An Appalachian model for regenerating place-based community wealth
(Photo via The Industrial Commons by Franzi Chanen)

This article was co-published by Prism and Next City as part of our Solutions for Economic Equity partnership, highlighting how low-income and marginalized BIPOC communities are cultivating, building, and seizing economic justice in cities across the U.S.

At the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, the rural town of Morganton has been synonymous with American textile and furniture manufacturing since the late 19th century. The city’s wealth has been inextricably tied to these industries, but as large corporations bought out locally owned businesses and subsequently moved outside the community, that wealth left with them. 

Today, the median household income in Morganton is 43% less than the national average, while the poverty rate is more than twice the national average. Still, the community remains largely reliant on manufacturing as one of its only lifelines for livelihood. 

From the outside, Morganton may not look like the ideal staging ground to try something new. 

Enter The Industrial Commons (TIC), an organization founded in 2015 that incubates employee-owned social enterprises and industrial cooperatives to create an “inclusive economy rooted in community and dignity.” Rebuking the rugged individualism of the American business model, TIC borrows inspiration from existing cooperatives in Mondragón, Spain, and in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to create an industrial ecosystem that prioritizes workers—those left most disadvantaged by the community’s extracted wealth. 

By supporting enterprises and their workplaces in becoming more democratized, worker-centric, and worker-led, TIC reimagines them as trade stewards rather than disenfranchised foot soldiers of profit-obsessed business owners.

Here, the term “frontline worker” takes on a different connotation than what we’ve been accustomed to hearing over the past three years—here, they are not the first slated for sacrifice for the public good; they are the managers, owners, decision-makers, and community leaders. 

Next City/Prism spoke with Sara Chester, TIC’s co-executive director, about rebuilding an industry centered on stewardship, worker power, and community wealth and well-being. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Frances Nguyen: The Industrial Commons (TIC) is deeply informed by place. Can you introduce us to Morganton and how it became an optimal environment for “community-centered industrial development?”

Sara Chester: Morganton is home to about 17,500 people; in terms of breakdown, we’re 67% white, 19% Latinx, 12% African American, and 3% Asian American, roughly. We’ve always been a big manufacturing town, and about a fifth of our workforce is still employed in manufacturing. We have a large Maya population and Hmong population in our community, and both of those groups found their way to Morganton often as a result of the manufacturing sector. It’s a huge economic driver for our community, and many, many years ago, it created a lot of locally rooted wealth. But over the years, a lot of those companies were sold from local ownership, particularly in furniture and textiles. A lot of the companies that [since] have come into the community are not locally owned, or they’re part of large, global corporations.

A lot of the work that’s happening is [re]generating this wealth that’s being taken out of the community. Our work is a place-based strategy layered on top of a sectoral strategy: We saw the furniture and textile sector as something to leverage and an asset to build off of, to save that skill and preserve it, and to use [the sector] as a base for the creation of this new way of doing things, acknowledging that those jobs need to look very different. 

Nguyen: To do that, TIC has reorganized the local industry into what you describe as a cooperative economy. What does that shift look like?

Chester: We use a word with our partners in the Carolina Textile District, which is a membership network of textile companies: coopetition. How do we both cooperate and compete? It’s not about one person, or two people, making a large cut off of the business. The whole goal is really about stewardship, about [folks] being able to take care [of that business] and have dignity and voice every day, to show up with their whole selves and love what they’re doing and do it really well. [And] make a good living.

Nguyen: TIC was inspired by European models of cooperatives to shape this new ecosystem. I imagine for the older generations, who’ve worked in manufacturing their whole lives, this idea of “coopetition” might seem a little hokey to them—even un-American, as it’s completely antithetical to the rugged, individualistic American business model.

Chester: It does kind of go against the grain of what people traditionally think, but I think we’ve found a way to bring that idea about with these folks [whom] we’re working with in our community: that it’s more about stewardship than ownership. 

