Since 1998 I have had the honor of helping people across my home state of Wisconsin organize cooperatives. As one of the few remaining co-op development specialists within USDA Rural Development, I am able to devote 100% of my time to hands-on co-op development technical assistance. My work involves lots of co-op education – speaking to groups about what is a co-op, answering a wide array of phone and e-mail inquiries, guiding a steering committee through the development process, helping draft bylaws and articles of incorporation, exploring options for capitalization, providing ongoing board and member training, and troubleshooting with co-ops that face problems.
No two days are ever the same. Over the years I’ve worked with groups in industries as diverse as long term care, local foods, dairy, arts marketing and galleries, disability services, nonprofit shared services, forest management, logging, composting, and employment among people living with mental illness.
KDC: What is your background and how did you come to be in your current position?
My early background felt rather disparate, but those experiences prepared me in various ways. For example I worked in group homes for the elderly and as a nursing home activity therapist. What in the world would I do with that knowledge? Well it helped me understand long term care issues, which are central to one of the first co-ops I helped develop (Cooperative Care, a worker co-op of home care providers). Even though I grew up in suburban Milwaukee, my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote Costa Rican mountain village helped me appreciate rural issues, the need to diversify local economies, and shared entrepreneurship. How fortunate I was to be assigned to Costa Rica, a nation rich in cooperatives and community economic development.
After the Peace Corps, I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute for economic and community development. (In-state tuition reciprocity between Minnesota and her neighbors is a wonderful thing!) Micro-lending was in vogue in the mid 1990s, and I intended to follow that path. Between my first and second years of grad school I even did an unpaid internship in Washington DC at the headquarters of a micro-lending nonprofit. But through my studies and internship, I started to question some of the fundamental assumptions of micro-finance. What troubled me most was that micro-lending atomized women from each other. Every woman started the same types of businesses (sewing or selling street food) resulting in undercutting of each other’s prices. I started to search for a model that brought people together in entrepreneurship. In 1998 the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives held a one day workshop on cooperatives and community economic development. I was intrigued. At the end of the workshop I had a chance conversation with a man from USDA Rural Development Wisconsin. He happened to be looking for someone to fill a new position as a co-op development specialist.
The sun, the moon, and the stars truly aligned for me! I’m a true believer in the Joseph Campbell quote – “Follow your bliss, and the universe will open doors to you. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss and they open doors to you.” I would modify that quote slightly – as cooperators, we open doors for each other.
KDC: What do you see as future opportunities and trends?
The cooperative model is one of the best kept secrets in America. I find that as people learn about cooperatives, they get inspired. People get creative, especially when times are tough. I’ve seen some amazing people come together and build co-ops that meet their needs.
There is exciting energy among the worker cooperatives. The US Federation of Worker Co-ops was a decade in the making, based on regional efforts that coalesced nationally. Now there is a group of experienced worker cooperators that provide peer technical support (after going through a year-long apprenticeship program). It’s a wonderful mix of grassroots organizing and business savvy.
For over a decade Cooperation Works has provided a series of week-long co-op developer trainings in Madison. The demand is growing to take this type of training on the road. Stay tuned as members of Cooperation Works design that.
Social services are another area of opportunity. Families of adults with disabilities are running scared as austerity measures loom at the state and federal levels. Family advocates and people with disabilities are attracted to the co-op model since it allows for real ownership and a hand in direct governance. It’s heart breaking to hear parents of adult children with disabilities tearfully describe how they wish to set up a housing or employment arrangement for their child so that they may die knowing their child will be cared for. My only frustration with trying to develop co-ops within social services is that follow through is often sporadic - families and advocates are often consumed with putting out fires.
KDC: What is the view from your doorstep?
Flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. Ten years ago I became a first time home owner. That gave me a chance to become a gardener and an excuse to play in the dirt. One of my mentors said that gardening is a nice compliment to the work that we do as co-op developers. Both gardening and developing co-ops are about nurturing, creating, and growing. But it often takes years to see a co-op actually come into existence. With gardening, the results are much more immediate.