The Youth Movement in Worker Coops: Toxic Soil Busters

So what do you do when you find your neighborhood is full of lead from a by-gone era? Teens in Massachusetts decided to get busy and make some money on the side.

The Toxic Soil Busters are a youth cooperative. These are “youth” in terms of age. They are located in Worchester, MA. They work to clean the soli of their community of the lead paint that was so heavily used by during the industrial age of this area. Since lead poisoning effects children in a more severe manner than adults (although still dangerous), this coop is essentially young people (non-adults) helping to clean the community of lead to help the generation behind them.

This isn’t some high school science project led by a kindly teacher. This is a business owned, controlled and managed by its members who just happen to be teenagers. They do the testing, they do the removal. More importantly, they make the decisions on how to organize and run the business.

I’ve been hearing about these folks for a little over a year, but they have been active since 2005 and have cleaned 36 properties. They use pyto-plant remediation to remove the lead from the soil. The plats pull the lead out of the dirt and the soil busters take the plants away.

It was a great presentation. Janeazzii (I hope that I have that spelled right) lead the group in a chant: TSB Profit? In Lead with Stop it!

She then told her story about finding TSB and learning. They do the interviewing for new hires (youth interviewing youth), they do the hiring and, if neccessary, they do the firing. They manage their own capital and they find incredilbe learning opportunities (including how to deal with conflict). They discussed a scenario in which a person just wanted the money; however, they did talk about the conflict of friendships and other pressures that all of us deal with in our cooperatives. They don’t turn this over to a mentor, they deal with it themselves.

The experience has led to greater community activism (I have to note, that since the job starts with cleaning the land, it seems quite natural that natural for this to expand outwards). This is a great lesson for our cooperatives of much older members. We need to make the connection between having good jobs, clean land, and social justice.

Patricia was next. She noted that TSB debunks the myth that teenagers only care about shopping, eating and sleeping. If young people are our future, then why don’t we treat them like it.  Teenagers see a void in the world where they are considered and to fill this void, they look for a way to belong. She noted that why she can handle these responsibilities, she can’t write a check, nor can she serve on the US Federaton of Worker Cooperatives board of directors.*

TSB is a space where teens and youth can find a space and feel involved. It is a place for them to find power and their voice. TSB strengthens their community and joins with other organizations regionally and nationally.

The Toxic Soli Busters’ received the second standing ovation of the day (the Evergreen Initiative was first).

The first question, how to export this. They suggest to make sure that you allow the youth to talk.

Do people age out (the Logan’s Run question)? The two that are leaving (for college) will be training the new hires. They aren’t leaving with their experience, they are leaving that behind. One of the founders who is in college acts in a mentor role.

A question about legal age to work. In Mass, the legal age is 14 and the TSB are talking about creating a mentoring program to help younger people interested in the work.

*As president of the USFWC, I will say that our had a spirited discussion, but recognized that we didn’t really have a process to deal with it. We agreed that we need to create a process. We have committed to changing the by-laws to make space for youth on our board by our next membershing meeting in Austin, TX in 2011 and have invited Patricia to participate in our meetings this year.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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