Archive for the 'community development' Category

Lesson I: Foster community and cultivate networks

By David Parkinson

A cool blue spring sky; only the gentlest hint of summer's heat.

To receive and to communicate assistance, constitutes the happiness of human life: man may indeed preserve his existence in solitude, but can enjoy it only in society: the greatest understanding of an individual doomed to procure food and clothing for himself, will barely supply him with expedients to keep off death from day to day; but as one of a large community performing only his share of the common business, he gains leisure for intellectual pleasures, and enjoys the happiness of reason and reflection.
(Samuel Johnson; The Adventurer No. 67, Tuesday, 26 June 1753)

It’s a feature of the times and places we live in that the gap between is and ought-to-be is becoming more visible while growing wider; as many people engaged in many activities, from all points in the space of political outlook, continue to work at filling in this gap — or at least to spread awareness of alternatives. The value of common action, and particularly the gap between working together and simply being an isolated individual in an anonymous economic system, goes at least as far back as Dr. Johnson’s time, which was a period during which traditional ways of living were changing quickly.

We now live in a time when the trajectories barely sketched out in Johnson’s lifetime have reached some kind of culmination, although there’s no way of knowing how much further they will be carried by their momentum. But the observations that Johnson makes are no less true now than they were then; only more obscured and hard to talk about. They have become like an occult knowledge bubbling under the surface. It’s starting to become a commonplace (in uncommon places) that the real key to successful social organization and the creation of alternatives will be collective projects that harness much of the energy which is currently wasted. Only no one really knows how to make this happen, so these wishes for better forms of social organization remain just that: wishes. (As a former colleague was fond of saying, hope is not a plan.)

A good recent overview of some of the ferment happening in the world of ‘re-commonization’ is in this article by David Bollier. The historical narrative he presents is one that is starting to filter back into the conscious mind of the culture, and it’s interesting to see that the past years of a somewhat ahistorical future orientation to social change are fading into a new awareness of the paths by which we got to where we are and the forces that moved us along those and not other paths. The works that Bollier points to by Raj Patel, Lewis Hyde, and others take care to present the history of ‘de-commonization’ as the subterranean history of the rise and triumph of capitalism — as its side effects or collateral damage. But are we to work at restoring what has been lost? Or to work at creating counterforces that will inevitably do that work for us? The former looks difficult but possible; the latter daunting beyond all imagining.

Increasingly, or so it seems to me, the search for alternatives of any kind is becoming more appealing to people whose allegiance to the way things are is strong as long as things are working well for them. As more systems pass the threshold into counterproductivity and begin to produce more ill than good effects while somehow still retaining their manic vitality, we might expect more people to step away from isolation and extreme individualism and into… what, exactly?

None of us has any idea how to answer that question. The best we can do is construct new and better systems within which the answers will emerge. And for every system we devise which generates progress and increases social cross-fertilization and cooperation, we’re likely to create a few which just lie there and do nothing useful. Our fear of failure, of wasted time and effort, causes us to fear this outcome more than just about anything; but we have to push through the fear and frustration, through the feelings of blockage and futility, redirecting our efforts where that seems right and doubling down when that seems right.

The far-off goal is for everyone to have some part in the collective creation of a community that consists of innumerable networks, some official and recognizable and others which serve a very particular purpose for a small number of participants. These networks — or their proto-networks — are out there now, arising out of people’s needs and their willingness to sacrifice individual initiative to the convenience (or inconvenience) of depending on others with their added labour and insight (and conflicting needs and desires). As a society we’ve gotten ourselves into a place where the benefits of individualism and the costs of collectivism are presented as higher than they really are. The costs are buried and not to be spoken of.

Like many people, I’m often frustrated by the slowness of social change. It feels as though we are moving into a time of almost perpetual crisis, in which the only way to insulate ourselves from feelings of fragility and threat is to tune out, to retreat further into the isolation which is the leading symptom of the malaise. There’s no real way of knowing, but I can’t help but think that this withdrawal can only worsen, at least among some segments of the population, over the next few months or years. Its costs will be an impoverishment of the human potential that we’ll have at our disposal and more drag on our efforts to get things done, at least to the extent that those things entail popular support. It might be hard to accept this as a natural response, but a society in denial can only expect that denial is one of the few tools in the general arsenal. (We can always deny that we’re in denial.)

Meanwhile, let’s hope, a part of every community will find ways to go from wishing we could organize and get more done together to finding more effective ways to make it happen, to reward individual effort while keeping it under some kind of collective oversight so that the interests of the whole network are always represented. For people raised in a culture where walking away is always an option, this will take real conscious effort and the kind of humility that doesn’t always come easily to people who were promised everything. There is little science to this, but a great deal of art. The exciting part is that it continues to be uncharted (unchartable?) territory; traditional societies have had to nurture and appreciate these skills, and it’s a hopeful sign that we are now starting to value them and talk about them. How we can weave them into our daily lives remains to be seen, but it’s the great work of our time.

