Cooperatives Face Diversity Challenges

Some items in my mail recently underscore questions useful for any cooperative: Who are we serving? Where is the rest of our community? Are we truly encouraging participation and empowerment of persons of different abilities, gender, culture, race, class?

A co-op subculture

From Kansas, Cary de Wit writes:

"I am a graduate student of cultural geography at the University of Kansas and have been a member of the Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas for over ten years.... I have noticed in my travels around the country that co-ops are frequented by certain kinds of people, and that there is a remarkable consistency from place to place in co-op patrons, in spite of how different the places might be culturally. For example, co-op shoppers in Kansas appear to be more similar to co-op shoppers in Vermont, Minnesota, and Virginia, than they are to their more mainstream fellow Kansans. It strikes me that there is a subculture (alternative culture?) associated with co-ops that is scattered throughout the United States, and that it is concentrated in some areas, while almost nonexistent in others. I think this distribution, and the causes behind it, may be worth closer study, and am currently contemplating a research project on the subject.

I am mostly interested in where they are, but I also need to know something of their character, as l am trying to make a distinction between truly cooperative stores and commercial enterprises. . . . I would also be interested to know whether your experience concurs with my observations, and whether you've noticed any regional variation, or lack of it, in the character of the people who establish and use co-ops.

Low-income African-Americans

From the District of Columbia, Lisa Gardiner writes:

"I manage a small food co-op located in the basement of the Sojourners Neighborhood Center. The Sojourners Food Co-op is different from traditional food co-ops because we stress inexpensive food -- a necessity in this low-income neighborhood where only expensive corner stores/chain grocery stores prevail -- rather than organic and natural foods. We purchase bulk, canned goods and produce at local wholesalers and then sell it at a small mark-up.

'Although I have benefitted from my contacts with other D.C. area food co-ops, I have also found that there are unique issues in working within a low income African-American community. Most of our volunteers are unemployed, have never before heard the word "co-op," and are used to a local neighborhood center being a place forhand-outs rather than inexpensive food. I am writing in hope that you know of other food co-ops around the country serving a primarily low-income population, who I could contact for advice.

Although these past few months have been a struggle for our co-op, I continue to see it as a valuable place of work experience and self-empowerment, inexpensive food and community spirit."

Cooperativa del Pueblo

And from Oakland comes news of how a "cooperativa strives for alternatives to fast-food and supermarkets": "Cooperativa del Pueblo, a cross between a 1970s organic food cooperative and a Latin American mercado, is one of the Bay Area's few Latino food cooperatives.

"Born in 1990 out of Clinica de la Raza's hypertension program, the co-op has 80 members in the Fruitvale area. 'We have a lot of liquor stores and cheap hamburger places in this neighhborhood' [said one co-op member], 'but there's no place to get cheap vegetables. We're trying to eat right and eliminate some of the negative things around here.' Clinica de la Raza's state-funded hypertension program is meant to reduce heart problems among low-income Latinos, who often switch to diets of cheap burgers and other fast-food when they first arrive in the United States.

"Co-op members must pay a $10 onetime fee, pitch in with chores and attend meetings on alternate Wednesdays, where they discuss everything from shopping needs to philosophical ideals."

Editor Dave Gutknecht, in response:

Let us acknowledge in passing the role of public policy in remedying our society's painful divisions of class, race, gender, and more. Public funding for Oakland Latinos operating Cooperative del Pueblo need not run out. Afro-American citizens, living in our capital's disenfranchised municipality, need not be unemployed. Yet inequitable class relations are at the foundation of our society, and this season's various budget proposals show, not surprisingly, that federal and state priorities are not being radically reoriented. Until they are, addressing everyday injustice will too often be the work of entrepreneurs without capital, of unelected legislators of change, of workers and organizers providing quality products and services denied by the larger economic system. Yes, public policy and leadership are needed -- but will only result from pressures we small "d" democrats generate by demonstrating possibilities and demanding change.

As the above correspondents remind us, a cooperative venture here faces a society that abuses low income people and people of color, whether they arrived on our shores three weeks or three centuries ago. We need only add that people in other groups also experience abuse and restrictions. Resources and opportunities are more limited, and obstacles greater, for those who aren't white, educated, decently paid, fully able or in other ways part of the dominant culture. While even destitute people can and have utilized the cooperative structure, for them it's just that much harder to succeed. A community that is largely unemployed or underemployed may not have a lot of resources with which to launch a member-owned business. I couldn't offer Sojourners Food Co-op many references like the Oakland project, but I am sure there are more. Readers, can you help?

