Last week we filmed in Cleveland, at the Evergreen cooperatives which are a significant part of an ambitious plan to turn this rust belt city around. Once Cleveland was thriving with lots of good jobs for working class people, but now it is impossible to ignore the abandoned factories and run down neighborhoods.
With support from the city and many civic institutions the Evergreen Cooperatives began with a commercial laundry that serves nursing homes with state of the art laundry services in a facility owned and run by its employees. Keith Parkham, facilities manager and cooperative member showed us around. From the entry room where the soiled linens get unloaded from the trucks, sorted and weighed, through their folding and assembling to return to the health care institutions, we filmed a state of the art process that conserves energy and water.
Washing takes place in the “tunnel”, a giant machine that works much faster than a conventional washer, and uses the heat recovered from one wash cycle to raise the water temperature for the next. Instead of spinning, a giant press expels the water, leaving 150 pound disk shaped cakes of laundry that enter the dryers two at a time. After 20 minutes, the drying is complete and the load moves on to be pressed, folded, and shipped. Each worker owner knows how to do all the jobs that are involved, so they can trade off to keep the work interesting and help each other when someone falls behind. “We’re all in it together,” said one worker/owner, “the more efficient we are, the better we serve our customers, and the better off we’ll all be. This is our company.”
Another Evergreen business that is up and running is the Ohio Solar Cooperative with crews that install solar energy collectors and provide home weatherization. And a third coop will soon break ground on a giant greenhouse and food production facility in a once abandoned area to provide fresh healthy food for inner city residents.
These coops have attracted interest from many other cities who like this model of civic institutions, city government, and inner city residents working together to improve the community. Says Tracey Nichols of the city’s Department of Economic Development, “We used to offer all kinds of tax abatements and other incentives to get businesses to move here, but then after a few years another city would offer other encouragements and many would move away. Now we are looking to support businesses that are a good fit with what we already have, to build a healthy economic environment that will endure.”
India Pierce Lee works on community development with The Cleveland Foundation, which has provided key financing for the Evergreen project and helped gather support from longtime Cleveland institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University. Technical advice and training have come from the Ohio Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University. And an advisor to the project, Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative, was drawn to the Evergreen Cooperatives for reasons that should concern us all. He is troubled that the growing inequality in wealth and income is undermining our democracy. “We are proud that our country is a democracy,” he says, “but most people have to check their democracy at the door when they go to work.”