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.

Voices Unite to Reform the Justice System

Persistent injustice, mind-boggling greed, and downright confusing twists in the legal system can wear down the strongest people. It’s almost easier to give up and give in than try to change things. But once in a while, like-minded individuals lean on one another, share their frustrations and dreams, and commit to an action plan that lifts everyone. And the plan develops and changes as the needs and strengths of the people change.

Essentially, that’s how DART was established in Florida more than 30 years ago and then became an eight-state network. Two groups of people associated with religious congregations found common ground in their shared beliefs and commitment to justice. And the Archdiocese of Miami had its shoulder to the wheel with them from the beginning. DART’s formal name is Direct Action and Research Training Center, but like your Aunt Sis and Uncle Buddy, everyone knows them by the shorter name.

The Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE), an affiliate of DART, builds justice ministry in Polk County, FL. Members tour a drug rehabilitation clinic that PEACE helped open.

The network helps congregations form larger organizations that reflect their common interests and values as they negotiate solutions to the root causes of problems in their community. Each of the 22 DART organizations is an independent entity, but all the groups and the more than 400 diverse congregations they comprise are united by a belief in the biblical concept of justice. They also use a “bottom-up” model to identify issues, develop leaders, and figure out realistic solutions.

The DART model is based on the Scripture account of Nehemiah, who brought people and their leaders together to devise solutions to a system that impoverished the citizenry. Nehemiah insisted that the nobles, magistrates, and people be held accountable for the promises they made.

Members of St. Ann Catholic Church were part of the 2,000 Attendees at a recent Nehemiah Assembly. At this assembly local officials from the juvenile justice system learn about the problem of youth arrests and make commitments to address them.

Recently, the DART group in Florida turned its considerable attention to a disturbing trend to criminalize young children. I was shocked when Holly Holcombe, Assistant Director, told me 12,000 children were arrested in 2014 for generally minor offenses. During a tantrum, for example, a five-year-old Special Education student knocked a tissue out of a teacher’s hand. He was charged with assault.

There is, however, an alternative: civil citations. The civil citation process, as provided under state statute, would allow non-arrest restitution and diversion for non-serious offenses. “It’s not a slap on the wrist,” Holly said.

From 2010 to 2014, 5,000 children ages 5-10 years old were arrested for offenses for which they could have received a civil citation. At first, the provision could only be used once for each youth and only 38% of those eligible received citations. Through the efforts of ten Florida-based DART organizations, 52% of eligible children were diverted to civil citations without arrest in 2016, and legislation was enacted to allow children to receive up to three citations. Nonetheless, civil citations are at the discretion of local law enforcement, which results in uneven application of the provision. Holly points out that 8,000 youth who were arrested last year were eligible for the citation, but it was not applied to their cases.

Training participants enjoy lunch between workshop sessions. Here participants learn to build their justice ministry through witnessing, evaluating, and engagement.

Clearly, there is more work to be done, and DART’s work is advancing steadily. Groups like these help people surface their deeply held concerns, engage with their feet on the ground, act on the Biblical mandate to do justice, and hold public officials accountable to work for the people they serve. This is what we are called to do.

As Pope Francis said at the 2nd World Meeting of Popular Movements, “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 am with you.”

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

DART in Florida receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have long been vocal about restorative justice.  Read the bishops’ statement on Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice and find out what’s happening now.