Class Action’s Voices of the Working Class, Working Poor and Poor series seeks to raise the visibility of those most impacted by inequality and create access to their perspectives and experiences.
Creating a Solidarity Alternative: The Center for Cooperative Development and Solidarity (CCDS)
Ann Philbin, Executive Director of Class Action, speaks with Luz Zambrano, Liliana Avendaño, and Catalina Rojas, all from CCDS.
Ann: Could you share your names and a bit about why you are involved with CCDS?
Lili: My name is Liliana Avendaño, and I am involved with CCDS because CCDS presented an opportunity for transformation to my life. First, before that, there was obviously a transformation through the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing (CSIO). It’s important to value that. The accompaniment that Luz (of CSIO) offered me helped me to understand the needs that exist in the community, and that, because of being a part of that community, I had a responsibility to share resources with other people. So, I got involved because of that [commitment] and to bring an alternative to all the workplace abuse that there was. I knew there was an alternative to be found in cooperativism because I studied in a cooperative high school and a cooperative university in Colombia. I had benefited from that for many years of my life. So, I said, “Wow, this is an opportunity to apply what I had learned and benefited from for so many years.”
Cata: My name is Catalina Rojas. I am part of the staff team at CCDS, and I was “born” at the first training that CCDS offered. This training, which was in 2016, was super powerful. It was “strong” in a good way – strong in hours, strong in information, strong in love, strong in passion. It was a 32 hour training through which I became familiar with cooperativism. I am from Colombia and, unlike Lili and Luz, I was not familiar with cooperativism there. So, I learned about it through CCDS in that first training.
I always say that “I was born,” because that is where my transformation began. The whole process of transformation began, and not only for me, but for my whole family – for my son and also for my husband. For me, it has been a wonderful experience, and I have grown from it. So the Catalina that you are seeing now is not the same Catalina from those years.
They (CCDS) saw in me what perhaps I never saw. One always has talents and things to offer, but you come to this country, and it is necessary to work in order to survive. You must pay rent, you have to help the family that is still living in Colombia… There are so many things that immigrants face when they come here.
But CCDS saw something in me, something that now allows me to feel empowered to not only transform my family, but also to help transform other people. I had never worked with the community. I had never done community organizing. I did not know what that was. But CCDS has taught me, it has re-built me. The learning that they have given me has made me what I am now.
Luz: When I came back from [living on] the Cape and saw how much the neighborhood had changed, I realized that what I had left four years before was so different due to gentrification. I came back in October (2016). I began working with La Sangita, a small restaurant on the corner, where they were in the process of converting to a cooperative.
In November, six families lost their homes; they had to move out; and they showed up in the basement of EBECC (East Boston Ecumencial Community Council). The foundation of the house in which they all lived had gotten damaged, and it wasn’t safe for them to return. They couldn’t even collect their things. They could not return to that site. So, various people got involved to offer them help.
I went one day to offer a heater that I had and some clothing. And when I arrived, I realized that I knew some of the people. They were mainly women, and their children were sleeping on the floor there. When I asked how they were doing, a number of them mentioned that they had lost their jobs due to the need to move. They had lost their work; the children were not going to school,
In that moment, I thought “What can I do?” I knew their situation was not unique, so I thought “Maybe there is something that we can do in the community.” What if we brought everyone together? I knew people had a lot of different skills. And this brought them happiness, hope. I saw in them that maybe this could happen.
So, I came back to Monica (the owner of La Sangita) and told her, and I asked if we could use her meditation center to hold a larger meeting and invite more people and talk about what we might be able to do together. And I knew that Lili was living here in East Boston. So, I invited her and a large number of people, and I met many others who were in the basement. We started to have meetings, first every month. Then, from one moment to another, people got more excited about what we might be able to do. We started meeting every two weeks, here on the corner at the restaurant. Once people heard what we were trying to do, a larger number of people started coming to the meetings, even people from Lynn, the Lynn Workers’ Center, came. But, really, at the beginning, we didn’t have anything to offer.
Ann: And the majority of people coming were people that had lost their homes, their jobs, in other words, they were facing a difficult economic situation?
Luz: Exactly. So, we were seeking a solution. But, in those moments, we didn’t really have anything to offer except to meet together, to talk about possibilities, to get to know one another. We did a lot of popular education work to help people understand, in one way or another, what was happening in East Boston.
