We gathered on Monday, June 19th, just under 30 in number, representing a broad spectrum of the community, including Parole and Corrections, local Human Services and Justice Coordinating Committee, various social services agencies, community employment services, the Indigenous community and interested citizens, responding to an invitation which, opened with:
WE ARE ON A JOURNEY to engage the community in dynamic ways in the founding, funding, and thriving of a fun, whole-life, multi-stakeholder cooperative bakery for former inmates.
Would you like to be part of creating this new economy business that fosters a holistic approach to developing work and life skills for former inmates and their families? Working from restorative community development practices we can partner with former inmates as they reintegrate into community. Let’s create a coop embraced and celebrated by our community members through their participation and patronage.
Many others, who were unable to attend have expressed their interest and support.
This was an invitation to co-create. I confess that when I first visualized the idea I had no appreciation for the significance and impact of ‘co-creation’. It only became clear as I delved further into the research — at which point, ‘multi-stakeholder’ was added to the mix.
I have previously mentioned the work of Dr. Beth Weaver. Her current research project, “consciously” entitled ‘Co-producing Desistance’, examines the role of social cooperative structures of employment in supporting social integration and desistance (I had to look up its meaning — to stop committing crime). She documents the research which “argue[s] for innovative and sustainable means of supporting the development of human and social capital, and for the reconceptualisation of the role of service users, families and communities in rehabilitation.” Dr. Weaver points to the congruence between desistance research and the concepts of co-production, “an approach to governance that emphasizes greater citizen engagement in and co-production of public services and greater third sector provision of the same.”
What I saw in that room was an emerging commitment to work together to bring this about.
The Italian and Swedish experiences demonstrate this collaboration in a number of ways. I will focus on three: ownership, identification and unfolding of operating values and work within the community.
The multi-stakeholder feature of these social cooperatives features service users, providers and sometimes, the wider community who co-own and co-produce these enterprises. Under Italian law at least 30 per cent of all employees need be ‘disadvantaged people’ (a category to which prisoners, current and former, belong) with the other 70 per cent coming from a range of professional backgrounds necessary to run a given cooperative i.e. an agricultural specialist, an accountant and so on. The Swedes have no such regulations, and so Dr. Weaver notes, their cooperatives she studied “were primarily comprised of disadvantaged persons from a range of diverse backgrounds.”
Their model goes beyond ownership and into the incubation of cultural norms and outcomes:
The law in Italy conceptualises social cooperatives as collective organisations that invest in and engage the local community and represent the interests of different groups of stakeholders; so there is a strong co-productive element to cooperatives — public authorities, private business, social firms, and civil society organisations not only co-produce the cooperative process, but its culture and its outcomes. Indeed, social cooperatives are shaped and influenced, to a large extent, by their social networks and the culture in which they are embedded.
Dr. Weaver reports that the community social values which emerged in her interviews were work, family and home. These were, in their view, “the integral ingredients of social integration of a ‘normal life’ consistent with social/cultural norms.” The significance of work was echoed by professional and worker participants in the Swedish cooperatives. While there are no specific legislation underpinning social cooperatives in Sweden, their cooperatives are able draw on government subsidised salaries to support the generation of and opportunities for work. It is evident from those who have studied this area, including Dr. Weaver, how integral work, family and home are to the rehabilitation and reintegration process.
Work seems to emerge as perhaps playing the largest role: it’s value emerging not only in removing stigma and giving the participants a sense of self-worth, but:
what seems to be emerging as equally significant to participating in work for its own sake is the re-socialising experience that the cooperatives afford, in terms of supporting people to acclimatise to a life on the outside, in a safe and protected space. In this regard, worker participants referred to the opportunities that the co-operative offered in terms of learning new or remembering old norms of interaction — a process of readjustment and re-socialisation, a means of (re)building a life and opportunities to (re)learn how to interact differently than the relational norms to which they had grown accustomed to after years in prison.
Finally, the coops have utilized various strategies for drawing in community cooperation and support including:
holding social events for workers, professionals and members of the community, which are aimed at breaking down barriers and stereotypes; developing community facing features to the cooperatives in order to be community-inclusive i.e. running a café or shop; engaging in and/running charitable initiatives and services that benefit local people; providing social services to meet local unmet need; and providing — and generating — work for people from the community. More often than not, the ‘professional’ people who worked for the cooperative came from the local community.
The old adage of “it takes a village” certainly applies here. What I saw in that room was an emerging commitment to work together to bring this about. Four working groups have been formed. Others who were not able to come that day are welcome to participate. We have an opportunity of co-creating a model for social reintegration and transformation. I am trusting that the collective will, resources and knowledge can make this happen in and for our community.
If you wish to reach me for more information, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To download a PDF of Ralph’s nine-part blog series on Exploring a Community-based Response to our Criminality Crisis, click here.
Below you will find a harvest video and images from the Worker Coop Summit held Monday, June 19.
Click on any photo to view a slideshow of larger images, or you can click here to view the images in Flickr.