Science + Culture + Community = Social Change

  • February 20, 2020
  • By: Nkuli Shongwe
  • In: General

Community Wealth Building Coordinator Nkuli Shongwe recently returned from a cooperative learning trip to Puerto Rico*. Look out for upcoming blogs about her experience on the island and site visits to local cooperatives, including a hydroelectric cooperative and farming co-op. 

Adjuntas, Puerto Rico is lush and mountainous, a striking environment for our first site visit.  Casa Pueblo is a local grassroots non-profit, solar-powered community and cultural center established 39 years ago. The story of Casa Pueblo is beautiful and intricate and reveals deep roots in community engagement. Alexis Massol González, one of the Casa Pueblo’s founders, welcomed us and introduced us to the beautiful, intricate, and deeply rooted history of the organization. González’s forumula captures the essence of Casa Pueblo : science + culture + community = social change.

Casa Pueblo emerged 39 years ago in response to ecology crisis and resource extraction. When gold, silver, and copper were discovered in Adjuntas and neighboring towns Utuado, Lares, and Jayuja, the Puerto Rican government welcomed and encouraged open-pit mining in the area. With government support, mining companies from the U.S acquired 36,000 acres of land. The consequences of open-pit mining include permanent water pollution, destruction of the rainforest, and severe health, economic, and social issues. 

Deyá and González, along with other community members, worked tirelessly to educate community about the implications of open-pit mining through concerts at schools, universities, and town squares. They organized a large protest at the White House in D.C. (Casa Blanca) that resulted in some arrests, huge media coverage, and raised national awareness. Fifteen years after their coordinated organizing campaign and engagement process, they garnered support from over 10,000 people in Puerto Rico and from the mainland U.S.

Mobilizing their communities and building people power worked—Casa Pueblo was able to keep the forest space and privatize the whole forest. The forest, called Bosque Escuela la Olimpia (Olympia Forest School), is now run by Casa Pueblo and is home to many educational programs. 

In recent years, Casa Pueblo has been focusing on solar energy. After Hurricane Maria in 2017 and after the recent 2020 earthquakes, the organization provided solar energy when electricity was not available otherwise. It served as a community hub where people could come and charge their phones to connect with family, listen to the radio, and get news. In April 2020, Casa Pueblo hopes to expand the network of solar grids to local hospitals, churches, and businesses in order to build energy independence from PREPA, the island’s utility provider. Casa Pueblo is Adjunatas’ resiliency hub. This year, they will be celebrating their 40th anniversary, long history, and bright future on Earth day.

Written by Nonkululeko (Nkuli) Shongwe

*Nkuli is a first-year Masters of Human Rights student at the University of Minnesota. She participated in this trip through the Global Convergence Lab, an interdisciplinary course at the U of M that brings together students diverse backgrounds to explore the complexity of Global Resiliency issues. The lab is co-coordinated by the School of Architecture, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and the Acara Program (at the Institute on the Environment). 


People with deep lived experiences of inequities are actively leading and creating transformation in their own communities, in ways that respect and leverage their cultural ways of knowing and being. The pervasive view of leadership, as extraordinary and hierarchal individuals, reinforces dominant positions of power. Institutions that only rely on this systems-driven analysis often miss seeing and valuing these critical people, forms and patterns of leadership.

Nexus Community Partners supports strong, equitable and just communities in which all residents are engaged, are recognized as leaders and have pathways to wealth building opportunities. We hope to bring people working in different sectors and cultural communities together to lift up absent narratives about leadership. With our Community Storytelling Project partners, our learning community will explore ways we practice community leadership.

Join us to learn more about our virtual and in-person learning opportunities to:

  • Support and explore community-driven leadership that improve the overall health and well-being of a group as defined by those individuals, families, or community members.
  • Develop and share stories of dynamic and cultural practices that support intersectional and relational shared power.

Thursday, Feb. 13th
11:00 AM – noon EST / 10:00 – 11:00 AM CST
View the Info Session slide deck here

Wednesday, Feb. 26th
10:30 AM – Noon EST/ 9:30 – 11:00 AM CST
RSVP to: and receive a weblink to participate

Learn more about the CLLI and Learning Community here!

The Nexus Worker-Ownership Initiative is proud to announce the completion of its first cooperative conversion! Starting in 2020, Happy Earth Cleaning Cooperative is now in business. 

Nexus, in partnership with Project Equity, helped provide technical assistance for Happy Earth Cleaning LLC to become an employee-owned co-op.  Over a period of 10 months the previous business owners and employees were guided through a proven conversion process that included feasibility studies, structuring the deal, and training employees to become owners of their own business.

MPR rounds out the story with their article, “Supporters see worker co-ops as way to spread the wealth. How one housecleaning business joined the workers’ cooperative movement”. An excerpt of the story is below. You can listen to the audio and read the full article here.

“With the support of the cleaning company’s founders, employees in January officially transitioned the company into the Happy Earth Cleaning Co-op — a cooperative owned and run by workers. Employees at worker cooperatives get a say in how their business is run and a cut of the profits. As wealth disparities continue to increase in the country, some are hoping co-ops can make the economy more equitable and democratic.”

Thanks also go out to The City of Minneapolis Co-op Technical Assistance Program (C-TAP), Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), The Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD). Project Equity, and Erin Heelan Consulting.

