Stories from the Edge

Frances Moore Lappé says her new book Democracy"s Edge (Jossey-Bass, 2006) “is about hope—not sappy, wishful thinking but hope grounded in a grasp of the root causes of spreading misery. I propose that we are in the midst of an extraordinary historical moment—one in which anti-democratic forces appear to be in ascendance while at the same time, invisible to most of us, a powerful current is stirring that may well take us to democracy"s next historical stage. I cast aside the gloomy view that Americans are hopelessly divided, left vs. right and secular vs. religious, and uncover widespread shared sentiment and common democratic innovation across these supposed barriers.”

Here are two reasons for hope, excerpts from Lappé"s “Stories from the Edge,” more examples of which can be seen here)

Caffeinated Community Comeback
A Small Ohio Town Discovers the Power of Networking

By Frances Moore Lappé

Just five years ago Nelsonville looked pretty sad. In this southern Ohio town of just over 5,000, crumbling sidewalks bordered empty storefronts. Only two stores were still doing business around the once-charming town square.

“But this place had an amazing history,” June Holley told us during a recent workshop of the Uplift Academy held in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “The area around Nelsonville was the birthplace of the CIO(trade union).” But when coal mining left this Appalachian community in the late 1900s, so did the community’s life.

Or so it seemed.

Then, in 2003, Miki Brooks opened FullBrooks Coffee Shop on the Square. Brooks thought she was satisfying a desire for good coffee, but it turned out she was quenching another, deeper thirst as well.

Within a few months, FullBrooks had become a conversation hub, a new town square in which folks—from the local community college to local foundations and local businesses—began to talk and to dream. They realized the area was rich in artisans, from painters and weavers to woodworkers and potters. June, an evangelist for the power of networks, explained that within five years, the empty buildings were full of shops selling the works of hundreds of local artisans. A new culinary school opened a “fabulous restaurant,” June, a self-described “foodie,” proclaimed.

“The coffee shop provided a missing public space where people could start cooking up stuff,” she explained. And they cooked up all sorts of things. Among their ideas is Final Fridays, a weekly event offering entertainment in the refurbished “Opera House,” free food samples, and lots of specials at local shops. Thousands of people—mostly from neighboring communities—saunter around the square, visiting neighbors and enjoying local street musicians (often young people).

Everywhere is a “field of potential,” said June, adding that we generally cannot see it. “We have to dream together to begin to see and believe.”

The goal, according to June, is creating “smart networks” that are always learning. A primary quality of such a network, she said, is “listening to what’s working and what could be better. There were amazing artisans opening shops,” for example, “but not enough customers.” Individually, they couldn’t afford a marketing budget; together, they could. So artisans joined together to use their contributions to leverage enough funding from a local foundation to create a stunning marketing brochure.And the lessons from Nelsonville that June shared with us?

At first local officials didn’t give much weight to the locals’ vision. “How do we get traditional economic development people to appreciate the possibility here?” asked June. Their answer, in part, was to bring in outside experts to offer their stamp of approval. “This shifted the views of local development people,” she said.

Another lesson is that small collaborations can lead to big outcomes. She asked us to consider the “power of twosies”—just two individuals committing to take action can set off powerful ripples, she explained. “There are probably a thousand twosies happening right now.”

Third, radio is “really, really important,” she found. Most media are so negative, she lamented, but Nelsonville locals used their local radio stations to spread the word about the town’s renewal and to draw people in.

“One outcome is a fabulous arts program for children,” June explained. She showed us a photo of a five year-old entrepreneur selling her works of art. “She comes from low-income family and says she’s going to use the money for college,” June explained.Finally, June stressed, “Messes are really important. This is not a linear process!” She noted that her own organization, Acenet, made its biggest breakthroughs because of messes. It’s the embrace of our “messes” that allows us to experiment and make breakthroughs, she’s convinced.

June opened her talk with a photo: a cross section of plant roots showing the intricate lacework of fungi working with the plant’s roots to reach deep into the soil and more effectively feed the plants. That was the image of networks she wanted us to hold in minds as we listened to her story of Nelsonville’s reweaving.

An expressive speaker in a natty jean jacket, June describes herself as a network weaver, who helps others learn the art. All of us are network weavers, she believes, but we can become better ones, asking ourselves and each other: To whom do you relate? From whom do you get new ideas?

For 20 years executive director of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, June now helps communities around the globe form Smart Networks by training and supporting Network Weavers. “Networks are the relationships that enable us to find and spread new ideas,” she told us.

The Sweet Taste of Success
A group of former Trade Center workers turned their grief into a dream with a new employee-owned restaurant.

By Frances Moore Lappé

What do a Virgin Islands perfume shop, a Utah dog boutique, and dozens of Dunkin’ Donuts have in common? All got help from 9/11 terrorism recovery funds. And who didn’t get help? Workers at what was the Twin Towers’ Windows on the World restaurant. Losing 73 colleagues and their jobs on September 11, 34 mostly immigrant workers turned their grief into a new dream: Colors, a tony art-deco restaurant owned by the workers themselves. It opened in January in Greenwich Village—but not without a lot more grief from their should’ve-been helpers.

