Cooperatives and Multi-Culturalism: The Challenge of Difference

The "Happy Valley," as the Hampden-Hampshire County area in Massachusetts is often called, has five colleges in its vicinity and is known for the liberal attitude of the population. In the 1970s, a number of new food co-ops were thriving in this area. We all were sold on the philosophy of having some control over the foods we ate, becoming more aware of where our food was grown and of how it was treated before it came to our tables.

The members of the co-ops in the Amherst-Northampton area were mostly middle class white folks, employed by the colleges. Only one of the area co-ops has survived, a rural storefront supplying the inhabitants of Shutebury and Leverett with healthy and wholesome products.

This is my sixth year as the coordinator of the U. Mass. undergraduate student co-ops, a unique variety of student managed snack bars in student dormitories, a women's monthly newspaper, a photocopying place, the only vegetarian restaurant in our town, and a natural foods store. Most of these businesses have been operating for more than ten years now. The food operations have more than doubled their sales; we have plenty of applications for students who want to participate in these ventures and learn about teamwork and cooperation. Participatory management is the preferred mode of operation, and women are the majority of workers. Our membership is exclusively white and middle class; our customers are more diversified. Yet most of our clientele is white, reflecting the population of U. Mass., and for the most part we fail to attract the small percent that are students of color.

This picture is reflected at the annual NASCO (North American Students of Cooperation) Institute in Ann Arbor: each year I am struck by the absence of people of color. It was there last November that I spoke again with others present about this lack of diversity and led a workshop which dealt with multiculturalism in co-ops.

Cooperatives and collectives are alternatives to regular corporate business in the U.S. in a number of ways: ownership is shared, and although that can yield financial strength, we often are trying to compete with businesses which have much more resources than the cooperatives. As members, consumers have a voice in the choice of products, and cooperative businesses seem to be much more conscientious about issues of health and ecology. The alternative businesses have brought issues to the forefront and have helped to educate the American public as well as influence the food industry.

Multi-culturalism is a concern of today. It is replacing and opposing the melting pot theory, which has been so prevalent in this country. People finally are starting to recognize that blending all together really means to be forced to conform to the values and norms of the majority.

The dominant culture in this country is white, middle class, able bodied, Christian and male. It is white men who run this country and its large corporations, it is the Christian holidays and symbols which fill our calendars and stores, advertisements are meant for those who have money to spend, education is for those who can afford it. Society shows little understanding and support for those who are poor, disabled and old.

Multi-culturalism means to welcome diversity, to accept and value differences, to broaden and enrich our lives by respecting and accepting each other's cultures and backgrounds. This means for majorities to learn and be educated about social issues and to become active in fighting the many existing oppressions.

Exercise reveals patterns

The overwhelming response to my workshop at NASCO showed me that this is an issue co-op members are ready to think and talk about.

We did a brainstorm exercise where the first thought surfacing was given and not questioned by others. Sometimes conflicting stereotypes will emerge. None is meant to insult but rather to give us a general reading and understanding of a particular concept. This exercise ignores the ethnic differences of diverse white groups.

I asked half the participants to define the characteristics of white culture and the other half to define the characteristics of U.S. culture. Each day participants experienced difficulties in defining white culture. We spent some time exploring the meaning of culture and decided that it was a way of communicating and establishing norms of how to be with each other. (Random House Dictionary definition: "...Particular stage of a group of people, the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings transmitted from one generation to another, a way of being with each other.")

Workshop members brainstormed in small groups and then shared their lists, which were very similar both days and not different from those I had collected at previous workshops.

This workshop confirmed my previous experience: It is much harder for the majority to define its culture, its way of being. The existence of the dominant group rarely gets questioned, since this is the accepted and expected way. Members of minority groups usually need to be familiar with that way in order to succeed and blend in; they are forced to melt into the dominant culture.

The significant differences between U.S. white culture and Canadian white culture was my important personal learning during this workshop. As a German, I grew up equating U.S. with North America, and I am grateful to the Canadian members of our group for their patience with me. This differentiation is important, because U.S. citizens tend to automatically assume dominance among all Americans.

