Worker Ownership And The New Appalachian Economy

For a look at how communities in Appalachia are forging new economic paths forward, we turn to Molly Hemstreet, co-founder of Industrial Commons in North Carolina. Speaking with Brandon Dennison, founder of Coalfield Development in West Virginia, Molly shares what’s on the horizon for heritage industries, worker ownership, and the practice of “being big by being small together.”

Brandon Dennison: Molly, let’s start at the beginning – with your relationship to Appalachia and how you got interested in building a resilient economy. Tell us!

Molly Hemstreet: Well, I live in southern Appalachia, in the foothills of this beautiful state of North Carolina that is my home. I grew up here and came back after college to teach in our public schools. At that time, we had lost 40,000 jobs in our community, a decline over about an eight year period. I saw how hard it is to teach children when the fabric of an economy has been so completely pulled apart. That’s when I became interested in the question of how we can rebuild wealth. And as we’re in one of the least unionized parts of the country, that meant looking into new models that are outside traditional organizing.

Dennison: And that led you to set up three companies and cooperatives, with increasingly broader goals.

Hemstreet: That’s correct. I first built a cut and sew plant called Opportunity Threads, then a network of small producers – the Carolina Textile District. Later, in 2015, we set up Industrial Commons with the mission of building a diverse working class based on locally rooted wealth – a new ecosystem for manufacturing that can sustain a southern Appalachian economy. With Industrial Commons, we’re doing two things. One, we’re incubating and building businesses, particularly in our heritage industries of furniture and textiles and with a focus on circularity. And two, we’re working alongside students and frontline workers to think about what the future of work can look like and how imagination and creativity and equity can come to play on the front lines of manufacturing work.

Dennison: I’ve been lucky to see your work first-hand. You’re affecting whole systems, yet you do it through very tangible work that people can see and experience. Is that intentional?

Hemstreet: You know, someone called us practical innovators the other day and I think that fits. There is something very practical – and characteristically Appalachian – about our approach. We also have a deep sense of innovation not just in the products we’re making, but in how we bring people together. For example, we talk a lot about “coopetition.” In some spaces we might be competing, but what makes our economies work is when we can help everybody’s boats rise. For people who have survived a big downturn, there’s something practical in that.

Dennison: I agree. There’s a real Appalachian sense of grit and being hands-on – we like to make things, fix things, grow food. Also a strong sense of place. Appalachia has a distinctive culture and landscape – yet it’s not one thing, is it?

Hemstreet: An important point. Take my own family. My husband is a second-generation immigrant, and our children are bicultural and growing up speaking Spanish and English. The first cooperative I started was alongside Mayan Indigenous workers. We are also on Catawba land, with the Cherokee Nation next door. And outside of California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, we have the fourth largest Hmong population. So it’s an interesting mix of communities coming together, and that gives me hope in not just our economics, but what the future can look like.

Dennison: Agree – there’s a lot more diversity than people might think, a strength we can build on. How is Industrial Commons structured and why is governance and the engagement of the workers so important to you?

Hemstreet: We talk a lot about making things and that’s important, but at the end of the day, we’re also trying to create hope so people can turn to healthy solutions for their lives. We find that employee ownership is an interesting way to grow the middle, or just more democratized workplaces – especially for smaller plants of five to 75 people that are nimble, industry disruptors in a positive way. For these companies, employee ownership is a way to create retention, resiliency, and often more profit. We see that employee-owned businesses can grow back and stabilize the industry, making it appealing to the next generation of folks who want to be involved in the making process of textiles and furniture in the U.S.

Dennison: The circular economy – reusing production waste – is another dimension of your work. Why is it important?

Hemstreet: First, let me say that I love the circular economy. It’s not a trend, it’s what our grandparents did to keep things going. For Industrial Commons, it means mapping our region’s industrial waste – significant in the case of textiles – and creating new models where that waste comes back into our supply chains. One of our flagship cooperatives, Material Return, is leading the push to the U.S. circular economy. There are very few silver bullets for solving problems like generational poverty and economics, but the circular economy plus new models of employee ownership in an ecosystem model – this is a promising mix.

Dennison: Here again, there’s a pragmatism to it. It’s not a fancy new technology, it just makes sense and it’s doable. You’re also repurposing historic infrastructure.

Hemstreet: Yes. I’m sitting right now in an old factory that is 180,000 square feet and when I look out my window, there are the beautiful mountains beyond – yet I’m behind a barbed wire fence and most of the windows are bricked up. That’s what this was. It was about keeping people in or out. We are bringing life back into these industries and affirming the innovation that we’re living in our day-to-day work. We have a lot of aspirational building pieces, particularly around the Living Building Challenge and regenerative buildings. We want to show that in communities like ours, you can do innovative work with innovative labor models in very innovative spaces – that ultimately leave our communities better places.

Dennison: Right, if you’re in a disinvested community where there’s dilapidation, it’s an eyesore, a drain on property values, a safety hazard – and it’s also demoralizing. It sends a signal about whether there’s a future here.

Hemstreet: Yes. And with the opioid crisis that’s affecting much of our region, likewise we have a high population of young people, aged 16 to 24, who are not in school, nor are they working. We want them to drive by our buildings and workplaces and think, I can walk in there and I’m going to have a future. I’m going to have an opportunity. Especially for young adults recovering from substance use disorders, I want to affirm how important the visualization of a new future can be.

Dennison: Looking ahead to the growth of Industrial Commons, and the movement you’re spearheading, you’ve begun folding in public funds and just secured a $10 million investment to create a green textile manufacturing hub. How do you build political will?

Hemstreet: We talk about livelihoods – not just jobs, but good jobs, jobs that help people develop their skills and build wealth. We talk about our heritage industries of textiles and furniture, and there’s a deep pride in that. We’ve lived and worked in these factories, so we’re not coming in from the outside – and we’re saying there’s a real renaissance happening here. Industrialization served our communities well for a time but then really broke our communities, and the ability to tell a new story of community wealth and bring resources to it – this is meaningful. We worked hard to get in our state budget and did it. It was a lot of work and bridge building, and we’re proud and excited.

Dennison: You talk about growth as “being big by being small together.” I love that and I know it’s true to how you do your work – collaborative, humble, weaving together diverse networks. Any insights for others working through networks?

Hemstreet: For us, the idea of mutual benefit has been key. It makes you see the other person or group and understand their side. We’re weaving webs that understand mutual benefit for the long-term – not grant dependent, not one contract dependent. We also ask ourselves, What do we build, what do we buy, what do we leverage? Let’s not build the things that we can leverage, and let’s bring resources from the outside only after we’ve exhausted our resources internally. In our case, we’re working to build a movement, not just an organization, and a movement that stabilizes an economy. Our work is to position our region as the sustainable textile go-to for the U.S. and share our learnings with other regions and communities. This keeps us motivated!

Molly Hemstreet and Brandon Dennison are Ashoka Fellows. This interview was condensed for clarity and length.

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