My next stop has been Portland, where amongst others I spent an afternoon with Peoples Food Co-op, a consumer-owned co-op run by a 30 member workers collective. I was lucky enough to be able to observe a collective meeting, which I’ve found adds another good few layers of understanding to how an organisation functions (on top of just talking to someone and having a look around). I was really grateful for the co-op culture of solidarity – in what other type of organisation would that level of transparency be so normal - probably not many!
The meeting started with a round the room ‘check-in’, giving member the opportunity to share anything that had been going on with them and any ways it might relate to their participation in the meeting. I’m not sure this’d fly at Unicorn (and with 65 of us it’d take up most of the meeting), but it created an incredibly supportive environment, I liked it a lot. Oh, but I’m missing something… what the meeting actually started with was a shared meal! Now that I can see working for us.
A significant part of the meeting was the collective’s quarterly training on direct communication – i.e. learning and practising resolving disagreements and concerns through face to face conversations. It’s collective policy to resolve things this way, and they are really committed to making it work. The other thing that really stood out for me was the facilitation of the meeting. They bring in an external facilitator - currently an ex-member who is trained in it but also has the background understanding of the business and collective processes. To my eyes at least, it worked really well: hand signals helped convey the ‘mood’ of the room and the facilitator regularly took a moment to clarify the points being discussed and make sure everyone was on track.
A high and well balanced level of participation in collective meetings has been achieved by taking a step back. They now focus on making sure everyone is getting involved in the creation of proposals and background work, which then translates into engagement in meetings. It seems to have worked really well.
The shop itself was beautiful, a similar vibe to Unicorn in that it’s a nice balance of being quite DIY and authentic but also smart and welcoming. They have plants all around the place – a really nice touch. And of course the ubiquitous kids area (don’t think I’ve found a grocery co-op without one yet), this one incorporating a wall studded with recycled glass bottles of many colours to allow the sun to shine through.
And finally, I learnt a lot about their Farmer Loan Fund, which provides zero interest loans to farmers within their self-defined ‘Foodshed’ of Oregon and Washington. They’ve had almost a 100% payback rate, and have helped lots of suppliers and other farmers to expand production and improve practices.
Thanks Peoples, come see us sometime!