Practices as Old as Time: Worker Co-ops

“Co-ops are beautiful and powerful, but they are not easy! You could have your LLC and all of these other technical aspects of a co-op, but if there isn’t a shared understanding of language and culture and how to deal with conflict, the co-op isn’t going anywhere.”

SONIA ERIKA, a project I co-organize with Nati Linares and Caroline Woolard, was invited by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), a San Francisco based arts center to produce a pilot season of a podcast about the Solidarity Economy and how artists and culture bearers are using their creative and relational skills to build it in their communities. Part of what we hope this podcast can convey is that we, Solidarity Economy practitioners, are not inventing some new technology but instead we are calling on practices and ways of being that are as old as time. We want to highlight the legacies and ancestors whose shoulders we stand on, and underscore that the ways in which this work materializes is often community driven/site specific and to illustrate the diverse ways these practices can exist. 

In the seven pilot episodes, listeners will learn that you don’t have to be a starving artist or a sell out; that you can find work where you joyfully live your values and pay the bills. Listeners will meet Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color creatives who are firing their bosses, freeing the land, electing themselves, and building livelihoods based on care, cooperation, mutual aid, and solidarity—like Sonia Erika who generously shared a conversation with me to test out the format. Sonia is a creator who loves being and working with cooperatives: she believes that they are the future. She also makes music with a nomadic band called Death is a Business. Sonia and I met through our work with where she uses social media to amplify the ways in which artists and culture bearers are building the cultural economy we want by sharing resources and inspiration about how to tap into the Solidarity Economy movement. 

In the conversation below, Sonia shares stories about how she found her way to the cooperative movement and what it’s meant in her life. She talks about some of the teachers she’s learned from along the way and how you, too, can live your best life without a boss by starting or joining a worker cooperative. 

*Some parts of this conversation were edited out of respect to protect the identities of undocumented people. 

Marina Lopez: Sonia, I wonder if you could share a story or specific experiences that you’ve identified as being a catalyst for the work you are doing now with co-op development and Solidarity Economics? 

Sonia Erika: My whole world was flipped upside down and it just completely changed my life. I was about maybe like 16 or 17 years old, and I was just about to finish high school. I went to apply for a job at Dover. It was a fast food job. And so I apply, I fill out the form, but then I get to the part where it says Social Security number. And I was like, What? What is a Social Security number? We have numbers? Everyone has an individual number? That’s weird. We’re humans. So I go home and I ask my dad, “Papi, what’s my Social Security number?” And he stays silent and I’m like, Hello…What’s my Social Security number?” And then he says “You don’t have one.” And I’m like, What? I was so confused. And so I go back to the manager of that restaurant chain and I tell him – I’m very naive at this point of my life. And I tell him I don’t have a Social Security number, but I will be the hardest worker you’ll ever have. And he just looks at me really strangely because I don’t think normally people who don’t have Social Security numbers admit that they don’t have a Social Security number. And he just looks at me very strangely and he says, I’m sorry, kid, but there’s nothing I can do about that. 

And I just remember keeping a straight face of emotion. And then turning around, walking out of the restaurant and as soon as my feet step outside my face just becomes full of tears and I start crying and I’m running. I think I was actually experiencing a state of mania because I just didn’t understand how to take that information, that people have numbers and what that means. And why were people not allowed to work if you didn’t have a number? And what were these numbers for anyway? 

My parents never told me that I was undocumented. I came to the U.S. at the age of six and I basically grew up here. I went to a good school. But I did feel a little bit weird because I grew up in a very white neighborhood and I was not visibly white. People knew I was different. It just felt like I never fit in or that I could be part of a community or space. But it wasn’t until the end of high school when I’m ready to apply for colleges, I’m ready to start my life and go into adulthood that I realized that I was undocumented. That experience  kind of catapulted me into a situation where I realized that I was part of a group. I was part of the undocumented population in the US. And then, you know, I just started realizing so many things like, oh, some people don’t have papers, some people don’t have a number in the U.S. And what does that mean for them? That means that we have to live in fear because we may not get paid right. And we may get immigration called on us and we might get deported. And so all of these realities became part of my reality that I was so conscious of. That’s when I also realized that because I was undocumented, I would have to pay out of state tuition to attend college. And that just completely shattered my world because my parents couldn’t afford to give me money to go to college. That’s when I went to my highschool college counselor and shared with him my situation. Until that point, he had never had an undocumented student. But the cool part about all of this is that he said the best thing that anybody could have ever said when I told him that I was undocumented. He said, “I don’t really know what that means, but we’re going to figure it out.” And I love that because it just gave me so much hope. It opened up the world to me. It helped me believe that my doors were open. It led me to going to Harvard. The world might be the way that it is on paper, but that it’s totally okay because you can still make it, whatever the heck you want. 

