Well it’s been a journey. After a second try, I am now a board member of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. The Co-op is a place I have shopped with my children their entire lives—starting as a cashier while pregnant with my son who is now about to graduate high school!
In November I had the opportunity to spend a day at Keene State College as a prospective BFC board candidate attending a Co-op Café sponsored by CDS Consulting Co-op and the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a federation of more than 35 New England and New York Co-ops. NFCA represents over 144,000 members, combined annual revenues of $330 million, $90 million in purchasing of local products, and 2,300 jobs valued at $69 million. There is power in numbers.
I spent the day with 61 other people from regional co-ops such as Vermont’s Putney, Springfield, Rutland and Middlebury Food Co-ops, New Hampshire’s Monadnock Community Market plus others from Maine and more. In a robust, interactive “world café” style we rotated tables and conversations exploring the main questions, “What does it look like to welcome and celebrate every customer? Why is it important? What commitments are needed? What does it take to fulfill those commitments?” The workshop was guided by the CDS Consulting Co-op, which specializes in solutions for cooperatives. The following are the amazing ideas, inspirations and possibilities that arose from our day:
Welcoming and Celebrating Every Customer
Examining who is not at the table creates new places for building inclusion. Reaching out to community organizations and non-shoppers helps create a more open, inviting environment. Some great ideas from other co-ops include Rutland’s “Thursday Burrito Day,” giving a shout-out to the small Latino community there, and Hunger Mountain’s “Food & Wellness Fair” hosted at city hall and open to vendors, non-profits and community groups. I personally loved the idea of different days celebrating different ethnicities in our community.
Leadership that Embraces and Promotes Multicultural Community
More ideas were presented as we met with co-ops outside of NFCA and learned how they got out of the “co-op bubble” and transformed their role by developing a strong food system in neighborhoods that were not theirs, through the formation of community allies and the hosting of “listening events” where more meaningful relationships were formed. These activities do not necessarily mean more sales or more costs, rather they are a way to build connections and strengthen the co-op’s place in the community.
For example, I speak Spanish and English. At the Co-op we can identify people by which languages they speak or have a “Spanish language day,” “French language day,” etc. Another idea is to invite different communities to come and do a “walk-through” and get feedback on their co-op experience. Communities could include moms with small children, neuro-diverse people, African-Americans, Latinos, the Jewish and other religious communities. Each will have a different experience and notice different things—listening to them will help build more inclusion and fun into the co-op experience.
Deep and Valuable Relationships with Other Co-ops and Organizations
Here we had many robust conversations about what it takes to do something transformational by working with others. We learned how alliances can be formed with credit unions, time banks, youth services, and other groups with a focus on shared goals. We discussed being food security leaders and setting the example for others. One idea I liked was having a “small-business goods shelf” where new products from local start-ups can be showcased with monthly or seasonal rotations.
The Benefits of a Thriving Cooperative with an Expanded Vision of We
Why bother? What we learned were the benefits of being a bit uncomfortable and taking that first step, asking what it is we don’t know to ask because we are in a place where we do not know. We found that by being open to others and being motivated by the cooperative relationship helps us to think about inclusion as we: look to build and deepen our relationships, open to others, and come together the buy and grow food. As I look at our slowly diversifying community, I see so many opportunities for us to build inclusiveness and community intelligence – welcoming “our community” though language, music, cultural celebrations and embracement.
by Tamara Stenn