Green Worker Cooperatives: Improving Bronx Communities
May 1, 2009
Green Worker Cooperatives is an eco-friendly organization that is working to build an alternative green economy in the South Bronx.
11 Minutes 58 Seconds
In "Agents of Change," hear from students, faculty, and distinguished guests as they talk about their work in helping to educate and transform the global community.
This is Vince Bracy, a student at Lehman College. Green Worker Cooperatives is an eco-friendly organization that is working to build an alternative green economy in the South Bronx. In 2008, it launched Rebuilders Source. This worker-owned company recycles surplus construction materials and then sells them at a discount to contractors, landlords and homeowners. Its retail warehouse is based in the heart of the South Bronx. In this segment, Omar Friella, the founder of Green Worker Cooperatives, talks about the organization's mission and environmental issues in the Bronx.
I grew up in the South Bronx during the '70s and '80s when a lot of the Bronx was burning down. And it was a time when there ¬¬was a great deal of abandonment of this entire area, the entire borough.
There were specific policies that were related to cutting off services in the city. There was a policy at the time in the '70s called Planned Shrinkage and this was basically cutting off services to the areas that were seen as not really worth saving.
Manufacturing had been on the decline already from the '60s into the '70s. So, there was a great deal of loss of manufacturing jobs as a result. So, the jobs weren't there anymore.
You had the construction of highways throughout the southern half of the Bronx. The Cross Bronx, the Deegan, the Bruckner, a lot of things that led to devastation of communities, and at the same time, it was the 1960s, so there was a massive upheaval happening all across the country.
So, in terms of race relations, because of the history of racial segregation at the time, what wound up happening was the opportunities for moving out of the city were mostly for middle-class, white families, and so, you had this huge concentration of people of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, and at the time, Puerto Ricans with some Dominicans.
As a result, the South Bronx became the poster ghetto of America. Buildings were burning because landlords at the time felt that it was a lot easier I should say for them to be able to get money from insurance than the very little money they were expecting to get from rent payments.
So, during the '70s and the '80s, the Bronx became known for burning buildings. Fast forward into the '80s and '90s, what we were left with were lots of vacant lots. Vacant lots, not a whole lot of jobs. And a whole lot of people desperate for work. What we wound up with was a whole lot of land.
Whenever you have land, someone was gonna come in to fill it. So, in the 1990s, what we began to see was that while other parts of the city were starting to develop, to redevelop in terms of their local economy, the South Bronx and the Bronx in general was still the last to catch up.
The 1990s also saw an era of privatization. So, a lot of city services, things that used to be city services, were being privatized and one of these was garbage.
You know, what happens with your garbage when you when you throw it out? It gets picked up by Department of Sanitation, if it's a building. But, for private companies, it gets picked up by a private company. But the 1990s, New York City, in the late '90s, New York City decided that it was gonna close its only landfill, which was out on Staten Island, Fresh Kills Landfill.
This was in the mid to late '90s. People on Staten Island had been living with this thing for about 50 years. So, they got tired of it, and they eventually were able to get it closed. What happened, however, was that there was no other landfill. No other active landfill in New York City. So, something had to happen to the trash.
And where else, what better place to go than to some place where people aren't really expected to fight back? So, that place wound up being the South Bronx. So, if you go today down to Hunts Point, you know, down to Port Morris, the very bottom edge of Mott Haven, down by 132nd Street, past the other side of the Bruckner, you'll wind up in what looks like a very industrial area.
Lots of big, vacant lots or buildings, warehouses where there's garbage. Garbage is being stored there. So, it'll be household trash, the rotting food or it'll be building materials. The result is that you've got now these facilities that nobody else wants, in a few neighborhoods. And the effect is that the South Bronx has become known as Asthma Alley. From the South Bronx to East Harlem because that's where the hospitalization rates for asthma are highest.
You know, we've got one of the highest rates of asthma in the country. It's a little more than six to eight times the national average. So, there's a lot of suffering that happens as a result of where things get put, all with the expectation that the people who are living there aren't really gonna be fighting back.
Trashcans that get filled up with trash. The trash that you throw out. And it winds up going to a few neighborhoods, to one of these transfer stations.
And eventually, it gets compacted into a big tractor trailer. It goes out on the highway pass a whole bunch of other people who have to breathe the exhaust. And then it winds up down in Virginia or Ohio or way past in Pennsylvania, even out to the Midwest, and it winds up going to a landfill in some other poor, working-class community where people weren't able to fight it. And gets dumped into their neighborhood.
