Quick Stats

Start of Board Term: 2022

CW Membership: Organizational, with Indiana Cooperative Development Center

Favorite Co-op Principle: It’s a tie! Principles 5 and 6

First Exposure to Co-ops: Winning an REC essay contest as a high school junior

Vision for Cooperative Advocacy: Adequate funding

 

 

What brought you into a career in cooperatives? 

It was kind of serendipity. I was on the Indiana Cooperative Development Center (ICDC) board. As an original ICDC board member, I helped hire the first director. She came to us through a housing background and lasted about a year and a half before she decided to go back to the housing industry –  not cooperative housing. I was at a point where I was ready to make a change. She knew that I was looking to make a change and she called me up one day saying, “I’m leaving. I think this is something you should think about.” I knew all of the board members, and they knew me, so it was a really easy transition from where I was to co-ops.

How did you come to be on the ICDC board to begin with?

There was a group of people in the state, like the Department of Ag, Indiana Farm Bureau, some rural organizations, and the SBDC (I was at the SBDC at that time). There was a distinct lack of services for rural businesses, and co-ops in particular. The Director of the Department of Agriculture knew that there was this grant program. The Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program wasn’t brand new, but it was still not well known. They decided that they would apply for it under a sister organization. I was part of that group of people who sat around the table and envisioned this organization that could help start cooperatives in rural communities in Indiana.

Can you tell us a little more about the change you were ready to make?

When I went back to college for grad school, I was a student worker at the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) on campus. My first job out of grad school was with an SBDC in another state. I liked the idea of helping people realize their dream of owning their business. Over time, the SBDC had begun to take a more cookie cutter approach to starting new businesses. There were more about numbers, and it was just time to make a move!

If you were a kitchen utensil, what would you be and why?

I’ll say blender, because it kind of does the same thing as a whisk, which it what I would have chosen if Karen hadn’t already taken it! It brings a bunch of disparate ingredients together, mixes it all up, and comes out with this new and important dish! It takes all of the best of the ingredients, and what comes out the other end is this new, beautiful creation – it could be a co-op, it could be a collaboration. But it’s a coming together of individual pieces with a 1+1=3 kind of concept.

What is your favorite cooperative principle and why?

I have two. Principle 5 and Principle 6. P6, Cooperation Among Cooperatives, is just critical for co-ops as a movement to come together, to work together, and raise the profile of all co-ops. P5, Education, Training, and Information, is really critical to the growth of the movement itself. So many people don’t have a clue about co-ops. They’ve never heard of them, they don’t know what they do, they don’t know the possibilities. We put a lot of emphasis on education here. There’s a distinct lack of understanding in our elected officials. There’s not a lot being done in the university setting. I think I had one law class in grad school and it was about co-ops. There was maybe a paragraph that mentioned them. How do we expect people to think about, or even have the model in their toolkit to consider, if there’s no knowledge of it? Co-ops don’t work for every situation, I get that, but the discussion about the possibility of “it as a potential option” for whatever business is being anticipated should at least be at the table. It should at least be part of the discussion. Too often, people think something like Sam’s Club or Costco are co-ops because they have a membership model, but they don’t understand the nuances of shared ownership, shared governance, shared vision. It’s all of those things, all of those principles and values that we hold dear, that people don’t have any clue about. What I find fascinating is that with the younger generations, so much of what they think is important is embodied in cooperatives, in the values and in the principles. There’s a great fit there, and I think there are a lot of opportunities to get the youth involved and thinking about creating cooperatives as a solution for the problems that they are facing. And they’re very different than the problems I faced at their age! I think without that education piece, people employed by co-ops often don’t even understand that they work in co-ops. They don’t know what that means. I think there’s a failure on the part of leadership and management inside the co-op to make sure that that information trickles down from the c-suite to the rest of the employees in the co-op. Why was this business created? It makes a difference if people understand and buy into that whole co-op model principles and values. It changes their outlook and how they approach the work. I think it’s incredibly important not only from an internal perspective, but external as well.

What’s your favorite Co-op Value?

Oh, there are a couple! Wow, how do you pick just one? I’ll go with self-help, because I see the co-op model as the ability for people to come together to solve their own issues, as opposed to “oh, the government or xyz will do it for me.” It really is about empowering individuals and their own self-determination. Communities as well! I see this model as an opportunity for self-realization, self-actualization, and really being able to come together to resolve whatever issue or problem exists amongst the group of people who have come together.

You’ve served on the CW Board multiple times over the years. What keeps you coming back for more?

Because I believe in the organization. I believe in its mission. Being a co-op developer and co-op development center can be kind of isolating. There aren’t a lot of us out there. Sometimes you feel like you’re on an island doing the good work by yourself. So having this organization to provide an opportunity for its members to come together, sharing ideas, finding ways to cooperate and collaborate, is really important, not just for the organization, but for the movement as a whole. I would like to think that in some small way I can help move the organization forward. 

Can you tell us about your work with ICDC?

