Academic journal article Journal of Community Positive Practices

Refugee Farmers and the Social Enterprise Model in the American Southwest

Academic journal article Journal of Community Positive Practices

Refugee Farmers and the Social Enterprise Model in the American Southwest

Article excerpt

Abstract: In recent years refugee resettlement agencies in various parts of the United States have sought to foster sustainable farming projects aimed at empowering refugees. This paper presents the first known case study of a U.S. based marketing cooperative formed by refugees from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Founded in 2011 by the Phoenix International Refugee Committee (IRC), Gila Farm Cooperative (GFC) has 22 members from four different countries of origin who work to support the organizations' newly formed Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in central Arizona. In the context of a university-community partnership established through Social Economy Arizona (SEAZ), a project affiliated with Arizona State University's School of Social Transformation, the research team worked closely with key cooperative stake-holders to undertake a three month study of GFC in spring 2012. Focusing on the intersection between urban agriculture, social enterprise development and refugee resettlement, our study investigates Gila Farm Cooperative as an experiment in building a new model collective entrepreneurship among refugee farmers from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We utilize a social enterprise framework to provide a descriptive analysis of GFC's structure and operational processes based on data collected primarily through participatory observation and in-depth interviews with IRC staff and board members representing different refugee communities. Linking this organizational analysis to board members' perspectives of the social and economic value generated by the cooperative, we explore the prospects for reinforcing the GFC's role in empowering refugees through the adaptation of a more deliberative, solidarity based model of collective entrepreneurship.

Keywords: U.S. social economy; social enterprise development; community supported agriculture; cooperatives, refugee farmers

1. Introduction

In 2011 the Phoenix International Refugee Committee (IRC) formed Gila Farm Cooperative (GFC), a cooperative marketing association comprised of refugee farmers from Somalia, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Togo. Within a year GFC was running its first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).1 In seeking to foster a cooperative business among a particularly vulnerable population in the American Southwest, GFC faces unique challenges to its long term stability. Positioning GFC within an emerging social enterprise framework, this article examines the social and economic benefits that GFC generate for its principle stakeholders: ethnically diverse refugee farmers who are both economically and culturally marginalized from mainstream American society. Focusing on the experience and perceptions of GFC's board members, we analyze both the challenges and opportunities facing GFC as an on-going experiment in building a new model of solidarity-based collective entrepreneurship.

Working closely with GFC board members, individual farmers, and IRC staff and consultants, we combined on-going participatory action research spanning 2011-2013, with in-depth interviews and primary documentary analysis to accomplish two key objectives. First, we employ Sutia Alter's model of mission and money relationships within social enterprises to analyze the structure and organizational processes that form the basis of the GFC model in its initial stage of development. This enables us to clarify the linkages between key organizational stakeholders, their relationship to one another and their relevance to the success of the cooperative. Second, we undertake a descriptive analysis of key stakeholder responsibilities, capacities and perspectives in order to identify key factors affecting GFC's capacity to generate social and economic benefits to its prime beneficiaries: cooperative members. While there are a wide variety of factors that are linked to its future success, we focus primarily on identifying the benefits and draw backs of the cooperative social enterprise model for refugee farmers. …

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