suit or drive big cars. He had none of the trappings of power. Instead what was attractive about Chavez was his honesty, his willingness to put others first, his hunger and thirst for justice in a state (California) and a country where agricultural workers had experienced precious little justice.

Chavez became a symbol of Si Se Puede. He showed that change was possible, not with guns and not with riots – both of which were being romanticized in the late 60’s and early 70’s and in some ways glorified by revolutionary movements throughout Latin America and in the streets of Detroit and Oakland and Buenos Aires – but with peaceful determination and organizing.  Chavez exemplified a life committed to non-violence, self-discipline, and service to others.

I recall a march to Modesto, California, in which I participated. At the front of the marchers were several priests beside Chavez and other UFW leaders. Someone was carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For me it was a vivid example of religious leaders accompanying their flock, in this case in a just struggle for their rights to decent wages and working conditions and equally important – to be treated with dignity and respect.

Chavez and the UFW melded religious values with democratic values, self- interest with a vision of the common good.  Blending elements of the Civil Rights Movement, labor organizing, and community organizing, Chavez and the unique group of organizers that formed the UFW leadership exemplified a quiet dignity and austerity. Those who went to work for the UFW as organizers were paid “room and board and $5.00 a week.”  For many of the hundreds of organizers who joined the Farmworker Movement at the time, it was an antidote to the growing materialism and consumerism of our culture and a way of channeling their anger at injustice into a positive initiative to improve our nation.

Immigrant agricultural workers remain among the lowest paid and poorest workers in our nation. They are still denied collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and are still confronted with anti-immigrant fear and hatred. Cesar Chavez may be gone but he and the work of the UFW inspired others to organize and fight for their rights and their dignity.  Struggles are now led by leaders such as Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina, and Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida (who the bishops’ honored in 1998 with the prestigious Cardinal  Bernardin New Leadership Award), who is spearheading a national boycott of the Wendy’s fast food chain, seeking a penny a pound increase for tomato pickers. In Vermont, the group Migrant Justice, representing dairy workers, has negotiated an agreement with Ben and Jerry’s for “Milk with Dignity,” and the Workers Center of Central New York is working on legislation to establish collective bargaining rights for farm workers in the state of New York. The brave women and men risk much working for justice for these groups in environments not always supportive of strangers from foreign countries in their communities.

Pope Francis, speaking at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Vera Cruz, Bolivia, in the spring of 2015 said,

“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”

I say, “¡Si se puede!”

Randy Keesler is the Area C grant specialist for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.


Going Deeper

Learn more about the dignity of work and the rights of workers.  See what Catholics are doing in Yakima, New York, St. Paul-Minneapolis, and South Texas to stand with migrants.

Encounter Fernando

“Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work…anoints us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works…”
– Pope Francis, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, 2013

 “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.” John 5:17 How tempting it is to relegate these words of Jesus to the archives of history. But let us realize that they are as relevant now as they were 2,000 years ago—ours is a God of work, a God who is constantly creating anew in us and in our world, a God who beckons us to work alongside with our own skills and passions and dreams, no matter who we are or where in the world we may live.

 Santos Fernando Sánchez García, 22, a member of the Youths Builders “Jóvenes Constructores” program supported by Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services.

Santos Fernando Sánchez García, 22, a member of the Youths Builders “Jóvenes Constructores” program supported by Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services.

Fernando dreams of becoming a businessman. He also dreams of a better future for his family, and this motivates him to sell cookbooks on San Salvador’s buses. It’s dangerous work for $10 a day—gangs frequently stop and harass drivers and passengers—but he keeps going, determined to achieve his dreams.

It was his dreams that led him to YouthBuild, a six-month, CRS-sponsored program that trains young people in business. There, he found a positive community to help him pursue his passion, despite the challenges of life in El Salvador. “When I tell my classmates that I want to do something, they tell me to try it and to not hold back.”

Training for six months with YouthBuild wasn’t easy on Fernando or his family. Without his wife to support him and care for their two young daughters, the early mornings and long days might have been impossible. “YouthBuild is a family because families help you realize your dreams,” Fernando says. It’s a fact he knows well.

Group photo of members of “Jóvenes Constructores” program supported by Catholic Relief Services and its local partners Glasswing. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services.

Group photo of members of “Jóvenes Constructores” program supported by Catholic Relief Services and its local partners Glasswing. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services.

Fernando is putting his newfound skills to work. After graduating from YouthBuild in 2016, he took part in a series of entrepreneur workshops organized by CRS and is currently working on a new business plan. He is also a part of the YouthBuild network of graduates, youth leaders who mentor other young people and look for new opportunities for employment and growth.

 

“We have a saying,” says Fernando. “Once a YouthBuilder, always a YouthBuilder.”

Fernando’ story gives us pause. Knowing that God desires us to use our passion and dreams to guide our work in building a culture of encounter gives us pause, too. Let us pause, then, and think over our own work. Do we recognize God’s hand in the tasks we are given to do? Do we embrace Jesus’ call to keep working, to enter into relationship with a Creator God who never tires? Or do we allow ourselves to give in to our frustrations, to deem a task frivolous or beneath us, to take the easy way out? Do we fail to allow God to use our efforts—no matter how seemingly small!—for God’s own greater glory?

The opportunity to create in the image and likeness of the Creator is a right of every person, the avenue through which each human being is able to more fully reveal God’s glory in the world. How, during this Lenten season, will we liberate that which is holy and hidden in the world around us?

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).


This Lent, USCCB is partnering with CRS to bring you reflections and Stories of Hope from CRS Rice Bowl, the Lenten faith-in-action program for families and faith communities. Through CRS Rice Bowl, we hear stories from our brothers and sisters in need worldwide, and devote our Lenten prayers, fasting and gifts to change the lives of the poor. Read more from CRS Rice Bowl.