An interview with Andrea Golden and Jackie Fitzgerald of Asheville’s PODER Emma, the collective network that is the recipient of East Fork’s Wealth Reclamation efforts in early 2021.
PODER Emma, a grassroots organization based in Asheville that creates and sustains networks of cooperative ownership and action in Emma, a semi-rural, working class neighborhood with a significant immigrant population. Through the end of March 2021, PODER Emma is the organization that East Fork has designated as the recipient of its Seconds Sale/Wealth Reclamation efforts.
I recently interviewed two people who work for and live in the Emma community. The following is a transcript of that conversation which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Shannon Doyne: Can you explain what is the significance of the organization’s name? And for those who aren’t familiar with Asheville, what Emma is?
Andrea Golden, Poder Emma organizational coordinator and cooperative loan office: In Spanish, poder means both “power” and” to be able to do something.” We like that double definition. Emma is a working-class, legacy neighborhood and we're part of a coalition of legacy neighborhoods here in Asheville that are all fighting for the rights of legacy residents to stay. It's a neighborhood where there is a significant immigrant population and it's a neighborhood that has a long history of mutual aid that we want to hold on to.
SD: How did PODER Emma get started? What does the organization offer to the community?
AG: PODER Emma is an organization that was born out of a decade of community organizing in the Emma community. That first decade was really about building community infrastructure to keep the community safe, thriving and healthy, you know, all of those things of the early organizing was around ending driver's license checkpoints, which were targeted in a way that was the impact of racial profiling, and beginning to do cultural organizing and organizing with the public schools to ensure that immigrant families were able to have leadership in the schools and participate in the schools. So there was over ten years of work to build the community infrastructure necessary for this community to really thrive.
As we were watching the city of Asheville grow around our community, we realized that we had to focus on community ownership of housing and businesses so that this working class community could have a shot to stay in place and lose that beautiful community infrastructure that had been built by being pushed further out into the county.
That is how PODER Emma was born. We’re part of a collective of organizations and each organization has their piece. PODER Emma has two sides. One side is community organizing around neighborhood planning and public policy and so we work pretty closely with the city and the county. The other area is cooperative development and that is mostly what we’ll be focusing on with [funds raised by East Fork customers who donate].
We do three different kinds of cooperative development. We work with early childhood education providers in the community to create a shared services network and cooperative. We work with tenants and residents to form resident-owned mobile home park cooperatives like the one we live in, and we also work with community members to form community-owned real estate cooperatives. The yellow building on Emma Road where our office is located is owned by 30 families who live in the neighborhood who pooled their resources to steward that building. Part of our cooperative development is as a community, while there are individuals who don’t have access to financial resources or credit to purchase homes or parts of commercial buildings, together through cooperatives, we do and that way, we can permanently protect those properties in the highest use for the community.
And then the third part of our collaborative development are worker-owned cooperatives made up of five worker-owned small businesses. There's a property management and maintenance cooperative which was actually born out of the need to manage and maintain all the housing and commercial properties that the neighborhood now collectively owns; Cenzontle, which is an interpreters’ and translators’ cooperative; Green Muse home cleaning cooperative; Power in Numbers bookkeeping cooperative; and La Bugambilia community preschool and afterschool cooperative.
We work with a network of small businesses and together we engage in peer learning. And because a lot of our corporations face similar barriers and challenges, rather than each cooperative being on their own trying to figure it out, sharing that resource of either peer learning or accessing technical assistance makes that more accessible and more culturally appropriate, more relevant, bilingual.
The willingness of someone to say, “No, let's not do a fundraiser for our cooperative. Let's put that fundraiser in the hands of the networks so that we can all benefit from it,” is a good example of the worker collaborative network, because we know that individually, our small businesses would have a really hard time finding our place in the local economy of Asheville and western North Carolina. But together, we're able to be much more successful and much more sustainable. So through the network, cooperatives are able to get training and things like collective management practices, supervision within a cooperative, financial literacy and open book management and strategic planning for their businesses, one on one coaching human resources development for cooperatives and all done within the framework of cooperative economy, which is very different than a mainstream business.
