Kristin Forde

Quick Stats

Start of Board Term: 2024

CW Membership: Organizational, with the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives

Favorite Co-op Principle: Principle 6 – Cooperation Among Cooperatives

First Bit by the Co-op Bug: Driving cab with Union Cab of Madison

Co-op Claim to Fame: Co-founder of MadWorC


What brought you into a career in cooperatives?

I was a middle school teacher. I was in my fifth year of teaching when I hit my burnout point. I decided to take a summer’s leave of absence and drive cab, chill out, and figure out what to do. I got hired by Union Cab. I had no idea they were a co-op! I applied with them because they had “union” in the name. And then I stayed for eight years!

Why did you want to drive cab?

I don’t know exactly what prompted me to want to drive cab, but when I lived in New Orleans, I knew someone who was a cab driver. I sort of romanticized the adventure of it – chilling out, but also experiencing an adventure where I would get to meet all kinds of people and drive around town. I had waited tables before and knew I didn’t want to do that again! I was qualified so it felt like an easy in, and like it would be an adventure!

So you didn’t join Union Cab because it was a co-op, but you’re still working in co-ops today! What was your “Aha!” moment for co-ops?

It took a while for me to understand what I had signed up for. The culture of the place wasn’t like anywhere else. I felt an immediate sense of belonging. I suppose the co-op bug happened in two ways. First, I joined the education committee and participated in the development and teaching of materials that were designed for new members in their candidacy period. That didn’t exist before! I was relatively new still, but I participated in a lot of conversations about the importance of having people understand the co-op model, how it’s different, and why it works. That was the first part of catching the bug.

I was also able to put forward my ideas and participate with groups of people who were interested in better ways of handling accountability and conflict, and democratizing accountability systems for everybody. That was hard. It wasn’t perfect, but it met this need I have in life to figure out better ways of being in society with each other, relying on each other for things even though we have differences. 

I had a brief organizing background. When I was in New Orleans, I got involved with Industrial Areas Foundation. I got some pretty intense training and did some community organizing work. So I had that bug too, and decided I would reach out to some area co-ops and try to get us all to talk to each other. Originally, it was cross-sector, but that was too hard. It didn’t go anywhere. It took about two years, but eventually MadWorC emerged. We hadn’t named ourselves yet, but we had a core group. That was the other bug! Then I was talking to other worker co-ops. We were developing our own organization, writing bylaws, and going through all of that decision-making together. I was facilitating that process. I loved that process. That’s probably why this work suits me. 

You said you wanted to drive cab, in part, for the adventure. What is a memorable story from driving cab?

It’s hard to recall ones that are appropriate! It’s really a collection of stories. For a while, I was journaling and would write a story about each night. It would feel like, by the end of the night there was this thread. I could write a story about my night.  It was like being a ping pong ball with this random collection of people. Some of the ones that stand out are also hard. People would just talk to you. Once I had a guy at the end of my night who told me about his child who had died. I ended up taking him to the cemetery and sitting with him at his child’s grave. These stories are so poignant, and there’s such trust. People put trust in you in way I think would surprise them. I would also take people to more nefarious places. There’s a whole wide range and cast of characters. It’s hard to name a favorite story, but I definitely got to experience many aspects of the human experience in 15 or 30-minute rides. 

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

The first one that came to mind is a spatula because I like to look at both sides of things. I also like the physical act of flipping things over!

What is your favorite cooperative principles and why?

It’s probably Principle 6: Cooperation Among Cooperatives. I think in part because it’s aspirational in the sense that I’m striving toward a better world that incorporates better, more equitable, more people-powered systems. Cooperation among cooperatives feels like it can be part of that transformation. Also, I love learning from, meeting, and seeing the different ways the cooperative model works in different sectors, for different businesses, in different communities. The diversity of cooperatives is inspiring to me!

This is your first year on the CW board. What made you want to serve in this capacity?

I think, in part, because, since I started as a developer, it is CW that has provided me with the most perspective on the work. I’ve learned the most skills I need for this job through the network. After the membership meetings – I’ve only attended three, but it has been every one that I could – I come home jazzed, inspired, excited, and wanting to talk with everybody about what I’ve learned. It’s about the role CW has played in the early stages of my professional development. I really feel that this network is key. Also, the institution we’re housed in has access to tons of resources, and it feels important to leverage that for the sake of the organization. It also feels important to have the work that CW is doing influence and inform the work that our center is doing.

Tell us about your work at the Center for Co-ops

My position is mostly funded through the Rural Cooperative Development Grant, so I primarily focus on rural parts of Wisconsin and mostly focus on worker co-op conversations. I provide technical support to a few worker co-ops in the state. I provide support to both business owners and employees in workplaces that range from curious to actively exploring feasibility for a conversion. I am working with partners at Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, Cooperative Development Services, and the Minnesota Center for Employee Ownership to do pipeline development. We’re doing education and outreach to professionals, business developers, and community and economic developers on conversions specifically. We’re working toward doing a market study and some direct outreach to business owners. I also work on a childcare initiative and on a statewide home care initiative where there has been a market study done. We’re going to do outreach and education, and hopefully support some start-ups in the next few years. This work is with the partner Respite Care Association of Wisconsin. I am beginning to work with folks who are interested in doing education in conjunction with re-entry work. I’m starting conversations with individuals who do education inside prisons. That is at the very beginning stage, but I anticipate that I will be working on that in the coming years. 

UWCC orchestrates in depth co-op research. What is one co-op research project you would like to see done or updated?

One question I would love to investigate has to do with the relationship between members who are in management in a worker co-op and members who are non-management. This could be either in a conversion or a start-up worker co-op. I want to investigate those relationships, especially when they share a seat at the board. I want to look at conflict and ways that co-ops either successfully, or don’t, address that historical relationship and how that impacts shared decision-making once they have an equal seat at the board.  I’m really interested in looking at the historical relationship between managers and non-managers and how those historical relationships impact shared responsibility, especially in conversions.

What I’m trying to get at is, and I’ve seen this over and over, there are folks who are used to being in a position where they don’t have power, where the only power they have is complaining with each other. When, technically, they do have this other power, what might still get in the way of there being a healthy culture, even if the systems are in place? I’m interested in exploring the ways in which systems and culture interact. What gets in the way, and how can it be addressed? How do you design systems that promote healthy culture? If I help a conversion, maybe it’s best practice from the get-go to have a repair process or a way to address the conflict. We know it’s there, because the nature of the management/non-management relationship is conflict. I think about that a lot.

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

I guess I would say it’s something about redirecting, or expanding, resources so that it’s more inclusive. Not just inclusive, but really looking at current need – economic need, among others. I feel like we’re stuck in early co-op development days in some ways, by relying so heavily on USDA funding. Specifically, expanding to urban areas, looking at populations and groups of people who have historically been marginalized, excluded, and discriminated against. We’re relying on resources that don’t necessarily meet the current need. The needle hasn’t moved as much as it needs to.