The last words go to David Bollier:

I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. Tragically, the expansion of centralized political and economic structures tends to eclipse our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money or the state for everything. And so we forget what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” — the spaces in our everyday life in which we create and shape and negotiate our sense of how things should be: the commons.

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NOTE

This post is the first in a series based on the essay Seven Lessons for Leaders in Systems Change by Michael K. Stone & Zenobia Barlow, published by the Center for Ecoliteracy.

On the margins of the margins

By David Parkinson

Water vapour in the air condenses into fine threads of ice along the surface of a log. How do the crystals know to align themselves to the log's diameter?

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
(Walt Whitman, 1855, from the preface to Leaves of Grass)

Yesterday evening I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Cranberry Community Hall Society, the non-profit organization which owns and manages the Cranberry Community Hall, formerly known as the Unitarian Hall.

I went as an interested observer, not being a resident of that odd little pocket of unconventionality hidden away from the straight line between Saltery Bay, Westview, Townsite, Wildwood, and points north. But as someone who has organized and attended many events at this community hall, I was curious to see what the Society’s plans were.

After disposing of the routine business of an Annual General Meeting, we had a discussion about what the membership would like to see done with the hall. And this was a conversation that was very interesting: almost everyone acknowledged the importance of having an asset like this community hall remain under the control of the people who benefit from it, with barriers to access kept as low as possible. Several people mentioned that we have lost too many of these resources over the past years and we need to work now to bring them back.

It’s still not a mainstream belief that we ought to be preserving these old community buildings and the institutions which own and care for them. I don’t think it’s on most people’s radar that we might be moving into a time when it will be important to live near a neighbourhood hall which could host daycare, art classes, a community kitchen, a library of tools and equipment, not to mention dances, live music, and celebrations of important occasions like births, weddings, and funerals. So many of these activities have been privatized over the last half-century and more that it looks like willful nostalgia to think that we could be doing all of it for ourselves, on a small scale, with limited financial resources — beyond ownership of a hall, of course — but unlimited volunteer labour and support from those who gain the most from the presence of a vibrant common space within walking distance.

Also, there is a pervasive mindset out there, which the coming years will do the hard work of dispelling, that the first solution to every problem is something along the lines of: go find a big pot of funding; hire consultants to put together a study to tell us what we already knew; pay top dollar for the biggest slickest state-of-the-art-est multi-use community complex; and fill it full of well-paid professional service providers. It’s just not sexy enough to slog through the grime and try to retrofit something old and worn-down. I just think we’re coming close to the end of the easy money and were going to have to make do or do without.

I have read enough in the world of peak-oil preparedness, Transition, and food security to know that the creation of collectively-owned and -managed resources like this is one of the main prescriptions for any community which aims to create a soft — or less hard — landing for people who are already starting to feel the pinch from the rising cost of everything paired with stagnant or falling pay (not to mention the deliberate systematic gutting of the social safety net in the name of fiscal responsibility). In his weekly post, James Howard Kunstler, the trickster fool of the collapse scene, writes:

If you want something like gainful employment in the years ahead, don’t rely on the corporations, the government, or anyone with a work station equipped cubicle. Start reading up on gardening and harness repair. Learn how to fix a pair of shoes. Volunteer for EMT duty if you’re already out of a paycheck, and learn how to comfort people in medical distress. Jobs of the future will be hands-on and direct.

And the paths in and through this new rickety economy are going to be good old-fashioned involvement: immersing oneself in the real active life of the community, as close to home and as close to free as can be managed.

(This involvement take place in a double obscurity: most people in the mainstream don’t see any need for special measures to create more resilient communities; and even those who are savvy to this sort of thing don’t see that this work is not always about shiny new projects with an explicit commitment to carbon reduction or local food or what-have-you. These are the margins of the margins for the time being, but probably not for too much longer, as more people realize that we can build amazing things out of the débris of the past.)

What really struck me about the meeting last night was how organic and basic it was. (Also the high amount of crossover between this group and the new crop of active volunteers at CJMP FM.) This was no project with funds casting around for a purpose; no effort led by ‘experts’ looking to ‘create opportunities for key stakeholders to envision a common future’ or some such bureaucratese; and it was not a meeting of the usual enviro-savvy types out to save the planet. Just a gathering of folks out of the neighbourhood and a few from other far-flung parts of the region, doing the boring unglamorous work of preserving a community asset that many may have forgotten even exists. We’re supposed to think of this work as ‘charming’ or ‘quixotic’, in opposition to the hard-nosed reality emanating from the think-tanks and consultancies or the various recipes out there for saving the world. I just can’t see anything of true and lasting value coming from these high-priced sources; as we move into a time of extreme relocalization we’re just going to have to do what we can to stay abreast of the changes coming at us, and there will never be enough experts and one-size-fits-all solutions to make sense on the local scale.

