Get Ready for the Cooperative Decade

Northwest alliances move forward from IYC

During 2012, the UN International Year of Cooperatives (IYC), many U.S. cooperators took the opportunity to work together to promote existing co-ops and lay the groundwork for a stronger movement. Now that IYC is over, here’s a look at three alliances in the Pacific Northwest.

Portland Project for Cooperative Innovation

The pdxPCI is an informal networking and education initiative that aims "to seed and catalyze collaboration between diverse cooperative sectors in Portland, Ore." I spoke with Stephanie Neely, board administrative assistant at People’s Food Co-op and a peer advisor with the Democracy At Work Network.

What is pdxPCI? pdxPCI is people doing things, a way for people to get involved in co-ops and the cooperative movement. We’re not formally incorporated. We have six organizers, mostly from the food co-op and worker co-op sectors. We’ve been organizing public events since April 2012 and have about 75 people on our email list. Our mission is co-op education in Portland, networking among cooperators, building awareness of projects and events, highlighting what is going on, and bringing people together.

You work at People’s, but you’re also involved with worker co-ops. I’ve been involved in co-ops my whole working life. I started as a worker-owner at Groundwork Books at the University of California-San Diego, and got involved with the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops. I worked at Other Avenues, a worker-owned food co-op in San Francisco. When I got to Portland, I already knew about People’s, which is consumer-owned with a Policy Governance board but is worker-managed. Now I’m certified with the Democracy At Work Network as a peer advisor for people in democratic workplaces.

pdxPCI is great because we’re about building the co-op economy, promoting co-ops as a business model across industries and across sectors. Worker co-ops are often the foundation of a well-developed co-op economy, but there are a lot of commonalities we can share no matter what kind of co-op we are.

Why are food co-ops involved with cross-sector movement building? We’re here as ourselves—none of us formally represents our co-op, but they support us. For example, we hold meetings in the People’s community room. People’s holds a regular Co-ops 101 class and is involved in the community in many ways.

Just as it takes a lot of different kinds of people to make our co-op succeed, it’s the same with the co-op sector as a whole. We need people from many different industries, many different sectors of the economy. It’s not just about food co-ops, or our food co-op, and it’s not just about worker co-ops. It’s all important work. Any step to build the cooperative economy is a good step. Mistakes, successes, failures, it’s all going to add to our progression as time goes on.

What’s next? We’re holding monthly events to keep the conversation going until we get a more set structure, going back and forth between focused, facilitated events and big public events with speakers. It’s a good process to keep the momentum and see it develop from what people bring to the table, rather than have the organizers set it in stone at the start.

Our first 2013 event is "Co-op Speed Dating," where everyone spends a few minutes with each person, talking about their interest in co-ops and any projects they are working on. We’ll be featuring historian and economist Gar Alperovitz at a public talk in April.

One thing we want to do is feature credit unions, as well as bring in lawyers and CPAs who are familiar with cooperative models. We want to set up support or resources for people who want to start co-ops. We’re not focused right now on analysis of the larger economy, and we don’t have a strong mission statement yet; we want to bring lots of people in and then hold that conversation. But we’d like to provide more understanding of cooperative enterprise to institutions that provide funding for startups, which may not know how or why they would fund a co-op. I’d love to be able to reduce those extra hurdles for co-op entrepreneurs.

Strengthening Local Independent Co-ops Everywhere (SLICE)

Seattle-based SLICE promotes "sustainable regional cross-sectoral cooperative development," in which human needs are met democratically with social and environmental justice. From webster walker, community outreach administrator at Central Co-op.

What does SLICE do? SLICE has been around for four years, working to promote co-ops and the cooperative movement. We’ve focused on co-ops as businesses that embody social justice and ecological sustainability. Our main activity has been annual conferences, drawing 100 attendees in 2009, 200 in 2010, and then 75 for a more focused event in 2011. In 2012, we switched the format, holding a reception for the "Cultivating NW Co-ops" conference hosted by NW Cooperative Development Center. About 150 cooperators from around the region celebrated the International Year of Cooperatives with SLICE.

What’s new? I’ve always said, "SLICE doesn’t exist," meaning it’s not incorporated. Now we’ve formed a steering committee and we’re moving toward incorporation. We’re still working on our mission statement, but it looks like SLICE will be a nonprofit alliance of area co-ops, co-op developers, and allies.

We went through a major transition a year ago, and I’ve been the last of the founders at the table. SLICE isn’t exactly what it was, but it’s great. We need to move forward so we can be a resource and motivator to grow the cooperative economy in our region.

