In 2012, we celebrate businesses owned by their customers.
It’s official: Congress and the United Nations have declared this the International Year of Cooperatives.
As a magazine published by Kentucky’s 26 electric co-ops, Kentucky Living kicks off co-op year by dedicating this section to a business model that provides success through self-determination, the power of people working together, and the dignity of ownership.
A lot of what’s on these four pages comes from a project to gather and post co-op stories from around the world. Go to www.stories.coop
for more stories, photos, and videos of people working together to make the world a better place.
And celebrate co-op year by patting yourself on the back for your part in being a member of a local, member-owned electric cooperative.
Nuts on the Net
The Argan Tree co-op is raising the income of 18 African women in Morocco. Outside marketing associations traditionally took most of the money made by women’s hard work of harvesting the nut of the argan tree, tearing away the outside flesh, and cracking it open to get to the oil-producing nut. The 18-member co-op with four employees has replaced those associations with marketing over the Internet.
Kodzo Baba watched his town of Keta, Ghana, decline as coastal erosion washed away the economy, including his 27-acre palace as coastal waves pounded the shoreline. He helped bring back a sense of community and economic development with the Keta Sandlanders football (we would call it soccer) club. The co-op now includes clubs in Ghana, Uganda, Liberia, and Kenya, and has 135 members and 24 employees.
Becky John started the whomadeyourpants co-op in England because she wanted gorgeous pants made ethically. The six-member, two-employee co-op makes colorful pants from fabrics left over from manufacturers in the United Kingdom. Becky blogs, “Every penny we take from selling pants goes into the business, into (worker) training and wages, and into their families. We believe that everyone deserves a job, support to find one, and the independence that brings. We also believe in things being beautiful, radiant, and joyous.”
The now 41-year-old People’s Food Co-op of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was struggling because members just thought of it as a place to buy cheap products. So in 1998 the co-op established the Fair Food Matters not-for-profit organization to help teach the community about the responsibility of co-op ownership. Today, the grocery co-op that emphasizes local and organic foods has 26 employees and 1,400 members.
The Shames Mountain ski area in northwest Canada suffered along with the rest of the area’s economic downturn. It’s turned into a bright spot for the region since a group of ski enthusiasts and business people came together to form the My Mountain Co-op, which now has 800 members and 25 employees.
The seven student houses of Stanford Cooperative Houses have been an important part of Stanford University’s residential system for 41 years. With 307 members and 50 employees, the co-op pays attention to consensus decision-making and active listening to maintain a thriving community.
Co-op contest for poem that’s best
You could have a poem printed on the side of a Cabot Creamery butter box. The dairy co-op in Montpelier, Vermont, is running a national poetry contest for students in grades 5-8. Deadline for submissions is April 30. The contest theme is Making a Difference in the Community. In a poem no longer than 20 lines, entrants should describe how they’ve made a difference in their communities. The grand prize winner will receive $250 and have their poem appear on a box of Cabot butter, sold in supermarkets nationwide. Second place will win $100, and three finalists will receive $50 each. All poems will run on the Web sites of Cabot Creamery and contest co-sponsor Potato Hill Poetry, a literary organization.
My view: cooperatives can play a role in peacemaking
by Senator George Mitchell
Cooperatives can play an important role in peacemaking by bringing together people who have a common economic interest despite their conflict.
The most difficult conflicts to resolve are those in which there is a total absence of trust on both sides. One important way to build that trust is through commerce that distributes wealth widely, which creates opportunity for all members of society and helps prevent feelings of exploitation. Cooperatives’ shared ownership raises the possibility of an enterprise that is owned by people on all sides of a conflict.
I previously served in the peace processes in Northern Ireland and the Balkans during the 1990s, and I also chaired a commission that examined the causes of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
In that 2001 report, we noted that “Palestinians expressed frustration with the impasse over refugees and the deteriorating economic circumstances in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Since then, both the economy and the prospects for peace have deteriorated in Gaza.
Although not the only factor, poverty can beget radicalism, which can beget violence, which can beget more poverty. Thus, a very important aspect of peacemaking is economic growth, which leads to job creation and gives people the sense that they are contributing members of a growing economy.
Government has a central role to play in the design and implementation of any peace agreement. But in order to create a lasting peace among the people impacted by the treaty, they must sense that there are tangible benefits to improved relations with the people whose representatives sit across the negotiating table.
Indeed, my work on the peace accord in Northern Ireland began when I agreed to organize a 1995 trade conference to address widespread unemployment. Northern Ireland faced a situation in which militia participation was seen by many young men as an economic opportunity as well as a patriotic cause.
What first seemed like a simple trade conference led to years of multiparty negotiations that eventually yielded the Good Friday Agreement. That diplomatic success was the beginning of a lasting peace that has now held for more than a decade.
Consider three reasons why cooperatives can be an important part of economic peacemaking.
First, cooperatives have a long history of bridging conflict. The International Co-operative Alliance has held together through more than a century of wars, despite having members from nations on both sides of both World Wars as well as the Cold War. Co-ops have provided a channel for dialogue among peoples, even when their respective governments are not talking.
Second, co-ops exist to meet people’s needs, which are paramount in the wake of violent conflict. Situations in which violent conflict has been occurring are not always conducive to attracting outside investment. And outside investors are more likely to withdraw if the long reconciliation period faces a period of revived tension. So the local ownership of cooperatives provides a locally rooted form of economic development.
Finally, co-ops are based in their communities and can help give people the opportunity to work together on small-scale democracy. In some cases, co-ops can bring together members of different parties in a conflict as members of a single cooperative, providing a shared economic interest. Unlike investment by outsiders, these shared enterprises rebuild civil society as they rebuild the economy.
Negotiations seek to get political leaders to reach agreement, and sometimes that only lasts long enough for a vote. Such a moment of agreement is essential, as it provides the foundation for the peaceful stability on which economic growth depends. But it is not always enough. Cooperatives can help build trust and shared economic opportunity, and thus improve the chances of lasting peace.
Senator George Mitchell is the former U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace. He previously served as the U.S. Senate Majority leader and special envoy to Northern Ireland. Reprinted with permission—a longer version of this essay originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Cooperative Business Journal, a bimonthly publication of the National Cooperative Business Association. For more information visit www.ncba.coop.
•A cooperative is a business organization owned and operated by a group of individuals for their mutual benefit.
•Co-ops are owned by nearly 1 billion people around the world and employ nearly 100 million people.
•There are more than 29,200 co-ops in the United States.
•Cooperatives are defined as businesses under the Kentucky law covering private corporations.
•More than 900 electric co-ops deliver power to 42 million consumers in 47 states.
•In Kentucky, 26 electric co-ops generate and distribute electricity to 833,247 members over 93,715 miles of line.
•Types of co-ops include credit unions, agriculture, health and insurance, telephone, housing, and food.
•Electric co-op utilities were formed in the United States because other forms of business didn’t believe they could make a profit delivering electricity to rural communities.
•Co-ops follow a set of seven principles that include democratic control, economic participation, voluntary and open membership, and concern for the community. See all seven at www.kaec.org/stand/7principles.htm
•The first known co-op in the U.S. was formed by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire still operates today.
•The co-op that established the seven cooperative principles and is considered the first modern co-op was a store founded by a group of weavers in Rochdale, England, in 1844.
•Most electric co-ops in Kentucky organized in the 1930s, and many celebrate their 75th
anniversary this year.