I am pretty sure that the real meaningful changes that happen as the result of people working together will come from the out-of-the-way easily-overlooked places. We live in a time thronging with well-funded and well-intentioned projects to prepare the way for a shiny new future of low-carbon emissions, ecovillages, local currencies, and so on. And usually what these visionary programs omit is what we saw and engaged in last night: getting together in small groups, working to preserve what we already have, taking tiny steps, making simple achievable goals to build from where we are, with no real overarching goal except to hold open a space for community to flow into. A very humble process.

These are the margins. Out on the edge where the population is dispersed and odd notions proliferate. A zone of experimentation where things self-organize or die. The place no one looks for the answers, because the questions lead to where the money, power, and prestige are held. The last stronghold of romantics, fools, and the connoisseurs of hope, who can tell the real thing from the barbarized version dished out by charlatans. The realm of dissensus and the breeding-ground of our failures which teach us more than their successes. Sometimes disguised as a meeting to preserve a community hall.

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A HOUSEKEEPING NOTE

Regular readers — if such even exist — may have noticed that my posting schedule seems erratic lately. In fact, I am on an eight-day rotation because I feel I should visit the days of the week with impartiality. This way I can always post a day late and still be on time.

The right to useful unemployment

By David Parkinson

The past? the present? the future?

The title of this week’s post is an homage to Ivan Illich, about whom Ran Prieur writes, “Ivan Illich was so smart, and wrote so clearly, that I can barely stand to read him — it’s like looking at the sun.” That’s an accurate description of the effect of reading Illich: I find myself having to stop after every few paragraphs because the writing is so dense; unlike a lot of intellectually rich material, though, it is written in language as clear and simple as the thoughts allow. It’s the depth of thinking under the surface that makes it a joy to read. And Illich’s amazing prescience: he diagnoses our situation from his vantage point more than thirty years ago and points towards solutions which seem more apt now than they might have done at that time.

The theme which runs through his work is that of the counterproductivity of social and industrial systems: how any system which addresses some aspect of human need eventually acquires its own internal logic and, if not resisted, begins to work against human interests. Illich investigated this trend in education (Deschooling Society), medicine (Medical Nemesis), transportation (Energy and Equity), and in very general terms in Tools for Conviviality and its sequel, The Right to Useful Unemployment (And its Professional Enemies). It’s a superficially simple concept with very profound consequences for the way I see the world.

At the Kale Force meeting this week, Carol Battaglio was present to talk about her evolving plan to create a therapeutic farm on the 31.6-acre lot she bought from PRSC Limited Partnership (known locally as ‘the joint venture’). I am personally thrilled to see this project happening, as I was deeply involved in the 2006–07 campaign to stop the City of Powell River from excluding this and other parcels of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve. The conversation around the table was a freewheeling one, and we made some solid connections among existing projects and concepts that Carol might use to realize her vision. The most tangible outcome is that Carol found someone to help her clear the land, which is overrun with stumps and brambles. (But sometimes those seemingly small steps forward are really crucial ones.)

We had one of those huddles near the door that are the sign of a satisfying conversation: people know they need to get going, but stall on the way out because the ideas are flowing. Someone suggested that this region is at a tipping point because there are now so many little projects brewing, underground, semi-underground, just starting to connect to each other and create an alternative economy, barely visible now but growing fast. Another person suggested that this alternative culture is on the rise because the prevailing culture really only has one big idea, whereas the ‘new guard’ comes equipped with any number of schemes all along the continuum from crackpot to surefire; so many of them that they are sure to overwhelm the monocultural approach just as weeds of all types will overrun a field of all one crop.

I think there is something in this. The prevailing mindset of our local economic leaders is to focus on a few large big-ticket projects, among them the quixotic rescue of the Catalyst paper mill. At the same time, citizens watch the City take on heavy debt to pull off what are essentially gambles that the global economy will continue to grow, sustaining the consumerist lifestyle that will see people retiring wealthy, traveling, and shopping as far as the eye can see. I sense a growing unease at what this is going to do to people’s tax burden, especially when the other expensive projects are added to the tally.

Meanwhile, there is a mass movement, disorganized and provisional but gathering speed, to opt out of this worldview and instead focus on the essentials: food, shelter, transportation, health in the holistic sense, and more. If the economy continues to destroy jobs and wealth as measured in money, people will inevitably shift their allegiance to those things which are the real foundation of wealth. And here our economic leaders are (so far) of very little use to us. If anything, the social systems we have created during the past century or so are actively inimical to people’s efforts to build a vernacular culture: for a good example, look no further than the insane amount of highly-paid make-work it took to overcome the provincial Meat Inspection Regulation, which proposed to deprive people of their ability to buy locally-produced and -slaughtered meat as they have been doing for thousands of years. This is just one example, although a particularly egregious one, of trends which have become almost universal: the creation of classes of phony professionals to intervene in the simple exchange of goods and services between people, making them onerous and needlessly expensive; or the outright criminalization of these exchanges, making them dangerous (and needlessly expensive).

