Michaela Fisher was selected to receive an Enrichment Grant from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship. With this grant, she participated in a cooperative economics spring break trip to the Bay Area. You can read Michaela’s reflection below, read past grantee reflections here, and visit the PCSE website to learn more about all of our grant programs.
I spent the second week of my spring break on a trip to the Bay Area led by the non-profit Aynah. The trip aimed to show how co-ops and movements for social justice intersect by teaching the basics of the cooperative structure; discussing issues of power, privilege, and oppression; and seeing it all in action at Bay Area cooperatives.
At the beginning of the week, the trip leaders provided us with some reading. In this article, author Tim Huet explains why he believes there is no more important social change work you can do than supporting cooperative development. In the airport waiting for my flight to San Francisco, I read the article and felt inspired and excited, but mostly confused. I didn’t know enough about cooperatives to see the meaning or power of a democratic workplace. After my week with Aynah, I now feel I can truly understand Huet’s passion for the cooperative movement.
As we learned on the first day, a cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. In simpler terms, cooperatives are businesses owned by members (often workers or consumers). In a worker co-op, for example, each worker owns part of the business and has an equal voice in the decision-making process. There are no bosses, bonuses, or hierarchies in the traditional sense. In contrast with for-profits where shareholders can buy as many shares as they want to increase their control over a company, co-ops run by the ‘one member one vote’ rule. This structure works to level the playing field in a world with historically and systematically reinforced inequality and oppression.
We spent most of the week visiting Bay Area co-ops. For example, we saw Energy Solidarity Cooperative, a multi-stakeholder cooperative that aims to democratize the financing and ownership of renewable energy through partnerships in traditionally disenfranchised communities. We talked with a worker-owner at Design Action Collective, a graphic design cooperative that services progressive movements fighting for social and economic justice (they designed the Black Lives Matter logo!). We visited Rainbow Grocery, a worker-owned co-op that sells sustainable, local, and organic products. In our meetings with these co-ops and others around the Bay Area, we got to discuss both the technical aspects of running a cooperative and the ideology surrounding their work. Each person I met involved with the cooperative movement inspired me with their deep commitment to fighting inequality and oppression in their workplace and community. They promoted the idea that workers should be respected for their whole personhood, rather than their title, resume, or background. Accountability, rather than traditional professionalism, was the most important quality each person brings to a democratically-run workplace.
When we weren’t visiting co-ops, we were engaging in workshops led by team members of InVision Consulting to unpack the effects of power and privilege in our lives. These workshops gave us the language and background to better understand which barriers and systems of oppression co-ops are trying to break down. We discussed times where we felt oppressed or oppressive. We learned how to calmly and effectively point out instances of oppression in our everyday lives. These skills are necessary to develop a cooperative ecosystem that actually accomplishes its mission of social and economic change.
Overall, my week with Aynah shifted my perspective on social justice and the working world in a fundamental way. It showed me a real, tangible, and beautiful alternative to an economic system that looks increasingly unsustainable and unjust. As Tim Huet explained, there can be no social justice without economic justice, but we cannot expect a change to the prevailing system without providing a good alternative. Co-ops can be that alternative.