Equal Circles Cooperative

The model is based on local networks and creates conditions for the full inclusion of families and people with intellectual disabilities in the life of the community. The model is universal and aims to support people with special needs in the local community.

The circles that make up the cooperative are: the first, narrowest one is the Self-Help Circle, which consists of people with disabilities, their carers (also professional) and advocates; self-help and the exchange of values take place in this inner circle.

Then there is the Circle of Support, made up of volunteers and ally organisations; this is where integration events, respite care and the involvement of the wider community are organised; within this circle there are also the recipients and receivers of the productions, as well as people who support the project with regular contributions.

The most distant is the Partnership Circle, which brings together local companies, institutions, organisations, associations and individuals; thanks to regular cooperation, people with disabilities receive financial and institutional support, commissioned care work is provided, and the idea of a subscription to various services provided by the cooperative can also be developed.

The last circle is the Circle of Locality, which is more of a metaphorical and ideological creation than a physical or legal one; it signifies anchoring in the local community; it is supposed to create flexibility in the model by adapting the cooperative to the local specifics and, consequently, to build societies that look at people with disabilities in an inclusive way, while for people with disabilities, it is supposed to create an environment that is conducive to their emancipation and enables them to change the perception of those around them.


Self-Help Circle

The Self-Help Circle is primarily associated with people with disabilities. They are full members of the cooperative and, in a sense, exceptional members – their interest is most protected within the cooperative ecosystem. The Równokrzegi Cooperative is to be one of the components of the social inclusion of people with disabilities, taking into account both the inclusive possibilities of the local community and the participation abilities of people with disabilities – similar to the model of support circles. The self-help character of this circle is to be given by the mutual support of people with disabilities. Thanks to a mosaic of experiences, both in life and with regard to various abilities and limitations, these people can provide collective support – on an emotional and a practical level. In addition, the associative nature of the Co-operative Equal Circles also gives it an inclusive character, which is very important for people with disabilities. In interviews and conversations with people with intellectual disabilities conducted by the Coop-Tech Hub team, the need for inclusion, feeling 'in the right place’ and the desire to regain or gain agency resonated strongly. We believe that interacting with people with similar needs, needs or difficulties can to some extent meet these needs. This is to reduce alienation, which is unfortunately common among people with disabilities, and to create an inclusive space. The Self-help Circle is also an essential space for creating and practising self-advocacy for people with disabilities

Self-advocacy is the idea (but also the practice) whereby individuals who are struggling with a problem that also affects other people (such as disabilities) make public statements about it in order to bring it closer to society. It is also a movement that includes people with disabilities and promotes the right to make full decisions about their own lives. It is also a movement that includes people with disabilities and promotes the right to make full decisions about their lives, to speak out on their own behalf and to have the same rights as people without disabilities. These demands are often understood more broadly and also include the problems of people with autism spectrum disorders, and neurodiversity. It is speaking about one’s needs, problems, dreams, specifics, and demands on one’s own behalf – not through the mouth of parents, therapists, specialists and advocates who have no experience of functioning as a person with disabilities.

The organisational placement of people with disabilities at the centre of the cooperative is intended to foster the expression and pursuit of their needs in cooperative activities or in interaction with the rest of the local community.

The exchange of values and mutual support among members of a Self-Help Circle can also be of a very tangible nature, ranging from caring support, through carrying out small jobs to more specialised services (based on the individual’s skills and abilities). This exchange can be based on various forms of time banks or digital tokens. In this system, both the receipt and provision of services are recorded in the application. This allows the exchange to take place between just two individuals but within a wider community using a single technological solution. The application can also be used to verify a person’s identity to ensure the security of the collaboration. Tokens can be exchanged for other services or goods in kind or for money. It all depends on the rules adopted by the group. 

Other members of the Self-Help Circle are advocates for people with disabilities. The idea of such a function is to advocate for people with disabilities at times when self-advocacy is not possible. 

An advocate for a person with a disability has the task of looking after his or her interests – particularly in situations where, for various reasons, the person concerned is unable to make certain decisions on his or her own. The idea is to appoint a member of the cooperative (and the circle) to act as an advocate – it does not have to be a separate advocate for each person with disabilities, but the number of advocates can be increased or decreased depending on the needs and possibilities of the specific group.

The main tasks of an ombudsman or advocate for people with disabilities are: 

  • to provide information to people with disabilities  to provide information to people with disabilities about their rights and to identify cases of discrimination on the basis of disability or another sensitive characteristic (such as sexual orientation, religion, gender or ethnicity),
  • advocating for solutions that contribute to the self-determination and enhancement of the well-being of people with disabilities and respond to their specific needs within the local community and the cooperative community,
  • speaking up on behalf of persons with disabilities in situations where the will of a specific person or specific persons with disabilities is clearly expressed during meetings and activities,
  • assisting persons with disabilities to represent their interests and enforce their rights,
  • promoting the full participation of persons with disabilities in the mainstream activities of the cooperative, as well as in activities related to the local community.

The more specific functions and activities of an advocacy person should be based on the specifics of the group concerned.

