According to some people in town, what Birmingham needs is a really big idea that includes world class food, flavored with exotic spices and where one can pick up beautiful tea sets and cookware. According to Melissa Kendrick, it should also include a philosophy of fair trade and a stated outcome of community building. Recently, Kendrick, owner of Sojourns: A Fair Trade Store, held the first information meeting to introduce her plans for a fair trade co-op market and café located in downtown Birmingham. She calls the co-op the Global Café and Market. At the kick-off meeting, Kendrick explained the co-op model – it is a membership controlled business run by its members or shareholders and governed by a board of directors. There are about 29,000 co-ops across the country. They operate in a variety of industries from farming to manufacturing to insurance and account for about $74 billion in annual wages and revenues of approximating $500 billion according to the co-op reporting website go.coop. The co-op model is a subset of an expanding movement in business called social entrepreneurship.
Co-ops are not new, but like labor unions, have been through ups and downs of popularity and usefulness depending upon economic conditions and trends in political thinking. Since the great economic turndown in 2008, and the rise of self-employment as a result of general job loss and restructure, people and businesses banding together appear to be on the rise out of a matter of mutual benefit and necessity – co-ops tend to support small business and individuals. Sometimes these groupings are deliberate as in a credit union, but sometimes they happen more casually as in the proliferation of mastermind groups in Birmingham. Mastermind groups meet regularly and make business referrals between the members of the group giving the members a leg up on new business opportunities.
At least two major nonprofit foundations, the Skoll Foundation and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs – concern themselves almost exclusively with the promotion of social entrepreneurship. These two foundations, founded by entrepreneur Jeff Skoll and Charles Schwab respectively, award over $1M annually to buddy social entrepreneurial activities. The Skoll Foundation also administers the Clinton Global Initiative, a health initiative founded by former President Bill Clinton.
Kendrick’s current business – Sojourns: A Retail Fair Trade Shop in downtown Birmingham – is a sole proprietorship that she launched with personal savings in 2005, however the website describes the store as the first fair trade retail shop of its kind in Alabama. On the shelves, the jewelry, baskets, carvings, embroidery, lace, and other products from developing countries in Africa, Russia, Peru, Vietnam and South America are purchased directly from the artists so that the artist keeps all proceeds from the sale and eliminates the possibility of financial abuse of artists from middlemen. This is in keeping with fair trade philosophy. Sojourns also supports local non-profits by donating a portion of sales to such causes as AIDS education outreach and protection and restoration of the Black Warrior River.
A feasibility study is planned for this summer for Global Café. The location under consideration for the café – across from the Alabama Theater – was chosen for its close proximity to the Alabama Theater and to draw on the McWane Center, Railroad Park and new baseball complex patrons for clientele. Kendrick is currently seeking advisory board members for the co-op.