Because all this stuff goes somewhere. And we think that it goes away. But, away has a name, away is a neighborhood or a few neighborhoods. And people live in the Land of Away. They have to breathe the air in the Land of Away. So, everything that we do has an effect on somebody.
That was why a few years ago I had been involved with a few different organizations that are engaged in community organizing, trying to put a brake on a lot of these.
Whenever a company has come in and said, "You know, we want to build this plant here. We want a sewage plant or a power plant or a garbage company." They always promise jobs. And the jobs rarely actually materialize for the people in the way that they're promised.
So, for myself, and for others that are involved in the organization that I'm part of, Green Worker Cooperatives, we decided that we would take a different kind of approach. Instead of just fighting against the things that we don't want, we would actually be working to create the things that we do want. And the things that we're looking to create are jobs. They're businesses that could actually improve environmental conditions in our own community.
Particularly one of the things that I mentioned was construction and demolition debris. That dumpster that you see in front of a building. Whenever someone is doing a renovation on a house or a business, they get one of these big dumpsters and they throw everything in there. The kitchen sinks, the toilets, the hardware flooring, the sheet rock, the windows. All that stuff winds up going into the dumpster.
So, we said, "Well, how about if we keep it out of the dumpster?" We bring it to a store. We put it up for sale like a thrift shop. And last year, we opened the doors of our very first business, which is called Rebuilders Source. It's down, you know, in Mott Haven between Mott Haven and Longwood, Hunts Point, right near 149th Street and Southern Boulevard.
The idea is pretty simple. We've got a warehouse of about 18,000 square feet that is full of all that stuff that I just mentioned. The ceramic tiles for the bathrooms, kitchens, the hardware floors, the sinks, the tubs, the windows, ceiling fans, pretty much anything that you would find in a Home Depot or a Lowe's is the kind of stuff that you would find at Rebuilders Source, and it's half the cost. So, if you pay say, whatever, a $100 for a toilet, it'd be $50. Actually, it'd be less. We're selling it for $25.
So there's a lot that's out there that's available. And it's things that are currently treated as waste. And we've taken this idea of zero waste as a goal, and zero waste is very simple. We are not gonna produce any waste. That's a goal. We may actually be doing it right now. But, the goal is to get to zero.
Then it wouldn't be garbage anymore. It'd be called somebody else's kitchen cabinets. It would be in somebody else's house. So, waste is really an idea. It's a concept. Rebuilders Source is a business that's not owned by the consumers. It's not owned by separate, individual companies. Or separate individuals, like farmers, you know, who have their own individual business.
It's actually owned by everybody who works together in the business. So this is called a worker cooperative. So, this is a business where everybody who works in the business is actually an owner. So, you got a business with five people or 40 people or a 150 people, they're all workers together.
They share. They split the resources. They split the wealth. They split the profit. So, we decided that that would be the way that we would go. So, our approach is actually to get people who are interested in starting up a business in the Bronx, in the South Bronx. A business that would be green, that's gonna actually do something for the environment, make things a little better.
And that would be a worker-owned business. So that's a three-part commitment that we expect from anybody that goes through our organization, that goes through our program. We have a training program that we started called the Co-op Academy.
It's a 16-week training that we do on every Monday night where we go into the details of how worker co-ops work and what makes a business green, with the end goal that we're actually developing a business plan with a team of people who would make up a future cooperative, a future business. So, our goal at the end is really to create lots of different worker-owned business all throughout the South Bronx that could actually provide a benefit.
So, that in a nutshell is what the organization that I'm from, Green Worker Cooperatives, is about and it is just one part of what is a growing movement not just in New York City, but around the country to really go fast forward with improving our environment, being responsible for our environment. But also, doing it in a way that creates opportunities, economic opportunities for us.
You know, all of us who have been coming from working-class families, who have been working, trying to make ends meet, who have been living with very poor environmental conditions as a result of all the nasty, dirty, gray industries that we've got operating in New York. So, we're just one part of a push to move away from all that and to move this world and this society in a very different direction. And that direction is determined by us.
Visit us at www.lehman.edu. To learn more about Green Worker Cooperatives, visit www.greenworker.coop. To learn more about ReBuilders Source, visit www.rebuilderssource.coop. This is a production of the Lehman College Media Relations Office.
[END OF AUDIO]