ABOUT

Currently, when women leave prison, there are few employment opportunities available to them, and there are many obstacles to their gaining employment. There are also limited opportunities for learning and practicing literacy and computer skills.  Our project is aimed at supporting Aboriginal women (who make up the majority of criminalized women in Canada and in our community),  but should also help their families and children.

We are in the planning stages of our proposed development of a workers co-op for Aboriginal women transitioning from prison. As a team of 4, we bring different and complimentary background experiences and strengths that unite academic and community expertise in pursuit of this economic and literacy initiative.

We are currently consulting stakeholder community groups (from women in the community who might be eligible members of our workers’ co-op, to representatives of social and justice agencies) to assess and overcome barriers to and cultivate interest in developing a workers’ co-op for urban Aboriginal women transitioning from prison. Currently, when women leave prison, there are few employment opportunities available to them, and there are many obstacles to their gaining employment. There are also limited opportunities for learning and practicing literacy and computer skills.  Our project is aimed at supporting Aboriginal women (who make up the majority of criminalized women in Canada and in our community),  but should also help their families and children.

We imagine a start-up membership of about 6 full-time members, but will also take on some part-time members. Co-op membership will result in training and employment; members will not only learn and practice job skills, but will earn money and participate in decision-making. Thus, we are proposing an initiative enabling urban Aboriginal women to participate in an economic enterprise that provides an alternative, more collaborative employment model, designed to support social and literacy learning as well as to address job training and financial needs.

We are still in the process of consulting and researching to determine a product for co-op manufacture, Front Step research co-op has an office on Ellice Avenue at Furby Street, and we envision locating close by in order to co-use some facilities and resources.

We have initiated discussion with other educators involved in community-engaged learning, to cultivate institutional support for our project as well as to broaden prison education and literacy initiatives. We held a small symposium (May 2012) made up of community representatives and academics, convened to hear the presentation of Simone Weil Davis (University of Toronto) advocating for the development in Manitoba prisons of the Inside Outside Prison Exchange program. We have begun holding focus groups to gather information from women from the inner city area whose lives have been affected by criminalization. We have presented our project at an international conference, and are today presenting it to this group for discussion.

Before we can move into the stage of actual implementation/registration of the co-op,there is much planning and consulting work that needs to be done to ensure that we are following  sound process and practices  and cultivating and maintaining goodwill and commitment in the community.  Although initially a small number of members would be involved and helped (6 full-time), a successful co-op would lead to growing this membership, as well as to the development of tiered membership, so that some people could become involved in part-time ways. In addition to learning and practicing job skills, members would receive remuneration for their work. They would also take on some of the leadership roles in the decision-making and management of  the co-op and so would experience working with an alternative economic model. Apart from job training and earning money, members would benefit from social supports and literacy training. We do not expect to duplicate the range of services available through organizations such as Eagle Lodge (Ellice Ave.) or womens’ resource centres and the Elizabeth Fry society, but we would learn from the experience of other supportive cooperative enterprises.

We believe the proposed workers’ co-op would attract and reward Aboriginal women members by providing work, wages and returns on their shares, but it would also provide friendship and social support as well as literacy support (reading, writing, numeracy, computer skills). We have discussed this project with many people who represent different community positions and perspectives. Many express enthusiasm. We have also heardconcerns and warnings. What are your thoughts?