Which brings us back to Illich. His life’s work was to argue for a convivial culture, one in which people’s right to create their own culture, tools, language, and social systems is paramount. I like to think we are perched on the edge, maybe even sliding down the slope towards the time for Illich’s deeply humanistic vision to be realized. And it won’t happen because suddenly we’re all attending seminars in ‘sustainability’, or being told how to grow our own food by self-appointed experts — if it happens (when it happens) it will be because the elaborate and meaningless barriers to imagination and creativity are unsustainable. People will start to act as though they are no longer there, and an exhausted tradition of phony professionalism and bureaucratic pantomime activity will be revealed as laughable.

The depth and breadth of the creativity bubbling under the surface of every town and region is an unstoppable force compared to the decreasing returns of the business-as-usual projects we’re supposed to look to for future economic development. The culture we build here will be made up out of semi-employment, improvised solutions, the invention of work, civil disobedience in the face of outworn and unenforceable regulations, and mutual aid in place of phony professionalized ‘services’. This collection of (maybe) unappealing characteristics won’t come out on top for any reason other than pure necessity: the failure of our experts and leaders to have any ideas worth pursuing. Better to have useful unemployment than all of the useless economic development schemes in the world.

New rules

By David Parkinson

Fog on the town.

When taking part in community organizing activities, if your envisioned community is to survive the transition to a non-fossil-fuel-based existence, it is important to keep in mind a vital distinction: is this community going to operate under the old rules or under the new rules. The old rules will not work, but the new ones might, depending on what they are.
(Dmitry Orlov, “How (not to) to Organize a Community“)

I’m not sure it makes sense to lead off with this short excerpt from Dmitry Orlov‘s latest black-humour-laden meditation on how to do community organizing more effectively; anyone who goes off and reads the whole piece will see why not. But it struck me as a topsy-turvy enough piece of writing that it got me thinking about how our efforts to sketch out the future we’d like to see are likely to be as wrong as they are right. Recognizing this and living with it should be the first step for anyone who wants to make an impact, no matter how trivial.

Orlov, always a contrary sort, proposes that the most resilient communities in the future are the ones least likely to look viable in the present — in fact, he predicts that the sketchiest and most marginal communities will carry on as though very little has changed, while those who took the most care to prepare will face the most drastic reversals of fortune. Although he has his tongue in his cheek to some extent, I see the larger points he’s making: that we are fools if we think that the future will radically break with current trends, or if we think we can create the future at will based on what we think is needed and what will work. He is also making the point that the raw materials of the resilient future might be in the places we’re least likely to look. And that’s the point that really struck home for me.

The smartest overall approach is to try as many things as possible, making sure that each project is getting the attention and energy it needs in proportion to its likelihood of creating positive change. To remember that even the best intentions can go sideways and that we need to accept the curveballs and reverses that come our way. Taking this humble approach makes those little successes and advances all the more precious.

Last week I promised to follow up by applying David Korten’s five characteristics of successful social change to “a local project which I believe has huge potential to create vast amounts of positive energy in the region while connecting our efforts to others elsewhere.” This project is our community radio station, CJMP FM, which has a new board and has started creating working groups to get the station back on the air broadcasting music and spoken-word programming of local interest. I’m already deeply involved, because I have long been a supporter of community radio. I think it has huge potential for increasing and improving communication and connections in the region.

Korten’s questions sound a little bombastic for a low-power FM radio station in an obscure corner of BC, so I’m going to answer them from a small and local perspective rather than from the perspective of a global movement, which is where Korten is coming from. And his questions are posed as though we have already built the project in question; CJMP is tottering along right now, but with many hopeful signs and many new people getting involved. So I’ll answer these questions in the future tense instead of the present — as though we were a little further along.

Does CJMP FM help discredit a false cultural story fabricated to legitimize relationships of domination and exploitation and to replace it with a true story describing unrealized possibilities for growing the real wealth of healthy communities?

There are so many little efforts percolating away in our region, many of which are coalescing around the Transition Town concept.  Communication among these projects and the people involved in them is still fragmentary and sporadic at best. If we’re going to work better together to connect these various efforts and cooperate amongst ourselves, it will be hugely helpful to have a focal point for communicating and sharing information. Radio has the advantage of being very direct and immediate: it does not put up the barrier of written language, so anyone with something to say can get their thoughts out. And the message is heard as it is spoken. All of our attempts to build the pieces of a local economy not based on desperate resource extraction and other worn-out ideas need an ongoing conversation. We’re lucky to have a community radio license, with the explicit mandate to “provide a local programming service that differs in style and substance from that provided by commercial stations and the CBC.” Everything that is happening in our region is appropriate for our airwaves. No bottlenecks and phony barriers. Let the community talk amongst themselves and stand back.

Is CJMP FM connecting others of the movement’s millions of leaders who didn’t previously know one another, helping them find common cause and build relationships of mutual trust that allow them to speak honestly from their hearts and to know that they can call on one another for support when needed?

