WORCESTER – “I would think of it as a tree.”
The opening narration of “RADIX!” describes a group profiled in a documentary about young Worcester residents.
“It’s rooted in one thing, the community helping other people, but if one of the branches falls off as long as the root is there, it’s always going to continue growing.”
WATCH MOVIE BELOW: “RADIX!”
“RADIX!”, which recently premiered at the Jean McDonough Arts Center on Franklin Street in downtown Worcester, resulted from two years of filming and production, hoping to chronicle the creation and growth of the Worcester Youth Cooperative (WYC).
The title of the film derives from that opening narration, with radix being the literal Latin translation for the word root. Taking place over the course of a year, from Nov. 2020 to 2021, the film explores how a group of Worcester high school students went from wanting to improve their community to forming an organization that less than a year later would be invited to Spain to receive international recognition as one of 20 Youth Cooperatives around the world chosen to take part in the Mondragón City Challenge, an international cooperative entrepreneurship competition.
“We need to destroy the myth that youth are the future. Youth are the present.” Addison Turner, an adult ally of WYC, said. “They’re inspiring us with a vision of hope. They don’t have to wait until adulthood to make change, or to take leadership or to save people’s lives or to change the world.”
Living away from both the glamor of Worcester’s downtown luxury apartments and the safety of its suburban single-family homes, the kids featured in the film show how they grew up surrounded by the systemic issues that for some are policy failures, while for others are simply a fact of life.
Homelessness, substance abuse, chronic hunger, and poverty are all sights that are explored in the film from both an outsider’s perspective and also experienced throughout the everyday lives of its central characters. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit these issues only increased to a boiling point.
“When the pandemic hit, one of the things I saw shift was how people talked about equity. We started to see every single disparity amplified. It was a topic that was put in a pressure cooker, almost,” said Raquel Castro, director of youth opportunities for the City of Worcester.
Wanting to do something about these systemic issues, the kids featured in the film were originally working for an unnamed nonprofit where they tried to suggest ways to respond to the pandemic only to be ignored.
“We wanted to do a porch pantry, we wanted to give out food but they wouldn’t let us,” WYC member Livingston Griffiths said.
After feeling as if their age prevented them from being taken seriously by the adults whose job it was to uplift their communities, the teens formed their own group where everyone would have a voice.
“We realized at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that no one was going to swoop in and save our community. So we decided we’re going to be the ones to save it ourselves,” a youth cooperative volunteer said. Soon after, the WYC was officially formed in Sept. 2020.
“When the pandemic started, I had already thrown away over $40,000 worth of products.” Amjad Chaudhry, a local convenience store owner, explains in the film. “They were really good, but it had only one to three weeks left and I knew I couldn’t sell that much, so it had to go with trash.”
After the teens heard about this, they didn’t hesitate to jump into action. Using this as the first opportunity to respond to the pandemic, they made a deal with the store’s owner to take all the food that otherwise would have gone to waste.
“I couldn’t imagine how much food got thrown away daily when it could be used for people that don’t have food who’d be grateful for it.” WYC member Laciann Griffiths said.
Partnering with 508 Bike Life, the teens could distribute the food to free pantries and families across the city through the creation of their Serve the People Cooperative. After feeding hundreds across the city, the youth brainstormed more ideas for what they could do to help.
“In communities like ours, a lot of poor people are living here. There’s a lot of fast-food chains around and sometimes it’s kind of hard to get access to fresh fruit,” Laciann said. “We had an opportunity to go to the Denholm building downtown and do hydroponic systems where people explain to us what it is and help us build our own from there. We took it and then we’re like, I think we can make something out of this.”
“What they’ve taken on is more than many adults have ever been able to do,” Castro said. “That power doesn’t come from only experience or age, but power comes from being fearless and owning their own organization. Developing a 501c3 is something that is not easy to do.”
After applying for a grant on their own, the teens could move into an office space where they expanded their operations, officially forming a Hydroponics Co-op and a BikeLife Delivery Co-op and a third co-op focused on harm reduction and homeless outreach called S.O.S. Worcester.
“The youth are starting worker-owned cooperatives and those worker-owned cooperatives generate revenue where they collectively decide how they want to share that revenue,” Turner said. “So it’s a way to overcome the limitation of the worker co-op as a strategy and also with charity as a strategy which we know both by themselves do not eradicate or get at the root of the problem.”
The teens weren’t free from their own struggles while developing these co-ops, either. One pivotal moment in the film portrays a pregnant WYC member facing the reality of becoming a teen mother and showcases how others in the cooperative supported her during this time.
Despite their hardships, the teens say they want to focus on what’s next.
“If we keep doing what we’re doing and we teach other youths to do what we do, it’s just going to be like a domino effect and to keep going on.” Livingston Griffiths said. “It’s going to get bigger, impact more people, more communities, and probably leave Worcester and go all over the world.”
Nearly 100 people were in attendance for the film’s premiere and from its reception, the group hopes to host similar events in the future. You can watch the film free online on the Worcester Youth Cooperative YouTube page or click below:
Lead image: Livingston Griffiths, Genesis Marquez Campos, Yarinellys Negron, Laciann Griffiths at the premiere of “RADIX!”/Sam Bishop for ThisWeekinWorcester.com