Carmen Hernandez used to work in a clothing factory. “I had long hours and I couldn’t take vacation or sick days. There were no benefits.” For the past six years, however, Hernandez has been a member of Beyond Care, a cooperative of women based in Brooklyn, New York’s Sunset Park neighborhood. She and the other members provide child care to families in the area. “I get to set my own hours,” says Hernandez.
Hernandez, 42 and originally from Puebla, Mexico, explains that the positive experience of working with Beyond Care stems from more than controlling her hours. The cooperative structure allows the women to keep what they earn and simply pay membership dues.
The cooperative provides a sense of liberation for members. “The organization concerns itself with improving the organization, not managing individuals,” explains Hernandez. The organization’s concerns center around the betterment of the cooperative, not the productivity of individuals. Unlike the factory where she worked, Beyond Care does not focus on constant scrutiny of employees. Rather, the business improves itself by developing infrastructure and opportunities for employees. As a group, then, they put energy into marketing, training and other support for all the worker-owners that make up the cooperative. The employees are expected to do good work, but they are, to a large extent, expected to take on that responsibility themselves. They are also expected to put work into the cooperative through monthly meetings and constant quality improvement.
Members also have the opportunity to participate as elected members of the cooperative’s governance. While these year-long terms are unpaid, the organization does hire a secretary to answer phones and assist with scheduling to ensure connection between families seeking child care and providers.
These families know that Beyond Care members are engaged in ongoing training as child care professionals. Many members also offer an added benefit to their clients: foreign language training for the kids. Like Hernandez, most members speak Spanish. The majority of the families they work with are mono-language English speakers, happy to have their children exposed to another tongue.
When asked about her philosophy in regards to working with kids, Hernandez repeats a crucial mantra, “Patience is very important because every kid is different.” She enjoys the ongoing training around child care and business best practices. Besides being a paid child care provider, Hernandez is also a mother of two. She admits that the training improved her relationship with her own kids. “I’ve learned a lot about child development. And about how every child is unique.” Her enthusiasm and willingness to acknowledge how her work positively impacts her personal life attests to the strength behind the cooperative’s ongoing training.
While members of coops around the world will sympathize with Hernandez’s story of finding fulfillment moving from a corporate to cooperative environment, the origins of Beyond Care prove unique. Based in the bustling, diverse neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, New York, the non-profit Center for Family Life (CFL) has helped found and support cooperatives for several years. Looking to address unemployment and economic disparity, the organization’s efforts offer a rare opportunity: business ownership for a population that is, classically, economically disenfranchised.
A series of sister cooperatives are emerging out of CFL. From house cleaning to soccer lessons, the businesses provide services that are in demand in Sunset Park. The five coops that CFL currently supports work with each other to share resources and communicate best practices.
When asked about the future goals for Beyond Care Hernandez says, “For me I look at the other cooperatives.” She points to Sí Se Puede, a group of women who provide house cleaning services. This cooperative has been able to achieve a great deal of independence from CFL. Following their example, Hernandez does not think Beyond Care would consider breaking away from the CFL. Rather members do look forward to a day when they can give more back to the non-profit. Sí Se Puede, now pays CFL for technical support. “We still need lots of support,” says Hernandez. But she knows that Beyond Care and its members are growing in knowledge, ability and assurance.