Happy Earth Press Release

January 9, 2020

Contacts: Theresa Gardella
Vice President of Programs and Operations Nexus Community Partners

Erin Jerabek Heelan
Consultant, WOI Nexus Community Partners

New Year Brings Employee Ownership to Happy Earth Cleanin

Happy Earth Cleaning LLC is the first employee-owned cleaning company in Minneapolis

The new year began at Happy Earth Cleaning with employee ownership. Marion and Jesse Dunbar, founders of Happy Earth Cleaning, completed the sale of the business to their employees on December 30, 2019, and new ownership took effect on January 1, 2020. Five staff members became employee-owners with a plan for additional owners over time.

In 2010, Marion founded Happy Earth Cleaning LLC in Minneapolis, MN, with a mission of providing environmentally-safe cleaning with a people-first culture. In the beginning, Marion was the only staff member: she did all the cleaning, management and client cultivation. In 2013, her husband Jesse joined the business. Today, Happy Earth Cleaning has 19 employees, and they pride themselves on their culture and community impact. This includes participating in community events, offering full-time employment to their staff, and now employee ownership.

In 2018, Marion and Jesse needed to create a succession plan for the business because they decided to move back to their hometown of Seattle, Washington. They valued the unique “people first” culture that they had built in an industry that has been known to exploit its workers, and employee ownership was something Marion had always envisioned for the business.

Additionally, they didn’t want a new owner to dismantle their culture or take their customer list and lay off their employees. These aspirations and concerns fueled a desire to explore employee ownership as part of their succession planning.

In search of answers, Marion, Jesse, and a core group of employees took a nine-week course through the City of Minneapolis Co-op Technical Assistance Program (CTAP). The course helped them understand co-op development and solidified their choice that transitioning to employee ownership was the right choice for the business.

To help with the business transition, Happy Earth Cleaning connected with Nexus Community Partners and Project Equity. “We worked with Nexus and Project Equity to sell to our employees because they provided us with the knowledge, expertise and guidance to ensure our team was set up for success after our departure,” Marion said. “It gave us the confidence to know we are doing the right thing for the employees and ourselves.” In addition to the help from

Nexus Community Partners and Project Equity, the new owners received finance and business plan training from Neighborhood Development Center, and the sale was financed locally through Shared Capital Cooperative.

Nexus and Project Equity formed a partnership to respond to the changing business landscape in the Twin Cities region. A Project Equity data analysis shows that in the Twin Cities Metro alone, an estimated 26,180 businesses are owned by baby boomers. Over 80% of the owners have no succession plans. The partners believe employee ownership provides a solution that keeps businesses and jobs rooted locally. For Nexus, employee ownership is part of a larger initiative that seeks to build community wealth. “The model is not only good for business, it’s good for workers and good for our communities,” said Elena Gaarder, Director of Community Wealth Building at Nexus. Marion and Jesse do not fit the “baby boomer” profile that this initiative was originally created to target, yet, they are part of a growing number of entrepreneurs that are environmentally and/or socially-minded who want to leave a legacy when they choose to exit their business.

Ten years after its conception, the Happy Earth Cleaning team has made history by becoming the first employee-owned cleaning company in Minneapolis. They credit their philosophy and culture with the reason they have been able to retain employees and build a strong client base. Through their efforts, they’ve shown how employee-owned initiatives can lead to a happy team. It’s a new year for employees at Happy Earth Cleaning as they celebrate employee ownership. Zach Dennis, Happy Earth’s Dispatcher, has been serving on the cooperative development team with four of his colleagues. He shared, “I think employee ownership is a valuable opportunity to have a democratically controlled workplace allowing for worker control over growth, wages and benefits that directly affect employees.”


Happy Earth Cleaning Employee Ownership Case study: https://www.project

About Happy Earth Cleaning: Happy Earth is “A People Company that Cleans.” Their business philosophy recognizes the intersectionality between a happy planet, happy community, and happy people – employees and customers. Happy Earth stays true to this philosophy by using environmentally friendly products, participating in community events, and offering full-time employment to their staff. They credit their philosophy and culture with the reason they have been able to retain employees and build a strong client base.

Facebook @HappyEarthCleaning Twitter: @HappyEarthClean Instagram: @happyearthcleaning

About Nexus Community Partners: Nexus is a community building intermediary that works at the intersection of philanthropy, government, community development and community leaders. The organization builds strong, equitable and just communities in which all residents are engaged, are recognized as leaders and have pathways to ownership opportunities. Nexus supports efforts that build strong, local economies and provides services to business owners and their employees to transition to worker cooperatives. To learn more about the Worker Ownership Initiative and Nexus’ Business Transition services, visit:

About Project Equity: Project Equity is a national leader in the movement to harness employee ownership to maintain thriving local business communities, honor selling business owners’ legacies, and address income and wealth inequality. Headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, Project Equity works locally and with partners around the country to raise awareness about employee ownership as an exit strategy for business owners, and as an important approach for increasing employee engagement and wellbeing. A nonprofit organization, Project Equity provides hands on consulting and support to companies that want to transition to employee ownership, as well as to the new employee-owners to ensure that they, and their businesses, thrive after the transition. Read more at

Marion and Jesse Dunbar sold their successful cleaning company to the people who know their company best—their employees.