We thought we needed some kind of educational process, to help people understand what cooperativism is, what co-ops are.. And that was the beginning.
Ann: Can you talk a bit more about the life conditions that created the need for what you are doing – about the situation that low-income immigrants have been facing in East Boston?
Luz: I think we can all comment on this. It became even more visible and clear during the pandemic. That’s why the level of contagion was so high here. Chelsea, East Boston were among the highest. That’s precisely because of gentrification. All the costs of rents and housing rose so high that people who in one moment could perhaps have their own space could no longer afford to pay. They said, “I have four children. I can’t spend all that money.” So the options were to leave or join with another family to live together. During the pandemic, we saw that a lot. The virus was in so many places because it was impossible to avoid spreading it when there were five, six, and seven in one apartment. They are going to keep spreading it to one another.
So the conditions there – people working in three different jobs, but also the level of life in this neighborhood – the difficulties increased to such a level, the prices rose so much, the cost of living rose so high, people couldn’t pay it anymore.
When I came here, you might spend $600 or $700 a month to rent a house. But, now it’s $3,000-3,500 a month to rent a house with three bedrooms. That’s one thing. The other reality, especially for those of us who work, is the fact of not having documents. It means you don’t have the benefits that you could have. And there’s fear, the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to us – what’s going to happen to our healthcare? What’s going to happen with immigration? What about testing – you may say, “Well ok, I have to get a test, but what’s going to happen if they report me to immigration?” So, the conditions of stress in the community and the conditions of living, housing, were really difficult.
Ann: So you were looking for a way to help people overcome the conditions they were suffering, and you saw an answer in cooperativism? Why did you see that as an answer? Also, could you say more about the philosophy of cooperativism that is the foundation for what you are doing?
Luz: [When I was growing up in Colombia] my family was able to move forward, in spite of the fact that we were from the lower class, because we had a safety net that held us up. It allowed us to study, to get our health care – it gave us everything – food, a lot of different things. And that was because my father was a member of a co-op. I thought everyone had the same kind of [arrangement], but I learned, no. We had that benefit. So, all that started to come back to me. And, I thought about how my family had been together, and together we were able to move forward, and how people here might be able to put that in place.
Lili: In my case, I’m not here because I decided to leave my home. I came because of my personal situation – because of domestic violence. But, I’m aware that cooperativism is an alternative – a very efficient and just alternative. It allows people to utilize their own talents and think not only about themselves, but the whole community.
We grew up in a country that was cooperative in nature. You see, in our country, if you want to be able to work, you have to link yourself to a caja de compensacion, a “compensation box,” a family compensation box. This offers you a kind of subsidy so your children can get an education, get involved in recreational activities and sports. Depending on the salary you earn, you have access to the same resources as someone who earns a lot or someone who earns a little. If I work in a minimum wage job, what I pay to have access to these resources is minimal also. But, if my salary is high, then they charge me more for that compensation box, and I have to pay a little bit more to have access to all those resources. So, immediately, when I began to talk about cooperativism, I related it to that experience, that thing I had lived myself. And that’s when the idea emerged that CCDS would create a “solidarity alternative” for everybody.
Ann: So, are you trying to create something similar here – inside the system of capitalism that we have here? I can imagine that’s difficult.
Luz: Yes, it’s very difficult because people here (in the US) don’t see it that way. Here, cooperativism means independent co-ops, where people join who maybe have some resources, and they form something – a restaurant, a supermarket, for example. But, in our countries, cooperativism is supported by the government because it offers a way of supporting people who have less resources. It really is a benefit for the government that there is a kind of system that supports the people that they can’t support.
Cata: There is something I learned with Lili and Luz. It’s that cooperativism has existed for a long time. It’s not new. We did not just invent it. It’s something from many years ago, from our ancestors. The foundation of CCDS is the values and principles of cooperativism. We’re trying to rescue those values of cooperativism. How can we rescue mutual aid, solidarity? How can we renew people’s concern for others?
