“Own the Change”: The Move to a New Co-Op Economy

A new documentary, Own the Change: Building Economic Democracy One Worker Co-op at a Time, takes a look at how businesses like Alchemy are succeeding, the challenges they face, and how worker cooperatives allow us to take control of the economy. (Photo: TESA)A new documentary, Own the Change: Building Economic Democracy One Worker Co-op at a Time, takes a look at how businesses like Alchemy are succeeding, the challenges they face, and how worker cooperatives allow us to take control of the economy. (Photo: TESA)

Steam spurts from an espresso machine in Berkeley’s Alchemy Collective Cafe, and Payam Imani high-fives a customer as she cashes out. The familiar coffeeshop din buzzes around them and it would be the same anywhere else, except that Imani doesn’t just tend the cash register; like everyone who works at Alchemy, he also owns the place.

“Your coffee will always be served by an owner and made with great care, one cup at a time,” Alchemy boasts.

The cafe is one of a growing number of worker cooperatives – worker owned and democratically controlled businesses – improving the economy and empowering workers. A new documentary, Own the Change: Building Economic Democracy One Worker Co-op at a Time, takes a look at how businesses like Alchemy are succeeding, the challenges they face, and how worker cooperatives allow us to take control of the economy.

Since the economic collapse of 2008, most Americans have come to agree that the dominant economic system favors the powerful. Meanwhile, organizers have been steadily making gains and putting decision-making power back in the hands of those who work on Main Street. Through this work and a proven track record of lifting local economies, worker cooperatives have gained wider acceptance in recent years. Cities like Austin, Madison and New York have committed funds to support their development. Other municipalities have also advanced comprehensive economic development visions that make heavy use of the worker co-op model.

Own the Change documents these successes and the hard work it took to realize them. It unpacks how worker cooperatives have come to be an engine of economic justice and delivers a guide to making change a reality in your city. The film clocks in at just 22 minutes, but covers an array of topics, from how democratic decisions are best made to how worker co-ops can acquire start-up capital. It is a collaboration between the Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA) and GRITtv, which began in early 2014, the product of a breakfast meeting between Brian van Slyke of TESA and Laura Flanders of GRITtv.

Filmed primarily in Jackson, Mississippi, Own the Change was made possible by the work of activists who advanced a solidarity economy platform there and organized the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. The city’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, had promoted economic democracy, and residents planned for Jackson’s transition to a new economy. TESA and GRITtv joined leaders of the worker cooperative movement at Jackson Rising and filmed on site. The result is a documentary that draws from a variety of experiences and offers multiple solutions to shared problems.

Own the Change fills a gap, making the specialized work of co-op developers and organizers accessible to a wide audience. It is available online for free and delivers its message in terms that are explained simply on-screen.

Own the Change is one of the best videos I’ve seen that breaks down this subject matter,” Becca Koganer from Equal Exchange offers. Viewers get a full view of the experience of forming a worker cooperative, the challenges of running a democratic workplace, and the necessary steps to making their community a place where co-op ventures can get a foothold and flourish.

Economic justice organizers have been quick to recognize the value of Own the Change. “Co-operative, worker-owned businesses provide an alternative economic development model to the existing individualistic, build-it-to-get-rich ethos dominating mainstream entrepreneurialism,” reports Mike Friedman of the Center for Community Based Enterprise after watching Own the Change. Mike is hosting a screening for the Detroit Cooperative Community, an “an informal network of folks in the city that are interested in co-operative/employee-owned business initiatives.” Elsewhere, screenings are being planned for Boston, New York City, Dallas and numerous other cities around the country.

From the start, TESA and GRITtv agreed that the film should provide a range of depth, making Own the Change as likely to be screened in an economics class as at a town meeting. These events will make use of a discussion guide designed by TESA as part of a series of educational materials to be used alongside the film. TESA’s guides include resource-mapping exercises, readiness evaluations, and other best practices for the start-up phase of a worker cooperative.

The worker co-op movement is vibrant and growing, and Own the Change shines with all the accomplishments and victories achieved by activists both on- and off-screen. TESA and GRITtv have shown that sharing these stories will help us as we move – at different rates and from many directions – toward a new economy.