Without a job, how do you find you foothold in a society? Work provides a sense of identity, a means of provision, and a catalyst for growth. After leaving Trieste, I have been invited to southern Italy to view some programs overseen by social cooperatives providing opportunities for otherwise disadvantaged people to work and be included in community life.
For two nights in Benevento, I stayed in a small albergo (a B & B) run by a social cooperative that employs people with intellectual disabilities and mental disorders. It is in a fascinating little town called Campolattaro. Campolattaro is part of a EU economic development strategy whereby there is a concerted effort to try to bring back to life small villages that are losing their youth. Young people living in these charming small villages are drawn to the excitement and the jobs of the bigger city. In the EU strategy, migrant workers and families are seen as a potentially restorative force for declining villages.
The municipality, having received funds from the EU, funded restoration projects in the oldest part of the village. A consortium called Sale della Terra received funds from an organization called Fondazione con il Sud and other private sponsors to undertake the renovation of the albergo. The goal in this town is to provide jobs and opportunities for social inclusion for younger people with mental and physical disabilities, and to use locally sourced food and wine in these developing businesses. This will contribute to the need to develop the agricultural base in this area, to help make this renovation project sustainable into the future.
A New Economy 4.0
On Sunday, I attended a conference in the town, and was surprised to find that I was on the agenda as a speaker (and listed as a psychiatrist, nonetheless). They wanted me to share about the collaboration between Los Angeles County and the Trieste mental health system. The conference was sponsored by a number of social cooperatives, businesses and the local university, and was described as a Welcome and Welfare Festival focused upon “dreams for a civil economy.” The intent was to merge anthropology and economics. So, on the one hand, there is the hope to restore the places that have become uninhabited and the lands that are no longer cultivated. On the other hand, they want to pursue a new Economy 4.0, which has a definition that I love. Working through translation it has these tenets:
- An economy that responds to the needs of people during this time of over-consumption, energy and food waste
- An economy that promotes community bonds and does not exclude vulnerable people and territories
Therefore, to remain in these “abandoned places,” it does not mean that one has surrendered to progress passing one by, but rather it provides an opportunity for new dreams. The dreams are not those of building industrial warehouses to offer jobs (think of Amazon distribution centers opening up in remote places away from the city) but rather cultivation of a circular and sustainable economy, an opportunity to distribute wealth that does not create imbalances between the rich and the poor.
Walking to the venue, my guide, Stefano Roveda of Studio Azzuro, brought me into a bar that was run by the cooperative. On duty, that day, was a person serving time in the Italian penal system who had been one of several arrested by Italian authorities as a Somali pirate.
Here is the story. Since Somalia had no coast guard, volunteers would patrol the coast and try to protect against foreign fishing, especially during the time of year when the fish would reproduce. They were protecting their coast and their food supply. In this case, they came upon an Italian fishing boat, in Somali waters and chased it into international waters. They boarded to boat to retrieve the fish – aided by Kalishnikov rifles. The Italians called for help, and within two hours, the Somalis ended up in prison in Rome. They were eventually transferred to Benevento, and there, the local Caritas cooperative sought permission from jail authorities to allow these men to work in town or in agriculture during the day.
This cafe not only serves as a training opportunity for disadvantaged people, it also operates on the concept of “social food.” So, for example, you can purchase a caffe sospeso or pranza sospeso.
Here is the concept. Literally translated this means “suspended coffee” or “suspended lunch.” It represents a cup of coffee paid in advance for someone who might come in and represents an anonymous act of charity. It originated in Naples, where someone who had experienced good luck would purchase two coffees but consume only one. In the case of the suspended lunch, the customer pays half, and the business supplements the second half.
In this particular cafe, they keep track on the board of how much of a “surplus” they have, that someone can come in and draw down on.
Later in the day, we visited Il Borgo Sociale di Roccabascerana. This is a rehabilitation residence for men, opened just four years ago, who have mental illness and substance abuse issues. There are 12 men living there and they are free to walk the ground and have excursions into town during the week. They are allowed to work and make money – woodwork, chores, gardening and the like. And, there are three dogs!
Today, we travelled toward Naples, and visited a social cooperative in the town of Casal di Principe, which has been a stronghold of the Camorra organized crime clan. We had lunch at a beautiful facility – confiscated by the Italian government from the Camorra – which is run by the social cooperative Nuova Cucina Organizzatta – and I had arguably the best lunch of this trip prepared by a chef who has spent time in prison, and is finishing his sentence under house arrest which allows him to come each day to cook.
The hosts of my lunch – Peppe, Tonino and Pascqale – delighted in my reaction to the most amazing buffalo mozzarella I’ve ever tasted and a dish that is out of this world — mozzarella ripiena fritta impanata con pistacchi. The bragged about the wine they produce — Vitematta — on confiscated vineyards and in a confiscated site where their beautiful winery is located.
The photo at the top of this blog is from Fuori di zucca, farming land reclaimed from the grounds of the empty Maddalena asylum in Aversa. And our host told the story of a man who had been released from prison after serving decades for crimes he committed associated with the Camorra clan and who found meaning in cultivating these fields.
So, in two days, I’ve been served food and offered hospitality by people who are disabled by their severe mental illness, intellectual disabilities or tethered to the criminal justice system by virtue of bad decisions made. These workers wake up each day with a sense of purpose and set out to perform a job where they are needed.
It got me thinking. Putting on our social cooperative hat, where we would be committed to creating jobs for people who otherwise find it difficult to find employment because of disabilities, addiction disorders or criminal justice history, could we repurpose some of the vast golf course lands in LA County to harvest food to sell at farmer’s markets? Could we plant seasonal crops on the grounds of the Veteran’s Administration property and open up a restaurant to the public featuring “VA farm to fork” meals prepared and served by formerly homeless veterans living on the grounds? Could we transform otherwise wasted parkways on miles and miles of LA City streets into small urban gardens? (This is an idea already conceived by the Gangsta Gardner.) Could we partner with some socially conscious vintners to grow grapes in outlying areas, and repurpose industrial properties in L.A. County to functions as wineries? Could we create some bed & breakfasts in LA, staffed by social cooperatives, who could provide all the services from reception, to food, to laundry? Could we create a culinary training hub which would train people for all jobs in the food service industry, and be a place for events, catering and community connection?
It is estimated that it costs about $50,000 a year to lock up a person in the LA County jail, and that number is probably low when one considers the higher needs of a person with mental illness. Can you imagine if we asked for that investment for just five people — $250,000 – to pay for housing and the seed capital to pilot a social cooperative type business? Let’s consider a business plan that would work and take the leap of faith to start a new right-to-work movement in LA County.