Innovation: Boosting economic development through mutual-aid networks
Home: Silver Spring
Occupation: Teaching fellow, University of Baltimore community development clinic
Hobbies: Listening to heavy metal music
Local businesses can form mutual-support networks to achieve their goals
By Michael Cross-Barnet
Photography by Jim Sandoz
As the child of parents from India, Parag Khandhar saw how immigrant entrepreneurs would form networks to help each other out. Later, as an activist and advocate, he learned that marginalized groups in the United States have often devised alternative pathways to success when they were blocked from participating fully in the mainstream economy.
In that context, his plan to encourage local business owners to work together for their mutual benefit is an old idea – though in Baltimore, a largely dormant one – that he thinks can be revived and explored in exciting new ways.
“There has been cooperation for a really long time. Whether they called it co-ops or not, people have been doing things like sharing food, providing mutual aid and support. This builds upon that tradition.”
“There has been cooperation for a really long time,” Khandhar says. “Whether they called it co-ops or not, people have been doing things like sharing food, providing mutual aid and support. This builds upon that tradition.”
Focusing on a single sector of the local economy in one part of town –barbershops and hair salons, perhaps –Khandhar wants to jump- start a conversation among business owners. He plans to begin by gathering information, listening to shopkeepers talk about their successes and failures, goals and frustrations. Through such discussions, he believes they can find ways to improve their operations, attract more customers, maybe reduce the cost of doing business. They might even discover that they have some political power at the local level – as long as they work together.
“If they form a cooperative network, then maybe they could start to lower some of their fixed costs,” Khandhar says. “Or maybe there’s some advocacy they’d like to do because licensing is costly and difficult.”
Hair shops could be an ideal launching pad for the concept, Khandhar says, because of their traditional role in African-American neighborhoods as much more than commercial arenas. “They are also shared spaces, places where the community gathers,” Khandhar says. “They are useful for a whole range of things around education and organizing.”
Khandhar, 40, who teaches at the University of Baltimore School of Law’s community development clinic, doesn’t claim to know how to improve economic conditions in Baltimore’s low-income areas. He trusts that the people who live and work there will have better ideas than an outsider like him. He is offering not answers but tools and strategies, drawn from his background in nonprofits, community organizing and law, so that people can find the answers themselves.
“I can’t say I know what the solutions would be, but I know what the methods would be,” he says.