What does it mean to have a job that builds wealth? Beyond a living wage – defined as wage that is high enough to maintain a quality of life standard – wealth building is about accumulating assets and surplus capital that lead to an elevated standard of life. For thousands of low-income households across the nation building wealth is not an option. With limited access to jobs that pay even a living wage, these families struggle to make ends meet, let alone to invest in the future. These low wage jobs trap low-income families in institutional poverty, making them especially vulnerable to economic shocks. How can we create opportunities to help low-income households maintain and improve their current situations?
This question inspired a collaborative effort between the Center for Social Value Creation (CSVC) at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the Maryland School of Social Work to pilot an experiential learning course called West Baltimore Community Wealth Building Practicum.
The course is based on the initial research of Stephanie Geller, clinical instructor and coordinator of Southwest Baltimore initiatives for the Social Work Community Outreach Service at the Maryland School of Social Work, which explores how to create more wealth building jobs for underserved communities in Baltimore, MD.
Stephanie was fascinated by the model of Evergreen Cooperatives which launched in 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio and came up with an interesting proposed solution to wealth building job creation:
- Target the major institutions that have no intention of leaving (hospitals, universities, government organizations, etc.)
- Find products and services these institutions need
- Build local businesses to meet those demands.
- Design the businesses as worker-owned cooperatives to ensure that each “worker / owner” builds wealth within the business.
Stephanie conducted research on how this model could work in Baltimore, identifying several major institutions and developing forty possible business ideas tied to these institutions.
Recognizing the transformative potential of Stephanie’s initial research, CSVC and the School of Social Work teamed up MBA and Masters of Social Work students to investigate the social value and financial viability of twelve of these business ideas. These cross-functional teams conducted interviews with potential stakeholders and partner institutions, analyzed the specific financial and social impact of their ideas on West Baltimore communities, and developed preliminary recommendations for launching these concepts into full-fledged worker-owned cooperatives.
In a final presentation to local funders, community members, and representatives of major Baltimore institutions, the student teams elaborated on four of the highest-potential ideas. The ideas included property demolition, furniture recycling and refurbishing, compost collection, and an urban greenhouse. There are several common elements to these ideas that make them both attractive investments and appealing social impact opportunities, including:
- Forecasted profitability within four years
- Forecasted employment of at least 50 people within 8 years
- Accessible to unskilled workers
- Positioned to add value to major local institutions
During the Q&A and reception that followed the presentations many stakeholder expressed words of support saying things like, “I’m so glad you’re researching this,” or, “We definitely need something like this in our City.” The reception was also filled with the buzz of potential partners and funders digging deeper into ideas that caught their attention.
Whether a worker-owned cooperative is created as a direct outcome of this work, or is referenced at a later time by a group committed to aligning economic prosperity and local institutions, The West Baltimore Community Wealth Building Practicum has laid the groundwork for models that go beyond living wages and truly build wealth in Baltimore.