How can we help them see that together we are stronger? How can we show them that even in a pandemic and in a crisis, as Lili has taught us, crisis equals opportunity. How can we create those opportunities in the community? Through cooperativism, how can we bring those values – that sometimes we lose in the experience of life – back again? How can we rescue them? How can we promote them? Really CCDS is fundamentally trying to do that, so that we can promote and really re-capture those values.
Ann: Why did the crisis create more opportunity to advance the work? Was it because people were desperate, with no other options? Was it that?
Lili: I think it’s two things: When you look at someone who needs help…when you can identify the situation of a person, and you can say, within that, what’s most important is that you matter, you are worth something. You have a lot of talents. You can convert those talents into an opportunity – so that you can move forward, you and your family. In that moment, we’d explain, we are all in the same situation. We have to figure out a solution that helps all of us. It’s a way to create a consciousness that it’s not just you and your problem. It’s a problem that everyone has, and the community is suffering the consequences of a system. As we were saying before in one of the meetings that we were in, we are going to have to coexist with this system parallel to what we are trying to do. Because we can’t say that we are going to eradicate capitalism.
Luz: But also, for those of us who have documents, we can collect unemployment; they will give us some money to help. But people who are undocumented don’t have any benefits at all. Before the pandemic, we tried to work with people to educate about the roots of the problem, about why we are in the situation we are in in East Boston – about how the global economy affects us all. We would talk about all that, before the pandemic. But, in those moments, they were working three jobs, and, one way or another, they were surviving. However, when they lost those three jobs, and they had absolutely nothing, that’s when bills came in for rent; their children were hungry, and everyone started to think, they realized, there was no place to turn.
And, in that moment, we could say to people, “Look, we have an emergency fund to try to help the community. Let us try to help you with this.” But, this is not going to go away tomorrow or the next day. It’s going to be long term. So we again presented the idea of cooperativism, with the same meaning, which was to support people who didn’t have another way of creating control over their lives.
Because really, what we are trying to achieve is that people have control over their lives – so that they can say, “I’m going to earn this amount of money, and I’m going to have control over the decision about whether I am going to do it or not.” You see, when you are working and earning minimum wage, family is always going to be on the side (secondary). The children have to be cared for by other people. [You have very little control over this.] But, as a co-op member/owner, you have that right of decision-making about these situations.
So, from one moment to the next, they were speechless. Maybe they looked at the fact that they didn’t have anything in that moment, but they could look forward to the future and think maybe, instead of falling back into that same thing, they could have something so that this wouldn’t happen again.
Ann: I want to return to something Cata said about the rescue of the values and principles and the way of offering mutual aid, for example… Where did those values come from originally? Do you think those values surfaced from the need and the fact that the only solution was to do something together, something in common?
Lili: The values – honesty, responsibility, mutual aid, solidarity – if we don’t show solidarity, if we don’t work together, how are we going to “build this [life] boat”? What real values do is touch a person, the real value of what it means to be a human being. What they do is they allow you to move forward to[gether] …
Let me go back, one of the things that we have been able to do during the pandemic is change people. People would come and say, “I need this; I need that.” And so many people had needs. We’d say, “One minute, we are many people who have this problem.” For example, we had some people who were mad because we didn’t give them the whole rent they needed. But, we said, “Look, if we give you everything you need, then there will only be a little left for this other person, who also needs to pay his rent and buy food.”
[These] values are intrinsic to the teachings of cooperativism – mutual work, mutual aid, the cooperation among co-ops, which is also a principle. If you have a system that includes you within, it surrounds you in cooperativism. If you have this, then you have to pay attention to the pain of another person; the pain of others has to matter to you.
Ann: That’s kind of the opposite of capitalism, where it is all based on the individual…
Lili: In capitalism, others work for the one who has more.
Ann: Can you talk a bit about whether class position affects the way people think about themselves in the immigrant community that you are working with?
Luz: Let me take a few steps back. There is classism in our countries – a lot of it. Even in my own city (Bogota), they have zone 1, zone 2, zone 3, something like that. Practically, they say to you, if you are in the first zone, you’re screwed! If you are up in three, maybe. If you are in the fourth, then you have a job, you are moving forward. You can buy something. Six and seven, even better. There, I could mark myself according to that.
