Liberty Ship Café Cooks Up Savory Co-op Model

News Feature, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Editor’s Note: Liberty Ship Café not only serves tasty Latin-fusion lunches at the Farmer’s Market in Richmond, Calif., it’s cooking up a cooperative business dream.

It is 8 o’clock on a Thursday night, and inside a commercial kitchen at Veterans Hall members of the Liberty Ship Café, a new workers’ cooperative in Richmond, complete their last tasks after five hours of cooking.

The mouth-watering fare they will serve the next day at Richmond’s Farmer’s Market includes dishes with organic ingredients fused with the tang of Latin America.

Near a counter, Beatriz Ortiz pours luscious butternut squash into a large bowl. The bright orange puree plumps and folds onto itself as Ortiz softly pounds on a blender with her palm.

Across the kitchen, lit by white incandescent light, Julio Chavez scrubs the tools of the night: knives, spatulas, pots, pans, extra-large spoons. Stored and refrigerated are the prizes of the evening: marinated tempeh (soy cake) and pollo (chicken) for savory sandwiches; dough for the empanadas (hand-held pies), their fillings sweet with pineapple; goat cheese and fruit; and herbed chicken–all to be sold at Richmond’s Civic Center Farmer’s Market the next day.

Before leaving for home, Ortiz and Chavez discuss plans for Friday morning with Jose, a new member, and cooperative facilitator Lexi Hudson of the California Center for Cooperative Development in Davis.

The team of four decides to meet at 6:30 a.m. at Veterans Hall to fill the empanadas, and prepare the pollo and tempeh sandwiches. “And coffee!” chimes in Ortiz. It will be most important to keep the chefs awake during the early morning.

The Mayor’s Active Role

Liberty Ship Café, named for the historic Liberty Ships built in Richmond for World War II, has been long in the making. In 2010, Richmond’s Literacy for Every Adult Project (LEAP) presented a public workshop titled: “How to Start Your Own Workers’ Cooperative.” Ortiz and Chavez attended and later participated in succeeding meetings.

They were among a handful of participants who actually started their own cooperatives, organizations owned and operated by members, who share in the profits or benefits.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin took an active role in spurring interest in worker cooperatives. After visiting Mondragon, Spain, and learning from Mondragon Corp, a cooperative hub employing close to 84,000 people, McLaughlin hired Terry Baird of Arizmendi Bakery in 2011. Baird is currently consulting the city of Richmond on how it can utilize the Spanish model of worker cooperatives to decrease the city’s unemployment and reenergize its economy.

Liberty Ship Café, in particular, was incubated by the California Center for Cooperative Development. Like Richmond Spokes, a nonprofit bicycle shop that is also a workers’ cooperative, the cafe aims to be self-sufficient and operate a gourmet mobile food truck within the next six months.

“The ultimate goal is to have a restaurant” with workers owning part of their business, said Hudson of the co-op development center.

The process of preparing a co-op has been long, risky and demanding. Since 2010, café members have participated in a range of meetings, from the development of a business model, to receiving tips from La Cocina in San Francisco, and creating a lunch menu that appeals to the average customer. However, the pressure to draw a stable income led almost all of the original 15 interested individuals to drop out of Liberty Ship Café. Beatriz Ortiz and Julio Chavez are the only two original members left.

Chavez said it’s difficult to start a co-op from “the ground-up.” “Estamos empezando de abajo,” he said. “We’re starting from the bottom.”

A former journalist from Guatemala, Chavez has been a construction worker in Richmond, but now he declines offers of construction jobs because he prefers to work towards “something of one’s own.”

Ortiz echoes that desire, though she sympathizes with those who left the group. “Everybody has different necessities and it dictates their decisions. We had single mothers in our group, who needed the stable jobs, so they had to leave. Being part of a cooperative is a sacrifice,” Ortiz said.

Customers Line Up

The orders are in and Chavez is preparing a sweet-marinated chicken sandwich beneath the café’s golden canopy, which protects the market’s vendors from the afternoon rain.

Liberty Ship Café’s presence at the Farmers Market has attracted new customers, who line up, purchasing pineapple empanadas, red-leaf lettuce salads, and the tofu-like tempeh sandwiches. One customer said she decided to visit the market to try the organic and Latin-American fusion food prepared by the cafe.

Arlo Anderson, a nearby kettle popcorn vendor, traded a large popcorn order for a chicken sandwich. “It was great,” Anderson declared, adding, “it had a good sweet sauce.”

Ortiz hopes Liberty Ship Café can serve as an example for working families in Richmond of what nutritious and great tasting food can be. “Too many of our kids eat fast food. We need to learn how to eat well and healthy again.”

Chavez believes Liberty Ship Café can help inform families not conscious of healthy alternatives. “The tempeh,” he said, “is something I had known of and never tried.”

All the foods cooked at Liberty Ship Café, Chavez said, mix flavors from the favorite foods of co-op members with organic ingredients from local businesses in Richmond. “Today’s bread is from the Panaderia Guatemala on 23rd Street,” he said.

The café’s four co-op members switch turns preparing foods and taking orders, sharing and collaborating as the each undergo a steep learning curve. “Nothing is concrete,” said Hudson, when it comes to running a co-op.

“We have a saying: Step up, step back,” she explained. “For things to be equitable people need to have their voices heard to the extent they want them to be, so there is a lot of talking and getting to know each other.”

Liberty Ship Café’s evolution is transforming its members into savvy business owners. “Being here, learning how to cook and run a business is like a good school, Se aprende cada dia,” Chavez said. “You learn everyday.”

The Liberty Ship Café is open on Fridays at the Civic Center Farmers Marker at 25th Street and Barrett Avenue, rain or shine. Richmond Pulse, a youth-led journalism project of New America Media, is supported by grants from The California Endowment and the Richmond Community Foundation.

Best Ever MLK Day of Service in Richmond

Photo Essay, Richmond Councilmemeber Tom Butt

In perhaps the best organized ever Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service in Richmond, a crowd of hundreds turned out to clean, plant, weed and mulch a dozen different projects stretching along the Richmond Greenway from 5th Street to 16th Street and at 22nd and Carlson.

I followed a group of Forest Service volunteers to 16th Street where I helped several dozen young people who were already at work getting ready to plant 60 fruit trees in an “edible forest.” The only exception was a Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) planted by Park Ranger Betty Soskin a symbol of sustainability. It is expected to live 250 years and could grow over 100 feet high.

The fruit trees went in quickly, so I walked back down to 6th Street where at least ten projects were going on. Shyaam M. Shabaka, EcoVillage Farm Founder and Executive Director, had just arrived with a chicken and rabbit to entertain kids who were painting compostable pots for give-away vegetable seedlings.

The Greenway Bioswale project was getting a good weeding and addition of more riparian trees, shrubs and grasses.

I joined a group of Kaiser volunteers loading and distributing wood chip mulch in the area next to Lincoln School filled with raised vegetable planter beds.

I wanted to see what the Lions Club group was doing at 6th and Enterprise, just north of Peres School. I was blown away by the scope of the project sponsored by an entire Lions Club region. It involved cleaning and rehabilitating an entire block. There was heavy equipment, a health screening van, dump trucks and hundreds of volunteers. They were doing carpentry work, cleaning yards, painting, building a community garden, clearing brush, pouring concrete and cleaning a creek.

Other projects were going on at Point Pinole and surrounding cities, but I didn’t have time to visit them all. The volunteers who planed these events did a marvelous job, and those who pitched in to help made it the most successful MLK Day ever in Richmond.

Neighborhoods Unite in Richmond for MLK Weekend

News Report, by Kia Croom

More than 150 public officials, faith leaders and residents of the Iron Triangle, Shields-Reid and Parchester Village neighborhoods marched last Saturday under the banner “Marching for Change,” to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Walkers of all ages lined up for the march at the Nevin Community Center in Richmond, while others caravanned in vehicles. The group then marched from the Nevin Center onto Fred Jackson Way in North Richmond where they met up with residents of Parchester Village. From there the group marched on to the Shields-Reid Community Center.

As the people marched, they sang well-known songs, such as “We Shall Overcome,” and “Victory is Mine.” Their voices reverberated throughout the neighborhoods, awakening sleeping households as they went. Onlookers watched the marchers from their windows, open doors and front yards. Many tipped their hats and saluted the marchers as they passed. Others joined the processional, uncertain of its final destination but supportive of the cause nonetheless.

“This is my city. This is where it all started,” said Marcel, a long-time resident of North Richmond, smiling. “This is real positive” he said.

At the corner of Fred Jackson Parkway and Chelsea Avenue in North Richmond, the marchers stopped and remembered Fred Jackson, an esteemed community activist who passed away earlier this year, with a moment of silence. Afterwards, Supervisor John Gioia and Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin gave remarks.