SD: That is really cool. How do you envision the money raised by East Fork customers being distributed across the network?
AG: We imagine that a small portion would be directly passed to each of the worker cooperatives to be able to add just a tiny little cushion to their operating budgets. You all know that running a small business, there’s not a lot of cushion in your operating budget. So each co-op can decide on their own what is the need this year that they're facing that an additional resource would allow them to solve.
But the majority of funds raised would actually go to the collectively managed budget to be able to provide access to technical assistance that on their own, the cooperatives would not be able to afford. So, for example, rather than each co-op hiring an HR (human resources) consultant that's able to build systems that are compatible with low income and immigrant communities, all of the cooperative share access to that same consultant, building systems and practices together. Does that make sense?
SD: It sure does. It sounds like a really smart move to pull that resource together for everyone.
Jackie Fitzgerald, worker cooperative network coordinator: Here’s an example: people deal with incarceration, deportation, family separation for a number of reasons. So, how does a human resources (HR) person account for that? And how do we build HR systems that speak to our greater community needs that are particular to low-income people, to people of color, to immigrants, the people who make up the majority of our network. It's really awesome to be able to hone in like this and adapt for the needs of our particular businesses, local communities and economy. You don't usually see with HR these other tools and technical assistance. You might not get them from somewhere else.
AG: We did a community needs assessment to understand the intersectional realities of staff and will build an HR department around that. HR is just one of the areas we’re developing, but all of our development work comes from an assessment of who's at the table, what kind of table we're trying to build, and what are the particular realities that our worker owners and community members face that our systems have to be supportive of and recognize and honor, because systems and best practices from the outside or from other communities and other businesses, that may not be best practices for our community.
We're doing some really deep work at building an economy that not only builds that bottom line for the cooperative financially, but also creates a different kind of culture for the workers and the worker-owners. It's something we're really proud of and something we're excited about. Like Jackie said, that's just the example of HR, but with all of the training, with open book management, making sure that each person that's engaged in the business has a deep understanding and a regular engagement with financial decisions. Even if you're not the manager or even if you're not the CFO, those financial decisions affect the place that you work and the affect your relationship to the finances of the business. So just kind of rewiring all of that to make sure that things are done democratically and done in the way that centers each worker. That’s the spirit in which all these systems are being developed.
SD: How does the process work?
JF: Cenzontle Language Justice Cooperative has been a direct recipient of this. PODER Emma put down the money for use to have access to a coach that has been teaching us about open book management. It's not like, OK, we all look at the reports on Friday. Instead, we play these really dorky mini-games and we build a process around them. We worked with the coach for six months and now we're doing it on our own. We meet every Friday for a set amount of time. We each go over our line and it’s real. It is democratic. It's participatory. And like I mean, six months ago, any of the worker-owners would have been like, well, I think I understand that, you know? We've really grown as individuals this year and as a co-op, deepened our understanding and that wouldn't have happened without PODER Emma’s support and access to those tools. And now we’re applying it to our work plans and, you know, we're really dorking out on it. And this is what's going to make us more sustainable. For all the co-ops, PODER Emma is trying to hold spaces where those worker-owners get to use those tools on their own, share and grow together.
AG: You can tell we’re really excited about the work we do. We can talk about it all day!
SD: With sharing so much financial information, things aren’t so top-down, with people waiting for their boss to tell them how the business is going, so they know how stable their own finances are looking. It’s refreshing! Can you talk about how this is done?
AG: We do that in partnership with one of the members of the worker co-op network, Power in Numbers, the bookkeeping cooperative, which is, again, doing bookkeeping in a community where people have been historically excluded from financial systems. You have to do bookkeeping in a really different way. And her members are just incredibly skilled at popular education and working with our community, our grassroots organizations and our co-ops members to really understand the basics of finance. It’s things like: What is the profit and loss statement? What is the balance sheet? What's income? What's an expense? What's the relationship between the two? They lay really solid groundwork before we start doing something like open book management.