Comparing the lists (see below), it becomes clear that co-ops are outside of the mainstream in both countries, holding different values: community is valued, process is important, and the end does not justify the means. Ecology and environmental concerns are important and feel more valued that in the larger white culture. All groups felt that co-ops were more tolerant of sexual freedom, that gay people felt included and welcomed. Being a minority group makes survival tough. In light of of the co-op principles, we can hope our organizations will not simply assimilate to the dominant culture.

Co-op Principles

1. Membership open to all without discrimination.

2. One member, one vote.

3. Earnings distributed according to use.

4. Limited return on member capital.

5. Continuing education.

6. Cooperation among cooperatives.


One of the co-op principles is "membership open to all." This principle needs to be examined. Just as we do not notice our own dominance as whites, we do not notice it among co-ops. Having open membership is one step, but are we open and prepared to accept diversity among our own groups? The U.S./Canadian difference in culture is one example where we automatically presume that the U.S. co-ops stand for American co-op culture in general.

The following questions seem to have emerged from the workshop:

  1. Is our philosophy of food consciousness so rigid that it excludes people whose food culture is different from ours?
  2. Are our values so middle class white, although divergent from the mainstream, that they do not leave room for others?
  3. How familiar and comfortable are people with our orientation toward process and our way of making decisions?

The values and philosophy of cooperation, participatory management, concern for the environment and the sense of community did attract me to the co-op movement, and I am fully committed to them. I know from my own experience how hard it has been for co-ops to survive, as a minority movement characterized by a constant lack of resources. What we have to offer as an alternative way of conducting business and living is most important to me. Yet in order to build our communities into the future we need to open them up and include people of color, make them multi-cultural.

I am interested in starting a dialogue and invite comments, thoughts, and insights.

U.S. white culture characteristics

Paternalistic, hierarchical, individualistic, privacy of emotions, restricted physical contact between people of same sex, achievement/success oriented, competitive, emphasis on recreation/pleasure and escape, schedule oriented, regimented, efficient, materialistic, Puritan work ethic, mobile, technology, television, coffee and uppers in general, political isolation, Christian, commercialization of holidays, class society based on money and education, reason/logic, dualistic world view, apple pie, meat eaters, future and goal oriented, transient, violent and aggressive, heterosexual, separation of church and state, guns, ends justify means, melting pot.

U.S. new co-op culture characteristics

Health food, vegetarian, tofu, brown rice, granola, yogurt, local and organic produce, environmentalist, conservationist, democratic, non-profit, intellectual, socialist, sexual tolerance, hippies, strive for diversity, communication, political tolerance, political consciousness anti-mainstream regarding food and sports and capitalism, non-competitive, sense of humor, self image of openness, feminist, anarchist, laid back/chaotic, white middle class, anti-materialistic, choose poverty image, concerned with progress, diffusion of responsibility, elitist, lack of resources, free to be who we want to be, means over ends, humanistic, value community.

Different Canadian white culture characteristics

Group oriented, value of education, work is a virtue, heterosexual, connection between church and state, cooperative, internalized, nonaggressive, non-violent, polite, quiet, valuing goals, community oriented, peace keepers, bureaucratic, not being distinguished to the rest of the world from U.S., metaphor of nation as a patchwork quilt.

Canadian co-op culture characteristics

Intellectual, principled/idealistic, viewed as potential political problem, bonded with other co-ops, anti-mainstream, anti-capitalist, anti-elite, local food, democratic ideology, concerned with process, not being distinguished to the rest ofthe world from U.S.

One definition of a multicultural organization

A multi-cultural organization may be viewed as one populated by many kinds of people; where the climate supports access and participation of all people in all parts of the organization including positions of authority and centrality; where the climate reflects a value system and organizational way of life supportive of the needs and aspirations for participation and inclusion of people of many groups." (Barbara Love)

In a second part to this article [appearing in the next issue], I will discuss multicultural organizations as defined by one of the pertinent theories concerned about social change.


Katja Hahn d'Errico is coordinator of student businesses at the University of Massachusetts and a doctoral student in group dynamics and organizational development.

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