Making business democratic: The Cooperation Group gives Detroiters avenues for collective ownership

B. Anthony Holley and Lisa Stolarski have vivid memories of their first time meeting. Stolarski, who had been the executive director for the National Cooperative Business Association's domestic development program and on several boards for cooperatives around the country, had a small grant to do some consulting at the Field Street Collective, an incubator on the east side for community-minded businesses. 

Unfortunately for Stolarski, some of the business owners weren't receptive to her efforts to help them make, well, money. "At the price they wanted to sell the hats they were knitting, they'd make about $4.50 an hour," she says. "That's obviously not sustainable."

Holley, a native Detroiter with a degree from Hampton University School of Business, could speak both the language of business and community, and helped Stolarski communicate with members of the collective. 

"Sometimes people have a block when it comes to terms like money and profit," Stolarski says. "He gave me language that would land better with people."

Lisa Stolarski

B. Anthony Holley
Also, the two really clicked. "Sometimes you meet someone and you're able to have conversations that other people won't get," says Holley. "We had a common language. And it made us pretty present to the need for more a direct approach to doing this work and making it plain."

That work involved creating more avenues of success for Detroit's cooperatives, a business model that can take many forms but which almost always involves joint ownership and democratic operations. So in 2015 Holley and Stolarski started the Cooperation Group, a nonprofit based in Highland Park that provides consulting and technical assistance for cooperatives.

A resilient model

They were soon joined by Brian Donovan, a consultant with extensive background in managing cooperative organizations. Donovan met Stolarski when he stood in for someone else on a call with the National Cooperative Business Association.

"I remember she was really upset that the other person wasn't on the call," Donovan says.

They later met in person in Ann Arbor at the annual conference for the North American Students of Cooperation, of which Donovan was on the board. That lead to long-distance dating and eventually marriage. 

Brian Donovan
The three are an impressive team that combines experience, chemistry, and passion for their work. It doesn't take long for them to start talking about how the growth of cooperative businesses is important in Detroit and, more importantly, for Detroiters.

For starters, there's plenty of evidence that cooperatives tend to be more resilient than traditional business models, possibly because workers have greater investment in their success. But resiliency takes many forms, and a strong cooperative business, which employs and works for residents, can be an important neighborhood anchor. 

"Black people, in particular, have been screwed over in Detroit," says Holley. "In order to remedy that, it's imperative that everyday Detroiters are empowered to organize to solve issues in their community. And one vehicle for uplifting people is cooperatives because they are inherently democratic in nature — one member, one vote. You don't get more to say more if you have more money."

Because of this, the Cooperation Group won't just accept any commission — the businesses they work with must have a social dimension. They also describe their work as "high-touch," which requires lots of facilitation and guidance at every step of the process. That's by necessity when working with a cooperative, where multiple people have to be on the same page at all times. 

"Doing all of this legwork," says Stolarski, "the articles of incorporation, bylaws, business plan, feasibility study, as an organization with five to 10 people is actually harder than if there's one person doing it all themselves."

The team's first long-term contract was with Soulardarity, a nonprofit that installs solar street lights. The Cooperation Group was asked to determine what kind of model would work best for Soulardarity and how to most effectively relight the city of Highland Park, which had most of its street lights repossessed by DTE in 2011. Through a massive survey and a series of community meetings to determine interest and membership rates, they arrived at a surprising discovery: due to the low population density and median income level, Soulardarity would be best served as a membership-based nonprofit as opposed to a cooperative. In addition, they should seek a citywide contract with municipal light ownership. 

"We want our clients to be successful and will recommend what's best for them," says Stolarski. "We hope it will be a business that, at the very least, has a democratic element to it. But it's our responsibility as professionals to make that assessment and tell our clients."

"We don't want to impose a cookie cutter model," Holley adds.

Jackson Koeppel, executive director of Soulardarity, says that were it not for the work of the Cooperation Group, "We would have spent a lot more time flailing towards the conclusions that we ultimately drew."

That's largely because belief in community light ownership was deep set in the culture among members of his organization. "But through the research," says Koeppel, "we realized that most cities in Southeast Michigan, even Highland Park, don't own street lights — the utility actually owns them. Even switching to municipal ownership is a huge shift towards local control that wasn't there beforehand."

The Cooperation Group has also provided assistance to Grace in Action, a Lutheran church in southwest Detroit that's also an incubator for business cooperatives, where they helped to develop the church's curriculum and launch Cleaning in Action, a worker-owned house cleaning cooperative. 

Growing the model

The Cooperation Group is also working to grow the co-op ecosystem here in Detroit. 

Last year, they moved their office into a house in Highland Park where they share space with Soulardarity and the Highland Park Women's Roundtable. "Having these meetings, and understanding the problems we need to solve, encourages economic democracy," says Stolarski. "It's people coming together and working out how to build community wealth."

Cooperation Group's shared office space in Highland Park

Solar-powered porch light outside Cooperation Group's office
They also see the city as lagging behind others in its awareness and support for cooperatives. Others, like New York, Philadelphia, and Madison are investing in cooperative development, whereas Detroit is much more focused on traditional business models. 

That's one reason why they helped start a coalition with five other like-minded organizations to advocate for cooperatives in Detroit. The group is also organizing a big event in March 2019 to engage foundations and local government in the value of cooperatives. 

"It could be a tremendous opportunity," says Donovan, "to bring both people interested in the cooperative economy on the grassroot level, as well as people interested in economic development, together and say here's 150 years of black cooperative economics to draw from and there's a lot of opportunity happening already around the country."

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Photos by Nick Hagen
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.