Four of your founders worked at Central Co-op. Do you still have that food co-op connection? Our steering committee is far more diversified, with people from Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union, Equal Exchange, NW Cooperative Development Center, a local foundation, a new food co-op in formation, plus several independent co-op developers and allies. Central Co-op is still involved: one of my co-workers has been on the steering committee since it formed, one of the original founders has returned from sabbatical, and Central’s new general manager, Dan Arnett, participated at our first meeting of 2013.

What’s planned for 2013? So far, we’ve planned an event, "SLICE Drinks." We’ll meet at Seattle’s new worker co-op coffee bar, Black Coffee. The presenter will discuss an idea for members of collectively managed houses to help them collaborate on projects, build a capital fund, and feed a network of worker co-ops. I’m getting a banquet permit so we can serve beer, too. SLICE was founded by people drinking beer together, and it’s important not to lose that legacy!

Most of our energy is focused on the process of becoming a real institution. Our commitment from the start has been that you leave a lasting legacy by creating infrastructure that embodies the kind of world you want to live in. That’s why we’ve focused on co-ops, embodying social and environmental justice, and why we’re putting our energy into creating the institution that SLICE will become.

Rogue Co-ops

Rogue Co-ops is an informal association of Rogue Federal Credit Union, Grange Co-op, Medford Food Co-op, and Ashland Food Co-op, named for the Rogue River region of Southern Oregon where they operate. I spoke with Annie Hoy, outreach and communications manager at Ashland Food Co-op.

What is Rogue Co-ops? We started working together in November 2011 and launched in January 2012 for IYC. So far, it has been a meeting of marketing and outreach staff and general managers. The marketing people work on getting the word out, co-branding, as well as looking at what sponsorships we will do to get our name out there. The general managers are more of a support team for each other, but we’re looking to them to guide us into where they would like to see this group go in the future. We want them to have ownership of our path.

We are addressing a major need for effective messaging. I believe we’ve opened people’s minds to the idea of cooperative enterprise because now they can see it more clearly, and it’s not just "hippie food co-ops." Our focus is showing how "Co-ops Build a Better World," or in our case how "Co-ops Build a Better Community." Principle 7, concern for community, is our main arena. One of our main messages is local environmental sustainability, and we’re co-sponsoring this year’s Earth Day celebration in Ashland. We’ll have a "Co-op Plaza" in a high-traffic area of the festival, doing co-op education.

What else is planned for 2013? Mostly future visioning on how to capitalize on where we’ve come so far, but in the meantime we’re doing things. We all contribute to the "Teacher of the Week" program that the Credit Union has: the Grange gives something to the class one week, we give apples the next week. Now we’re talking about pooling our money to offer a Rogue Co-ops Scholarship for a high-school or college student.

Organizationally, we’re talking about our membership structure. Should we legally affiliate or stay informal? How should we grow? Should we stay very local, or should we branch out? Should we accept a Credit Union that has a branch here but isn’t based here? Do we reach out to REI now that it has a store here?

Why stay together now that IYC is over? IYC was great for bringing us together. We spent a lot of energy on education and promotion activities. Now we’re taking a breath and refocusing. We’re looking at pooling our power and resources and making change. We’re imagining what we can do to help meet the ambitious goals of the Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade (adopted by the International Cooperative Alliance during IYC, see the box on page 12). 

We need to really study the Blueprint and the 2020 Challenge. That stuff is deep. What can we do so co-ops are people’s top choice, are the fastest growing sector, are recognized as the most sustainable form of business? I see the regional associations as sounding boards where strategy can be formed, so it’s not just XYZ Food Co-op trying to talk to community leaders, but an association saying that we’re together, we have credibility.

I’d like to see that the business school at Southern Oregon University knows what cooperative enterprise is, and professors are including it in their classes, so graduates leave with a working knowledge or at least a clue about co-ops. The same for economic development organizations—to convince someone who talks to people who want to start businesses that these people might want to start a co-op instead of a private corporation. When Rogue Co-ops won the award for collaboration at the SOREDI (Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, Inc.) Annual Meeting, the room was filled with the region’s top business leaders. I know a lot of these guys. It was wonderful to be able to talk about the cooperative sector. They were really impressed. That was last fall, and we need to get back in there.

Any last words of wisdom? My main goal is to reach young people. Right now, we are completely in love with the Cooperative Trust, young professionals in credit unions. They are on fire! The youth movement in cooperation is exciting, and it gives me hope. How do we attract, engage, and educate young people? How do we get them on our boards? If we’re going to survive, if cooperation is going to survive, if we’re going to change away from corporate government to real democracy, they are the ones who are going to take up where we have been and move it forward. And we have to be the ones to support them.

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