As for members of the dominant culture, most of them are also abused as laborers and consumers. Take food, a key arena of socialization. The capitalist food industry -- a giant equalled in dollar volume only by the medical industry and surpassed oly by the military/space industry -- has generated a late twentieth century American public best described as colonized: Most people are eating groceries shipped from four hundred to four thousand miles away. They usually don't know where their food comes from or what is in it. It arrives home in more products and more packaging than anywhere else in the world. Their diet has more fats, more sweeteners and more additives than any other in the world. Their personal health, the health of the soil, and that of farming communities are all eroding. They believe that it demonstrates the virtues of the American way that food eaten at home requires a lower percentage of disposable income than ever before.

Subculture or Diverse Culture?

Grocery Bag is Medium for Pro-Diversity Message

Borrowing from a community program in their own city, Nature's Fresh Northwest, a natural food retailer in Portland, Oregon, printed the following message on their grocery bags:

10 Things I Can Do Every Day to Celebrate Diversity

1. Say Something. Do not let racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and other stereotypical comments continue in conversation without saying how you feel. Not speaking out against discrimination is contributing to the problem.

  • Know your right to express your self. Take a deep breath. Expect to succeed.
  • Look directly at the person you are talking to. Let your fact and voice convey the idea that you are serious.
  • Think about some phrases that you feel comfortable using such as "I find that joke offensive" or "I feel strongly about eliminating discrimination and comments like that are not o.k. with me."
  • Remember, by speaking out against discrimination, you did the right thing.

2. Learn about other people and their lifestyles. Get to know new people. Read about other cultures and lifestyles; eat new kinds of food; attend diverse community activities; go to museums and listen to music. Listen to the points of view of others and what they have to say about themselves.

3. Be informed about issues. Listen to what is going on in the world, read the newspaper, listen to the radio, watch TV. Talk with others about what you can do to respond to important issues.

4. Look for commonalities among people while celebrating our differences.

5. Get involved with your community. Support your neighbors, volunteer, make suggestions, support local organizations that address diversity by volunteering or donating what you can.

6. Vote. You count. This is a way to make a difference.

7. Treat people as Individuals. Do not make assumptions about them based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, religion, etc.

8. Tell your community about your beliefs and values. Let your children, family, friends and co-workers know what you think every day, not just when incidents of discrimination occur. Teach our children to love and respect one another.

9. Promote accessibility. Evaluate your organization: are there physical, economic or social barbers that limit participation? If so, change them.

10. Get involved in Stand Up Portland. Stand Up Portland is a diversity project that consists of a year-long public awareness campaign, culminating with a celebration on Saturday, August 21,1993.

For people seeking something better, again, those with greater access to resources such as education and money will have a better chance. Whatever the resources, mutual self-help leads, among other things, to cooperatives, "a valuable place of work experience and selfempowerment, inexpensive food and community spirit," discussing "everything from shopping needs to philosophical ideals." Nearly all food co-ops, today as well as in previous generations back to Rochdale, began with desires for better quality food and to fairly and democratically control essential goods and services. But in growing out of a society that is so divided, cooperatives, despite their principles of equality, equity, and self-help, often reproduce those social divisions.

Is the result today a co-op subculture, as Cary de Wit suspects? I believe it's true that most retail food co-ops are predominantly white and are located in communities with a higher than average education level and moderate to upper middle income. I hope any investigation includes the social conditions, as well as internal practices at co-ops, which make it harder for other types of people to become enfranchised in these ostensibly democratic organizations. But the question seems to overlook (a) the tendency to not "see" people who are present, though different; and (b) other 6 types of cooperatives, including ones with different constituencies and different product lines than the more familiar natural foods co-ops. The self-selecting vision behind the letter is also suggested by the distinction between "truly cooperative stores and commercial enterprises." Opposition to becoming more of a "commercial enterprise" has been the confused cry of many who have perpetuated social divisions by discriminating against people who did not fit the sub-culture their cooperative business serves.

I invite readers to share what their cooperative is doing to address social divisions and to promote and model diversity: in hiring practices, through 0 merchandising and discounts, in community programs and ties, in other marketing efforts. (For another example, provided by a private natural foods retailer, see the accompanying sidebar.)

While no one food business can serve everyone, we can try to extend the cooperative structure and spirit to all. It may be that cooperatives will be needed in strong positions at all levels of the food system -- from growers through distributers to consumers -- to insure quality, equity and sustainability. In order to fulfill the equity or social justice part of that vision, let us examine our practices and build a stronger foundation for a democratic, diverse future.

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