In Lake County, Ill., a unique partnership between churches, civic organizations and institutions of higher learning is forming to ask: What if we could prepare our youth and young adults for higher education, entrepreneurship and future employment while also reconnecting them with the church?

Jan. 25 marked the kickoff of a worker cooperative pilot project co-sponsored by the ELCA, the University Center of Lake County (UCLC), the College of Lake County (CLC) and a group of individuals and organizations informally calling themselves the Embrace the Change Project. These partners seek to offer holistic support services to students and to help them succeed professionally by establishing a worker-owned bakery cooperative.

This month four CLC culinary students who have received scholarships from the partnership will begin training and classes at UCLC for the initial pilot project. These students will spend eight weeks training in cooperative management, earning credit toward their culinary degrees and gaining practical experience in launching a business. The co-op plans to begin with a focus on baking and selling Latin American food, such as empanadas and pupusas, in Lake County.

“I haven’t heard of any co-op of young adults in any college in the United States.”

“Our idea of creating a youth bakery co-op is inspired by a call from God to serve the community and the amazing work of previous co-ops in the U.S.A. and in Spain,” said Hector Carrasquillo, ELCA director for Latino Ministries. “I haven’t heard of any co-op of young adults in any college in the United States. The ELCA were moved to be part of this.”

Carrasquillo helped establish the project through relationships with Chicago-area attorney Dennis Kelleher, who will provide legal services for the project, and Myra Gaytan-Morales, executive director and dean of UCLC, with whom Carrasquillo had worked on other projects in the county. Ryan Wallace, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and a community organizer, has also served as a member of the partnership.

“This is a pioneer project,” Carrasquillo told cooperative students at the Jan. 25 kickoff event. “It’s you, the students, who are going to take the lead in forming this wonderful idea and, hopefully, replicate it.”

The project co-sponsors expect the cooperative, owned and operated by its youth and young adult members, to provide participants with just wages, patronage dividends and professional experience. The project includes plans for events and experiences that will help co-op members and the wider community connect the values and principles of business cooperatives with the gospel.

Transformed lives and communities

Students founding the co-op will collectively make key decisions about the business during its start-up phase. Through a virtual storefront they hope to sell baked goods to locals, to churches and faith communities, and to other food service businesses for resale. The co-op will be marketed through social media and church and business networks, and it may also open pop-up storefronts.

The project partners expect startup costs to be covered by foundation grants, donations from faith-based institutions and individuals, and in-kind gifts of professional services.

The cooperative project “creates opportunities for workers in Lake County,” Gaytan-Morales said at the event. “This will help advance lives, the quality of life, especially for underrepresented students.”

Rodolfo Ruiz-Velasco, Latinx student outreach and programs coordinator for CLC, agreed. “This is something new for a lot of us, but I think the concept is very powerful in how we can work as a group and create something great, and especially develop a business,” he said, estimating that Latinos make up close to 40% of CLC’s student population. “This is a great partnership with [us] and with the church.”

“This will help advance lives, the quality of life, especially for underrepresented students.”

Project partners hope that within three to five years the co-op will have its own dedicated space for selling products, communal gathering and events focused on professional, educational and spiritual development. In particular, ELCA leaders want to develop new youth and young adult faith leaders—with an emphasis on people of color and other populations underrepresented in the church—and to connect them with congregations or launch new ministry expressions.

“Why is a church interested in doing this?” asked Rafael Malpica Padilla, ELCA executive director for Service and Justice, at the kickoff event. “When we invest in people, like in this partnership, we work with people so that we can provide skills and competencies that will deepen and extend the capacity of those individuals. They are able to take more ownership and control of their lives and improve the lives of the community. So that’s why we are here.”

If the ELCA can help “provide training but also the capacity to work with [young adults] so that they can set up their own businesses and flourish, we will be doing our job,” Malpica Padilla said, pointing to other cooperatives the church supports around the world. “I hope and I pray that this companionship will grow.”

John Potter
John G. Potter is content editor of Living Lutheran. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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