When John Duda and Kate Khatib returned to the United States in 2003 to attend graduate school, they didn't set out to become a new breed of entrepreneurs. They came to the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center as doctoral candidates. But they also got involved in a nascent experiment in sustainable business democracy and social justice called the Red Emma's collective, which opened a small worker-owned bookstore and café in 2004. In the decade since its doors opened, Red Emma's has grown in size, scope, and national recognition, becoming an inspiration for similarly minded businesses.
That recognition in part fueled the collective's recent expansion. "I think we got increasingly serious about [the business] as people started to take us more seriously as a model," Khatib says, sitting with Duda in Red Emma's new location just north of Baltimore's Penn Station. This space, in what used to be a commercial drug store, is six times the size of the store's founding location.
Khatib, A&S '13 (PhD), and Duda, A&S '12 (PhD), find themselves participants in a growing national network of worker-owned cooperatives and collectives seeking alternatives to traditional business structures, operations, and financing. Over the past decade, and particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, worker-owned cooperatives (and organizations to support them) have sprung up around the country, from the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the American Worker Cooperative to regional organizations like Cooperation Texas and the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives in Massachusetts and Vermont. In a 2012 interview on alternativeradio.org, political economist Gar Alperovitz, cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, estimated that nearly 130 million Americans are involved in some form of co-op, from credit unions to window manufacturers to bookstore coffee shops.
"The goal here is to pay a living wage to ourselves and to all the new people who are coming in," Duda says. "If we're serious about workplace democracy, if we're serious about Red Emma's as an alternative business model, we need to demonstrate that this is a real way of running a business that can pay people's bills, that can feed people's children."
When Red Emma's first opened in 2004, the collective didn't have a road map. The political mission branched into different areas over the first decade. As a radical bookstore, Red Emma's welcomed authors, speakers, and film screenings that were tied to anti-globalization efforts, local and regional activism, and agriculture reform. But the store could only accommodate a small audience. In 2007, the collective partnered with St. John's United Methodist Church to form a volunteer-run venue for musical performances, larger lectures and author appearances, and academic conferences. Two years later, they started a free school for sharing skills and education. The collective's latest venture is Thread Coffee, a Baltimore-based, small-batch roaster that works directly with farmers to ensure they receive a just price for their crops.
When the collective decided to expand, it sought financing through lenders who shared their values: Baltimore's Research Associates Foundation for progressive activism, the cooperatively owned North Country Development Fund, and the nonprofit Working World finance system that supports worker cooperatives. These organizations not only helped them obtain capital but also advised them on their business plan and operations.
The collective decided to expand because the group wanted Red Emma's to be where they spend most of their time, energy, and attention. And to Khatib, whose dissertation explored the Chicago Surrealist Group and its founders, labor scholars Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, that's an organic outgrowth of her academic experience. "I would love to see more people who are in the academic community thinking about ways to get engaged with building social infrastructure," Khatib says. "Those of us who have had the good fortune to go through that [academic] process have access to a lot of resources and experience that's applicable to organizing work. And it would be great to see a lot more of that get out and into the streets rather than just staying in the classroom."