Long before the events that followed Freddie Gray’s arrest and death in police custody last spring in West Baltimore, Maryland Carey Law students were already working to bring new businesses and jobs to that community as part of an innovative experiential learning course.
Throughout the spring semester, the law students collaborated with other graduate students from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and the School of Social Work in the “Community Wealth-Building Practicum” to develop plans for a worker-owned cooperative urban greenhouse and a furniture restoration business. In the worker-owned cooperative business model, the business entity is owned and managed by its members, the people who work in it. The student teams analyzed potential businesses that would sell goods or services to local “anchor institutions” —such as hospitals and universities.
Research—and experience in other US cities—demonstrate that such enterprises offer a way to create quality, empowering jobs that provide people a path out of poverty, while anchoring strong local economies. The model has worked successfully in parts of Cleveland, New York City and other marginalized urban areas, where co-ops have been tailored to redress the kinds of employment-access barriers that also disproportionately burden Baltimore’s west side communities.
“Worker cooperative businesses represent a promising opportunity for Baltimore residents,” says Professor Barbara Bezdek, who oversaw the law students and co-led the project in collaboration with the law school’s Community Equity and Development Clinic. “We are ready to assist start-ups to use this model in West Baltimore, where traditional economic development strategies do not sufficiently address residents’ will to work.”
Working in teams with the students from the other schools, the law students evaluated the relative merits of organizational form for each business, previewed formation and governance documents, and considered internal mechanisms important to the cooperative methods of business management. Law students also met with procurement personnel to consider likely agreements and contracts issues with third parties, and identified steps to obtain necessary local or state government approvals.
“Our law students bring legal knowledge and skill, as well as creative energy, and so they can serve as a tremendous resource for West Baltimore residents working to realize their desires for quality employment in local enterprises,” says Bezdek. “They are making a direct impact in our community and gaining practical experience at the same time,” she adds.
“This is very much a local effort,” said Sara Herald, assistant director of the Center for Social Value Creation at the Smith School of Business in College Park and one of the course’s instructors. “Although the university is really involved in driving this piece forward, the whole point of the initiative is to transition at some point over to local community members to become worker-owners …. What we’re trying to do is lay the groundwork and reduce some of the risk associated with launching these businesses.”
The students presented their recommendations in Baltimore to invited local community members and mentors from the city government, nonprofits, foundations, and workforce development groups on May 4.
The schools plan to continue the project with another iteration of the course next year to confirm the roll-out plan for the cooperatives. In the meantime, discussions continue with potential partner organizations to assemble the start-up capital. “Once we have the startup capital, we could work with one of the workforce development organizations to get these businesses up and running relatively quickly,” said Herald.
Read the original story posted on the Robert H. Smith School of Business website.