We’re proud to introduce a new member of the KDC Team, Lori Burge. She has completed both the Cooperation Works! Cooperative Business Development Training Program and the Democracy At Work Network Peer Advisor Training Program. Lori brings with her two decades of cooperative business and community organizing experience. She joined our team this month and has already jumped on board with several KDC Clients.
KDC: Describe your role and responsibilities at KDC.
LB: At KDC, I will work with emerging and existing co-ops to provide technical assistance in all areas of cooperative development from start-ups and expansions revising bylaws and adopting policies to developing and strengthening nuts and bolts operational systems. I bring with me a specialty in Urban Co-op Development operating within historically underserved communities. As KDC’s administrative support person, I will be the first person people talk to when they reach out to KDC.
KDC: What attracted you to the cooperative model?
LB: I cut my teeth doing community organizing with environmental, labor, consumer protection, and social justice organizations. After learning extensively about co-ops, I enrolled in a class called Economic Democracy Now! which focused on the co-op model as a viable economic alternative to business as usual and quite possibly, a more just economic system. I was inspired by the Rochdale Pioneers in England, Mondragon in Spain, the Emilia Romanga region in Italy and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, in Mississippi.
I love that co-ops are mission-driven operating from a multiple bottom line approach to achieve sustainable profits, communities and environments. They serve member-owner and community needs. Co-ops provide communities opportunities to take control of their livelihoods by cultivating leadership in populations which have often been overlooked. I’m privileged to a role in creating positive change impacting people’s lives today, tomorrow, and for generations to come!
KDC: What is your background and how did you come to be in your current position?
LB: I’ve been working with co-ops and other democratically controlled entities for the past 20 years, so I’m what you might call “a co-op lifer.” In 1997, I got my start working in co-ops by volunteering with my housemate in produce department at a nearby community-owned grocery called People’s Food Co-op in Portland. I held several positions at People’s including Produce Manager, Development Manager and as a member of the Finance Team. While working at People’s I got deeply involved in the local, regional, and national co-op movement. Assisting neighboring communities to start food co-ops compelled me to enroll in training in Cooperative Development.
I served as the first General Manager at New Orleans Food Co-op (NOFC), a start-up co-op in a long-standing underserved area. The community had been working to organize a co-op for 10 years, since before Hurricane Katrina. In my five and a half years there, I learned to navigate the challenges inherent in opening and operating a cooperatively owned and governed grocery in a long-standing food desert.
I recently moved to Philadelphia after my partner was offered a position at a Mariposa Food Co-op, bringing us much closer to extended family. I am a longtime colleague of KDC’s Peggy and Jim through Cooperation Works and Democracy at Work Institute. It is a natural fit for me to move into Co-op Development full time! I am so happy to be here!
KDC: As you look to the future what do you see as the greatest opportunities and trends for cooperatives?
LB: If there is an economic need, there is an opportunity. There is no end to the types of services a co-op can provide its member-owners, and its community.
In recent years, I have heard more communities working to address food insecurity or other complex social challenges through co-ops. For example, we have seen increased development of social services type co-ops such as Home Health Care cooperatives. We have seen a noticeable trend of food co-ops opening areas abandoned or avoided by larger grocers. Co-ops open to meet the need against all odds, where it is needed most, is a plight to which I have a deep affinity.
We are also seeing the food co-op sector working hard to streamline systems and tighten up margins to compete with the conventional grocers. Co-ops are getting much better talking about our positive impacts, which is heartening. In the 80’s we saw a lot of co-ops buckling under pressure and abandoning the word co-op from their names. Today we celebrate the cooperative difference. Technology allows us to share our metrics, our trends, and our experience with other cooperators in our sectors so we can evolve together, but completely independently.
KDC: What do you see as the biggest challenges?
LB: One of the biggest challenges is not heeding to the internal and sometimes external pressure to open shop before completing the necessary steps, creating a clear governance structure and raising adequate initial starting capital. Another challenge in an ever-evolving economy where larger companies are encroaching on niche markets. By marketing and branding to emphasize a mission and values, co-ops are getting better at communicating the cooperative difference, something social media has helped put within reach on a tighter budget. I would like to focus on improving analysis, financial projections and business plans to mitigate challenges and improve their likelihood of success.
KDC: What keeps you inspired?
LB: I love hearing people’s stories. I am eternally motivated by seeing the cooperative difference as it plays out in communities, and upon individuals lives, both economically and personally by cultivating skills and leadership abilities. Listening to the extraordinary accomplishments ordinary people have been able to achieve through their co-ops is so motivating. What a joy it is to work with so many amazing people committed to strengthening communities using a model we can all say “yes” to!