Former Social Worker to Start Veggie Co-Op Owned by Ex-Foster Care Youth
HARLEM — The abandoned bodega on the corner of 128th Street and St. Nicholas Terrace has been empty for four years.
But if the fundraising efforts of former social worker Gregory Allen go well, he sees the store being transformed into an employee-owned co-op selling organic vegetables, run by young people who have aged out of the social services system.
"I saw kids slipping into situations where the circumstances were predestining them for a life of welfare or jail," said Allen, 38. "I wondered what else could be done outside of the non-profit model? How can we build an institution that can change their circumstances for real?"
In New York City, young people "age out" of the foster care system at 21. They are eligible for some continued youth services until the age of 24. The store, Pop-Up Co-Op, will provide up to three young people, who have aged out of foster care or social services, an opportunity for entry level work experience at a living wage. The starting salary will be about $28,500.
A 2010 study from the Vera Institute of Justice shows that kids who age out of the foster system have higher rates of homelessness.They also have workforce skill and educational deficits and lower high school graduation rates.
Unlike other young people who still rely heavily on their families for resources, they don't have that option.
By working in the co-op, these young people will gain hands-on experience managing a store and problem-solving. After a year, they will be able to receive their semi-annual raises in stock and become owners.
No employee, including Allen as founder, will be able to own more than 10 percent of the company. Ownership entitles the shareholder to dividends and a say in hiring and business decisions.
"It's a real business. It's nothing like a program. It will be a high level of responsibility and dealing with people in a customer service setting and learning the willingness to go the extra mile," said Allen.
"The model we are using is a time-honored model of earning ownership."
Combine that with a well-documented need for fresh vegetables in West Harlem and Allen sees the co-op as a viable solution to two intractable problems. It is a model that can even be replicated elsewhere.
"In this neighborhood, everyone knows there needs to be a vegetable store close by. If you ask anyone on the street if we need a vegetable store, no one will say it's a bad idea. It's been like that for a long time," said Allen.
Because he has the idea but not the money to implement it, Allen, a former social worker at Safe Horizon and the father of a two-year-old daughter, launched a fundraising effort, the Sweet Work Project, on Kickstarter, a website that allows dozens of people to contribute to a project.
With eight days left in his fundraising campaign, 287 people have pledged $18,095 of the $22,835 goal. A neighbor pledged $250, telling Allen he believed in the plan. If the Kickstarter fundraising effort falls short of the goal, Allen won't get any of the money to launch the project.
"This is very grassroots," Allen said. "I don't have the money. I was a social worker.
"But this is about the power of the idea. If people want to see something innovative happen because it is needed and the plan is solid, it will happen."
The initial round of funding will allow Allen to begin selling organic coffee from the take-out window of the abandoned bodega, which is in need of renovation. Initially, the store will only pay one employee hired from a local youth services program.
"I see my role as more of a facilitator to show people how to work together, solve problems and eventually teach other people those skills," Allen said.
In October, the plan is to begin selling vegetables and pumpkins out front. Profits from the sale of coffee and vegetables will allow for renovations. But leasing the store will be a major step, said Allen.
In the long-term, he sees the store being able to employ several young people who often have the most difficulty finding a job where they can support themselves. Many of them have spent their teen and adolescent years shuffling between different foster homes.
"The plan is to target people for whom it is a little late for them to just be entering the workforce. These kids come form all over and they are from nowhere. They have been in foster care and group homes all over the city. They are rootless," said Allen.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent plan to invest $127 million, including $30 million of his own money, to close the achievement gap between blacks and Latinos and their white counterparts, is an example of the focus that is needed to address the issue.
To break the cycle, young people must be trained for jobs that can provide a living wage and opportunities for growth, otherwise they will turn to other, less desirable, options, Allen said.
"There are people locked into the loop of unemployment, the crime economy and welfare, and it's hard to get out of," Allen said.
"It's an intractable problem but everyone knows it's not an unsolvable one."