Marina: That’s so beautiful Sonia! Thank you for sharing that with me. There are so many incredible parts of your story. And I’m curious, how do you see that experience of trying to get a job in this in this workplace and then not being able to because you didn’t have a Social Security number; and then realizing, now I’m a part of this group of people, undocumented people who often live in fear because they might not be able to get work, or maybe they do get work, but they can be exploited or unpaid for their work or have immigration called on them. Do you find any of those experiences related to how you found your way into cooperatives as a way to reconcile the dehumanizing ways in which workplaces are set up, especially as an undocumented person? 

Sonia: Oh, yes, totally! It’s so interesting that sometimes something has to happen to you, for you to really appreciate a certain type of experience. So in this case, being undocumented led me to then learning even more about my parents and their work experiences and being able to better understand their experience as undocumented people. It definitely gave me so much anger. A lot of anger, actually. And yes, definitely fear because I remember my dad telling me that he had worked a job where he was picked up somewhere and then they took them to a landfill. And he remembers picking through garbage and the smell and doing that for such a little amount of money. That made me so angry. My dad is the first person that told me that companies will only use you until you’re no longer physically able and then they will throw you away. And so getting these memories from him, and from my mother who also worked factory jobs, because these are the circumstances that they had to face. It gave me so much anger. 

So because of that it helped me realize that co-ops – worker owned businesses are the way. And it’s honestly why I feel so honored to have worked on the Brightly Cleaning Cooperative franchise. It’s one of the first co-op franchises in the U.S. and it was like a home to me. It was like a piece of my heart. And it felt so beautiful and powerful to me to come full circle. And to help them have their own business, where they could own their own labor and help them realize that: you can be undocumented, but you can also own your labor even if it’s in the US. And that’s so powerful! I don’t think a lot of people actually realize that. The experience of my father and my mother, who were definitely laborers, gave me anger and hope because it showed me the hardships that they had gone through, but also the power that can come with carrying this identity and defying it. My parents bought a house and I have no idea. I still to this day have no idea how they did it. And I’m just like, Wow, you guys are fucking amazing! 

I’m so proud to be undocumented. Well, formally undocumented now because we were able to get papers. But it’s so funny because the day that I got my papers, I was actually kind of sad. I felt like I was leaving an identity behind that I didn’t want to leave behind because it’s such a beautiful and powerful identity to have. It’s very painful, but it’s also very powerful. 

Marina: Wow! I didn’t know that history. I didn’t know that you had been a part of shaping the Brightly Cooperative franchise. And how incredible to work with people in your situation and to say, you can be an undocumented person and you can own your labor. And also to shift from this manic state of, oh my gosh, my world is turned upside down and then all of the ways that you’re going to have to navigate it differently. Then, now you have this security with your papers and feeling a sense of grieving that belonging. I wonder, did you ever feel like in some ways that was an experience you had of belonging or feeling a sense of belonging? Or maybe it’s more complicated than that. 

Sonia: Yeah, it’s definitely complicated because for so much time being undocumented also made me feel like I didn’t belong. There were very few people in my specific world that I came across that were undocumented. Unlike my parents, who, when they went to work, they were in communities of undocumented people. When I went to school, I was not in community with undocumented people. [laughs] And so it was definitely a point of isolation for me. And the only people I knew that were undocumented, that were my age, was my cousin. 

Shortly after I found out that I was undocumented, that’s when I started getting involved with workers rights and getting involved with this amazing organization that still exists today here in Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera. They’re an amazing organization that advocates for workers rights. And they have one of the biggest marches on May 1st, The Day Without Workers. That was a space of empowerment for me, because I felt that I belonged because I was undocumented. I just appreciate those spaces, those organizations that exist. It’s kind of like where it exists to create a different world. These are the spaces where I feel like I do belong and where being undocumented is actually a strength instead of a weakness. 

Marina: Yes! It’s interesting that you find a sense of belonging in groups that are radically reimagining a new world, because that’s what you had to do. You had to radically reimagine what your world would be and what was possible for you to do. And now you’ve taken the skills, and knowledge that you cultivated from that experience and are translating it into creating new worlds through cooperatives because you’ve been a part of multiple cooperatives, right? Can you talk a little bit about some of the other cooperatives that you’ve started? Maybe if there were any mentors that you had that were part of that and how they shared or how you learned about some of the technical aspects of starting a cooperative.

