We just got back from a wonderful weekend at the Circle Pines Center near Hastings, Michigan. This is cooperative retreat center located in the woods of central lower Michigan. We met with folks from other food co-ops around Michigan as well as folks from housing co-ops and worker co-ops. Folks came from as far away as Waterloo, Ontario and Durham, North Carolina. We had a very informative discussion of the current state of food co-ops with people who have been involved with food co-op management for years as well as people who are just starting food co-ops. We learned that there is a great deal of competition right now in the area of organic and natural foods, the very area that food co-ops developed! Now everyone is doing it! So what do food co-ops have to offer as the new, cutting edge niche? And perhaps more importantly to my rebel mind, why do the food co-ops always need to find a new niche? Why isn't our business model the dominant one and the "free" market capitalists the ones working around us? I hope these questions will generate some dialogue here. What are your thoughts? What do food co-ops offer today that makes us special? How can co-ops become a more important presence in the marketplace?
Here's the definition of capitalism: an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market. (Merriam Webster, emphasis mine.)
If our economy is based on private decisions regulated by a "free" market, then who is taking the waste and neglect into consideration? Who is taking into consideration the fact that the ones with money create the market to their advantage? Who is seeing the larger picture? We are seeing the limits of capitalism very clearly now. Capitalism's fatal flaw is the fact that it doesn't have a value system, it is amoral. It purports to regulate human greed by relying on a free market to keep it in check. Seeing the degradation of our environment, the quarter of our people who live in poverty, the widening wealth gap, and the push for deregulation of the very businesses that got us into trouble the last time, where is this "free" market? Under capitalism a "free" market is an unachievable ideal! What capitalism does instead is normalize greed, not regulate it.
Fortunately there is an alternative to capitalism that has been practiced by businesses for over one hundred and fifty years, and practiced informally for millennia before that. These businesses function not as capitalist enterprises but as cooperatives. Here's the definition: A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. (International Cooperative Alliance, emphasis mine.)
Cooperatives nourish a free market and they have ownership. The difference is that they also have a value system and include and empower rather than exclude and amass. Cooperatives are owned by the people who use their services and are therefore controlled by a community, not a single individual. Their goal is to meet needs, keep the wealth in the community and offer meaningful work at good pay. Cooperatives bring people together, capitalism tears them apart. Capitalism pits one against the other while cooperatives nourish our better natures and allow communities to build businesses that support deep values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Capitalism does not build true character, it simply teaches that those that have will get. Cooperatives educate their members in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. All these values arise out of the fact that the business is built cooperatively by those benefiting from the business. Shared ownership can only work when the owners all understand the work of cooperation.
What if we started to view America as a cooperative enterprise? What if we thought of our taxes as going toward our common good the same way our shares in our co-ops go for our common good? What if we accepted that good government and wise regulation is a requirement to protect our country from harm, be it from external threats or internal greed the same way our co-ops develop structures and processes to create the most good? What if we accepted that a free market is only possible when everyone has an equitable way to participate in that market? What if we considered a way to include all voices in our decision making the way our coops do rather than the current winner-take-all and losers just get over it attitude? What if we trusted each other to have everyone's best interest at heart? How could that even be possible?
I believe it could be possible if cooperatives were the dominant business model. Working together to build a business that meets a community's needs trains the people involved in the very work that it takes to become a community. This is hands-on, project-based learning at its very best. Crafting a profitable business together is probably the hardest work there is and the most exciting because it is building up something precious, needed and real that is shared with others. In a capitalist business enterprise, the work is shared but the profits are controlled by the owner. What is the difference between that and the old feudal system? In a cooperative the work is shared and so are the profits.
I believe the time has come for cooperatives to get the attention they deserve. Business schools should start teaching this model of business on an equal footing with capitalism. Laws should reflect the value of cooperatives in our society and support their healthy development. They should become the norm and in that normalization, they will heal our democracy in the most profound way. Through the building of cooperative enterprises, we will learn how to be a community again, we will learn the work it takes and the rewards it offers. Deep values will be nourished and the human tendency toward greed will be replaced by the human tendency toward generosity. Cooperatives include and empower, just the things we need today.
Accomplishments 2016 GRFCI
Priorities for 2017
Top Circle: Collaboration with food co-ops nearby, use current grant money, board training
Diversity: Bolster diversity/reach out to all communities
Finance: Funding/grant partnerships, income accessibility/voice for all
Marketing: outreach and advocacy, grow membership
Membership: plan for membership growth, effectively engage volunteers
So we've had another election where the majority (or at least the majority of states) elected the President and other members of our government and the minority were left holding the bag. Half the country is jubilant and half the country is sad.
We're finding that there is an alternative model. Our co-op is practicing another way to do democracy. It's called Sociocracy. Through this model of organization, every voice is heard equally, elections are held by consent of everyone affected, new proposals to solve issues are crafted by everyone in the circle until everyone can consent. All our circles of engaged volunteers are in effective communication with the other circles so folks know what is going on throughout the organization. We are loving the community that this model of democracy is building! The best ideas can bubble up and the work gets done efficiently and effectively (for the most part!).
Currently the top circle (our development board) is crafting a program to make sure our neighbors on low or fixed incomes are able to become member/owners of our coop in a way that is affordable for them. Its called our Food for All program. More details to follow as we get them worked out.
We are three months into our membership drive and have 21 official member/owners. We are hoping to have 100 members by the end of the year so we can have our first official membership meeting and elect our first elected top circle. We have a very committed group of volunteers working on our action circles in the areas of membership, marketing, finance and diversity. Folks are hosting house parties and others are staffing tabling events around town to get the word out and encourage more member/owners. We are planning pop-up events and member/owner benefits with area farms and stores. If you want to get involved just let us know.
After we get a significant number of member/owners and we have the investment capital lined up from several sources including our members, foundations, government programs, commercial lenders and food co-op lending organizations, we will start looking for our store location. We hope to have the financing in order to build a 10,000 to 15,000 square-foot store. This will probably take about three years. We want our store to be a one-stop grocery store with plenty of parking and room in the aisles for the grocery carts. We hope to have a deli, hot bar, salad bar and a great place to eat and visit with friends and others in our community. Our food will be as local, as healthy, and as affordable as possible. We know that we are really building community through food and we want our store to be in a part of town that currently has food challenges. We want our store to be a warm and welcoming place for everyone in our town!
Help us build this dream by becoming a member/owner yourself. We welcome your comments and suggestions and look forward to meeting you at one of our events.