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It Takes a Margin

How can the average American adapt to hardships that stem from a slowly recovering economy? Jesse Marshall ’11 offers a suggestion: cooperate, innovate, and integrate. Margination, the Troy, N.Y.­­–based nonprofit he co-founded and directs, uses these principles to maximize opportunities for community members struggling to maintain steady sources of income.

 Margination seeks to combat social and economic insecurity by providing housing, training, services, and employment opportunities, under one roof—figuratively and literally. Marshall envisions Margination as a model for working cooperatively in the 21st century.

Margination consists of eight core members assembled in Troy, N.Y. Members operate out of a Victorian house they purchased in Troy that serves as an office and living space for the team. Marshall says Margination is undergoing its “bootstrap phrase” because the organization’s startup funding consisted entirely of “savings from our past lives and the help of friends and family.”

 “We’re really getting back to basics,” says Marshall. “With a village approach to economics, [we provide] mutual support, community, self-reliance, and self-efficiency.”

Margination is based on a grassroots model of collaboration that has been in development since 2009. It piloted its model last year in Troy, a small postindustrial city 150 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River.

Margination has a three-pronged focus—community (support systems that mutually benefit workers, entrepreneurs, trainees, and their families), enterprise (small business networks for community members), and infrastructure (shared access to facilities, equipment, and finances).

The inspiration for the organization began Marshall’s sophomore year when he joined the Swarthmore Environmental Justice group’s Chester Youth Garden Initiative (CYGI). CYGI helps Chester community members cultivate fresh food through collaborative gardening and business skill building.

Through CYGI, Marshall, an honors political science major with a minor in history and environmental studies, was inspired to connect environmental justice and food access.

CYGI also exposed Marshall to the disconnect between skill training and job opportunities for working-class Americans. In his work with Margination, Marshall emphasizes one key factor that can turn these circumstances around: developing trust between community organizers and service providers and their clients. “We all need the same things,” says Marshall. “People need jobs.” Margination can help people find a “ladder out of situations they’re in.” 

A nontraditional client to nonprofit/service provider relationship is the key to Margination’s innovative model, according to Marshall. As community members become involved in Margination, most often through job training or employment, they can become mutually invested stakeholders, as business owners in one of Margination’s for-profit cooperatives and as community organizers and members of the nonprofit cooperative. The mutual trust that is developed between program participants and the nonprofit contributes to success, confidence, and empowerment for all involved, Marshall says.

One client who has seen the model work is Ramon Hernandez, a carpenter who moved to Troy from the Chester, Pa., area with Jesse and several of Margination’s founding members.

Hernandez was struggling to make enough money to save for his retirement and his daughter’s education. Margination connected Hernandez with a peer-support team, matched him with members who had complementary talents in construction and business management, and invested more than $5,000 for him to form his first business enterprise.

In early 2014, Hernandez founded Papi & Daughters, a building-trades cooperative, with two fellow Margination members. The business provides job-training opportunities for prospective members, with a goal of growing the cooperative ownership model to include all workers. As it grows, Papi & Daughters will reciprocate support— providing services, facilities, and equipment to Margination and its partner businesses.

With Margination’s support, “I’ve gotten rid of the fear, which is the thing holding back a lot of people,” says Hernandez. “I know that if I make a mistake it won’t kill me. I’m more confident to explore the talent I know I have.”

With two member-owned businesses—Papi & Daughters and Hypergeist (a marketing firm)—and eight organizers, Margination provides an alternative to the “dead-end jobs” and “wage slavery” that are common in places like Troy, says Marshall. Though he is the only Swattie on board, Marshall encourages current students and alumni to get involved.

Margination’s current priorities include funding the construction of its headquarters in Troy and creating 10 new enterprises by 2018. Marshall sees these challenges as opportunities to learn. “Learning is an important and neglected component of community togetherness,” he says.

Marshall believes that with the help of donors, organizers, and volunteers, Margination will succeed in helping community members develop sustainable livelihoods. When people join together in community, says Marshall, they “melt away the anxiety” of modern living.