Sonia: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Okay. So my first cooperative was an organization that I helped build alongside three other people. And it’s really funny because we didn’t actually recognize that it was a co-op at first. We built it and it wasn’t until years later, after being part of Brightly Cooperative and their process of becoming a co-op that I realized, wow, the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) was totally a co-op. I feel like a lot of times what I’ve seen in other co-op spaces is that people call it a co-op, but it’s not necessarily a co-op. It can be very hard to actually have a democratic space of work and labor. MRCC started out with four young people. Three of us were still in college. Only one of us had graduated. We grabbed onto each other’s strengths to create this organization. And I think that’s what really made it work. Kamani Jefferson, who was from New York, was a super political visionary. He could see that legalization [of weed] was going to happen. He said, “Let’s make this an organization. I’ll find out how to do the legal documentation and make it into a formal 501c4 lobbying organization.” So that was his strength. And then Joey was the community organizer. He was from that community in Massachusetts and he was loyal and committed to his community. That was definitely a vital part of it because when we’re doing community work, we need to have someone from that community. And then there was Gabby Cartagena who was also born and raised in Massachusetts, and she was more of a creative, which I was as well. 

So Gabby and I worked together to create podcasts, and create all the visual aspects of the organization, what it represented, and how we formalized our existence. It all magically fit together, which is something that doesn’t always happen. I’m very grateful for that team experience because it was one of the best teams that I’ve ever been a part of. After that, it was the Brightly’s. It was such a beautiful, powerful experience because these were women that reminded me of my mother and who were learning to be in sisterhood, but also bosshood. They were like sister bosses together. I definitely saw how a lot of them struggled with that role because it is really hard to have a business where you’re the worker and the owner and you have to communicate with everybody else who is a worker and an owner. Very difficult. That’s probably one of the best things that I took away from that experience was how to deal with conflict and conflict resolution. We had a really great workshop by this amazing woman, Maria López-Nuñez. She came in and gave a workshop where she showed us conflict is, so how are you going to deal with it? And then translating that learning to my band which is also a co-op, now with my band, Death is a Business, which is a band, Death is a business, which is also a co-op I’m carrying all of these little knowledge pieces and continuing to create more and more and more co-ops.

Marina: That’s so cool. I love that you’re like the co-op queen. 

[both laugh]

Sonia: Yeah!

Marina: I feel like that piece that you said about conflict is and how conflict resolution is such an important aspect of creating a co-op is really interesting. There are so many technical things to know about creating a co-op, right? There’s the legal part, the political side, the entrepreneurial side – what is our business? How are we making and selling the thing? There’s a lot of learning of those technical pieces. But then there is a lot of unlearning socialized beliefs around hierarchy, decision making, money, and navigating conflict. So how does the culture piece get brought into it? What’s your experience been like in ensuring that good cultural practices are essential and a part of the learning, unlearning, and  the group cohesion? 

Sonia: Totally. You could have your LLC and all of these other technical aspects of a co-op, but if there isn’t a shared understanding of language, culture, and how to deal with conflict, the co-op isn’t going anywhere. That’s just what’s going to happen. And I think something that really helps – outside of having somebody come in and give a workshop – are rituals. Meeting every week and creating that space and time where people check in. We’re not just talking about business, business, business, but that’s the time when we’re actually checking in as humans. We’re understanding where we are. And then that gives us the ability to be human. For example, with the Brightly’s, most of them were mothers. One of them was pregnant and about to give birth. Not many others in the group knew until she was really, really ready to give birth. She hadn’t been attending some of the meetings and the lack of communication created a barrier for empathy. People were just like, “Oh, she’s not showing up, so she doesn’t want to be a part of this. What is she still doing here? She should just not be part of the co-op.” My team and I, which was me and one other person, Stephanie Zucasaca, who were co-developing this co-op. We were such a great team because my organization, the Center for Family Life brought in all the technical terms: how to become an LLC; what do your bylaws look like? Mission; vision; and values. 

Important, yes. But what Stephanie brought was also important. She came from this organization called Children’s Aid, and it’s more of a social work organization. She brought in resources like bus passes and childcare. We had childcare at every meeting, and food. These are the human things that I think especially women need when creating companies. Because we want the world to be equal. We want there to be equal pay, but let’s be real, men don’t need childcare. Well, I mean, unless the father is actually taking care of the baby. But for the most part, it’s mothers who are fulfilling these types of jobs and tasks. So having the social work aspect was so powerful and then putting that together with the technical aspects I thought, wow, we can do this! So I think rituals, acknowledging our humanness, and giving ourselves the money, the resources, and the time to give ourselves support, like childcare. 

Marina: That’s so beautiful. I love that. Who are the ancestors in your work? Because I think that one thing that’s really important to remember and part of what I’ve learned in my work with and feels exciting to share with other people coming into the Solidarity Economy movement or remind those who are in it, is that these are old practices, as old as time. We are not inventing some kind of new technology. So I love how you were like, we bring in ritual, we bring in our humanity, we bring in the things as old as time. In your experiences, how do you bring your ancestors? Ancestors could also be the people in your lineage of knowledge; who have you learned from and how do their teachings show up in your work?

