California UCC starts green business to help the earth and economy
Written by Emily Schappacher April 29, 2013
The employees of the worker-owned Green Broom Brigade Cooperative after completing their training
With the help of generous donors near and far, members of Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ fulfilled their vision of addressing the unemployment epidemic in Lompoc, Calif., in an earth friendly way. The Green Broom Brigade Cooperative, launched April 15, is a worker-owned cleaning business that uses only natural, nontoxic products, and currently supplies part-time employment to five local residents. John McReynolds, vice moderator of Valley of the Flowers UCC, is certain the business will pick up steam and help more of their neighbors get back on their feet.
"If we just hang in there, I have no doubt whatsoever," he said of the co-op's success. "There is just too much investment of time, energy and good will for it to not work."
The good will, McReynolds adds, was overwhelming. The group set out to raise $7,000 in seed money for the project, and ended up with more than $20,000 in donations. Their 50-person congregation donated $1,000 in one Sunday, and the UCC's Southern California Nevada Conference supplied a $2,500 grant. Donations also came in via the crowd-funding site indiegogo.com from people in Canada to Chicago. A friend McReynolds hadn't seen in years gave $1,000, and he found an envelope in his mailbox marked "Co-op" with $500 from an unknown benefactor.
"Stuff just kept happening," McReynolds said. "If I hadn't been a believer before, I would be now. People just appeared as if God had sent them."
The Green Broom Brigade Cooperative launched with assistance from the California Center for Cooperative Development, which helped McReynolds and some other volunteers conduct a feasibility study, draw up a business plan, and provide training for the employees. The worker-owned co-op, which is self-managed by the employees, is making an effort to secure new contracts and McReynolds hopes there will soon be enough work to employ the Mexican immigrant women full-time. With a limited marketing budget, the cooperative is relying on social media, local speaking engagements, small newspaper ads and word of mouth to attract new customers. The Green Broom Brigade currently has eight residential clients, and received three prospective calls last week, including one from Lompoc's local museum.
The idea for the business was fueled by the economic recession, which hit the small town of Lompoc particularly hard. Unemployment reached 18 percent – and currently hovers at 15.5 percent – forcing many small business owners to close their doors. Feeling a sense of desperation, the group from Valley of the Flowers UCC was inspired by Evergreen Cooperatives, a Cleveland-based program a member discovered online that has helped create green jobs in an area also hurt by the economic downturn.
"Every Sunday through the great recession we prayed and agonized for the unemployed and said, 'What can we do?'" said McReynolds. "We can't just rely on Wall Street to come to our little town. We need to do something grassroots. People wanted to do something."
McReynolds has high hopes for the Green Broom Brigade Cooperative and would one day like it to employ 20-30 people. He believes in the worker-owned cooperative philosophy and says the group from Valley of the Flowers UCC plans to have an idea for a second co-op in the works by the end of the summer. The fact that the group could offer a green solution to the city's high unemployment rate was the icing on the cake, and they plan to count all of the hours it took to get the business up and running toward Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's church-wide earth care initiative.
"We believe that we need to do as much environmental work as we can, all of us, paid or unpaid," McReynolds said. "We saw many companies not doing this, so we did it for financial reasons and ethical reasons."