News Archive

Clinic Nurtures Local, Green Cooperative Enterprises


By Andrew Cohen

The spark that ignited Sushil Jacob’s ’11 idea for the Green-Collar Communities Clinic (GC3) was lit more than 7,000 miles away, while on a 2006 fellowship with a volunteer-placement organization in India. Jacob helped marginalized farmers expand their distribution cooperative to connect their products with each other and with the consumer market. “It struck me that co-ops are the original social enterprise,” he said. “I became fascinated by them.”

At Berkeley Law, Jacob took a Community Economic Development class that further stoked his interest. It was there that he thought to use a legal clinic template to help low-income workers and entrepreneurs incubate cooperative and environmentally-sustainable business ventures.

Jacob approached the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) and proposed the new project to Executive Director Tirien Steinbach ’99 and Faculty Director Jeff Selbin. “Sushil's vision, commitment and hard work made it easy to support the creation of GC3,” Steinbach said. “The innovative project has helped us grow our work with marginalized communities to advance economic justice and increase opportunities, while also giving law students a chance for hands-on transactional work. To me, that is EBCLC at its best.”

After culling information from academics, local community economic development practitioners, and cooperative advocates, Jacob drafted a formal proposal for the new clinical model at EBCLC. That proposal won him a two-year Skadden Fellowship—enabling the clinic’s launch in fall 2011. “The Bay Area has the largest concentration of worker co-ops in the U.S. and is the home of the green jobs movement,” Jacob said. “It’s the perfect place to launch this idea.”

In Spring 2012, the clinic took on four clients—a number that’s since tripled. Clients represent diverse industries, from solar installation to green nail salons. In its first year, GC3 has expanded its vision from creating green jobs to building community economic resiliency.

Cooperatives 101

As part of its program roster, the clinic offers aspiring entrepreneurs free legal workshops and follow-up clinics. Jacob, now an EBCLC supervising attorney and GC3 director, and five Berkeley Law students co-produce and present “legal downloads” covering the terrain of social enterprise formation and operation. Jacob says the participation of the Berkeley Law students each semester provides “a tremendous source of energy and talent.”

The clinic offers two main workshops each semester in collaboration with the Sustainable Economies Law Center, directed by Janelle Orsi ’08: “Legal Eats,” on how to start a food business, and “Think Outside the Boss,” on how to create a worker-owned business. On Nov. 17, more than 70 people turned out for a “Think” workshop, where they received a newly-published legal manual for worker-owned businesses, and networked with cooperative business developers and lenders.

GC3 also offers Business Law 101 workshops in partnership with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Morrison Foerster. In a sign of its effectiveness, the clinic was recently invited by the Mayor of Richmond, a strong advocate of worker co-ops, to present workshops there.

Following the workshops, entrepreneurs apply to receive a personalized brief legal advice session. “We spend about an hour with each entrepreneur,” Jacob said. “It’s a good way for them to understand what the legal issues are and where to go for further advice.”

GC3 provides ongoing representation through its cooperative incubator program. Clients must have taken active steps to start their enterprises and must demonstrate a strong commitment to community involvement. Jacob and the students evaluate whether the venture will create job opportunities in low-income communities, contribute to a sustainable environment, and incorporate cooperative ownership or management.

Collective Food and Work

Oakland’s Cooperative Café is a newly launched worker-owned business that hosts a farmers’ market alongside the café. The result: locally sustainable foods and job creation for under-employed workers—a perfect match for GC3.

“A group of us who live in or near the same neighborhood would see each other at the Phat Beets Produce market every Saturday,” said café co-founder Michele Lee. “Many of us were affected by the economic downturn. The farmers' market had outgrown its location, and a patron suggested acquiring the space to start a community-space co-op with an onsite farmers’ market.”

Seeking to “create a sustainable economic situation for ourselves and the community,” Lee and her cohorts began exploring how to develop their plan. Enter the Green-Collar Clinic. “Their assistance has been invaluable,” Lee said. “They’ve provided support and guidance in legal matters that we could not have afforded otherwise. They’ve held our hand through the cooperative process, and are helping us develop bylaws. They’re our biggest cheerleaders, and their belief in us makes us work that much harder.”

The clinic has also assisted two cooperatively managed “maker spaces” in Oakland. One allows residents to use the space to make locally-made handicrafts, while the other fosters sustainable education by offering workshops, talks, and other community forums.

“With the ongoing recession, unemployment rates remain unacceptably high in low-income East Bay communities,” Jacob said. “People know they can’t rely on traditional modes of economic development, like a city trying to lure in a big box store to create jobs. That’s not happening, so we need to figure out how to foster institutions created within the community that will be owned and operated locally. This is what builds community resiliency in the long-term.”

Photo (from left): GC3 student Daniel Mandel '13 and director Sushil Jacob '11 with Kandea Mosley and John McCall of Solar Richmond, a nonprofit that is creating a worker-owned solar installation cooperative.