Well, we won’t have millions of leaders anytime soon. How about hundreds? Community radio has an incredible power to bring people together, to expose them to the hidden treasure in their own backyard: the people, places, and things that they never knew about. This is what CJMP FM can be for the region: a place where anyone is welcome to say or play whatever is on their mind; to reach out and find friends, allies, and adversaries; to host the never-ending conversation of who we are and where we’re heading. Commercial media are fine for some things, but the presence of an explicitly non-commercial alternative is a great thing for everyone. It makes some people nervous, and that can’t be bad.

Is CJMP FM creating and expanding liberated social spaces in which people experience the freedom and support to experiment with living the creative, cooperative, self-organizing relationships of the new story they seek to bring into the larger culture?

In a word: hell yeah. I can easily imagine the numbers of talented and imaginative people all around here who just need some basic training in order to seize their rightful chunk of the airwaves and get going. When the community owns a slice of FM bandwidth there is simply no reason not to put the welcome mat out and get as much input and support as possible. As far as I can see, this region has never had genuinely open media, meaning that those who care get to participate and those who participate get to make the decisions. This will be a wonderful experiment in seeing how much we can unleash the potential of all corners of the region and let the conversation roll on by itself.

Everyone has something worth saying and hearing. Commercially-driven media simply cannot let all these voices through and continue to satisfy the advertisers who pay the bills. Hence the need for the alternative. It’s just that simple, and we can celebrate that the Canadian government continues to support this way of thinking.

Is CJMP FM providing a public demonstration of the possibilities of a real-wealth economy?

Let us sincerely hope so. Funding is always a challenge for community radio, even when the economy is doing well. Now that we appear to be heading into a prolonged downturn, we need new models for continuing to make change happen when the grants and funders are hurting and as the government withdraws money from social spending. This challenge faces many local organizations and projects many of which have been out there for much longer than this baby radio station. So how do we do it? This is all up in the air right now, but it seems to me inconceivable that CJMP will survive without a large number of enthusiastic listener-members who are willing to put their money down to support something that gives them what they cannot get anywhere else: immediate, real, representative news and opinions about what’s happening around us. We cannot compete with commercial media, especially radio stations, which sell listeners to advertisers and need to create a homogenized sound that will attract the greatest number with the least passion. We are in the position to transmit the real sound of the community, in real time. That has to be worth something to people.

Is CJMP FM mobilizing support for a rule change that will shift the balance of power from the people and institutions of the Wall Street phantom-wealth economy to the people and institutions of living-wealth Main Street economies?

We’ll see how much CJMP FM worries about the structures and institutions that create the imbalances and pathologies that are dragging our social systems down. It will be enough to create a marketplace of ideas and to get people connecting around the authentic life of the region. We need to build all the alternatives that we need, in ways that meet our local needs; and in order to do that, we just need to communicate freely and openly without the outright censorship or self-censorship that comes from having heavy-handed advertisers or funders hanging over us all the time. Some people believe that people want more honesty and genuine connection; others fear it. For myself, any future that I care to live in is full of different voices, outlandish opinions, wild sounds, and the unending chatter of a community finding itself and declaring its own needs and desires. No authority can impose these things on us. And somehow out of all this cacophony we will build something that people can’t do without — because it’s irreplaceable.

“Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.”

By David Parkinson

Blueberry flowers enduring the drizzle

All you want to do is something good,
So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood;
Cos don’t you know that you’re a fucking freak in this world,
In which everybody’s willing to choose swine over pearls.
(Aimee Mann, It’s Not Safe)

The path from spring to summer seems to be meandering through winter this year. This past weekend we were treated to weather pretty much straight out of November’s repertoire, although with uncannily long days instead of the usual five o’clock shadow and shutdown. The plants shiver and wait for better weather, but the slugs are in their element. Eventually, though, the record will stop skipping and we’ll go on with the expected progression into the long hot days of unbroken sunshine: tomato weather.

In the meantime, preparations for summer are in full swing. The 50-Mile Eat-Local Challenge will be celebrating its fifth year this year, and of course we will be presenting another Edible Garden Tour on Sunday August 8, 2010, as the kickoff event of the 50 days of the eat-local challenge. (Feel free to contact me if you would like more information on either of these projects, or if you’d like to get involved as a volunteer.)

Closer in, the board of the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative is getting ready for our first Annual General Meeting, to be held on Wednesday June 23, 2010, at 7:00 PM at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. The preparations means creating a flurry of documents, getting ready to amend our rules, creating reports on our progress and finances, and generally being ready to stand accountable before our membership as their representatives. The best part of the meeting is that we will elect a new set of directors, who will have a democratic mandate to continue working towards our vision, using our values and principles as a compass.

But what is the cooperative actually doing? What is it for? I can tell that people are confused. I know for a fact that some people who hear that there is a cooperative in the region automatically think that we are planning to start a bulk-food or natural-food store. I’ve had it reported to me on good authority that someone out there believes that we are starting up another feed store, like the old Farmers’ Institute cooperative store which eventually became the Rainbow Valley Pet & Feed  Store after the rancorous breakup of the cooperative.

