Coop Profile: Streetwise Ink

This profile is an interview with Julia Powell, a member of Streetwise Ink, a screen printing cooperative focused on empowering community members who have experienced homelessness.
Coop Name: Streetwise Ink
Industry: Screen Printing
Location: Memphis, Tennessee, USA

When was Streetwise Ink founded?

Streetwise Ink was founded in late 2012 when a group of people with current and previous experiences of homelessness came together in the midst of one of the longest standing encampments of the Occupy Movement. A Homeless Caucus, whose membership would later become the driving force behind Homeless Organizing for Power & Equality (H.O.P.E.) was organized as a direct response to the needs and issues of people most directly affected by many of the economic policies challenged within Occupy. During those initial meetings, the predecessors of H.O.P.E. came up with the four core values that were most necessary to the group as a whole: Dignity, Self-Determination/Autonomy, Mutual Emotional Support, and Solidarity.

H.O.P.E. realized that if they wanted to keep these core values in a system that makes it nearly impossible for people experiencing homelessness to find work (let alone dignified work that pays a living wage), that it would have to come from the community’s own efforts to make it so. From this concept came the idea to form a worker-owned and operated, unionized screen printing cooperative made up entirely of, for, and by people with experiences of homelessness. Our aim is to ensure that the quality of life for our community is prioritized over monetary gain.


How many worker-owners are there?

There are currently 4 active members within the organization, though over 10 people have been through the free screen printing trainings over the past year that Mid-South Peace & Justice Center (MSPJC) hosts for people with experiences of homelessness. We should emphasize that several others are on the waiting list for the next free screen printing training, hoping to join StreetWise Ink in an official capacity once we are fully established. Currently, StreetWise Ink is operating in “startup mode” under the fiscal sponsorship of MSPJC, and is forming an advisory board to assist in the process of becoming a standalone LLC by the end of 2018.


What vision to you hope to achieve?

Streetwise Ink is Memphis’ only t-shirt screen printing cooperative business venture that is organized and operated exclusively by individuals with experiences of homelessness. We are craftswomen and men who provide high-quality, custom, screen printed shirts for a variety of needs. Unlike the vast majority of business programs around the country that seek to “empower the homeless,” we are unique in that we have been worker-led from inception. We seek to further develop hard and soft business skills, and create steady and meaningful work with sustainable income for ourselves and others with experiences of homelessness. Together weare putting people over profit, practicing real democracy amongst ourselves and our community at large.


How does your mission motivate you to succeed as a business?

Of H.O.P.E’s 4 core values, dignity and self-determination aren’t possible to achieve (or are extremely unlikely to achieve) within the usual type of work that people experiencing homelessness can obtain. There are practically an infinite number of barriers for people experiencing homelessness to get any work at all. To make matters in our city worse, we live in one of the few cities with no free secular public shelters. We don't even have oversight for shelter regulations that require even such basic accommodations as ADA compliance (which could be a death sentence as people with any physically noticeable disability are turned away), or keeping those who run the shelters from engaging in the “play-to-stay” sexual exploitation of the most vulnerable. Adding injury to injury, excessive anti-panhandling ordinances have been put into effect to further criminalize poverty. Options are urgently scarce, and more people are being subjugated into poverty and homelessness today at an alarming speed.

All this, despite the fact that it has been proven that housing people and connecting them to needed services is not only effective in ending homelessness but is also cheaper for taxpayers, especially when compared to the cost of jailing them and subsidizing the cost of emergency medical care.

Knowing this, it went against all reason to attempt the task of running a business if it was going to recreate the exploitive form of employment designed to suck the life out of everyone “fortunate” enough to get hired in a hierarchical workplace. We join together with as many of the affected we meet in our area while welcoming all to join in the struggle. We hold tight to our core values, knowing that no one is coming to keep us from perishing on the streets, and that our continued survival may literally depend on us working together create what’s needed. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone with experiences of homelessness that would like to join us.


What did the start up process look like?

