A Sustainable Step Up: Prospera Provides Sturdy Bootstraps

Many parts of the US struggle to successfully integrate new Americans and fully benefit from the energy, skills, and dreams they bring. While the US is called the land of opportunity, too often immigrants find substandard housing, poor education, limited job prospects, abusive working conditions, and restricted access to health care, all of which interfere with their ability to provide for their families and improve their lives.

Cooperatives are a key element for creating opportunity for immigrants, whether it’s for affordable housing (see Raise-Op profile on page 41) or good jobs (see New Roots profile on page 27). In California’s Bay Area, Prospera (formerly WAGES) has refined a process for creating well-paying jobs and shared ownership for Latina immigrants. They have helped women to form housecleaning cooperatives that use environmentally friendly chemicals and techniques that protect the health of the workers and the environment. Established in 1998, Prospera has now assisted over 100 workers to form and become part of five worker-owned and run cooperatives that generate over $3 million in sales each year. The co-op owners have tripled their incomes on average and hold $9,000 in business equity. They also have paid time off, health benefits, and work schedules that suit their lives. Women who once struggled to keep their families afloat are now living middle-class lives and seeing their children graduate from college.

Worker-owners in Prospera’s Cooperatives.

Prospera works hard to incubate these businesses and is also deeply connected to the local business sector, the community, non-profit foundations and other cooperatives. They run a three-year program with groups of women identified as being ready to create a cooperative business and support them from the business’s launch to the point of operational stability. The development program prepares the group for success through a comprehensive set of trainings, coaching and technical assistance that empowers leadership skills and confidence within the cohort. This is more than just a training program; it also serves critically as a culturally transformative and trust-building process that enables the cooperative to work effectively.

"The big challenge is just being able to tap into expertise. Starting a co-op means you are facing every single challenge that a small business faces, and on top of all of that, you are employing a really unique structure that is fairly uncommon and runs against the grain of what people are familiar with. People are familiar with the hierarchy in the workplace and much less familiar with democracy. And so it requires a concerted effort to create that culture of shared ownership and responsibility in the workplace; it takes a shared understanding and time to build up that culture. It is a long process," says Elena Fairley, Communications Manager at Prospera.

Key Achievements of Prospera:

  • Worker-owners have on average tripled their individual incomes after joining a Prospera co-op
  • Worker-owners build assets: their initial investments are multiplied 22 times.
  • Members earned $11-$16.50/hour on average compared to $5-9/hour in other cleaning jobs, and saw a 158% increase in their median personal income after joining a co-op.
  • Members receive the full range of benefits, including medical and dental insurance, short- and long-term disability insurance, and paid time off.
  • Almost half of all the women co-owners hold formal leadership positions within their co-op.

These benefits flow beyond the individual members to advance democratic economic development across the communities where Prospera cooperatives are in operation. The members’ collective and group skills enable them as agents of change in the way they influence and lead the invigoration of their local economy. In addition, the more evenly distributed wages and profits help to circulate more money in the local economy, creating more jobs and opportunities.