Obviously there might be some confusion about any new organization, especially one with a slightly cryptic name. People see the words “food” and “cooperative” in close proximity, and naturally they think of a food store. And the word “cooperative” carries other connotations for those who remember the demise of the old feed store. What the heck is a “provisioner”, anyway? It doesn’t help that, as I have learned lately, many people really do not understand what a cooperative is and how it differs from other corporate structures, such as the limited-liability corporation or the not-for-profit society. So one of the challenges for Skookum is to spread the word about the structure and philosophy behind the cooperative movement. We’ll get there, but it’s going to be a long process of teaching and learning together.

The main idea behind the formation of Skookum, which is simple but somewhat abstract, is that we need to kickstart many more experiments in strengthening the local food economy. There are many things going on in the region, but many of them are fundamentally working in isolation when they could be working together better. It is our belief that people want to be able to work better together, to share tangible and intangible goods, and to create things which are more than the sum of their parts. But it’s hard to make that happen; it takes a huge investment of time and energy to meet up with the others who have what you need and need what you have.

Without a structure to make this sort of collective effort possible, though, it simply won’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in conversations sparkling with great ideas and positive energy; but if those ideas don’t get some kind of nurturing support, they just get filed away, along with all the other wonderful things we could do if we had enough time, or money, or something we never seem to have.

So the essence of Skookum is that it’s designed to be a marketplace of ideas about how we can all work together to produce and preserve more food. We have members so that we can crowdsource solutions and so that we can easily gauge the amount and intensity of interest in any project that we might propose. The more members, the more projects we can sustain and distribute among the membership — also, the more easily we can pay for our projects and other expenses.

At its core, it’s a way to organize and connect together the people in the region most likely to have crazy ideas about getting more local food happening. Like a dating service for local-food freaks and compulsive backyard growers.

Let’s take a simple example. Imagine that I would like to grow chickpeas to support my out-of-control hummus habit, but that I don’t have enough space in my backyard garden for any significant amount. So I put the word out through the membership to see who else would be interested in working together to grow a large amount of chickpeas. Two or three people respond, letting me know that they would be very interested and would help with all the soil preparation, tilling, hoeing, weeding, watering, and harvesting. A few others respond to say that they would be happy to participate as subscribers to the harvest, and would be willing to pay extra to support the labour of the three or four people who will be the main workers.

The organizing team goes forth, finds some land it can beg, borrow, or steal for the purpose of growing a little field of chickpeas. Everyone tosses in some money to buy a good amount of chickpea seed, amendments, and whatever else it needs to get from seed to harvest. The project works on a share basis, meaning that whatever the harvest comes to, it will be divvied into equal shares. Some amount of the final harvest is set aside as a community share which we will donate to an organization that deals with people in need; or else we will sell it as a share and donate the money to that organization. (In case they’d rather have money than chickpeas.)

Built into the cashflow of the project will be some kind of payment or recognition for the labour, expertise, tools, etc. contributed by the members who organize the project and ensure its success. Every successful project, no matter what it does, has at its centre a person or a group of people who take primary responsibility: they make the phone calls, organize the meetings, and deal with the crises. Too often these people’s contributions are passed over. One of Skookum’s strong commitments is to provide fair wages for this critical work, because if we are going to have a functioning local food economy we need to find and nurture the special people who go out and get things done (as opposed to talking about getting things done). They deserve a reward for their valuable gifts of initiative and determination.

So the outcomes of this little chickpea project are:

  • more people know something about how to grow chickpeas;
  • more people have some locally-grown chickpeas;
  • some people got paid or otherwise remunerated for spearheading this project;
  • probably some new connections were formed among members of the cooperative and members of the wider community;
  • some members of the community benefited by receiving chickpeas or some equivalent donation.

Nothing terrifically earth-shattering, but if we get enough of these little projects up and running, achieving some kind of self-perpetuation, returning value to their participants and to the community, then we will be sending a message about the power of cooperative effort. And the best part is that all of this activity will be 100% democratic and accountable. There will be no need to rely on the goodness of those who own the business. The business will be owned and managed by anyone in the community who wants to pitch in. And that is the real magic ingredient here: I do not believe that we will organize our way out of the impasse we’re in by retooling private ownership to give it a greenish veneer. There needs to be a much greater degree of public involvement in the food system, or else we’re going to continue enriching the few who make the decisions which generally do not reflect the interests or the will of the people.

It will take some time before this all becomes clear. In a way, we’re fighting our way out of the murk of bad and increasingly outdated ideology. All we can see are problems, and all solutions seem equally plausible or implausible. So we need to keep trying anything but what the rules of game dictate: cooperation instead of competition; collective ownership and management instead of private capitalization and profit-taking; openness and transparency instead of boardroom decision-making and political railroading; togetherness instead of isolation. If we persist, sooner or later something will work. Trust me.

Rattled by the rush

By David Parkinson

A tangle of young fennel sprigs

My apologies to those regular readers and subscribers who felt the silence on this end for the last couple of weeks. Tom is on vacation, and I have had one of those periods during which it feels as though everything is happening all at once. Funny how the times when the most is happening are the times when it’s hardest to write about what’s happening.

