I remember the first time I truly saw poverty, the first time I understood what it was. I was on a family vacation in Siem Reap, Cambodia touring the Angkor Wat Complex. From a very young age I wanted to travel the world as a photographer. I went to Cambodia at 15 with a camera in hand, imagining I was on my first assignment. I was naive. I didn’t understand the power that a camera gives you, the power to exploit people, even if unintentionally. I was bright eyed and everything I saw was beautiful. I was sheltered. I wasn’t aware of the privileged life I was leading. We were at a ruin and I saw some young children running around barefoot, it didn’t register that they might not have money for shoes. I took some photos of them, they laughed, posing and smiling. We were enjoying ourselves. And then they asked for money. I didn’t understand at first. Why were they asking for money? And then the fog cleared, I woke up. I saw their clothes were tattered, their feet dirty. I began to put it together and all of a sudden I felt guilty. What was the purpose of my photographing them? How did I fit into a larger puzzle of poverty?
I am very fortunate. I grew up in a loving household, with a roof over my head, enough to eat, and regular vacations with my family. I remember learning what capitalism was in high school but not really getting it. I struggled with understanding the numbers and graphs. It was all theory removed from my comfortable reality. It wasn’t until I went to University that I began to understand how capitalism was related to the poverty I saw in Cambodia, the poverty and inequality that you don’t need to leave the United States to see, the widening gap that was shielded from me for so long. I learned about the realities of those living at the extremes of capitalism; hardworking people struggling to feed their families, while 40% of American food is wasted.
I first learned what a cooperative was in my second year at University. I began to shop at a food co-op, Le Frigo Vert, and joined a bike co-op, Right to Move, both of which were student run. Though they were both seen as alternatives in comparison to other grocery stores and bike shops, I quickly began to see them as the best option. Le Frigo Vert stocked fair trade, local, and healthy options at a reasonable price and Right to Move provided workspaces and volunteers to help me fix my own bike at a very low cost. In my third year at University I co-founded a brewers cooperative, Brasseur Illuminés, to provide students and the larger Montreal community with sustainably sourced beer and workshops to teach others how to make their own beer. We began to run monthly workshops, sell Do It Yourself (DIY) brew kits, and eventually sold our beer to the University where we had a beer on tap at the student bar. This same year I began working at a cooperative café, The Hive, as a barista and a board member. Both of these projects centered around students regaining their collective food sovereignty by creating sustainable and democratically run food cooperatives. It was during my work with both of these projects that I began to understand how I could be a part of creating a better world by empowering disenfranchised communities through cooperatives.
Our economic system is inherently built upon principles that don’t reflect the concerns and needs of all people. One of the ways we can enact change is by being conscientious consumers. We buy smart phones reliant on coltan extraction in the Democratic Republic of Congo, chocolate linked to child slavery in the Ivory Coast, coffee from Central America and tea from India dependent on laborers living in deplorable conditions and without economic mobility. Bananas, Palm Oil, Sugar, Rubber, Clothing – all these everyday goods are linked to slavery in some shape or form. The list goes on and it is probable that something you are wearing or eating now is interwoven into this unfair system.
I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for over five years, as a barista, waitress, cashier, buser, and dishwasher. I’ve worked with undocumented immigrants and seen them work incredibly hard and get paid the least, given few benefits, and hardly any days off. I began investigating the supply chain of coffee, chocolate, and tea – often disappointed in what I found out. Cooperatives are one of the few resources that exist for workers involved in the growing and processing of raw materials.
The laws of supply and demand dictate this global market we live in and we have the power to prioritize fair trade over excessive profits. Cooperatives offer communities a viable means of coming together as a united front to demand better working conditions, including but not limited to fair wages, health benefits, childcare, and paid leave. Cooperatives can also incorporate environmental sustainability into their model, as the cooperatives I worked with did. I have witnessed first hand how the cooperative model can benefit a community, both in Montreal and on trips to sustainable farms in Costa Rica and Italy. The cooperative model can empower disenfranchised communities in the United States and is already doing so. Examples of food cooperatives like the Park Slope Food Co-op, Flatbush Food Co-op, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens Co-op, show how this business model can offer marginalized communities affordable local, organic, and fair foods. Economic disparity in the United States has lead to a wider gap between the rich and poor and it is the underserved communities that are most negatively effected by a capitalist system that is not responsive enough to their fundamental and emerging needs. These communities need to find solutions from within because the system has proven to be unsuccessful in providing for their needs. It is important to support cooperative growth both in the United States and abroad – first and foremost by being educated consumers and supporting the cooperatives that already exist.