Co-ops in Philosophy and Practice

Madison    When we hit Madison, we had to provision ourselves for the week for our five-person crew preparing for the battle with the million pieces of paper that represent the ACORN archives within the Social Action Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society.  We searched for the location of the local food cooperative, the Willy Street Co-op, Willy for Williamson, the street where the main store is located.

Compared to our local coop in New Orleans, this operation was primetime.  There were multiple stores.  There was prepared food.  They served coffee and had an espresso machine.  This was a full-service operation.  We were impressed.

Earlier in the day we had stopped at a smaller store in Milwaukee.  Mi companera is on the board of our local cooperative, so she got a chance there to visit with the manager of that operation, the Riverwest Co-Op, which was more to our hometown scale.  They had a small café next door to the food shelves.  The manager said that for years the café had carried the coop, but more recently it was the other way around, since they were no longer the “new” thing in town for vegetarian fare.  They had tables outside.  It was a nice cozy operation.

While checking out at the Willy Co-op, the cashier told us that their annual meeting was coming up at the end of the week with a huge celebration in a nearby park as part of the multi-day Fete Marquette.  We bought tickets for the dinner and the opportunity to be observers of the annual meeting.

When we showed up there were lines at the food tables that stretched one-hundred yards in length it seemed.  We asked where the annual meeting was being held and were directed to a large yellow tent where people were sitting at tables eating and listening.

A speaker from the community shares operation that was associated with the coop got applause citing the $3 million in donations they had made during their history.

Members of the board reported on the successful payment of member-bonds that had supported the expansion of the store.  The numbers were significant for their operations, and they were doing well it seemed from the report of the board member who handled finances.

The nominations for the board were open, and differently than the New Orleans co-op, the members were actually allowed to vote on the board, which is one of the seven fundamental principles of cooperatives.  Interestingly, they reported there had not been an uncontested election since 1973.  Three candidates for board seats gave brief remarks in favor of their candidacies.  We couldn’t hear clearly from where we were, but the elections were likely through mail ballot for members-only.

There were questions and responses by various board members.  The questions were interesting.  Someone wanted to know if there were plans for a fourth store and whether it would be located in Madison, but the board member said there were no plans for expansion currently.  There were questions about recycling and suggestions from members on other topics.  The business meeting was short.  The fair and festivities were sponsored by the Willy Co-op, so the fun was the carrot, and the meeting might have been the stick, but we were glad we came.

Please enjoy Immigrant Eyes from Willie Nelson.

Thanks to KABF.

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Lost in the Stacks

Madison    It was the right thing to do.  Make a plan to try and retain records from the ACORN family of organizations in some professionally maintained archives before in the shuffling from office to office, here to there, we lost everything.  We had tried to interest the University of Arkansas at both Fayetteville and Little Rock.  No luck.  We had tried to see if the University of New Orleans might be a location.  No capacity.  We talked to the Little Rock Public Library, but in the days before they became the giant, well-funded Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), they didn’t see a way forward.  We ended up in the Social Change Collection, as it was called then, at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.  We felt like that was good company with the records of SNCC, NWRO, the Highlander Center, and many others.

Having tried to dive in some years ago for a week and finding the task daunting, I had been humbled by the size of the collection now.  Another brief visit in December 2018, reminded me that unless I had months to spare, the task was impossible.  With the 50th anniversary of ACORN coming up in 2020, I knew we had to scale this mountain, so I stumbled on trying to recruit an “Archives Assault Team,” and managed to get Mary Rowles, recently retired from the British Columbia Government Employees Union, Fred Brooks, still a professor at Georgia State, and Dan Russell, a retired professor from Springfield College in Massachusetts to join the group.  Beth Butler from A Community Voice was gang pressed into service, and I rounded off the list, toggling between my work in Milwaukee with Amani United.

We’re deep in the boxes now, but thirty boxes in after two days, we’ve had to narrow our mission daily to try to skim through as much as possible, skipping over most of the labor files, breezing through the media work, and concentrating on ACORN to see if we can pull out valuable memoranda for a “readings” book that would give a open window into ACORN’s process and production.  Sometimes we get lost in the weeds.  Flyers catch the eye.  A piece of internal conflict that had been forgotten is once again revealed.  A plaintive, lengthy letter on a diminishing commitment resurfaces.  A back-and-forth on a decision emerges that had reverberations over decades.  Is any of that what we hoped to find?  I’m not sure, but it educates anyway.

There’s some humor.  An ill-tempered exchange that makes one wince.  One of the team asking if we should care if a document was marked “confidential,” and then realizing that if it’s in the archives, it’s now part of the historical record.  Talking to the presiding archivist, he counsels that I should not tell the team that there are more than one-million pages in the ACORN archives.  He says that when I use 250 cartons as the collection estimate, I’m low-balling.

What can we do but continue to burrow in and hope to bring the gold back to the surface and separate it from so much rock.

***

Please enjoy Kelsey Waldon’s Anyhow

Thanks to KABF.

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