“Everyone kept saying, ‘No, no, no’ when we went for financing,” remembers former Windows on the World employee Feddak Mamdouh, as I waited for my “asparagus with truffle sauce” appetizer in a booth at Colors recently.

“Colors received no assistance from the very organiza

tions created to support recovery from 9/11, like the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the NYC Partnership’s Investment Fund,” said Bruce Herman, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

Mamdouh, originally from Morocco, is a founder and assistant director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) set up to help restaurant workers displaced by 9/11. His chagrin at the resistance they faced boils over: “It’s like they didn’t think the immigrant workers—including waiters and dishwashers—could do it.”

The “it” required $2.2 million to renovate and equip 4,000 square feet that, ironically, had most recently been a restaurant locked in a bitter labor dispute, in which ROC-NY had supported the workers. When the place shut down, ROC-NY realized this well-placed site—beside the Public Theater on Lafayette Street—was just right for launching what it hopes will be only the first of its worker-owned eateries.

“Restaurants have always been known as places where immigrants go for work, but many of them are abused; there is a lot of discrimination. We want to show that we can improve conditions,” Mamdouh told the Associated Press when Colors opened.

Commercial banks weren’t interested, Saru Jayaraman, executive director of ROC-NY, told NewYorkBusiness.com, “Because no one could provide personal backing for the loans.”

In my book, Democracy’s Edge, I argue that our thin democracy will continue to fray unless we extend democracy’s values of inclusion, mutual accountability and fairness to ever-wider circles. In the book, I use the Colors story to help make my case for the democracy-strengthening potential of worker ownership. So what better place than Colors, I thought recently, to celebrate my birthday with friends?

Little did I know that one of my guests, sustainability educator Hilary Baum, was the daughter of Windows on the World founder, Joe Baum. So the royal tour was ours, led by general manager Stefan Mailvaganam. We learned about the wall fixtures from the 1939 World Fair and visited the kitchen, which was designed ergonomically to protect the sous-chefs, runners and dishwashers from the burns and injuries common in the industry.

In the kitchen, a flyer taped to the wall announced: “Today’s Mexican Seafood Soup, inspired by Oscar’s family recipe.” Many of the menus, we learned, were inspired by family favorites of worker/owners who hail from more than 22 countries. On the frequently changing menu, I identified dishes from Bangladesh, Colombia, Peru and Thailand. The staff buys from local farmers and from those using sustainable farming practices.

When my dinner guest, Anne Ferrell (herself a farmer) asked our waiter where the grass-fed beef came from, his response was immediate: “Wolfe Neck Farms, upstate New York.” Later, Mailvaganam explained that the workers are learning about ecological and health consequences of how the food they serve is produced.

My entreé, “organic seitan with apricot, basil and yellow split-pea chutney with parsnip frisee salad,” was exotic—and stunningly delicious.

As a worker cooperative, Colors owner/workers make decisions by consensus and provide vacation and overtime. Ultimately, they plan to offer pensions to workers, something rare in the restaurant business. Everyone working the line, serving and dishwashing, makes $13.50 an hour—double New York’s standard minimum wage—and the wait staff split tips.

ROC-NY hopes to do more with its money than help create one business. Toward that end, it attached a special condition to its $500,000 investment: that Colors’ worker/owners put in 100 hours of “sweat equity” teaching other restaurant employees how to build their own worker-owned restaurant.

For another $500,000, Colors’ founders had to cross the ocean. Good Italian Food, a consortium of Italian cooperatives anchored by the CIR Food Group, came through. Apparently, Italians find it easier to view worker cooperatives as bankable. In Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region alone, more than 80,000 people are employed by cooperatives contributing 20 percent to 35 percent of the GDP.

So that workers at Colors could start out as owners, equity partners contributed 20 percent of their stake to the employees. Over time, the workers are expected to buy out the Good Italian Food shares at their original value and eventually own 51 percent to 60 percent of the equity. ROC-NY will keep 40 percent of the equity to use in creating a multiplier: The goal is that returns will seed other restaurant cooperatives.

The 20-year-old Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) provided a $210,500 term loan and put together the remaining $1.2 million needed from 15 lenders, including community development financial institutions, foundations and a credit union. Modest funds came from Roman Catholic nuns in California, Michigan and Ohio.

As I enjoyed my first Colors dining experience, the restaurant’s name grew on me. I absorbed the richness around me, from the elegant cartography motif to the luscious chocolate pudding cake, knowing the people serving us were earning dignified wages and that the people who grew our food were caring for the earth. Now, that’s dining in full color.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ is the author of more than 15 books, including the three-million-selling Diet for a Small Planet.

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