At any rate: time to catch up.

Transition training in Powell River

Last weekend, Transition Town Powell River brought Michelle Colussi to town to lead a group of about 20 people through Transition Training, and I participated in that. The training, which introduces participants to the basics of peak oil, climate change, and the need to adapt to a world of lower consumption of petrochemicals, was spread over one evening and a full day, and was fairly solidly packed with information and techniques for community engagement. One of the good things that happened is that we Powell River Transition types got to meet a couple of people on Texada Island, a couple from Denman Island, and a couple from Courtenay who are interested in getting some of this activity going in their communities.

It was inspiring to see the turnout from Powell River and Texada and to reflect on the fact that we are only Canada’s eighth formally declared Transition Town, after Peterborough (ON), Guelph (ON), Victoria (BC), Dundas (ON), Nelson (BC), Ottawa (ON), and the delightfully-named Cocagne (NB). Quite an honour for such a small town; but like so many similar honours it speaks to the hard work and dedication of a small handful of upstarts and noisemakers. It was nice to feel as though we could learn from the experience of folks in Victoria, where Michelle was coming from, and also pass along some of what we know to folks coming up behind us in Texada, Denman, and Courtenay.

I imagine that everyone who participated in this training came away with a different perspective, having gone in there with different experiences and questions. My takeaway was a renewed sense of how vast will be the work of finding new ways to live well in the face of oncoming and extreme challenges from the climate and the economy. One area we did not really explore is the threat of severe social upheaval from all of these threats and reversals; it’s hard to look into that black hole for long without losing hope. Instead, the Transition movement focuses its energy and attention on positive action, even while acknowledging that we can have no sure insight into the directions the future might take. This is scary stuff, but liberating. And it’s gathering momentum.

Lund to Langdale Part Deux

After a day of unwinding from these two days, I leapt into ‘Lund to Langdale Part Deux’, the follow-up event to the ‘Lund to Langdale‘ get-together back in November 2009 which brought together farmers, foodies, and food activists from the Upper and Lower Sunshine Coast for a day and a half of connecting and learning. That event ended with a commitment from the attendees to continue meeting with the intention of figuring out what it would mean to form a bioregional coalition and start trying to narrow the Jervis Inlet.

With support and organizational mojo from the BC Healthy Living Alliance, specifically the amazing Jamie Myrah, we were lucky enough to have a second opportunity to get together, share information and experiences, and start to really work on the outlines of this coalition: who we are, how we can work together, and what we can do as a ‘whole-coastal’ coalition that we can’t easily do as two separate loose coalitions on either side of the inlet.

And so about twenty-five of us, fairly equally balanced between Upper and Lower Sunshine Coast, came together and brainstormed our way towards a working coalition. I have complained about bad brainstorming experiences in the past, and it can sometimes turn into a random collection of impossible dreams or dead-ends; but the process was very productive this time. Part of the reason for that is that the people in the room were pretty familiar with the terrain and there was a high degree of consensus about what matters, what is feasible, and what we can actually commit to, given our many other commitments.

What did we achieve? We came to a better understanding of what we would gain from having better communication among the food-security and food-sovereignty projects on both halves of the Sunshine Coast. We all learned an awful lot about the huge number of projects and organizations already doing this work, and thought about how we can connect these existing resources together better. We ate well and laughed and got to know one another. We committed to another get-together in November, this time back down on the other side of the coast, specifically Roberts Creek.

One of the exercises we used as a way to illustrate the complexity of the situation was a mapping exercise, where we posted the names of all of the organizations, projects, and groups that we are aware of doing something to support the regional food economy. The resulting picture on the wall was overwhelming: there really is a lot going on, but often the people most likely to know about it are unaware of it all. And of course the public often have no conception of how much is happening under their noses.

Sadly, by the time we meet next, the BC Healthy Living Alliance will have been rolled up and packed away — the funding that enabled them to start so many projects around the province, including the Sliammon Community Garden and the Garden to Table workshop series at the Community Resource Centre in Powell River, was always intended to expire eventually. But with a little luck and a lot of hard work and constant commitment, one of their the lasting legacies will be a fierce and forceful network of food activists from Lund to Langdale, connected together through shared information and stories, collaborating on projects that benefit the Saltery side and the Earls Cove side, and forming a coherent and powerful voice for local food, agriculture, farmers, growers, and all the coming heroes of the relocalization movement.

Thank you, Jamie! Thank you, BC Healthy Living Alliance! And thank you to everyone who came out for this get-together. We meet again in November…

And finally

On April 6, 2010, the BC government granted our application for incorporation as a cooperative. And so the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative is official. Stay tuned for more news about that.

Serving the community, cooperatively

By David Parkinson

Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free. (Photograph by Giovanni Spezzacatena.)

