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Chicago Solidarity Collective Wins $2.25 Million To Hire Formerly Incarcerated Black Chicagoans Into Workers’ Co-Ops

The award from JPMorgan Chase will help the collective expand the ChiFresh Kitchen and start two worker co-ops.

ChiFresh Kitchen founding member Edrinna Bryant laughs and Urban Growers Collective board president Erika Dudley applauds as Bryant announces the Chicago Solidarity Collective will receive a $2.25 million award from JPMorgan Chase to support worker-owned cooperatives.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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GREATER GRAND CROSSING — Five organizations working to support formerly incarcerated Black Chicagoans received a $2.25 million investment to expand worker-owned cooperatives, officials announced Wednesday.

The Chicago Solidarity Collective — a joint effort by Urban Growers Collective, ChiFresh Kitchen, the Women’s Justice Institute, Grow Greater Englewood and Upside Down Consulting — won $2.25 million from JPMorgan Chase’s Annual Challenge competition.

Organizers will get the $2.25 million over three years, officials said at a news conference Wednesday at ChiFresh Kitchen, 400 E. 71st St. in Greater Grand Crossing. The money will help formerly incarcerated Chicagoans — particularly Black women — build wealth through collective business ownership.

“For a long time, formerly incarcerated people have been looked at as a person with an X on their back — not really being able to integrate back into their community and society,” said Kimberly Britt, a ChiFresh Kitchen co-owner and president of its board.

“With this, we’re able to show them that it’s good people that deserve a second chance, that deserve to have a livable wage, so they can have a peaceful place to lay their head at night and a good job to walk into on a day-to-day basis.”

The partner organizations will use the funds to bolster the existing ChiFresh Kitchen co-op, which employs formerly incarcerated people to prepare meals for schools and community groups.

The funds will go toward recruiting and training ChiFresh Kitchen employees, who get a living wage and benefits and are eligible for an ownership stake after 18 months on the job, said Camille Kerr of Upside Down Consulting, which helps manage ChiFresh Kitchen.

The co-op’s owners serve on its board, have a vote in business decisions and can receive dividends if the company is profitable. Members also get support like skills training and financial coaching.

People returning from incarceration “always hear this: ‘Why don’t you just get a job?'” said Colette Payne, a ChiFresh Kitchen board member.

“We can’t think of a better way to reclaim lives and those false narratives than by building community with our sisters at ChiFresh Kitchen and all of our partners,” Payne said. “… With this investment, we look forward to this incredible opportunity to shift the narrative from ‘why can’t you just get a job?’ to ‘I got the damn job.'”

The funds will also support the launch of two co-ops in food distribution and property management, officials said.

With a successful business co-op off the ground, organizers are turning their attention to buying property and establishing residential co-ops for formerly incarcerated people in Bronzeville and beyond, Britt said.

“Your [previous convictions] absolutely play a part in who will rent to you, even if you have the money,” she said. . “… That’s one of the things we’re trying to remove, so people are able to live in a safe place.”

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Daniel McWilliams (center) jokes with fellow ChiFresh Kitchen co-owner Kimberly Britt (right) during Wednesday’s press conference as Urban Growers Collective board president Erika Dudley looks on.
Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Attendees at Wednesday’s press conference grab plates of chicken wings, pasta salad, side salad and fried green tomatoes made by ChiFresh Kitchen’s worker-owners.

The Chicago Solidarity Collective was the only co-op in the nation to win Annual Challenge funds this year, officials said. Advocates say the cooperative business model offers disenfranchised Chicagoans a lane to employment and ownership.

“In many ways, it speaks for itself: They had worked together for many years, [and] they’ve already got a proven model with ChiFresh Kitchen,” said Joanna Trotter, executive director of global philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase.

“They’re working with women who are justice-involved. … There was a lot going for them in terms of the way the collaboratives work together.”

Funders must continue to support grassroots efforts to create cooperatives and support Chicagoans returning from incarceration, said Anton Seals, executive director of Grow Greater Englewood.

“We’re going to keep coming back for some more. We know y’all got it,” Seals said. “We’re going to send others to come get some more bags. I think that’s most important — that’s how we reach a real equitable and just [end goal] in reclaiming who we are and what we are for the next generation.”

ChiFresh Kitchen launched at the Hatchery food business incubator during the pandemic and moved into its Greater Grand Crossing home in October.

The co-op’s work was featured on an NBA on TNT segment in March 2021, in which Chicago native Dwyane Wade spoke on his mother’s friendship with ChiFresh Kitchen member Sarah Stadtfeld.

“We’ve been told ‘no’ a lot, we’ve been turned around a lot, so we want to have something to pass on to spark generational wealth,” co-owner Daniel McWilliams said. “You want to break that curse and be able to give it to your child, your nieces or nephews — someone that you care about.”

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