This is a guest post by Glenn Bergman. Glenn Bergman is the general manager of Weavers Way Co-op in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of the Weavers Way Shuttle. Info: www.weaversway.coop.
Last month, I had the opportunity to sit inside the Brossman Center at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mt. Airy and miss an entire fall day as the leaves were at their peak color. Instead of experiencing fall, I opted to participate in a mid-Atlantic co-op development “café” sponsored by Cooperative Development Services.
The meeting was the first of many taking place throughout the country to bring together established co-ops, start-up co-ops and would-be co-ops to work on expanding the consumer co-op sector. The goal is to impact and improve communities and to engage more people in self-determination, caring for others, self-help, self-responsibility, democratic processes, working in a transparent process of honesty and openness.
It was very exciting to see 60 people together, strategizing on how to grow the co-op movement. We covered these topics, inspired by the goals of the Cooperative Decade kicked off with last year’s U.N.-sponsored Year of the Co-op:
Participation: The growth in co-op membership has been dramatic. People want to participate in community and in helping to shape their community. Attending the meeting with us were co-ops from Swarthmore, Kensington, West Philadelphia (Mariposa), South Philadelphia in the city; Collingswood, NJ, and Ambler in our suburbs; Bethlehem and State College (Friends and Farmers) elsewhere in Pennsylvania; Frederick, MD (Common Market); Ithaca (Greenstar) and Spring Valley (Hungry Hollow) in New York state. Ten years ago this type of meeting would not have happened. It is a big change.
We discussed how to get people in the community not only to join but to participate as owners. Our aim is collaboration of members and co-ops working together builds strength.
Sustainability: In-depth discussion focused on how co-ops build efficiency that is more balanced than just business sustainability and profitability. Building community and democracy leads to long-term business sustainability.
Identity: How do we preserve our co-op identity and principles as we grow? It is important that cooperative entities educate the community and their members in the seven principles of cooperatives so we stay true to the ideals of economic democracy.
Legal frameworks: Attention must be paid to maintaining a legal environment that will allow co-ops to grow and not be held back by legal barriers to community-owned businesses.
Capital: How do we increase capital to allow the co-op sector to grow? Co-op models are not based on maximizing returns for equity investment.
Worldwide, co-ops employ over 100 million people and have revenues of more than $2 trillion. Wow! I had no idea how big co-ops were worldwide. This includes consumer co-ops, buying co-ops, credit unions, agricultural co-ops, energy co-ops, housing co-ops and worker cooperatives.
After the meeting, I started thinking about how we might connect with a co-op in our different everyday activities:
You get up in the morning and make a cup of coffee or tea produced on a cooperative farm in Central America. The electric kettle is powered by electricity purchased through the Energy Co-op. The milk you pour on your cereal is from Organic Valley, a co-op owned by dairy farmers. You open the paper and a read articles from the Associated Press, a cooperative news service owned by the papers.
It’s time to drop the kids off at the cooperative nursery school, a few blocks from where you live in a cooperative apartment. The mortgage is through the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union. (All credit unions are cooperatives.)
On your way home, you stop at Mariposa or Weavers Way or Creekside to pick up your groceries. You buy chocolate produced by a co-op in Africa, spices from Frontier, a worker cooperative based in Iowa, and olive oil produced and distributed by an agricultural cooperative.
At night, after the kids are asleep, you pour a glass of Banyuls late harvest red wine from the south of France. Yes, a winery cooperative owned by the growers.
You turn off the light and dream about Mondragon, Spain, where all the local businesses are run by a worker-owned community co-op. The workers own all the stores, factories, banks and other important retail and wholesale entities. Imagine if the stores in Mt. Airy were owned and run by the workers. Imagine a plant owned by the workers and the community to support local manufacturing jobs in Germantown. Imagine a cooperative farming group that owns land and supports beginning gardeners who also sell their produce.
One last thought: Imagine a hotel in northwest Philadelphia that is cooperatively owned by the community. Better yet, the Inquirer is sold to the Philadelphia Newspaper Cooperative, whose goal is to support local news reporting that is honest and not swayed by big money interests. What could be next: the Eagles, the Phillies, the Flyers, local TV . . . If the Green Bay Packers can be owned by the community, in the words of that grammatically challenged Phillies fan a few year ago — why can’t us?
Below is a recap video of the Cooperative Cafe at the Brossman Center: