The health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic hit low-income communities and communities of color hardest.

While the depth of the current economic crisis is profound, these racial disparities are not new: the median household income of a white New Yorker is twice the median income of Black, Latino, Asian, and other households of color; and from 2007 to 2012, Black-owned businesses declined by 31% while business creation jumped 45% in 15 gentrifying neighborhoods.

In an effort to center coronavirus recovery efforts on minority-owned businesses and worker ownership and to rectify the racial wealth gap beyond the immediate recovery, Urban Design Forum’s 2020 Forefront Fellowship, Cooperative Works, explores how to support minority-owned businesses and workers of color, expand worker cooperatives, and democratize economic resources to build a more inclusive economy.

  • In Phase I, which partnered with the Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives and the Mayor’s Office of M/WBE, all Fellows investigated how to create economic opportunity for MWBEs and employee-owned businesses through climate investment, leveraging Local Law 97. This researched culminated in a report, Cooperative Works: Equitable Business Development for Building Retrofits, a report documenting key insights and recommendations on how to: a) support minority- and women-owned businesses to expand their capacity in this sector; b) expand employee ownership among existing and new businesses; c) renew workforce development through targeted training opportunities; d) catalyze new approaches to innovation that put MWBEs at the forefront of new technologies.
  • In Phase II, Fellows self-selected into interdisciplinary teams for a six-month effort to explore how the design, planning, and development communities can support an inclusive economic recovery, culminating in an original project. Our team of eight planners, architects, organizers, and economic developers has chosen to pursue the expansion of cooperative ownership.

This work builds on existing City and organizing efforts, including the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative (WCBDI), the Equitable Industrial Development Initiative, and most recently, Employee Ownership NYC, the nation’s largest municipal initiative for education and technical assistance around employee ownership and conversion.

There is shared recognition that employee-owned firms are better for communities, employees, and businesses themselves, but there is also shared recognition that financing – especially, but not limited to capital for cooperative conversions – is among the most significant barriers to expanding worker-owned businesses.

Cooperative Principles

In 1844, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England outlined seven Cooperative principles which guide cooperatives around the world to this day.

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership open to all people who are willing and accepting of the responsibilities.
  2. Democratic Member Control controlled by their members who actively participate in decision-making - 1 member, 1 vote
  3. Member Economic Participation members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative.
  4. Autonomy and Independence Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organisations.
  5. Education, Training and Information provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees
  6. Cooperation among Cooperatives Cooperatives work together through local, national, regional and international structures.
  7. Concern for Community Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.