Innovation in the New Grassroots Economy

The national job crisis goes deeper than the availability of jobs. The day-to-day barriers to employment disproportionately impact families who lack cultural and economic capital to participate freely in the job market.
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On winter mornings at Alliance to Develop Power (ADP) unusual noises that tell you this is not just any nonprofit. You can hear engines warming up, laborers chatting and sipping coffee in the crisp morning air. They are planning another day's work servicing hundreds of units of affordable housing in the region.

We are done waiting for jobs. We are creating our own jobs within our own captive market -- and the model is working...

The national job crisis goes deeper than the availability of jobs. The day-to-day barriers to employment disproportionately impact families who lack cultural and economic capital to participate freely in the job market.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor reported stark race based inequalities in national unemployment figures. While the White workforce maintained a 7.9 percent unemployment rate, people living in Black communities were hit at 15.8 percent, and Latinos experienced an 11.5 percent rate, despite a rapid growth in the Latino workforce.

These barriers are -- in a word -- systemic.

For 21 years, ADP has crafted the ADP Community Economy -- a solidarity economy that builds collective and individual economic power in distressed neighborhoods. This model started with the preservation of subsidized housing, and now includes 770 units controlled by ADP members.

There are more than 1.1 million families living in subsidized housing in the United States. Roughly half of tenants stay in subsidized housing more than five years. 68 percent of these households are extremely low income, or below 30% the mean income for their area.

ADP's first subsidiary business, United for Hire, started ten years ago when tenants living in ADP properties -- asked one simple question: "Why should we pay an outside contractor to mow our lawn -- when we can just pay ourselves to do it?"

United for Hire is a worker controlled/community owned business, employing more than 20 people in living wage jobs. Workers live in this housing and are trained on the job -- enabling them to earn money that increases rents paid, which allows ADP to employ more tenants, and so on.

On brisk winter mornings, Jorge Funez takes a short drive from his home in Springfield to ADP, where he is a crew chief for United for Hire.

Jorge came to ADP in 2006 when his employer, a large window installation company, was misclassifying workers and stealing wages. Jorge organized more than 50 workers to confront the company and engage the Attorney General in pressing charges.

Jorge led the charge to win back more than $130,000 in stolen wages for workers.

As a crew chief of United for Hire, Jorge is directly involved in key financial decisions that affect his own life, and involved in a democratic process to build strong and healthy neighborhoods within his community. Watch a United for Hire Video with Jorge.

But, is creating jobs enough? How do we holistically address the barriers that disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color - structural racism and systemic poverty -- while building a sustainable, relevant model for economic prosperity? Are living wage jobs the magic pill that cures the current economic disorder?

What about the broken policies and a crippled infrastructure that stifle opportunity and empowerment? What about our struggling neighborhoods and gateway cities, where blight has dislocated our sense of community? What critical and comprehensive role could nonprofit innovators and community organizations play in shaping a new economy?

Put into practice in Western Massachusetts, the ADP Community Economy is a grassroots movement with thousands of members. It creates innovative worker run/community owned businesses that meet essential needs. It employs the people who stand to benefit the most from employment, and balances the needs of many stakeholders: tenants, the environment, businesses, workers and families, etc.

ADP's Community Economy injects nearly $20 million into the regional economy annually. It employs more than 31 members in living wage jobs. In addition, the design of the Community Economy allows ADP to magnify the value of income. In 2012 ADP generated about a half a million dollars internally, by recycling money through the organization.

Workers in the Community Economy know their customers as neighbors. Their kids grow up together. They co-create a vision for what their neighborhood should be.

Each summer, ADP creates more than 30 youth jobs that teach basic employment skills while beautifying the neighborhood. Youth go through a training curriculum that teaches them to have a broader impact on their community through organizing and civic engagement.

ADP Youth Leader "NuNu" Quentia Laguer is a 17-year-old junior at Central High School in Springfield. ADP's Community Economy owns the tenant run community NuNu lives in. Her dad , James, works for United for Hire.

"Don't underestimate the youth -- my Dad came in to find a job here because I told him they were hiring."

NuNu herself works five hours a week after school doing data entry for ADP. She plans to go on to fashion design school someday, and hopes that the office administrative experience will help here through school. Springfield Massachusetts has a 50 percent drop out rate. NuNu will graduate in 2014.

"I have been a youth leader at ADP since I was 12. If it wasn't for ADP I wouldn't be a leader in my community and speak up about what I see... living in a low income area and seeing drugs, and all the negative paths I could take. Instead I can come to ADP and see people who tell me about things I can do that I wouldn't have heard of before. And I meet other people who are passionate."

ADP's model for change has a unique power. It elevates existing leaders in our neighborhoods to put their strengths to work for all of us.

United for Hire is a replicable model that can create living wage jobs and stabilize affordable housing communities across the nation -- all while "mowing our own lawns."

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