The older generation, that’s where all of the skill and knowledge base is in those industries. These folks are in their 60s, and they’ve worked in these sectors their whole lives. They can make anything. And the part that we’ve found over the years that really gets them excited is this idea of training the next generation and really being mentors, so they see their piece of stewardship as passing down the knowledge that they have. 

As a community and a region, for the past 20 or 30 years, we’ve been telling young people, “Don’t stay here. Don’t work in manufacturing—and certainly don’t work in textiles and furniture. Get out.” So, for a lot of these folks, who have poured their lives into the furniture and textile industry, they want to see that skill carry on and be preserved, and to see the industry evolve and innovate.

Some of them will say things like, “I have enough, and I want to create the next opportunity for the next person.” There is buy-in to the idea that we’re building something bigger than ourselves, and that the opportunity, really, is to create this thing that we’re shepherding into the future, versus “me, me, me” and “what can I get out of this?”

Nguyen: Racial equity is a cornerstone of TIC’s organizational values. I wonder how you incorporate that into an economy—and community—that’s still predominantly white. 

Chester: We absolutely prioritize hiring people of color and supporting people of color, but we also acknowledge that there are just a lot of poor, white, working-class people in our community who have been left out of these traditional economic models for generations, have been on the outside of the traditional power structures of our region, and are extremely disenfranchised and disconnected. 

We do a lot of DEI training with our staff every month in our staff meetings, and we’re exploring the intersection of race and class and how people are marginalized in all sorts of different ways. These traditionally haven’t been topics of conversation in our community, but through our work at TIC we’re changing that. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we helped a lot of institutions in our community with translation services to be sure critical public health information was reaching everyone. Our team has embraced these conversations and supports the idea that we’re building something for everyone and that no one should be left out of that. 

We [also] offer three hours a month, 36 hours a year, for folks to volunteer in the community, and we really try to help guide them toward serving on a board. We have folks on the workforce development board, the hospital board, the community college board—a lot of these really important organizations in our community, [where] they’re learning how to be a part of the decision-making infrastructure of a community like ours. They’re learning really concrete ways of how to become part of the decision-making and power structures of our community.

Nguyen: What have been your main challenges in growing this economy to scale?

Chester: When we were about 15 people, one of our biggest challenges was internal organizational development in terms of building management capacity. A lot of our hiring is bringing people in from the plant floor, who are amazing and brilliant people but who’ve never managed anyone, so we sought out a leading expert in management training to write a custom curriculum for us around management. We’ve been implementing that over the past two years, and we have about 30 people now, [including] really solid managers who’ve learned this coaching supervision model of management where they’re balancing support and accountability and helping people become their own problem solvers.

Our challenge as we grow is going to be to find ways to engage in [outside] opportunities to have more of a national impact without stepping too much away from the day-to-day work that’s here—balancing our ability to remain a place-based model. 

We recognize our position in the cooperative or economic development field, and we feel a responsibility to share out how it can be applicable to other regions. But we’ve got to keep focused on the work on the ground and keep building it out; otherwise, there’s nothing to share.

Nguyen: Since 2015, TIC has launched five cooperative businesses that employ more than 100 workers and plans to grow that number to “75 sustainable, innovative and equitable businesses and industry networks” by 2025. How do you plan to build out capacity for them?

Chester: We look within our community and see where there are challenges or problems. If there’s a certain training or business or market opportunity, we are often seen as the ones to solve the problem or fill the gap. I think people have a lot of respect for us because we’re often able to pivot quickly and do things that other traditional institutions can’t take on, either because it’s outside of their scope or they don’t have the capacity to. People see us as being an economic driver and solving some of the challenges that our community is facing.

It’s just about relationships. It helps a lot that [co-executive director Molly Hemstreet] and I are both from the community; we’re not folks coming in from the outside trying to change things. We grew up here, and we’re realistic about the challenges and the opportunities. And nobody can argue with the fact that we care deeply about this place and we love this place and we’re committed to it. 

Neither Molly nor I is going anywhere. We’re here for the rest of our lives.

Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer, editor of the Women Under Siege section (which reports on gender-based and sexualized violence in conflict and other settings) at the Women's Media Center, and a member...