SD: I’d love to hear about the cultural organizing PODER Emma has done in the local schools.
AG: It started during the 2016 presidential campaign. A civics teacher at Erwin High School had asked students to make campaign posters about the elections. And there were some really, really racist, really anti-immigrant posters put up in the hallways.
It was an intense time for our community. We did pretty extensive participatory action research to understand families’ experiences and students’ experiences with the schools. And from there, we realized we needed to do deeper work with the schools. Another member organization of our collective started parent-led after school programming in Spanish.
It started at Emma Elementary School and then kind of grew as the children aged out of elementary. So now they're in Emma Elementary, Eblen Intermediate and Erwin Middle School. They do traditional dance, arts and culture all in Spanish. It's the only instruction that students get that is conducted in the Spanish language within those schools and it’s led by parents and community members working directly with kids and building relationships with teachers and administrators and programs. And that program still exists today. Now that there’s covid, they’re together in pods in nine different mobile home parks. And so we're part of a pretty awesome organization where one part is doing the ongoing work in the immigrant rights crisis, another is doing the cultural language revitalization school program, and PODER Emma is working on public policy and community ownership. So we feel like we each hold a different piece of the puzzle. But each piece is needed to keep our community safe.
JF: People who were in high school back then are now part of staff organizations, and their parents are becoming mobile home park owners through the housing co-ops. And so those relationships have stayed in place. And that's why the other exciting work around placement stuff is so important, because people have grown up in this community and have put their lives into it, whether they're store owners, students, child care, child care providers, artists who make art here and all of them are sharing their skills with children, people who speak their language and don't want to let it go and are now figuring out ways to pass that on to the next generation by holding classes. It is really incredible.
SD: How did the organizations that are part of PODER Emma get started?
JF: The worker co-op network is where we wanted to start and then the early childhood educators network came about because there are people in our neighborhoods who can watch the children so that everyone else can go to their jobs. Then the housing co-op network came next. And it just became clear that we need to resource each of these areas well, because they're growing, and we want to create sustainability around them and structure.
SD: Please tell me about Dolce Lomita. I think so much about Asheville’s rising cost of housing and the challenge it presents for people who are trying to stay in their homes.
AG: You know, one of the East Fork workers lives here at Dolce Lomita and two of your other workers used to live at Dolce Lomita! East Fork has a strong connection! Dolce Lomita was the first cooperatively-owned park with six units. And we were able to grow and purchase another 4-unit park, a 13-unit park and a 37-unit park. And just this year during Covid, we added another park and a total of 37 units to the network which now has about 50 units that our community collectively owns. It’s permanently affordable housing, built into the operating agreement that it can never be used for anything other than permanent, extremely deeply affordable housing.
The problem many people who live in mobile homes face is, they own their homes but most of the time, they can never own the land. It’s a very particular experience to be a landless homeowner but there are generations of people who have put their savings into purchasing their homes but they still have to rent the land below them. This makes mobile home residents so vulnerable to totally unexpected displacement and homelessness. Our model doesn’t just buy the home, it buys the entire property. All of the residents collectively own the land and the units.
JF: But they live in their individual homes. They have the right to that home and the space around it but they collectively decide what the budget gets spent on in terms of what maintenance gets done and what is reserved.
AG: They’re all properties that have been conventional—tenants paying rent to a landlord or homeowners renting their lots from a landlord. In most of the cases, the properties were up for sale and other prospective buyers were looking at them to bulldoze. All of those families would have lost their homes. We are particularly focused on being that point of intervention and ensuring that the properties are perpetually owned and protected by the community.
SD: I can’t help but think of the kids who get to grow up with the stability of knowing their families have a home they can stay in for as long as they want or where, even if they move away someday, their parents will still be there in the place they think of as their home. That’s huge.
