Western Worker Co-op Conference and more

As you might imagine, there is a LOT of both co-operative and food justice activity going on in the Bay Area, as evidenced by my second week here. It’s included the Western USA Worker Co-op Conference, meeting the wonderful Mandela Foods Co-operative, participating in a discussion on the history and resonance of African American co-ops, learning about the Worker Co-op Academy and attending a ‘Food First’ event on community food access.

Participating in the conference, held at the University of California, Berkeley, was a huge highlight and not a privilege I ever imagined experiencing when I started out as a co-operative grocer nearly twelve years ago. Getting the opportunity to talk to and learn from a whole new nation of worker co-ops was pretty amazing.

Amongst others, I really enjoyed the workshop on democratic decision-making in co-ops…. Although I’ve been doing it in practice for over a decade I’ve never really been schooled in the various methods that can be used, and hadn’t considered the multitude of options that sit between the two extremes of 100% consensus (where everyone has to consent in order for a decision to pass) and majority vote (which only requires 51% in favour).

We learnt about ‘modified consensus’, the use of matrixes which use the gravity of a decision to rule on how it needs to be made, the delegation of a ‘devil’s advocate’ to explore every angle in a meeting, and some (well established but new-to-me) techniques like ‘fist of fives’ that allow every individual in a large group to indicate their level of support for an idea at various stages to help guide the decision-making process.

As well as being practically useful, the conference was incredibly inspiring. It’s so easy when you’re part of a co-op to get so heads-down in its day to day running you forget that you’re part of a global movement that is radical and progressive and has SO MUCH potential to change people and communities.

Other sources of inspiration this week were Mandela Foods Co-operative and their event with author Jessica Gordon Nembhard, whose book ‘Collective Courage’ does a fascinating job honouring the history of African American co-operatives. Jessica also touched on the potential of co-ops to positively impact how their members operate in wider society; demanding more economic transparency, feeling more empowered to speak up and participate, and being minded to care for others.  

And last but not least, on my final night in Oakland, hearing from a progressive food bank (Alameda County) that takes what is (for foodbanks) sadly quite an unusually strong position against the injustices that cause hunger. Alongside the distribution of food they are committed to an advocacy role, campaigning to raise the minimum wage and improve social safety nets. They also take food bank users to meet and talk to their state legislators. Thanks to the brilliant Food First for hosting them at the ‘Food Justice in our Community’ event.

Off on an actual holiday now, so for the next fortnight…over and out.

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