Co-ops: A Tool For Community Organizing

Co-ops: A Tool For Community Organizing

via The Uptake

by Cirien Saadeh

Co-ops are not just for grocery stores anymore.  Member and worker-owned co-ops for housing, farming, rural electricity, and other big projects that have societal benefits — including sustainable businesses and living wages— are on the rise in Minnesota.

Minnesota already has a thriving food cooperative scene with cooperatives existing on multiple levels from workers and producers to sellers and consumers. A 2014 Cooperative Development Services  study found  there were 17 grocery co-ops with almost 100,000 member-owners supporting them, alongside 50,000 additional non-member shoppers. As well, in the years since the 2014 study was completed, several cooperatives, many in the Twin Cities, have expanded or opened anew.

“Cooperatives are an economic tool, but they are also a community organizing and development tool, and a power-building tool, if we use it as that,” said Christina Jennings, executive director for Shared Capital Cooperative (SCC). Supporting cooperatives to build a more just and equitable cooperative economy is SCC’s mission. SCC is organized as a cooperative, founded by cooperatives, and currently owned by 225 cooperatives in 35 states.

“Building a viable cooperative can be really powerful for the community,” says Jennings. The equitable work environment a co-op creates has impact beyond the organization. Workers “can then imagine something they might not have been able to imagine before.”

Co-ops Are Custom Built For Communities They Serve

Cooperatives are different than other economic models because they depend on their communities for support, says Winston Bell, general manager for North Minneapolis’ Wirth Cooperative Grocery.

“Most businesses that open up in community are either big corporations, or mom and pop stores. With the co-ops, most of them that I know of are built just for that particular community,” said Bell. “We want to be able to hire as many people as possible and give everybody a livable wage, and keep everybody in the community,” said Bell. Wirth Cooperative Grocery was started, in part, with financial help from SCC, said Jennings. Bell is also quick to explain that Wirth Coop is attempting to dispel Northside stereotypes, with its presence, while also trying to educate is surrounding community, providing both conventional and organic foods, as well as a number of community events and activities.

According to Brett Grant, director of research and policy with Voices for Racial Justice (VRJ), a cooperative economy allows for both VRJ and communities to have greater economic strength. Grant is also a member of the Association for Black Economic Power, which is building a North Minneapolis-based credit union, Village Trust Financial Cooperative.

“We need to depend on our funding,” said Grant, who has been researching a cooperative housing model for re-entry communities, which would provide a stable housing model for recently incarcerated people re-entering communities and the workforce, among other cooperative plans. Grant is concerned with the unsustainability and instability of the grant-funded nonprofit model, which he says can be a distraction from organizational mission.

According to Grant, cooperatives allow people to honor traditional knowledge and explore new, more creative knowledge. Grant notes that today’s cooperative imagining builds on the historical cooperatives — for banking, education and food, for example — built by Black communities and other communities of color over the last 100-plus years. These historical cooperatives were built in response to legal socio-economic segregation and other challenges, but their existence remains pertinent today.

“People were not initially seeing cooperatives as a solution. Now they are seeing cooperatives, and pushing the boundaries of how they use cooperatives,” said Jennings.

For more information on cooperatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin —starting, joining, or supporting— you can check out “Cooperative Network” at https://cooperativenetwork.coop/.

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