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Co-op Fest

Co-op Fest: Harvest the Benefits of Co-operation
by Peggy Schulz

You say you need a source of income and the traditional job market just isn’t doing it for you? Or you are employed, but mentally and/or emotionally unsatisfied with the work you’re doing? Maybe you have a desire to feel more a part of the community you live in. Would you like to work toward a sense of economic justice for all?

Whether your needs are immediate and tangible, or longer-term and more ethereal, joining an existing co-op or forming one of your own could be the answer. And your timing for looking into the possibilities of a co-op is perfect, because Co-Op Fest is taking place Saturday, October 12, in Garden Park, 721 E. Locust St.

The Riverwest Cooperative Alliance is helping to carry out what organizers hope will be the first of an annual series of festivals. For this debut event, co-operatives and member-owned organizations from the city, the state and the Midwest will be on hand to offer both information and advice on the establishment and maintenance of successful co-operative enterprises.

The Fest is focused in Garden Park, but workshops also will be taking place in other locations. The website, coopfest.org, is the best place to go for full information on all the offerings. And, it’s a good idea to check it out now, because the interest in Co-Op Fest is building fast.

Tess Kenney, a café staff member at the Riverwest Co-op Grocery & Cafe, with a solid background in event planning and production, got the idea for Co-Op Fest about a year ago.

“I kept thinking about all the festivals that were going on and saw these people spending their money,” Kenney says. At the same time, she observed that low-paying jobs were continuing to challenge her friends and neighbors to make a go of it financially.

“I thought, why can’t we have a festival about collaborative economics? Why can’t we have a fun celebration of co-operatives and bring together these awesome co-ops throughout the region and teach people how to do this?” Kenney said.

One major plus of co-ops is job creation and giving workers a say in how the money they work hard for is spent, according to Kenney. Nichali Ciaccio, another member of the Co-Op Fest organizing group, agrees.

Ciaccio, volunteer coordinator and one of the co-managers at the Riverwest Co-op, speaks on both a lofty and a down-to-earth level when he talks about the advantages of business co-operatives.

“A co-op is economic democracy, community sovereignty,” Ciaccio says. “It’s people coming together and pooling their resources to meet a collective need.”

“In one sense, building a co-operative is revolutionary,” Ciaccio continues, “but it’s also immediately practical and sustainable.”

Both collective need and immediacy were factors in the formation of what is thought to be the first formal cooperative in history. It started in Fenwyck, Scotland more than 250 years ago, according to the International Co-operative Alliance.

In 1761, a group of local weavers in Fenwyck found themselves unable to afford the basic wool supplies they needed to create their wares. They came up with the idea of selling oatmeal out of a local cottage, with the proceeds going to pay for their collective purchase of supplies. They called themselves the Fenwyck Weavers Society.

For the Fenwyck weavers, it wasn’t an ideological question of what was the best form of business. It was much simpler than that: Figure out a way to buy some wool, or figure out a way to feed themselves some other way. They took a creative and perhaps risky chance. And they won. In the process, the weavers unknowingly set in motion a pattern of co-operative development that continues today.

In 2013, co-operatives still arise out of need, but also out of a desire on the part of many workers to do things differently, to build a business in a more fair and sustainable way.

“Instead of having outrageous salaries for CEOs and unsustainable wages for the real workers,” Kenney pondered last year, when she first got the idea that evolved into Co-Op Fest, “how can we create a democratic capitalism that is ethical?” She was able to get a few of her friends and neighbors involved in the beginning stages of planning the event.

Kenney had thought it would take a year, but others were eager to get it off the ground sooner. Kenney thought, “Why not? What are we waiting for?” She felt even if they got something small going for 2013 it could grow in subsequent iterations.

But the Fest won’t be little this year, not by any means. It’s fueled by a group of Riverwest residents with decades of both co-op and community-building experience behind them.

Riverwest was the birthplace of the first co-op in the Milwaukee area, the original Outpost Foods Co-op. The Riverwest Co-op, the Public House, Build Milwaukee Co-operative and People’s Books – a conversion to a co-op from a fairly typical sole proprietorship – now all serve as excellent, local examples of the success to be seen in the co-operative business model.

Riverwest is a diverse community to be sure, but the residents share a few, basic priorities in common, including the value of being active participants in the community where they live. That emphasis on and appreciation for a sense of community easily carries over into the co-operative workplace.

Ciaccio offers the rental car example as a way to put it all in perspective.

“If you work for a business owner, that owner is, essentially, renting your labor,” Ciaccio says. Think about the difference between a rental car driver and a car owner in how they take care of the car. The car owner is far more likely than the renter to tend to the car’s every need, to treat it well, even with tender, loving care.

If you and your co-workers are not just workers, but also co-owners of your business, you’ll take care of yourself and each other – and the business – with the same TLC as the car owner does of his or her car, as compared to the renter, who has much less vested interest in the condition of the rental car.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, a president known to care about all Americans, who also developed some creative, successful solutions to economic hardships, talked about the essential difference between competition and cooperation.

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”

As we face continuing economic, equitable and sustainable challenges for our future, the advantages of co-operation are more important than ever before. Make sure and put Co-Op Fest on your calendar for October 12.

In addition to Kenney and Ciaccio, Ellie Johnson, Peter Murphy, Katie Jesse, Kelly Todd, Seth Schuster, Rebecca Nole and Gibson Caldwell have worked diligently to make this first Co-Op Fest a success. As the Fest’s website proclaims: “Together we can share the load!