I joined the Co-op board three years ago with a desire to understand where all my money was going—to put my mouth where my money is, in a reversal of the popular expression. I found in the Co-op management—and on the board—a remarkable transparency, a deep love for community, many new relationships, and an expansion of what a friend recently described as “radical tact.”
As you’ve no doubt read in these pages before, the Co-op is governed through a system called Policy Governance. This helps the board monitor the work of the general manager, and yet retain a clarity of relationships, by asking the board to focus on big picture questions of policy and leave operations to the paid staff. This system reduces confusion, clarifies power dynamics, and makes space to look at our financial picture with a birdseye view. Structures such as Robert’s Rules of Order (which we also use) and Policy Governance are designed to organize our conversations and bring a level of formality and boundaries in order to make difficult discussions more accessible and polite. However, too often I’ve seen Robert’s Rules silence voices in our small town democracies.
I came to my work on the Co-op board eager to share my authentic voice, as a shopper, an engaged community member, and a mother. Despite my experience with town meeting when I first moved to Vermont twenty years earlier, it was still quite confusing. But slowly, through asking the right questions, and some patience in understanding our cycle of policy reviews, I learned how to make change from within our system. I learned the time of the year that we look at our employee satisfaction survey, and when we discuss union negotiations. I also learned that the caring intent of my questions are heard more clearly when I reference the ends that we strive towards everyday. I also learned that culture change truly is possible. Our Co-op has changed so much in the three years I’ve been on the board: employees are significantly happier; we’ve signed a new union contract that most are proud of; our cash position is strong again; and our prices have come down to meet the needs of our community members’ budgets. I can claim credit for very little of this, though I do feel proud for all of it.
But I can claim some credit for this: during my time on the Co-op board, we were able—through hard work, courageous conversations, and patience—to remake these structures to support our goals, rather than stifle progress and debate. Once we set explicit norms, focused on trust, and took the time to hear each other, we were able to engage in debate that embodies this idea of radical tact—sharing our thoughts so that others can hear them, rather than fearing each other’s truth and protecting our own.
By Emilie Kornheiser