Sonia: Yeah, someone that definitely gave me a lot of inspiration when I was just learning the power of co-ops was Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard. I loved her book, Collective Courage. Even though it’s very academic – I recommend people watch her YouTube interviews because those are more engaging and then when you’re ready, get into the book. But the book is very powerful because it’s basically a history of cooperatives and a history of how we’ve been using this kind of system to free ourselves for a long time. Something that really resonated with me and told me that co-ops are the way, was hearing about how back in the day, slaves used co-ops to raise money and buy themselves out of slavery. Like, that’s just so brilliant! How beautiful and powerful and collective. When I learned about all of this and from her, I was just like, wow, co-ops are the way! 

Marina: Beautiful. Yeah. Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s work – the way that she’s spoken about and shared the stories of that legacy – has deeply informed We’ve gotten to weave her into some of the things that we’re doing. She’s an incredible teacher. 

Sonia: And also, I do want to give a really big shout out to one of my big mentors who I was able to learn from during the Brightly process. Maru Bautista, she’s such a brilliant mind. It’s so amazing to me how she’s created a team that has had the capacity to create the first co-op franchise in the U.S. That’s really thinking outside of the box! Like when I learned about her work and about the Brightly’s I was like, I have to learn from this! I love the conferences that they attend because many times it’s conferences where people like Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard are speaking and it’s powerful to get to meet people, and be like, “Wow, I love your work” – which I’ve definitely been a few times. 

Marina: Me too. I totally fangirled!

[Both laugh]

Sonia: Yes. Because it’s like people like that that are brave enough to go outside of what is normally described, the economies that are normally described, and paint a picture for us. That takes a lot of work. So I really appreciate everybody who’s come before us and who has put down the time and the effort to show us that a different way is possible. Even with our music, the band I’m a part of, Death is a Business, we are finding ways to share it outside of the extractive economy. I know Spotify is super strong in the music game and so many artists are currently using them as a platform. But then there are other platforms like which actually, when you compare how much Spotify pays compared to how much pays, it takes like 700 streams from Spotify to make the same amount that you would make just from seven streams on It’s crazy, it’s insane! And I just hope that more platforms convert to this co-op model. 

Marina: What are some ways that you feel like folks can make this work tangible? Like maybe you don’t have a group to start a worker co-op with, but what is a first step people can take where they are now?

Sonia: I think a great first step is possible attending a co-op conference because those give you so much energy. And I think that’s also another point of inspiration where anytime that I felt gloomy and like the world just sucks. Attending  one of these conferences has given me life because, not only do you get to see examples of things that are already working and places where you could actually tap in, you actually get to meet the people behind the work! And that’s just so energizing. The United Federation Worker Co-op Conference is awesome! I love them. 

Marina: Are there any final thoughts, any invitations you’d like to make to listeners? 

Sonia: I would just like to share that co-ops are beautiful and powerful, but they are not easy. And some might say that a dictatorship is easier than a democracy because it is. It’s easy to have somebody tell you, oh, do this, do that, do that. It is harder to think for ourselves, but it’s so worth it and it’s so powerful. And so I hope that we all can bring that curiosity to explore these different possibilities and create these different worlds and also find these different worlds because they already exist!

Marina: Yes! Sonia, thank you so much. It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you. I can’t wait to do it more. 

Sonia: I feel the same way. I know I always tell you that I’m so thankful for this community that you all have created. But I will never stop saying it because I want you all to know how much I appreciate this world that is being created. It’s so beautiful. It’s so powerful, and it’s so necessary. 

Marina: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, you’re creating it, too. We couldn’t do it without you either. 

Sonia: We’re doing it together. 

Marina: We’re doing it together!

Sonia: Yes!

Sonia Erika (she/her) is a celebrated artivist and serial entrepreneur, focused on Solidarity Economics. Before graduating from Harvard University, she co-founded 3 weed organizations, The Cannabis Cultural Association, The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, and EatMe.Land. All her companies are collaborative artistic statements.

As a formerly undocumented human, she believes a different world is possible. She solely focuses on cooperatives: worker-owned business. 

She currently spends her time touring and recording music in various countries with Death is a Business.

Aside from global storytelling through music, she helps cooperatives develop their business strategy and brand. This includes coaching teams and individuals.

You can connect with Sonia here:

Marina Lopez (she/her) is a Mexican-American performing and social practice artist, massage therapist/somatic educator, and cultural organizer. Her experience as a bodyworker is essential to her practice as an artist because we can’t separate the art from the body that makes it. Her interdisciplinary work weaves together many voices and links to history, social movements, and tradition. She is a core organizer with and co-coordinates a national Arts, Culture, Care and Solidarity Economy working group. Marina creates work that articulates and provides an embodied cognition of the ways in which art, culture, and care are foundational within a thriving society. 

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207