As 2009 winds down, while 2010 is still only a shimmer on the horizon, I’m looking forward to some of the projects I want to devote my time to in the coming year. A couple of these took a good-sized step forward in the past few days.
The project of forming a cooperative took a giant leap last Friday, when a few of us gathered together over a potluck dinner to start discussing how a cooperative could take on some of the needed food-security projects in the region. It’s always a little strange how these community projects get going; there is a fine line between keeping the conversation manageable in the very early stages and opening it up wide from the beginning. Each extreme has its dangers: if the initiating conversations are too restricted, then the project will be hobbled by a failure to really explore the full range of possibilities; but if the early conversations are too wide open, then the risk is that the founding idea will become blurry and be lost in a fog of meandering agendas.
The only way to navigate these (and other) dangers is to stay alert to them, to constantly interrogate oneself and the group whether the right people are in the room, whether the right steps are being taken to tap into the collective wisdom of the community, and whether the conversation is starting to wander off into places best handled by some other process entirely. It’s a bit like building a house by starting with a provisional foundation, knowing that as the walls go up and the rooms begin to take shape the foundation will need to be widened here and narrowed there. Meanwhile, the people who plan to live in this house begin to show up in greater numbers, each one offering an opinion on what has gone before and suggestions on how future work should proceed.
I’m sensitive to the need to construct a cooperative framework broad enough to take on all the regional food-security problems that people feel are best addressed by a collective solution. Having only had one group conversation so far, it seems as though there is an evolving consensus that we want to form a broadly defined ‘umbrella’ type of organization, but we’ll have to ask and answer many more questions before we know what that ends up looking like. My hope is that we can come up with something to handle the following sort of scenario:
- Someone in the region perceives a gap in individual or household food security; let’s say they decide that people would be interested in participating in a project to grow large amounts of tomatoes as a group and then can them in the late summer;
- This person, with help from the cooperative, writes up what is essentially a business plan; although unlike a conventional business plan it demonstrates tangible benefit to the project developer, to the members of the cooperative who participate, and to the broader community;
- The business plan also operates under stated principles and values of the cooperative; e.g., all participating workers receive fair pay or other consideration of respectful value for their expertise and labour, the project is accountable to the members of the cooperative, etc.;
- The board and/or committees of the cooperative undertake to work with the project developer to research the project, to draw up a realistic budget, to publicize the project and attract participating members, to document the project, etc.;
- The process and the results are made public so that members of the cooperative and all others can learn from our experience, participate in future, offer suggestions, and steal the idea for their own use — this is genuine open-source development.
In other words, the cooperative does not perform a rigidly defined set of functions so much as it acts as an ‘incubator’ of projects, each of which fulfills some aspects of the mission of the cooperative, operates according to explicitly stated and well understood values and principles, and creates genuine value for the members of the cooperative who do the work of the project and those who benefit from it.
This approach should allow the community to engage in very flexible ways with the cooperative, as participants in some projects and as workers in others. The cooperative itself, rather than working on a narrow range of static projects, can ‘crowdsource‘ its projects according to the evolving interests and needs of its members. This can work only if the members of the cooperative are genuinely engaged and committed to its mission, vision, values, and principles; and if they are empowered to take the lead on initiatives that particularly interest them. And all this can happen only through a constant effort to educate members and to interest them in assuming positions of leadership (whether this is explicit or implicit).
So here’s where the real design work lies: in developing a governance framework and sets of guiding principles generous enough not to feel constricting but at the same time constrained enough that they clearly define the cooperative’s purposes and give a strong sense of collective mission to its members. I don’t know of many models for this sort of open-concept cooperative, so maybe we’ll be doing a little trailblazing here.
Defining and refining will be an ongoing process. What I’m learning from my involvement with some local non-profit societies is that, as time goes on and founding members drift away, they may start to lose their way. What were once well-defined purposes and principles become vague and unclear to incoming members; these members learn a kind of ‘broken telephone’ version of the principles, and eventually there is no longer one clear vision shared by everyone. Unclarity about the direction of an organization or about its principles inevitably leads to conflict and an under-committed or apathetic membership. I hope we can start something that will have a strong sense of purpose that will persist through passionate involvement of many members of the community. Part of the journey will be figuring out how to make that happen.
As for the other project that is moving forward: after months of saying we were going to do something together, Dolores de la Torre and Martin Rossander got together with me today to kickstart the radio show Beyond Survival into the internet era. This show, which used to go out live on the local community radio station CJMP FM, has been on an extended hiatus while the radio station shifts to a new license-holder. But Dolores and Martin are working to create new episodes in the form of a podcast. If you’re interested, check it out and subscribe in iTunes. We recorded a loose conversation about local currencies, cooperatives, and community engagement. More episodes are on the way. If you’re interested in learning how to create a podcast, feel free to contact me. We need more local media!