The Need for Widespread Co-op Education

Two Mondays ago, I participated on a panel about cooperation in the local food system.  This 1.5 hour-long panel was part of the Local Food Summit, a regional convergence of various local food interests created by the Mile High Business Alliance.

Participants on the co-op panel ran the gamut from lead staff of diverse farmer co-ops in the Colorado region (such as High Plains Food Co-opHeadwaters Growers Co-op, and more) to urban co-op organizers in Denver (such as Neal Zelarney of the Northeast Community Co-op Market and myself, representing West Colfax Food Co-op) to innovative urban farm models like Revision and GOFarm.  The discussion centered on: how can cooperation and the co-op model enhance our local food systems?

Co-ops Panel discussion at the Local Food Summit 2015.
Photo by Northeast Community Co-op Market (Facebook)
In the middle section of the panel discussion, we were invited to speak about successes, challenges and barriers. After listening to the other panelists speak about difficulties with financing, cooperative leadership, etc. I presented my perspective on challenges in this way.

I asked the audience to raise their hands if they could tell me what defines a co-op.  About 75% of hands went up.  We had been discussing co-ops and cooperation for an hour at that point in the session, but not everyone in the room was even clear on what a co-op is.  I proceeded to ask how many audience members could tell me how a co-op works.  About 40% of hands were raised.

How to Realize the Potential of Co-ops?  First, Discover They Exist

This illustrates a common difficulty I encounter: the need for broader education and training on the co-op model.

Recently, I worked with a start-up food co-op, Northeast Community Co-op Market, in the northeast Denver/northwest Aurora area.  In my time with them, the group contracted a professional third-party feasibility market study to be done.  The formal study involved surveying households about their grocery shopping habits and their likelihood to interface with a new co-op grocery store.  On questions regarding whether the store was a "co-op" or not, the results were astounding.  As many as 80% of respondents did not understand the concept of a co-op grocery store.  They either believed it to be like a bulk buying club (ala Sam's Club or CostCo), or were somewhat confused, distrustful or negative about the concept.  Compare this to the climate in neighborhoods flush with retail food co-ops, such as in parts of New England and the Bay Area, where the results of a similar consumer survey would probably be quite different.

I have seen that direct, personal exposure to co-ops is a tremendous teacher, even superior to witnessing a lecture or reading a publication.  My own story of co-op activism is evidence.

For seven years, I served on the board (or "collective council") of the all-volunteer-run non-profit community bicycle shop, Free Ride. For three of those years, I participated on the Programming Committee which was run in a worker co-op format, where bike mechanics teachers designed and implemented programming, created and approved budgets, assigned responsibilities, etc.--all with no boss.  Having a unique firsthand experience of how co-ops can be fulfilling and successful, I have felt deeply compelled to share the model with others.  But if someone has never walked into a food co-op and felt the difference from a regular grocery store... or if they have never stepped foot in farmer-owned cooperative facility, or witnessed workers making their own decisions collectively... then how could I effectively convey about the incredible promise of the co-op model?

Next Step: Learn about the Benefits of Co-ops, and How Co-ops Work

I taught two Co-ops 101 presentations in Denver in 2014, each one hosted by a community organization with aligned values (the Denver Permaculture Guild, and the Northeast Community Co-op Market).  Both times, community attendance far exceeded my expectations.  There existed a real hunger to learn more about these models!  In my time working with NCCM, more than one prominent community leader from Aurora approached me about the desire for more education and training about co-ops in their respective communities.  There is a real need, and a real opportunity at this point in time, for the co-op model to spread like wildfire... if we can effectively expose people to it.

Co-ops are hugely relevant to addressing problems created by systemic inequality in our society--yet few people are knowledgeable about how co-op models actually work. We need a concerted effort to dispel the myths and misconceptions about co-ops, while also striving not to "hype" them as the only solution.  We can excite people about the possibilities for a more just and equitable life, economy, and society through co-ops, but the actual work to build co-ops must, by necessity, be done by communities.

Co-op education is critical to building capacity for more co-op development nationally, and especially so in the Denver area, where there is a dearth of model urban co-ops.  I am working towards solutions for this.  One approach I'm developing is to partner with community organizations and SBDC's to deliver more co-op education to aspiring entrepreneurs and community organizers in the metro Denver area, to stimulate co-op brainstorming and experimentation from the grassroots "up" to the "anchor institutions" in Denver and Aurora who are deeply committed to supporting co-op development efforts.  Another approach I am developing involves creating an online curriculum about co-ops that is friendly, accessible and informational, potentially in partnership with a MOOC (massive open online campus) program.  This second approach would have a more global impact, but would also be relevant for raising awareness for the Front Range.

If you wish to collaborate with me on either route to stimulate more widespread, accurate knowledge of co-ops, please drop me a line to discuss!

UPDATE: - Check out this article from the La Junta Tribune-Democrat about the panel, featuring excerpts from the conversation:
- If you're looking for your daily dose of co-op education, check out this handy infographic from YES! Magazine:


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