AG: I’ve told this story before and Jackie’s heard it, but there was a conversation between my middle child, who is 13, and her best friend who lives in another one of the mobile home park cooperatives and they were talking about the stereotypes about mobile home parks. I heard my daughter say, “I remember when I was little, I was embarrassed to bring friends over because they might call you ‘trailer trash,’ but now, I’m proud of where we live. We own the land below it and we work together to take care of each other, and during Covid, we formed a community school.” As a parent, aside from the organizational successes, to see that transformational experience and that dignified relationship she has to the place where she lives, and it’s the same for all of the children who are growing up on these properties who have a different sense of self because of the ownership structure that allows our families who have been employees and tenants of other people for so long. The transformation that happens when you move from being someone who serves other people to someone working together with others to serve their own destinies is very powerful.
JF: And along the housing networks, there’s a shared garden. Every spring, we acquire flowers, vegetables and other things we distribute among them, whereas in other mobile home parks, you have a two-car limit and if you go over that, you’ll get evicted. You aren’t allowed to have a trampoline or a basketball hoop will get taken down if someone mows the grass and it won’t get put back up, not to mention, we’re heard racist things come out of landlords’ mouths over the years. In our parks, there’s flower beds, trampolines that everyone is using, a huge firepit, there’s ducks, a goat and rabbits. There’s a stream kids play in, there’s a place for parties in a big grassy area. And while there’s no place without its problems, this is a place that we steward. You see the direct benefit that it provides for the families.
SD: The housing is an important piece to invest in a community: you don't want to see it get scattered.
AG: I think that’s a lot of the work that we do. It is very technical and it's very specific. But it's also cultural work. This culture already exists in our community and we want to fight to protect it. That's the best way for our families to thrive, not to be in competition with each other, family by family, trying to get ahead and beat each other out [for affordable housing]. But to come together to raise together the access that we have and to raise together our quality of life. It’s long, hard work and it's heavy work but I think that we're starting to see the fruits of it with these business networks being formed where people are committed not to building just their individual access and equity but to do that collectively. It’s pretty inspiring to see people being willing to make those decisions over and over every day.
JF: It also hearkens back to a lot of the places where people in this community come from. They’re places where people collectively own land. And there was a lot of mutual aid naturally built into the way of life. I think people are also like, oh, this makes sense. It’s a strong push against the strong tide of “everyone for themselves.” We're trying to think of this, but also what comes for people in the future who will have something to pass on to their kids. And how do we build this capacity for youth and other people who are learning about collective ownership as they get exposed to it?
SD: Can you run through who works at PODER Emma and what they do?
AG: I am the organizational coordinator. I provide support to both program areas for the community development side, which is kind of like building a membership and the policy work at the program. We have a program manager. Her name is Rocio Alviter. There are two program staffers who spent most of their time going door-to-door for hours and hours, talking to people about what's going on. On the cooperative development side, Jackie is the worker co-op network coordinator, Jonathan Palma is the housing co-op network coordinator. Geny Hernández López is the early childhood educators’ coordinator and Mirian Porras is a cooperative lender in our cooperative lending co-op.
We're all part time. No one works 40 hours a week so that we can spread the resources across the organization. We have about seven people who work anywhere from 8 to 32 hours a week. We need a robust team to do the work so even though we can't afford for everyone to have a full time job, we would like to grow there. We would like for everyone to be able to have steady income and the time to fully own the positions that they hold. They know we needed to grow our team so each person would focus [on one thing] because there's so many moving pieces. It's too much for any one person to hold. We have a pretty awesome team you can see on our website. You can see everybody's sweet, beautiful, wonderful faces.
SD: What’s on the horizon for PODER Emma?
AG: In 2021, we’re going to start a youth training component to the worker training co-op network. We are exploring the industries now but we might have a youth cohort that we train in interpreting and translation or training in the mobile home repair and maintenance. So they can get technical skills through mentoring with the worker co-ops, but then also come together across those cohorts to get training in cooperative development and administration. We are realizing as people in our 30s and 40s,we see that long term vision but it's about to be our kids’ turn. My oldest is 15 and it's about to be his turn to make the decisions for the future of the neighborhood. And how do we make sure that that next generation is as connected and as supported to carry on that vision?