For good reasons, the spotlights of the media have been shining brightly on the fate of our electoral democracy, but it’s an error to gaze only where the light shines most brightly.
Important developments pertaining to our democracy, particularly to economic democracy, are unfolding in many places outside the spotlight. In a northeast corner of Los Angeles, not far from where I live, there’s a neighborhood called Atwater Village, and in that neighborhood an enterprise called the Proof Bakery does a thriving business.
Three years ago, its founder and owner, Na Young Ma, decided to relinquish ownership, but instead of selling the bakery to an outside owner, she took the more challenging, time-consuming path of initiating a transition to a worker-owned cooperative, inspired by the long-running, successful Cheese Board Collective and Arizmendi Bakeries in the Bay Area (Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, San Rafael, Emeryville).
Ms. Ma sought out advice from a non-profit consulting group called Project Equity, and after two years, she sold the bakery to her employees in August, 2021.
Since the bakery opened as a cooperative a little over a year ago, it now has 13 worker-owners and 12 employees.
Visiting the bakery recently, I spoke with one of the worker-owners, James Lee. He discussed the very different expectations that the new worker-owners brought to the fledgling enterprise, and about the efforts to get to know one another as they continued to work through those differences.
But he also spoke about the value of sharing not only the profits but also the stresses associated with running the co-op, stresses widely acknowledged as very high in the food and restaurant businesses. “We talk a lot about community, accountability,” he said. “The conversation is about people, about us.”
As we consider the aftermath of the midterms, and extend our gaze beyond the brightly-lit theater of political action, it may well be worthwhile to ask how rich a society we really are. And, perhaps, how real richness might someday emanate from an enterprise on the very next block in our neighborhood.
Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.