We hope to share the full process in a thorough and well documented way (as well as properly thank all of the amazing people who have and are currently contributing to our success) in the near future for those who may find it useful.

You can support Streetwise Ink by setting up a one-time or monthly donation via PayPal. You can also view their wish list.

What decisions do the worker owners take part in?

From the beginning, members have taken part in all decisions. We have discussed different models and are considering that - as membership grows - members might consider whether the Union Coop Model would ensure continued equity and best use of everyone's time. Using this model, members uninterested in managing can focus their time and talents elsewhere. Upon official incorporation of Streetwise Ink, we will all become equal owners and managers and will share responsibilities equally until we we decide that other coop models/methods might better serve our goals. As people who are familiar with scraping the dumpster at the bottom of the human food chain, we’re particularly fond of the way this model inverts the norm of the hierarchical business model.


What are the benefits to the worker cooperative model when it comes to operations? Finances? Other areas?

When it comes to operations, our experience is that work is lighter (and more meaningful!) when we work together toward common goals. Money is not our focus, but we need to be able to afford to live in a system that requires money for survival. Once we’re to the point that we’re getting regular t-shirt orders, this will be monumental to all of us as well as the community at large.

Everyone comes into this for different reasons. I can only speak for myself here as one of the rare few whose short 6-month experience of homelessness wasn't an unavoidable, unintentional tragedy like most people's are. My first stint with homelessness had been more the result of a sort of "eff-it-all" decision caused by the inability to acquiesce to -- or find a sufficiently meaningful place in -- a strictly profit centered world. There's an absurdity that we as a people haven't been able to find a way to bring about a system change that would work for the good of everyone. A system that would make living decently possible, bearable, and maybe even at times enjoyable for everyone. It was all just more than I could continue to passively live with. So, when offered the opportunity to be part of something that could bring about real change, I wholeheartedly dove in. The abject alienation I was experiencing, caused by the current system, is now more and more transforming into a fulfilling and life-sustaining sense of solidarity with my community and all people struggling in the world at large. This, along with the experience of knowing I’m not free until we’re all free... these are the things that appeal to me as the most worthy and necessary benefits of working within a coop, and I could not be more grateful!


What are some challenges that come with the cooperative business model when it comes to certain areas?

For our group in particular, there are extra challenges that have caused our coop to take longer to get off the ground. Many of our members are experiencing the kind of extreme poverty where survival is the first priority. This takes more energy than someone in a more comfortable economic position may have on any given day. The knowledge that you’re working on a cooperative that aims to provide not only for your needs, but is also in line with your core values as a human beings, unfortunately does not put food on the table - if you have a table. Nor does it buy you a bus ticket to get to a coop meeting if you don’t have a vehicle, or equip your car with gas, insurance, or needed repairs. Because we all come from different backgrounds, it’s been difficult to find a sort of accessible crash course for everything involved in business ownership and management that won't take infinite time and university degrees to achieve.


Would you recommend the worker cooperative business model to others?

Most definitely. As far as we know, there isn’t a more equitable business model out there! Extreme thanks to Democracy at Work and all of you who are making those resources available.


What advice would you give someone looking to join or start a worker cooperative?

Please do! If you ever have any questions that we might be able to answer, or you might find it helpful to know there are others out there in solidarity with you, please don't hesitate to drop us a line sometime. We’d like to leave you with this quote by Assata Shakur that may help keep you going when times get tough(er): “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Julia Powell is a member of Streetwise Ink, a screen printing cooperative focused on empowering community members who have experienced homelessness. You can support Streetwise Ink via PayPal, and Julia and other members of the cooperative can be reached via email: [email protected]

Know a worker cooperative you would like featured on Democracy at Work? Email: [email protected]

Showing 1 comment

  • Paul McDowell
    commented 2018-01-11 22:53:05 -0500
    Good idea. I hope this idea will spread. Los Angeles where I work and Santa Barbara, we we live, could use such a co-op. As soon as we are able, we will make a contribution of some kind

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