To the organizers of the march, the day’s events were a testament to the growing solidarity between Richmond’s neighborhoods.

Three of the primary organizers, Otheree Christian, Marena Brown and Goretha Johnson, reside in neighborhoods — Central Richmond, North Richmond and Parchester Village, respectively—that are known to have the highest rates of crime in the city. They say they are committed to unifying these and other communities throughout Richmond. In additional to spearheading this march, the organizers are active members of their respective neighborhood councils and watch groups.

“We are trying to create a movement, so that we can be one city,” said Brown. “We have to erase the divisions [that exist] across [neighborhood] lines,” she said.

According to Brown, Marching for Change is the second anti-violence event that she and Christian have organized in an effort to decry violence in Richmond. In August 2011, the two organized Stop the Violence—a march dedicated to combating gang rivalries between young people in North and Central Richmond. Brown said this year they decided to engage other Richmond neighborhoods plagued by crime, and organized their event to coincide with the Martin Luther King holiday.

Congressman Miller, Bay Area Peacekeepers, Inspire Each Other at Richmond HS

News Report, Donny Lumpkins

On a recent tour of Contra Costa County public schools, Congressman George Miller (D- Martinez), a Richmond native, stopped by Richmond High School to speak to about 20 students who are members of the Bay Area Peacekeepers (BAP), a program that helps “at-risk” kids stay in school and away from trouble and gang violence.

During the visit, the congressman discussed an array of topics, including his early years growing up in Richmond and his personal journey into political life, a bumpy road that included him dropping out of high school and eventually attending community college, which he described as his “second chance.”

Miller, 66, told Richmond Pulse that he loves to be on school campuses and that it was important for him to be at Richmond High because the young BAP members have made a “very serious decision to improve their lives.” It’s a program he wants to support, said Miller, because he wasn’t too different from the students when he was their age.

Gonzalo Rucobo, co-founder of BAP, says the congressman’s support of the program and his interaction with the students allows them a chance to connect personally with someone who makes decisions on behalf of their community. At first tthe students looked to be a little intimidated by the congressman, and didn’t want to ask any questions. But eventually, their timidity wore off and the conversation opened up.

“They may not be able to discuss [politics] with their friends, because it’s not the norm,” said Rucobo. “But if you [create] that setting for them, then the (ideas) will just start flowing.”

Dahlia Ramiro, 15, a student at Richmond High and a member of BAP, has had a tumultuous road of her own trying to stay out of trouble and in school. Formerly a straight A student, Ramiro has had a harder time keeping her grades up lately due to trouble at home and legal problems that resulted form her running with the wrong crowd and skipping school. But these days, the other members of BAP will call her repeatedly or drive her to school when she needs a ride, among other things they do to make sure she gets back on track and stays out of trouble. Ramiro says the people she’s met through BAP have become like “uncles and aunts” to her. They believed in her, said Ramiro, at a time when she didn’t believe in herself.

Ramiro was happy that Congressman Miller came to her school, and would like to see more politicians support programs like BAP. The lesson she took away from his visit, she said, was that no matter where you grow up you can always make it. And if you feel like giving up, don’t; because there is always something better out there if you just keep trying.

Uncertainties Hover Over CA DREAM Act

News Report, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Editor’s Note: California’s DREAM Act gave bright undocumented students new hope for going to college, but issues like low funding could undermine the act for many.

Despite the announcement of Gov. Jerry Brown signing into law the California DREAM Act last October, students applying for colleges at Richmond High School’s College and Career Center showed a muted response towards legislation that may benefit undocumented students in the next two years.

The CA DREAM Act actually consists of two State Assembly Bills. AB 130, which went into effect on Jan. 1, allows colleges to make private scholarships available to undocumented students. AB 131 will, starting Jan. 1, 2013, make state funding, such as CalGrants, accessible to undocumented students.

But some high school counselors are hesitating to promote the act’s benefits enthusiastically because of major problems with the law.

No Celebration of New Law

The Richmond High College and Career Center office shows no signs celebrating passage of the CA DREAM Act – one of several passed by states around the country. Posted wall-to-wall are only the usual pristine posters of smiling college graduates, and bright letters yelling out places like Cal, Chico State and Stanford–as if AB 130 and 131 were never enacted.

Students at the center sat in front of slow desktop computers drafting personal statements, navigating college application sites, typing into empty fields and asking questions, such as whether they should declare a major, or what it means when the application asks, “Do you claim California residency?”

