by Dan Apfel
Recently I joined ten other young co-operators at the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) Emerging Co-op Leaders Conference. For three days we learned about producer, worker, and consumer co-ops and how they can successfully produce positive change for people around the world. Perhaps most inspiring, we heard from some of the preeminent leaders, past and present, of cooperative businesses.
While we discussed the positive impact of cooperatives, we also heard about the difficulties of spreading our model; the problems of capital, structure, and competition that face cooperatives. Yet at the Cooperative Hall of Fame ceremony, these were not the issues addressed by the inductees, in fact, the issue of paramount importance to them, and the reason for our attendance, was the future of cooperatives: who will build this model into the next decades and beyond?
A Different Challenge
The average age of attendees at NCBA's Co-op Solution conference was undoubtedly over 50. While aging is a challenge in all industries, it poses a unique challenge for us. To fully function, cooperatives need staff and volunteers who understand and are committed to their organizational mission and the cooperative principles. In credit unions, that means a commitment to serving the underserved and offering a community alternative to stockholder-owned banks. Across sectors, it means supporting our owners, the people who make up America's communities.
This devotion does not come easily. Those honored at the Hall of Fame were not transplants from banks, grocery stores, or other investor-owned businesses. From a relatively young age they were leaders in the cooperative movement. Gathering long-term, committed activists like these is essential to cooperatives’ future.
A Cooperative Solution
I have a background in group housing cooperatives, so I felt right at home with the other Emerging Co-op Leader attendees who, for the most part, represented NASCO member houses. Still, my perspective has shifted since those days of consensus-based meetings and pot-luck dinners. I'm now a credit union industry representative and see the importance and value of all types of cooperatives. As one of only four people from other cooperative sectors, it was disappointing there weren’t any representatives from food, agricultural, rural utility, or worker cooperatives.
The attendance showcases both the lack of young, ambitious cooperators and of young people's understanding of, and commitment to, a unified cooperative sector. Today, as in the 1960’s and 1970’s – the genesis of the "new wave" food cooperatives – there are many young people with a desire to change the world, but they have yet to adopt a cooperative strategy. Educating young people about our model and inspiring them to take up the cause should be a primary concern for the continued advancement of cooperative business.
Past & Present
On the final day of our conference, Hall of Fame inductees Walden Swanson and Kate Sumberg joined us to discuss building cooperative leadership. Kate shared her experience starting out in the cooperative movement. A true generalist, her initial role was as a bookkeeper for a cooperative food distributor, but became a truck driver on her second day, and participated in the cooperative's leadership. More recently, community activists could open a credit union with a cash box and a folding table. The barriers to entry are different today. When attempting to start a community development credit union (CDCU), the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions encourages organizations to have a minimum of $250,000 to spend before opening day. Needless to say, in this environment, it's difficult for youth to get the co-op bug organizing their own institutions.
At the same time, cooperatives are engaging young people. At Mission SF Federal Credit Union in San Francisco, many youths run a credit union within a credit union. They have their own teller window and board of directors. The same thing is true of the rural electric cooperatives, whose youth leadership programs bring high school students to Washington each year. Yet when these young people make career choices many join other institutions and not cooperative business.
Using our Principles
At a time when predatory lending by investor-based corporations has forced many working Americans out of their homes, it is more important than ever that people have the opportunity to participate in cooperatives and other similar businesses. We as a sector and a force for positive change have an opportunity, even an obligation, to promote the cooperative model. As we look to build a future, the sixth and seventh cooperative principles offer us guidance.
We should utilize our concern for community to show how cooperatives support people and truly are the better business model. This will help the current generation of community-minded young people see the value of cooperatives.
Cooperation among cooperatives provides another opportunity to solidify our future. Large cooperative industries are inclined to look for leadership with external experience in industry and management. Instead, we should look first to fill these roles with people who share the cooperative values and help them gain industry experience. Youth in volunteer management and staff roles will promote the idea of a youth-friendly institution and guarantees that the cooperative’s institutional memory is passed from one generation to the next.
Cooperative leaders should consider reaching out to student cooperators, whose high-turnover houses have given them the opportunity and broad experience that fosters commitment to cooperatives. Encourage cross-sector partnership and participation by young leaders. Broad engagement in cooperative leadership can create the enthusiasm that the last generation of cooperative leaders found splitting bags of bulk foods in a local neighborhood basement.
It is this enthusiasm which will sustain the ability to develop, advance and promote cooperatives to preserve our identity. Let’s work to reach out to those young people already excited about cooperatives and to bring new people in. Together we can create a stronger, more diverse cooperative community.
Dan Apfel is a Program Associate at the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, where he works on preofessional development and financial literacy programs and with youth credit union programs nationwide. He also serves on the board of the Ant Hill Cooperative in Rochester, NY, a community housing cooperative. Dan has a BA in History from the University of Rochester.