The best place to store your extra food is in your neighbor’s belly.
(African proverb)

Last week I talked about blending entrepreneurial and not-for-profit approaches to filling some of the real gaps in the regional economy, particularly the food economy. The entrepreneurial — or for-profit — approach is a good one when there is a real gap to be filled, where there are needed goods or services not being supplied by existing businesses; and the not-for-profit — or community service — approach excels where there is a gap which might not necessarily be filled by a market-driven approach, either because it is not profitable enough to attract investors or because it is a public good best provided by an association of individuals willing to sacrifice profit to the benefit of the wider community.

Powell River has many not-for-profit corporations serving the community in a variety of ways: The Powell River Association for Community Living (PRACL), Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association, Pebble in the Pond Environmental Society, The Source Club Society, and on and on… what these corporations have in common is that they have chosen to incorporate as not-for-profit societies. There is a common misconception about what it means to be a not-for-profit: it does not mean that “there is no money in it”, or that it is the sort of thing that can only work on the basis of government funding or charitable donations.

The essence of being a not-for-profit corporation is that whatever profits are generated through the activities of the corporation cannot be distributed to the members. In other words, no one can invest money in a not-for-profit with the hope of seeing a profitable return on that money. Instead, a not-for-profit corporation is a legal device for allowing a number of people to come together to achieve goals or transact business that would be difficult for any of them to do on their own, and to do that without the profit motive getting mixed up in what is usually a service to the community.

A not-for-profit corporation can indeed produce a surplus through its operations, in which case it can reinvest that surplus in those operations by purchasing equipment, starting new projects, training its staff, or in any number of other ways that will allow the organization to thrive. And those operations may produce direct economic benefit to the community by paying wages and salaries and by purchasing goods and services from other businesses. What the not-for-profit cannot do is offer dividends or other financial bonuses to its members. The membership of a not-for-profit and all other individuals or corporate partners who contribute money to it recognize that achieving the purposes of the corporation is more important than making a profit on the money they contribute.

They recognize that its status as a provider of a public good is higher than its status as a tool for increasing capital. In other words, they see it as a part of the commons.

A cooperative is a particular kind of association with its own set of provincial laws and regulations, and which operates according to principles which have been evolving since the origins of the cooperative back in the middle of the 19th Century. You may be familiar with a cooperative through membership in the Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), through belonging to our local credit union (the first one in BC), or through belonging to a food cooperative.

Most cooperatives (e.g., MEC, First Credit Union) are for-profit, which means that any surplus they generate through their activities can be returned to members in the form of dividends or patronage returns. Dividends are determined on the basis of the number of shares owned; patronage returns on the basis of the amount of business transacted with the cooperative. (The credit union pays dividends; MEC pays patronage returns.) A for-profit cooperative may also issue investment shares, which allow investors (who are not necessarily members) to put their money into the cooperative in hopes of a return on that capital.

There is also a class of not-for-profit cooperatives, known in BC as ‘community service cooperatives‘. As the for-profit cooperative is to the for-profit corporation, the community service cooperative is to the not-for-profit corporation (society or association). As the name ‘community service cooperative’ suggests, these are often used as a way of providing a service to the community in general, as opposed to cooperatives like MEC and the First Credit Union, which primarily serve the interests of their members. (Although cooperatives, even for-profit ones, often have a very high degree of commitment to community service.)

The legislation defining the community service cooperative came into effect as recently as 2007, and so this model remains to be developed and tested in a variety of different areas and for different purposes. But it offers an appealing combination of the power of cooperative association combined with the ability to provide valuable services to the community as a whole.

Since late November 2009 I have been part of a small team of people learning how cooperatives work and how to get one started. This work picks up on the sorts of thinking that I set out in a couple of posts from back in October 2009: “Why we need a food-security cooperative” and “What can a local food-security cooperative do?“. What we’re looking at are ways to organize people to work together on projects that they might find hard to accomplish on their own — and on projects where there are real economies of scale to be had by pooling labour, time, or money. Examples of this sort of thing can be found in the two posts linked to just above; but a good example would be a commonly-owned fruit crusher and cider press which could be used by members and the general public to convert fruit to cider or wine for the few weeks of the year when the fruit is most abundant. Why should everyone need to own expensive equipment like this? Why not belong to a group which serves common needs without introducing the profit motive?

There is a great deal more to say about the structure and the motivation of a cooperative (coming up in future columns). But for our little initiating group, it is clear that food — of all things — is so fundamental to the life of the individual and of the community that we need to empower people to work for themselves and with one another in order to make more food available locally year-round, as equitably and affordably as possible, and with the least negaitve impacts on the environment. It will help to have an active and activist regional organization which is open to all, dedicated to the creation of a stronger local food economy, driven by the interests and needs of its members, fully accountable to the membership and to the wider community, and obliged by its very nature to place community service above individual profit-making. That’s where we’re heading — and very soon we’ll be asking you to come along with us.

If you want to know more, please feel free to email me. Or you can come out to the upcoming Chamber of Commoners event on Wednesday February 10 and to the fifth annual Seedy Saturday in Powell River on March 13, 2010 at the Powell River Recreation Complex. We’ll be at both of these events to answer questions and hear your wonderful ideas.


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