At the Annual Meeting, Sabine Rhyne, our General Manager, used this phrase to characterize why shoppers chose the Co-op: “The reasons we, or at least I, head to the Co-op have to do with more than what is offered on the shelves.” In some respects the Co-op difference is intangible, elusive. In addition to purchasing food, you might see someone you’ve been meaning to call, hear live music in the café, and/or alleviate the feeling of ennui we can experience in our disconnected society. I know that I shop the Co-op for a myriad of reasons—it’s about the food, but it’s not just about the food.
Let me share my thoughts on the Annual Meeting for those who didn’t attend. For those of you who were there I hope you feel I captured the essence of the business portion of the meeting factually. Of course the food was delicious and plentiful. Kudos to those who worked hard to make this happen. There are many unsung heroes in the kitchen and back rooms of the Co-op.
There was a panel of founding board and newer, millennial shareholders. Each shared their motivation to become a part of the Co-op. Their stories were as varied as the individuals themselves.
Sabine, our General Manger, and Skye Morse, Board Treasurer, spoke to the fiscal challenges facing the Co-op. We ended the 2019 fiscal year $32,000 in the red … a daunting reality. The Co-op is now facing a 20% increase in health insurance premiums, and eventually we will see a $15 an hour minimum wage in Vermont. I’m not a financial wizard but I know that, of necessity, there will be an adjustment to the discount structure. Stay tuned. Please reach out to Sabine or your board to share your ideas. There is a standing invitation to shareholders to attend board meetings. Just let us know in advance so we can plan for you to have dinner with us.
I felt the Co-op difference during the Question and Response portion of the meeting. Several shareholders were brave enough to bring up the sensitive subject of racial profiling. One individual was falsely accused of stealing in the store. Another talked about “being followed/feeling followed” in big box stores. And a third spoke to this country’s founding on genocide, slavery and the ravages of colonialism.
I felt tremendously proud of our Co-op that night. It takes courage to bring up difficult subjects. While I don’t personally know any of the speakers who shared on this topic, it was my impression, and I am hoping I read this correctly, that the Annual Meeting felt like a safe place to speak truth to power. I was as impressed with the response of our General Manager as I was with the honesty and eloquence of the aggrieved. Sabine listened to what was said and apologized. As importantly, she promised that these concerns will not fall on deaf ears; that the Co-op will be proactive in addressing the specific incident and the systemic underbelly where racism grows. The aggrieved spoke to her experience; the Co-op, said publicly in Sabine’s words, “we will do better.”
These exchanges were followed by as many shareholders as time permitted, sharing their experiences of, and thoughts about, racism. There was a universal theme of individual responsibility for looking deep inside and a challenge to one and all to do better. I will add the caveat that social change is as often driven by institutions as it is by individuals. I cite Brown v. Board of Education as an example.
The masthead of the Washington Post says, “Democracy dies in the Darkness.” The absence of truth, of integrity and honesty, are dark places. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “[I]t is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” I believe we lit a candle at the meeting.
I’m looking forward to seeing you in the store and, hopefully, at next year’s Annual Meeting. If you don’t know me feel free to introduce yourself. I’d love to know you by name and hear your feedback. We are a welcoming community!