In many cases, the disability of one of the family members drastically alters the functioning of the family and (often due to a lack of sufficient institutional and financial support) determines the distribution of resources and means to maintain the well-being of individual family members. One of the principles of the Equal Circle Cooperative may also be to respond to the needs of families of people with disabilities. Support in meeting their needs or in alleviating certain systemic gaps can be an exchange for using the experience and knowledge that these informal carers have. It is also important to note that family members appear to be essential in situations of (partial or total) incapacitation of a person with a disability resulting from that disability – assuming that the guardian of the incapacitated person is a family member, which of course may not always be the case.

In addition, this model also draws on the experience of carers and professional carers. It is assumed that the role of professionals with various specialisations is not only to rehabilitate people with disabilities, but also to provide appropriate support to their families so that they are open structures, opening to the social world, and not structures whose functioning is dominated by defence mechanisms isolating people with disabilities from the social environment.15 In addition, professionals who work with a person with disabilities and his or her family on an ongoing and daily basis can provide support to the disabled person and his or her family. In addition, professionals who work with a person with disabilities and his or her family on a regular and daily basis can constitute an equally important reservoir of knowledge about the specifics of a given situation. In structuring our model, we do not want to define who is a caregiver or professional caregiver; depending on the situation, they may be rehabilitation workers, social workers, assistants to people with disabilities and many others who do specialised work focused on meeting the needs of people with disabilities.


Circle of Support

The second circle is the Circle of Support – it is made up of both volunteers and allied organisations, as well as the recipients of the products, the cooperative’s clients and the people who support the project with regular contributions (or the cooperative’s non-member members-investors). In this circle that the inclusion of non-members (including people with disabilities) in the cooperative takes place, free-of-charge assistance to support people with disabilities, integration events or respite care. It is also here that unpaid assistance to supported persons with disabilities takes place. Due to the cooperative formula in which the Equal Circles cooperative operates, management democracy and economies prevail in this entity.

There is a managerial and economic democracy in this entity. This means that each member (each legal or natural person), regardless of the number and form of shares contributed, has an equal share in deciding on the cooperative, its activities and finances.

In addition, along with the volunteers, partner institutions are to join this circle. By definition, these are to be organisations in which people become members of the cooperative (they previously had a volunteer role for people with disabilities). The role of volunteers, members of the Circle of Support, can also be performed by people with disabilities who, for various reasons, do not want to or cannot be in the Self-Help Circle. This is another element of inclusion for people with disabilities in this economic model. The members of this circle function on several principles: voluntary participation, common purpose, pooling of resources, co-responsibility and equality.

Partner institutions also play a very important role in this circle. Their role is mainly to provide support; they also have knowledge and experience in working with people with disabilities or – in general – in social action. As all circles overlap and their activities are complementary to each other, partner organisations can be recruited from the wider circle – the Partnership Circle – when they decide they want to be more active in cooperative activities. Partner organisations are supposed to support the cooperative with various resources, including material resources – financial and spatial.

The Circle of Support is also made up of the recipients and consumers of the cooperative’s services and products, the customers, entities and persons who contribute to the cooperative with regular payments, but also the potential other members-investors of the cooperative. Recipients, customers and client entities are automatically included in the Circle of Support the moment they decide to financially empower the cooperative by using its services or purchasing the products it offers. However, in this model, financial support can be offered without an exchange for a service or product. Institutions or individuals who support the project and its idea by making regular donations also become part of the Circle of Support. Not every person who financially supports a cooperative has to be a member, but they can be – this group includes member persons (investors). They – being formal members of the cooperative – can also profit from its work in the form of dividend payments.

This circle means providing and complementing various resources for the cooperative. At the same time, it guarantees a varying amount of additional work or involvement in its operation on the part of individuals and groups who are members of the Circle of Support.


Partnership Circle

The Partnership Circle in our cooperative model consists of local institutions and organisations. It can also include local religious associations (churches), local businesses, local institutions – organisations, and associations. It can also include social cooperatives, social service centres, social cooperatives of legal persons, and reintegration institutions (such as occupational therapy workshops, and occupational workshops, and community self-help homes). The partnership circle also involves groups of residents – service clients, individuals, e.g. seniors.

This association is based above all on the wise use of the local component. Especially public institutions, business representatives and NGOs have an anchoring potential. Anchor institutions are institutions that organise the local labour market or are the main recipients of services from cooperatives or other smaller enterprises. We have taken this concept from the so-called Cleveland Model. The American city of Cleveland is an example of a successful transformation of the economy based on the cooperative model.

Cleveland model. The local government set up Evergreen Cooperatives in cooperation with a local foundation and coaching institutions (universities and hospitals). Its task was to create and develop cooperatives in order to build stable and quality jobs thanks to the local revolving fund. Implementation of the programme started in the poorest neighbourhoods, where about 25-30% of residents were affected by poverty. The anchor institutions had previously used corporations that offered low-quality work. With a view to developing the local labour market, Evergreen Co-operatives first set up a cooperative laundry serving̨ medical facilities. Subsequent co-operatives looked intǫ photovoltaic installations, building thermo-modernisation and food production. Since 2018, the Evergreen Cooperatives investment fund has also been buying companies and transforming them into new cooperatives. The transformation has already included two construction companies and a local café chain including a coffee roaster. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this made it possible to save around thirty people from losing their jobs. The fund is now preparing to take over a car parts factory and a catering company.

