REFLECTIONS ON A COOPERATIVE JOURNEY WITHIN NASCO, AND WHAT IT HAS TAUGHT ME
By Steven Kelly, NASCO Director of Education & Training
Cultivating a new cooperative interest as an undergraduate, I pursued research into co-ops while living in the Brazilian Amazon. There I studied cooperative movements as a grassroots means to resist transnational development policies that tended to displace local people and undermine their livelihoods. My studies incorporated some of the work of Chico Mendez and the forestry cooperatives (like the rubber tappers), as well as taxi co-ops found throughout Latin America, and women’s health care collectives. Most striking was my stay with an MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) encampment, where an entire community of squatters formed a make-shift village of co-ops on top of co-ops – from cooperative food production (which is sold in cities under the twin pines label), to co-op schooling, childcare, and a completely participatory process for decision-making in the community. Their grassroots collective organizing has inspired poor people all over the world, and it remains the largest agrarian reform movement in the world with over 1.3 million members.
Perhaps I got bitten by the ‘co-op bug’ a bit harder than most, but I credit NASCO with initially awakening a passion for learning about cooperative organizing. I think there certainly is interest within the NASCO membership to learn more about other forms of cooperation. The NASCO Institute that I first attended in 2000 was themed "the many faces of cooperation", and showcased various co-ops, including credit unions and the intentional communities movement. More recently, the NASCO Institute has included workshops on "Palestinian Cooperatives: Co-ops Under Occupation", "Car co-ops", and even a course on "the Free Skool", a cooperative model of democratic community education. For the past few years NASCO has also hosted a Worker Co-op Forum, a time for members of worker co-ops to network and exchange ideas, as well as a session to learn more about the worker co-op movement.
It is my hope that members of student businesses, and leadership within the North American worker co-op movement, can increasingly collaborate with NASCO to create more opportunities for education about the wider co-op movement. Many student co-opers graduate and feel they have no place to take their interest in and experience with co-ops. One good opportunity is through the NASCO Cooperative Internship Network, though fewer and fewer employers have signed up to take in summer interns in recent years. Why not internships in worker-run businesses or democratic ESOPs? Another place where co-op education can be expanded is through the annual NASCO Institute itself: its Worker Co-op Forum could be facilitated by NASCO business members along with folks from the wider worker co-op movement.
The most direct and popular opportunity for member education remains the NASCO tradition of visiting members in their own co-ops. NASCO has had a policy of visiting up to 80% of its active member co-ops each year, making sure to do a workshop for all members at least every two years. This month there is a proposal before the NASCO board to create a joint membership category between NASCO and other worker co-op associations, including student-run businesses. (See below.) This would entail collaborative efforts toward educating student members about the broader co-op movement and history; it could also involve internships within non-campus worker co-ops and even support organizations. Should the proposal pass, it will be up to student business members and organizations like GEO, the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation, and the US Worker Cooperative Federation to fill the gap of cooperative education, and begin the integration of North American youth into a broader movement.
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