Introduction to the Discussion Course on Co-ops

By Ann Hoyt

As cooperators, we believe we can achieve better results for ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities by pooling our resources and working together to meet our needs. The learning-action adventure you will have as a member of a cooperative discussion course makes the same assumption – that by learning and discussing challenging and provocative information together, our thinking will be more insightful and productive than it would be if each of us were to read this information alone.

Although there are no definitive statistics, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Americans are currently members of discussion courses, study circles and learning-action groups. The issues they address are as diverse as we are as a people. A short exploration of study circles on the web leads you to groups addressing issues related to global warming, racism, sustainable living, democracy, youth, poverty, immigration and many more. You will also find entire cities (Lima, Ohio may have been the first) organizing their residents into small study circles to address issues related to the sustainability, safety, justice and livability of their neighborhoods. This method of pooling our collective knowledge and wisdom has created deeper understanding among the participants and has inspired creative and effective local action to address shared concerns.

Study circles are not new to the cooperative movement, nor to Americans. They were an integral part of the Chatauqua adult education movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The website estimates that at their height in the 1920’s, more than 700,000 Americans were participating in as many as 15,000 local discussion groups.

Perhaps the most well known North American study circles were the “kitchen table meetings” held by Frs. Moses Coady and J.J. Tompkins as a primary organizing tool for cooperative development in Atlantic Canada. To this day, the cooperatives in Atlantic Canada, “masters of their own destiny,” are also masters at translating knowledge into action.

This is an active, enlightening, challenging way to “do something” about issues that concern you and others. Given a framework for discussion and a series of readings to jumpstart your thinking, your group will be discussing your cooperative and its potential to serve your needs. This is a relaxed and definitely low-tech experience that will help you gain new perspectives, share your values and concerns and use the combined wisdom and enthusiasm of the group as a “common ground for action.” At its very best your discussion group will be a springboard for innovation in your cooperative and your community.

The eight chapters of the Cooperative Discussion Course are designed to give you basic information about cooperative business and to challenge you to think about your cooperative and the cooperative business model in terms of critical social, economic and environmental issues of the 21st century. The “Discussion Questions” and “Try This” sections of each chapter give guidance to some of the important themes in the chapter and provide ideas for action that might inspire your study circle to take your group’s learning into your communities.

Chapter 1 introduces you to some of the impressive (and exciting!) history of cooperative business. Here you discover the deep roots of cooperation as a working class response to the industrial revolution and the excesses of capitalism. Textile workers in mid-19th century England, American and Canadian farmers in the 1930’s, and urban workers and consumers in the late 20th century all used the promise and performance of cooperative businesses to make tangible and critically important changes that improved the quality of their lives and their communities.

Chapter 2, probably the most theoretical of the chapters and the most inspiring, gives you several perspectives on the values, beliefs and principles that are the core ideology of the cooperative movement. The chapter identifies the critical differences between cooperatives and investor-owned firms. You may discover that some values you thought were essential to your cooperative may not be universally shared. This is the chapter that will help you think about cooperative business in terms of your own values and beliefs and, as stated in the introduction, “speaks to who we are as human beings.

Chapter 3 gives an introduction to the various organization forms of cooperative businesses, with a particular focus on worker- and consumer-owned cooperatives. It also provides a good description of a hybrid model of the two types. This chapter emphasizes the flexibility of the cooperative model. While the basic principles of member ownership, member benefits and member control are constant, the business form takes on characteristics that can best serve the members. Understanding the flexibility of the model may be critical to creating cooperative businesses that are uniquely designed to meet the needs and address the issues of 21st century workers and consumers.

Chapter 4 extends the themes introduced in Chapter 3 with a description of several industry sectors in which cooperatives operate. It describes unique international applications of the cooperative model, and identifies some of the problems cooperatives may encounter as a result of competition and the effort to attain economies of scale. In the interview with Eggplant Active Media, you’ll see how the model is being applied in cyberspace.

Chapter 5 expands our awareness of the international cooperative movement with examples of poverty reduction strategies in Tanzania, industrial production models from Italy, and cooperation for fair trade of agricultural products in Nicaragua. U.S. cooperatives have much to learn from these examples which have had remarkable success in addressing problems of poverty, disadvantage and economic isolation. These models may hold important lessons for how we might more effectively address problems of poverty and inequitable distribution of wealth in what has been called “the third world within our borders.”

One of the most provocative of the series, Chapter 6 addresses many facets of globalization and its relationship to and impact on U.S. cooperatives. The chapter addresses issues of sustainability, economic power, democratic control, resource competition, distribution of wealth and resources, and more. Brett Fairbairn’s article on cohesion, consumerism and cooperatives is a persuasive call to attend to issues of member cohesion as they are critical to cooperative’s ability to innovate, adapt and change; in short, to survive.

Chapter 7 brings everything together with a focus on how cooperatives may impact our collective future. It challenges us to consider a future that may not be dominated by global capitalism, or one in which a strong and vital cooperative movement can create a competitive environment that impacts the way all business is conducted, a way that supports economic equity and environmental sustainability. We hope that this chapter, built on those that preceded it, will inspire creative ideas for action that will create the economy envisioned by the earliest cooperators and all those who have followed them.

Once your discussion group is armed with basic cooperative information and is ready to take action, Chapter 8 provides a lively and informative introduction to the legal environment for cooperatives. Although filled with important descriptions of the tax and legal requirements, and advantages and disadvantages of the cooperative corporate structure, Don Kreis has succeeded in making this information both enlightening and fun. This chapter truly is a people’s guide to the nitty-gritty of cooperation.

We believe A Discussion Course on Cooperatives is the first guide to cooperative study circles to be published in at least fifty years. It certainly is the only one that addresses the unique relationship of cooperatives to the critical issues of the 21st century. As you engage in the conversations and community action that grow out of the discussion course, remember the vision and effort of Lisa Stolarski, the Board of the East End Food Co-op and all the supporters and contributors who deeply believe in our collective wisdom. When we learn, discuss and act in an informed way and together, we can and do improve the quality of our lives and that of our neighbors.

Ann Hoyt,
University of Wisconsin-Madison