Mississippi Today is profiling members of Jackson’s 2023 Change Collective.

Vilas Annavarapu, 24 of Jackson, is a co-founder of the Riverside Collective, a worker-owned ice cream and coffee shop in south Jackson. Also, he currently works part-time for a non-profit in west Jackson called the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, overseeing all educational programming.

Annavarapu shares how he came to love the state after he wrote his college thesis on the Mississippi Freedom Schools. He was accepted into the Mississippi Teacher Corps, a 2-year teaching program that recruits college grads to teach in the neediest areas of the state. 

For two years, Annavarapu taught at Blackburn Middle School and he had an epiphany.

He found that he loved his students, teaching and the idea of helping them into the future.

“I never thought I’d love teaching and working with a few young people as much as I did,” said Annavarapu. “They’re incredibly bright, creative and thoughtful. And they have really, really big ideas for themselves in the world. Many people would be surprised by that. It touched me and I found that I wanted to find different ways to support them. So, after I finished teaching, I started a worker-owned business, that business is the Riverside Collective.”

“The workers make decisions about the store’s operations democratically, decide on the equitable distribution of profits, and involve community members in planning external events,” said Annavarapu. “The workers are only accountable to one another and their neighborhood. This allows for organic and sustainable growth not subject to the demands of shareholders looking for increasing returns. This model of ownership allows for economic development to occur without gentrification or displacement– as the business succeeds, so does the neighborhood.” 

Riverside is looking to build a more equitable future centered around the values of:

  • Care for self. 
  • Care for others.
  • Care for the environment. 

“We work with middle and high schoolers to teach them the principles of cooperative entrepreneurship, we involve them in decision making, and pay them for their work. It’s a project based, and community facing approach, to get young people to learn fundamental skills like math, literacy, and lifelong practices like cooperation, creativity, and critical thinking.”

“One thing I notice in the classroom is that there are a lot of challenges. But for me, teaching them math and literacy wasn’t nearly as exciting sometimes as them talking about how they could make money. So, when I talked about entrepreneurship and business development, they got really excited. Still, what’s crucial to all of that is literacy, math skills and the fundamental skills to develop business ideas, while nurturing a deep love for education, and investing and giving back to their communities.”

“We’re in our startup phase right now, and as Riverside matures, we hope to be an incubator for other worker-owned enterprises. As more cooperative businesses grow, so will people’s capacity to build consensus and reclaim ownership over industry. Companies that profit off the poor cannot bully their way into communities. People set the terms for the economy– not the other way around, and are no longer at the mercy of corporations or their shareholders, residents will be able to make informed decisions with an eye toward a sustainable future for generations to come.” 

“That’s what this worker cooperative is about. Creating a future and an economy that values people’s labor. The dignity of labor will also be in harmony with our environment. We have an economy that prioritizes endless growth and destruction. Unless we come up with a new human centric model that focuses on meeting people’s basic needs and respecting our planetary boundaries, we’re in for a rough ride. This planet is all that we have, and unless we take drastic, radical action now and invest in developing a more ethical economy, our future is bleak.”

Sipping his tea, Annavarapu finishes by saying, “it’s simply about building an economy that pays people well, treats them with dignity, and is respectful of our planet.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.