In the Cleveland Model, the local government acting as initiator provided fairly limited funding, mainly in the form of loans. However, its very participation and authority made it possible to obtain private and federal funding. The municipal stamp of approval has given the seriousness of the initiative, distinguishing them from other such ventures on the market. The further development of the cooperatives is guaranteed by a revolving fund into which they deposit 10% of their profits for common purposes. As a not-for-profit corporation, Evergreen Cooperatives ultimately aims to own 10-20% of each cooperative, in order to ensure the continuity of the entire venture. In this way, an ecosystem of mutually supportive businesses is created, working towards the common goal of building local resilience. The cooperatives in the Cleveland Model offer̨ clear pathways to acquire shares in them. Workers receive ą raise after a probationary period, part of which is automatically invested. Within three years, this provides them with co-ownership in the cooperative and profit-sharing. Creating new jobs is accompanied by training for people who have not worked in a similar position before. These include preparation for working in a democratic organisation and life and professional skills training. 

In the case of the Równokręgi Cooperative, the role of anchor institutions can be played by the local government and companies willing to act to support social initiatives. They can be the first customers and clients of the Equinoctial Cooperative, thus providing the cooperative with continuity of orders and liquidity. Groups of individuals can provide orders to the cooperative by using a subscription mechanism. An individual can purchase a cooperative subscription for services (related to e.g. care work, simple cleaning, gardening, and repair work). This subscription can be supported by the PLZ cooperative application. This ensures that residents are supported when they need a particular service – and these guarantees work for the people employed by the cooperative and earnings for the cooperative itself.


The Circle of Locality

The Circle of Locality is a concept that roots the cooperative, as the name suggests, in the local ecosystem, both social and natural. We envisage it as primarily providing flexibility in scaling the model, enabling the emancipation of people with disabilities through opportunities for work and participation in the local community. In addition, it is intended to create new relationships based on trust and care, especially for the elderly, the excluded or anyone else who can fulfil their integration needs within the Equal Circles Co-operative.

Being locally anchored, on the one hand, creates an attachment of the cooperative and its members to the local context – institutions and people – and, on the other hand, enables adaptation to the needs of the area and its inhabitants. By making use of local resources and focusing on meaningful citizen participation, the Equi- circles cooperative is not just another business and employer. It gains the opportunity to become a centre of local development on many levels – economic, but also social-relational or equality.

People with disabilities often face discrimination, loneliness or subjective treatment from support institutions. Inclusion in the community, which starts with entry into the labour market and then extends to other areas of socio-cultural life, is a way to reduce social exclusion. People with disabilities then have many more opportunities to get to know others in the area and become part of the local community on a similar basis to everyone else. In addition, democratic management, both in terms of choosing the area of activity of the cooperative and sharing profits, makes people with disabilities regain agency. The money earned by the cooperative can be used for various purposes: for the development of the cooperative, for payments to its member people or for local initiatives. Supporting the community is, incidentally, a common model used by today’s digital cooperatives – for example, the Venice-based international platform cooperative Fairnbnb.coop, which operates in the field of sustainable tourism, donates half of its profits to support local projects. The list of projects is typified by the cooperative, and its customers and clients decide which project the support goes to.

The basis of cooperative activity must also be a concern for the natural environment in which the cooperative operates and which it affects. The cooperative operates in an area that is an aggregation of many beings – by recognising their presence, they can be given the same respect and care as non-human organisms. People working in a cooperative can do work that directly contributes to the formation of multi-species relationships. This could be caring for greenery, creating urban agriculture, looking after companion animals and many others. Each of these activities creates a connection that can benefit all parties. In addition, this bonding can have a positive impact on people’s attitudes towards other beings and towards the planet and the environment in general. The care and attachment generated by a locality-based approach is also supposed to manifest itself in concern for the fate of non-human elements of the environment, such as individual creatures, but also entire ecosystems or habitats. A multi-species community organised in this way also has a positive effect on the people who comprise it – being with plants and animals can be therapeutic, calming and gives purpose and develops empathy. 

Here, an inspiring example is the Finnish cooperative Snowchange, which is rehabilitating areas in the Arctic Circle that have been destroyed by oil extraction. The result of these activities is expected to be not only the restoration of biodiversity but also the creation of a new economic sector – sustainable tourism that promotes the culture of indigenous communities and their beliefs.





In the case of the Equal Circles Co-operative, we see two developmental paths: the creation of a workers’ co-operative, whose members will be people with disabilities employed in the co-operative, or the creation of a hybrid co-operative, which will include individuals and institutions. We call the latter model a development cooperative because of its social potential.

More about the model of a Development Cooperative.

Autor: Joanna Erbel, 12/07/2023

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