How SEIZE is bringing the social and solidarity economy to Concordia

The business incubator was approved for funding during the November CSU by-election

Concordia students voted in favour of SEIZE becoming an official Concordia organization in last November’s CSU by-election. Photo By Caroline Marsh

Last November, just over 60 per cent of Concordians who voted during the Concordia Student Union by-election were in favour of funding the Solidarity Economy Incubator Zone for Entrepreneurs, according to the CSU. SEIZE will receive funding through fee-levy support, which will give the organization 29 cents of students’ tuition payments.

SEIZE is an organization working to bring the social and solidarity economy system—a cooperative business model—to Concordia’s student body and the Montreal community. The approach of the social economy system is to create businesses that are collectively owned and operated by the people who work there, protecting the rights of these workers. 

“It’s about democratic ownership, not profit-making, and collective community control,” said Caleb Woolcott, a member of SEIZE. “It’s about making an economy that works for all of us.”

Business incubators are designed to provide newly launched companies and entrepreneurs with mentorship, technical resources and funding support. These incubators have become common fixtures at universities looking to invest in startup businesses, such as the DMZ at Ryerson University.

SEIZE’s work as a business incubator focuses on facilitating and launching new cooperative businesses that support the social economic model, something that early members of SEIZE have been doing in an unofficial capacity since 2013. They first gained backing from the CSU thanks to a referendum mandate in 2015, when the majority of voters demanded that the CSU support the creation of a social economy incubator. They adopted the name SEIZE in 2018 and, with the recent approval of fee-levy support, are now an official Concordia organization.

Marcus Peters, one of the founding members of SEIZE, pointed to the 2012 student strike as a movement that inspired early members of SEIZE to begin organizing for the social economy.

“[The strike] had the effect of bringing together all of these activists and organizers, and was powered by students,” said Peters. “These students had similar values about economic, social, and environmental justice, and the way that this was channelled was through developing cooperatives.”

The approach of a cooperative-based system for their business incubator is a unique one. Based on their own research, SEIZE believes it’s the only university business incubator that follows this model. SEIZE focuses on three pillars in their work in order to foster a social economy at Concordia: educate, incubate, and organize. 

Through education, the organization runs an eight-week course where students can learn the fundamentals of a social and solidarity economy. The curriculum has been running since 2018 and they’re currently taking applications for the 2022 winter semester, with the course starting on Jan. 27. 

The incubation pillar is about supporting both student and non-student-led cooperative projects one on one, helping to build business plans, get funding, and simplify launching a business structured around the social economy. Through this approach, SEIZE has supported projects such as The Hive Cafe and Reggies Bar.

Through the organization pillar, SEIZE is working to push for large-scale social change within Canada’s current capitalist economy. 

“One cafe co-op or food co-op in an economic environment where we’re exploiting the earth and people is not viable,” said Woolcott. “So we have to think about the broader political implications and how we can change this system.”

SEIZE campaigned hard to get the fee-levy approved, getting over a dozen support letters from different co-op groups, including The Breach, a Canada-wide news outlet, Sustainability Action Fund and Milton Parc Citizen’s Committee. They plan to use their campaigning expertise to create social change outside of Concordia. 

“It would be so backward to develop a wonderful space on campus and not think about anything beyond that,” said Woolcott. 

One of their current projects includes opening a bar with the Milton Parc Co-op Community Land Trust that will be accessible to anyone.

Another ongoing project involves working with New Roots Workers Cooperative, a tree planting company operating in British Columbia that frequently employs Concordia students. SEIZE helped to facilitate New Roots’ transfer from a for-profit company to a worker-owned model.

“[SEIZE is] an organization that we believe benefits the student body and adds value to student life,” said Eduardo Malorni, general coordinator for the CSU.

Malorni thinks the cooperative system is ideal for a university community, as these businesses are structured around students coming and going and can create long-lasting impact on campus.  

“Students aren’t expected to be here forever,” said Malorni. “The cooperative system allows them to come in, learn a lot of valuable information, provide some type of service to the student body, then leave and be replaced and trained by another student.” 

Since these businesses are designed to expect a revolving door of students coming and going, they aren’t disrupted when employees leave, which Malorni pointed to as the reason that these co-ops last so long on campus.

With the fee-levy support, SEIZE plans to expand their projects in 2022. They’re working to replace the Concordia cafeteria’s current food service provider—multi-national company Aramark—with a locally-owned and sustainable small business. It is also involved with a project in partnership with the Concordia Greenhouse to supply microgreens grown on campus directly to The Hive Cafe.

“SEIZE is a really strong ally on the [Concordia] scene and can help push for more comprehensive alternatives to the current socio-economic systems that are ingrained in our lives,” said Calvin Clarke, general coordinator for The Hive. “[They offer] another layer to the ever-evolving network of organizations that are striving to make alternative choices possible for students and community members when it comes to business development.”

SEIZE is currently helping The Hive to determine a strategic direction plan to navigate hardships caused by the pandemic. They are also working with the cafe to develop a cooperative training workshop for The Hive’s members to help them better understand the social economy model.

According to Woolcott, the incubator will eventually have its own office space on campus, but for now it will take place virtually or in rented spaces, like The Hive, while campuses are closed due to the pandemic.