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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A Semester Ends in the Climb for a GED

Sister Patricia Opening the Celebration

Milwaukee       It’s always important to “pay attention in class,” so I carefully listened and watched as the GED students and their tutors came together for a potluck lunch at the Dominican Center to mark the passing of another semester of study.  I’ll stand first in line with those that scoff at service delivery as a band-aid over the killing wounds of injustice and inequality or as a path to social change, but never let it be said that we should not respect those who struggle forward and those who join with them to support their fight.

There were fewer than twenty that came together in Milwaukee in mid-morning, but there was excitement in the room.  Some had been there for hours already preparing something for the potluck, so there was food for fifty!  Sister Patricia who oversees the multi-ringed circus at the center was stirring sherbet into a punch bowl with some fizzy concoction for a punch without a name, but that the Fort Smith native assured me was an old southern recipe of hers.  People were dressed for the occasion but it was their smiles that lit up the room as that sat in the tables with balloons flying from each one.

The GED tutoring runs every morning from 9 to almost noon, Monday through Thursday.  Students each take a table with a tutor sitting close by working the lesson plan.  I had often seen them during my monthly visits throughout this year.  After our leadership development sessions in the evening, we always had to reassemble the room before we left.  It was a habit.  No one questioned it, like camping in the wilderness, we would leave no traces behind us.

students and tutors

This was my opportunity to be a fly on the wall at this part of the operation that was so different from community organizing, although one of the leaders turned out to also be on the GED path in these sessions as well.    The program was straight forward but effective.  Sister Patricia saluted the students and noted the ones that were absent, working, or ill, along with the tutors, who were all volunteers.  The only student getting a special shout out was one woman who had most faithfully attended.  This was about the process, not just the result.

The chief instructor asked everyone to offer a reflection to begin the program.  It was moving to hear people stand up and express their gratitude for the tutors and the opportunity, just as the tutors expressed their gratitude for the students.  It was refreshing to hear the tutors apologize for pushing people and continue to commit to improving the program.

One volunteer talked about the field trips the students had been on, and that was a marvel. They had visited a house in Wisconsin that was a stop on the underground railroad.  They had been to a play they loved called the “Five Moe’s” about five guys one of whom was named No Moe.  They had been to museums, libraries, and hither and yon.  They loved the experience and talked excitedly about it all.  Every person received applause.

I’ve been to my share of graduation exercises, but I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed one more that sitting listening to the GED class ending another semester in the Amani neighborhood of Milwaukee.

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