West Baltimore has been at the epicenter of upheaval in a city rocked by recent protests and riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. In the aftermath, lawmakers and local officials are calling for ways to effect change in the low-income, marginalized community. An innovative experiential learning practicum piloted by the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, School of Social Work, and Carey School of Law offers some potential solutions. The “West Baltimore Community Wealth Building Practicum” had graduate students developing a plan to launch worker-owned cooperative to bolster the economy in Baltimore’s west side communities. In the worker-owned cooperative business model, employees are business owners and well-rooted community institutions -- such as churches, hospitals and nonprofits – are the customers of the cooperatives’ goods and services. It’s model that has worked in other blighted urban areas, including Cleveland.
The UMD initiative is a partnership between the Center for Social Value Creation at the Smith School and the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and the Francis King Carey School of Law. This is the second year of the project.
This year, students in the course built on the groundwork established by last year’s students. They spent the spring semester interviewing potential customers and other community stakeholders and building out the details for what it would take to launch and sustain two worker-owned cooperatives in West Baltimore: an urban greenhouse business and a furniture restoration business.
“This is very much a local effort,” said Sara Herald, assistant director of the Center for Social Value Creation and one of the course’s instructors. “Although the university is really involved in driving this piece forward, the whole point of the initiative is to transition at some point over to local community members to become worker-owners and these anchor institutions that want to be customers to drive it to completion. What we’re trying to do is lay the groundwork and reduce some of the risk associated with launching these businesses.”
The students presented their recommendations in Baltimore on May 4 to professors and invited local community members from the city government, nonprofits, foundation and workforce development groups.
Herald said the Smith School plans to continue the project with another iteration of the course next year to confirm the roll-out plan for the cooperatives and pursue a partner organization to fundraise around the idea.
“Once we have the startup capital, we could work with one of the workforce development organizations to get these businesses up and running relatively quickly,” said Herald.
The Smith School is also exploring ways to continue the partnership with the other University of Maryland programs, including a potential center where community members could receive business advice and assistance.
- Carrie Handwerker, Office of Marketing Communications