Then we come here, and we could be from zone 1, 2, 4, 6 or 7, but what makes the difference is if you arrived here undocumented and you came here without something to sustain you, to keep you say in the seventh level that you were in there. Practically everyone is equalized, leveled off. If you don’t have any documents, any work, then there is no way to do it. [In addition],the fact of not speaking the language, even if you know a lot, to try to do your work here, in English, is very difficult.
So, class, even if you can notice it – in the ways in which people speak and their education level – you can notice that. You know who studied or who didn’t. But, in one way or another, the fact that we are on the same page here is because we are going through the same thing. It doesn’t really matter. I can have a lot of experience, and I can have a lot of education at home, but here, I am a cleaning worker.
I don’t have documents, and I’m with someone else, maybe from El Salvador, and maybe they came from the countryside from ES. Maybe they never studied. But, they are also cleaning. They are in the same situation that I am. So, it kind of makes things more even.
Lili: People who think about class, who think about the needs of the community [in that way] are usually people who have had some kind of contact with a socialist movement or a community organization. If you see co-ops as an alternative, people treat you like you are a socialist; you’re too leftist; you’re going to start to throw rocks.
The very government here doesn’t see that this work is social. They haven’t even thought about lowering taxes on people who don’t have resources. Or at least supporting them in some way. That’s classism. There’s a lack of consciousness here that this could liberate you from the chain of oppression and dependence.
Ann: Sometimes I think capitalism is based on the worst of human beings – because it’s a self focus; it’s selfish; only looking at what’s important for you and your family. It doesn’t give any inspiration to collaborate and see the needs of others and try to make them equally important to your own. It’s a better life if you are more connected to other people. Capitalism works against that.
Cata: We had the opportunity to go to Montreal in Canada. There you really see the difference of cooperativism on a large scale – how the government there helps with 50% to each cooperative. We were able to go to seven marvelous co-ops. There was no difference. The government gave 50% to all of them. And they are really large.
Luz: In Canada, they have the same model of cooperativism as ours. It’s socio-economic, not just economic. Here in this country, it’s all economic. That’s the focus here. With cooperativism that’s immersed in capitalism, it’s about how much you are going to earn. Whereas in Canada and other countries, it’s more socio-economic. And we saw it there. We saw how, even if someone has more than others, the system equalizes that, makes it more flat. Because it’s not about who’s the owner, who works for them, how am I going to enrich myself, and how others are going to earn less than the salary that they need to survive.
The idea is that we can all go forward together. So even if there’s a difference in social class there, cooperativism levels that. It’s the same as we are trying to say here. It doesn’t matter that some of us came here from different levels of economic position. Whether we had a lot of money or not, being here levels us. We all, in one way or another, are in the same position. And we have to join together to move forward.
Ann: Can you tell me the cooperatives that currently exist within the center?
Cata: (Who is the Project Coordinator.) In this moment, we have a cleaning co-op called Green Clean. We have a food co-op called La Zona Internacional (The International Zone). We have a consulting/advisor co-op of professionals called E Plan. Our childcare co-op is called the Educational Cooperative Center Resplandor (Radiance). This was Lili’s idea; it came out of the first training. It’s for children from 0-5 years old. We have a co-op for the care of the elderly and people who are ill. And we have a sports cooperative for soccer. It’s kind of a family one. It’s the first step in creating a recreational co-op. We also have an interpreters co-op. It’s kind of in development now.
Ann: Can you talk about the dreams that you have? What do you hope that CCDS and its efforts can achieve?
Lili: We’re hoping to create a real cooperative ecosystem, where we can join with others, for example, with healthcare. Healthcare here is more curative than preventative. As Luz said, in the system that she had at home, the idea was to prevent you from being sick. Whereas here, people wait until you have cancer before investing in you. You’re a business, you’re a number that walks around in the city. So we dream, with this effort that we have together, that there be a preventive movement for everything – economic, healthcare, emotional well being.
Ann: It’s going to be difficult to create a short blog with all that you have shared. But it is clear that there is something inside you – the values, the vision of life, of human beings – is so much a part of you. It’s so obvious. It’s so automatically inside you all.
Luz: We are all putting it into practice. It’s not theory. We’re practicing it now.
Thank you all for this interesting and inspiring article. This is a new way of thinking about cooperatives for me, and I hope the work of these amazing women will be recognized and that cooperatives will flourish in the USA. I’m interested to learn more.