We are a very small shop. We serve the state of Indiana. We do the majority of our work in the food and ag space. This year we are concentrating on housing and childcare. Those are two issues that ranked highly with community and economic developers across the state. Unfortunately, when they’re thinking of how to solve affordable housing issues in their community, they don’t think about co-ops.  Hopefully, by putting real concerted effort behind these initiatives, we can raise the visibility of cooperatives. Because we are a small organization, partnerships and collaborations are incredibly important. One of the groups of folks who are often overworked and have a lot to say and offer are faith-based communities. They have a lot of influence on their congregations and parishioners. They can be a big player. I’m working with an interesting group for our housing summit. It includes a university, the co-op development center, a housing co-op organization, and a couple of other folks doing co-op development in their community. So it’s a unique collaboration amongst these groups, which I think will bring a unique set of people to the table to hear this message about housing co-ops. I hope that will raise the visibility of that model in the housing space. 

ICDC has had a strong focus on education, in part because we’re a one-person shop. You can only work with so many individual groups at a time. By doing workshops, seminars and webinars, it really allows us to expand that reach. An example of this is the Up & Coming Food Co-op Conference. That was an effort to pool resources with a food co-op Bloomingfoods. We were both getting a lot of questions about starting co-ops. So I proposed pooling resources and doing an educational event or a workshop and see what happens. That was in 2010. 2024 will be our 15th year! It has become a national event for start-up co-ops. We’ve partnered with a lot of organizations over the years. Food Co-op Initiative is our partner, and has been for a number of years now. I think we’ve done some good. They work with food co-ops on an ongoing basis. We’ve been able to work together to provide an opportunity for people to come together to network. You asked the questions about “Why CW?” Networking is an incredibly important piece of that. Up and Coming serves that same role for start up food co-ops. They learn a lot from being with each other, sharing ideas – “this worked for me, this didn’t work, you might want to try that.”  Plus they get time with the paid professionals sharing their expertise. 

It’s been really fun to work with groups to get started. It’s interesting just to connect with different groups of people and see the decisions they make along the way about whether the model will work for them.

As you just mentioned, you are a creator of the Up and Coming Food Co-op Conference, which is now a powerhouse conference for aspiring and start-up food co-ops. Can you tell us about the evolution of this conference?

At that first conference, there were about 55 people. If I’m not mistaken, Stuart Reid was at that first one and we worked almost predominantly with what’s now Columinate as our speakers. Over time, we brought more people to the table. We brought more peer instructors to the table. I can remember Bill Gessner came to me and said, “Maybe it’s time for you to think about making this a national conference.” There are a lot of implications for going from a regional gathering to being a national conference. I met with some of my counterparts across the country, because I didn’t want them to think I was trying to take over the world. I prioritized meeting with Stuart, since that is the arena in which FCI works, and there was no pushback. So it’s grown from there. We’ve been fortunate to have organizations that have been financially supportive of the conference over the years. A lot of folks have gone through Up & Coming, averaging close to 300 a year for the last few years. About 2000 people have come through the conference. One of the best things about this conference is the level of enthusiasm and excitement of the people who come. They’re passionate about serving their communities with a food co-op. It’s electric. We have been really fortunate to partner with the National Black Food and Justice Alliance for several years. Together, we have created a day on the front end of the conference that is specifically for Black cooperators. It’s been very well received. The energy that comes from that group as it blends with the rest of the conference has been really gratifying. It’s been a pleasure to work with the National Black Food and Justice Alliance and see the growth, particularly in urban spaces, for Black cooperators. There are so many projects happening right now. A couple are opening this year! It has been gratifying to know that the conference has played some small part in the success of these co-ops as they have opened their doors. 

You’ve been working in this field for a while now! What would you say is the biggest misconception about co-ops that you have run across?

That they’re socialist organizations. I don’t see it at all, or maybe I just don’t understand socialism! Co-ops are people working together for a common good. How can you be critical of that?

A second issue is that, if a small business goes under, then small businesses everywhere don’t get labeled as bad. If a co-op goes under or fails, all too often people blame the co-op model. There isn’t consideration that there could have been bad management, or undercapitalization, or myriad other business-specific problems. I find that disconcerting. 

If you could wave a magic wand and see one thing change for the co-op sector, what would it be?

Funding to ensure adequate access to technical assistance, whether you are rural, suburban, urban. There just is not enough funding out there to do all that needs to be done or could be done. I’m not necessarily saying that should come from the federal government. I think the co-op movement itself has some responsibility there as well.

How do you see the co-op movement stepping up for that funding piece?

In other countries, there are actually laws on the books that say they will put X% of their profits into the pot to help with co-op development. I don’t necessarily want to see a law or statute in place, but I would like to find a way to impress upon the existing co-ops that they should lend a hand to those coming up behind them. Often when the founders of a co-op are long gone, the newer members maybe don’t remember why the co-op was created in the first place. The tie back to the need that created that co-op is gone. They don’t see the connection to helping others start cooperatives. 

Anything else you want our readers to know?

You didn’t ask me about my first exposure to co-ops! I’m a country girl. We belonged to a credit union and we got our power from a Rural Electric Co-op.  The RECs still do this to this day – they have a youth tour to Washington! In my community, our REC had an essay contest for the juniors in the high schools of the communities they served. So, you wrote an essay and turned it in. They judged the essays and then chose two people to represent the REC. I was one of them! It was a week in DC. It was the first time I had ever been on an airplane or traveled to DC, so that was exciting. They took you around on the Hill and introduced us to all kinds of people. That was my first real big exposure to co-ops. It has really stuck with me!