JJ: I'm a freelance co-op developer, currently contracted with KDC for 20 hours a week. I'm interested in all types of co-ops, but I specialize in worker co-ops - helping to start them, helping people convert conventional companies into them, and helping existing ones get stronger. I also have significant experience in the food co-op sector.
KDC: What attracted you to the cooperative model?
JJ: I have to start by crediting my parents, who instilled in me two fundamental passions: small business and social justice. For me, these two ideas have always gone together and always complemented each other. So when I struck out on my own, naturally I found my first circle of friends in my local food co-op, the Common Market FC in Annapolis, MD, in 1978. The community that surrounded that co-op led me to many more influences that guide me to this day.
In 1980 those influences led me to a community of activists in the Washington, DC, area, where I became deeply involved in many altruistic and ambitious volunteer endeavors, and also established myself as a freelancer in a series of technical fields, over the following 17 years. Focusing on sustainable enterprises was the most strategic way for me to apply my skills and experience. I started out doing tech support at the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Food Co-op (TPSS), but quickly became involved in their expansion plans, managing the transition to a point-of-sale system with the design committee for the new store. TPSS also sent me to the national food co-op conference to learn more about FC IT systems, and it was there that I first saw the incredible potential of co-ops helping co-ops. I ended up serving five years on the TPSS board, including two as president.
KDC: What is your background and how did you come to be in your current position?
My work with TPSS attracted the attention of Sligo Computer Services, a small local software company that was seeking to convert to a formal democratic ownership structure. I started working full-time at Sligo in 1999 and also co-facilitated their conversion to a worker co-op, serving a total of ten years there, including three as president.
My work with Sligo led me to network with other worker-coops, and also to the CooperationWorks! developer training, where I met Peggy, Kate, and a nationwide network of co-op developers who remain colleagues to this day. My networking also brought me an increasing number of calls from people seeking help in starting worker co-ops.
In 2009 I was one of ten people who came together from around the US to form the Democracy at Work Network, a technical assistance service comprised of experienced worker-owners, as a project of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. In that year I also took a sabbatical from my worker co-op and returned to freelancing, so I could devote more time to the ever-increasing number of requests for worker co-op technical assistance.
And for the last six years, that's what I've been doing, and I'm now busier than ever!
KDC: What do you see as future opportunities and trends?
JJ: The financial crisis has generated an incredible amount of interest in co-ops - but if the economy gets better for a while, how many people will remain interested? I like to ask my fellow developers, "Are we in a bubble, or a paradigm shift?" Most of the people I ask say they don't know yet.
If this trend is a bubble, after the burst the opportunity will be similar to the 80s and 90s - the hard-core co-op people will draw together, conserve resources, and tighten up practices. If it's a paradigm shift, the opportunity and challenge will be to meet the ever-rising demand for co-op information and technical assistance, which will require us to radically re-think how we deliver technical assistance, and maybe even how we develop co-ops in the first place. Then again, if we radically re-think our approaches now, we might transform a would-be bubble into a paradigm shift.
KDC: What do you see as the biggest challenges?
JJ: Immigrant advocacy and urban economic development activists have discovered co-ops, and they might be another force that tips us into a paradigm shift. But they often come to the table with a charity mentality, and little or no first-hand co-op or business experience. The charity mentality is essentially the opposite of the "old school" co-op development approach that I see myself, KDC and many of the more established co-op development centers belonging to, in which the people who need the co-op are the leaders of it, from the very beginning.
We need to embrace this new wave of non-profit colleagues, and the communities they champion, and the perspectives they bring. We also need to ensure that they don't unintentionally erase or ignore the long and esteemed history of co-op development in the US and around the world, and the very hard lessons that our predecessors have learned over many decades.
KDC: What keeps you inspired?
JJ: Most people would agree that economic democracy, and especially workplace democracy, are very good ideas. But there are very few well-known examples around, and very few people who know how to make it all work, and many people who don't know that it's even possible. If we can prove the model in a way that many people notice, many good changes could result, quickly, from a relatively small investment of energy.
On a more personal note, there's a special thing that happens to most people when they become member-owners in democratically-governed small businesses. They start thinking more globally, they become savvier in economics, politics, and social dynamics, and they develop a greater sense of what makes the world work and not work. Co-ops inspire people to become better citizens and more worldly thinkers. Watching people undergo that transition, and helping them through it, is by far the most amazing thing I've ever experienced, and I want to keep having that experience as much as possible.