“It was all on Facebook,” said program director Angelica Arriaga of the unseen celebration. “If you go onto Facebook, you will see that lots of kids, undocumented and documented were excited,” said Arriaga. But Arriaga has avoided the hype over access to financial aid guaranteed by the CA DREAM Act.

Although passage of the CA DREAM Act has led students to apply for California State Universities (CSU’s) and University of California campuses, instead of community colleges, Arriaga said she will not emphasize the act and its access to public funds as a security net for undocumented students.

Initially, Arriaga said, many undocumented students thought that beginning next year under AB 131, they’’ be able to sign up for federal student aid get help right away. But the state still needs to answer many questions about the program, its funding and implementation.

Arriaga manages College Is Real (CIR), a college preparation program counseling up to 100 Richmond High students, a quarter of them currently seniors. Close to 90 percent of CIR students are first-generation, low-income and Latino.

Of the 26 seniors Arriaga counsels through CIR, less than 10 are undocumented and have applied to college. Maria, 17, is one of them. The news of the CA DREAM Act being approved came as a surprise to the student, who declined to provide her full name for this article. Nonetheless, the chance to apply for state financial aid comforts her, and perhaps, may be a lifeline.

Maria “The Brain”

Maria, a senior, has a 4.1 grade point average and is ranked in the top 10 in her class. She is enrolled in four advanced placement courses including physics and calculus, a member of the Junior Statesmen of America and has participated in Stanford University’s highly selective Summer Math and Science Honor’s Academy.

During after school hours at the center, Maria is often called over by her peers to explain difficult science and math concepts. Deemed “The Brain” by other students, Maria aspires to be a doctor.

Despite her string of accomplishments, though, Maria’s life outside of school has unraveled. She does not live with her family. Following a visit from immigration officers to their home, Maria’s mother and younger brother moved outside of Richmond. The incident prompted Maria’s mother to assume the name and identity records of a deceased relative.

Meanwhile, Maria’s father is a migrant worker in Alabama and Georgia. The anti-immigration laws passed in both states, caused him to consider returning to California, but ultimately stayed, Maria said. The exodus of undocumented laborers from those states left farms in need of workers, work that Maria’s father has accepted.

Every week, Maria’s father sends her money. Although she is living with her parents’ friends and their children, she said it is difficult to go on without family support. Besides missing her family, Maria finds that issues, such as not having her own space, feeling unwanted sometimes and having insufficient money, can get her down.

Maria knows her father’s earnings are not enough to pay even a fraction of college fees. Having the support of the CA DREAM Act and access to public funds, Maria said, is empowering. She added that knowing of this option has relived the pressure on her.

Little Funding

But funding for the CA DREAM Act currently falls far short of Maria’s hopes for assistance. Jose Arreola, outreach manager for Educators for Fair Consideration, (E4FC, an immigrant-students advocacy group) stated, “We are not looking at a lot of money.”

Arreola explained that the California Department of Finance estimates close to 2,500 undocumented students will be eligible for $14 million in CalGrant Funds–merely represents one percent of the $14 billion in financial aid allotted to California students.

“The caveat,” he continued, “is that undocumented students will only get access to the aid that is left over after all citizens and permanent legal residents receive theirs.”

At Richmond High, Angelica Arriaga said this financial reality adds to her hesitancy to promote the act’s benefits. “It’s so limited in terms of the funds that are available to students. They are now competing against each other for that one percent,” she said.

Furthermore, AB 130 does not require universities to offer private scholarships funded by private sponsors and foundations to undocumented students. It only allows them to do so, if they wish.

In addition, Arreola said students and their advocates need to realize that the CA DREAM Act does not offer a complete solution. Once they attend college and graduate, he said, they will re-encounter the challenges of being undocumented.

“At the end of the day, it really is federal immigration reform, like the DREAM Act, that we are going to need,” Arreola stressed.

Meanwhile, at the Richmond High College and Career Center, Arriaga continues to help student apply for private scholarships, private universities and the more affordable California State University system, until the state works out details of the CA DREAM Act.


Maria is not fazed by the uncertainty of the CA DREAM Act. She has chosen to focus on strengthening her applications to private universities, in hopes of receiving a full ride. She will also apply to many scholarships to fund her studies.

But for now, Maria is concentrating on her academics and waiting for the day she can tear open the envelopes containing her college acceptance letters.

“I want to see the yes’s and the letters,” Maria said. “After that, hopefully it will be a smooth ride, and I will find the ways to pay for college.”