I am stinking rich. I have inherited my pale skin color, which is an asset that yields financial and network advantage. My male gender adds 30 or 40 percent to my income. While I did not grow up in a particularly financially secure family, just about every other facet of my life set me in a direction so that all one needed to do was to wind me up and start me marching down a path. The schools were good. My family was functional and loving. The social capital was abundant around the religious and civic communities in rural Iowa. I never feared for my physical safety (except when I sought thrills on my own). My health is sound. With the exception of a few lean grad-school years, I never worried about health insurance or how I would resource my needs for many months into the future. And now I have a wonderful spouse and kids.
My mother, a mostly Franciscan-hearted saint of a woman, wanted people to find joy. She wanted people to embrace this world, to be generous, and to have fun. When a good thing happened to me – a new job, a degree, an award – she would always say, “You deserve it.”
I sometimes believed that, but many times I thought I was just lucky. More and more, I realize that the luck wasn’t random. The luck had to do with the happenstance of where I was born, my gender, race, and – mostly – the fact that the systems that tied all of that together were designed for me to succeed in the conventional metrics of wealth and status. That’s not to say I didn’t work hard; it’s just that the hard work came with a relative guarantee of success.
That privileged position then opens doors to new assets: The natural environment I spend time in features lots of rules that keep it healthy and beautiful. I can spend time in and experience the most beautiful places – both near and far. That same time and money, along with network of well-positioned people, allow me to cultivate intellectual assets that are robust, if not necessarily diverse.
So, as I said, it seems I am stinking rich. And that’s true if those conventional metrics were the end all. But in more fundamental ways I know that I am poor. My economy is not good at solidarity, resilience, or sustainable systems. It has failed to help me more deeply understand – to truly internalize – that I am part of the human family and the global natural ecosystem. My economy has narrowed my eyes to focus on specific outcomes.
At home, those outcomes have everything to do with the current and future well-being of my family. Period. My economy glorifies the “successful” family bread winner above all else. So just about whatever I am doing – toiling or clawing financial gain, prioritizing certain networks of people to the exclusion of others, or burning up natural resources – the cost is tempered if the benefit is for my family.
On the surface, I have spent most of my professional life pouring my time and talents into attempting to change small parts of the system to advantage the less powerful: working on behalf of small farmers, poor rural people, children in persistent poverty counties, or farmers who have been discriminated against by their federal government. This work has made me begin to recognize economy in a different light. And I’ve studied – or at least read – with admiration and inspiration Dr. King, St. Oscar Romero, Richard Rohr, and many others.
Yet I have been strategic at every turn to ensure that whatever I am doing, there is an exit strategy that will not risk the “well-being” of my family. I have been careful to merely step toward (but very rarely tip toe up) to the line that would alienate a key stakeholder who could foreclose that path.
I believe my economy has held me back from being more impactful. And I have held myself back.
I want to help build a truly inclusive economy, one that is more participatory, equitable, and sustainable. For this to occur, more people need to be included in the economy in meaningful ways. Part of how this happens is a change in the way businesses engage with stakeholders. Co-ops are part of the solution, but only part. I want to help the co-op community accelerate the change. In some cases, this might mean co-ops going to scale. In other cases, it will mean co-ops sharing their experience or ceding the ground to other entities in the shared economy ecosystem. In this dynamic time, I have so much to learn to and good work to do.
Smack in the Center
To be candid, I am not certain where I fit in the Ayni Social Movement Ecology. I am a leader with a group that does advocacy for co-ops. Which might put me at the center of the Ayni Social Movement Ecology: alternatives (co-ops), changing dominant institutions (advocacy), and personal change (leadership). Which feels about right. But not necessarily because of the Ayni description.
In my world, co-ops do not always feel like alternatives. People have used co-ops to go to scale in credit unions (100M people), rural electrics (50M people) and agriculture (a very significant percentage of our food is marketed or processed by farmer co-ops). They have been part of the U.S. economy for over 100 years. Yet they are an alternative to the dominant investor-centric model. Some sectors that are truly more transformational, such as worker co-ops and platform co-ops are smaller in scale but garner significant interest. In terms of advocacy, I certainly work in the traditional way of trying to persuade Congress to advance policy that advantages cooperatives. I also advocate within the established cooperative community for more actors to embrace the cooperative identity: the shared values and principles of the international cooperative movement.
While my place in the Social Movement Ecology may be at the center, my perspective is definitely in changing dominant institutions. As a fairly conventional actor in progressive politics and policymaking, and as a trained lawyer, I tend to think about how to work within the system toward change. While I may consider working toward significant changes, my ideas of the tools for that change to happen are bounded. Above all I want progress, and most times for me that means taking one step at a time using familiar tools. That approach is simply not sufficient today.
Molly, my 11yo daughter, just looked at this picture and christened it: Co-op Family Tree. There are many direct relatives, some third cousins, and a few folks that come to all of the holiday parties, but no one is quite sure if and how they are related.
Co-op Family Tree
With great appreciation for those who took the time to provide me comments and questions on the post, my reflections are in two areas: personal and organizational.
On the personal, I certainly sense that I need to be more courageous in moving to action. My mantra in life is for God to grant me the wisdom, courage, and strength to do God’s will. In other words, I want to know the thing to do, the will to do it, and the ability to get it done. I think I need to focus a bit more on the “the will to do it.” What holds me back? I think it is the desire to provide security for may family. As I reflected on the comments and reading some other posts, I also realize that my experience as a kid on a farm during the Farm Crisis also has a big role. When I was in Jr. High and High School, the economy feel out from under our community and many families lost their farm, life savings, and the social fabric of the community was laid bare with substance abuse (almost completely alcohol related) and not uncommon suicides. Our family did not bear the worst of this, but we did lose most of the equity built up over a generation in the farm and there were months or years where we thought we might lose the enterprise altogether. The financial stress did express itself as family stressors as well. That personal experience in formative years, along with the selfishness that is aggrandized in our society, (and mix in a tendency toward being a workaholic), and here I am. But here is not where I need to stay.
At the same time, I need to be more deliberate about where I learn “to know the right thing to do.” I need to listen more intently to those who have been marginalized or disenfranchised. While I have worked over time to have a significant “indirect” exposure to these communities with reading, studying, and occasional conversations, I do need to be more thoughtful how to place myself in a situation with more consistent learning.
Organizationally, I could write paragraphs about how the group with whom I work has moved toward leveraging the cooperative community toward building a more inclusive economy in the past few years and how I have played a significant role. Yet it is not enough, and especially given the plight in which we find ourselves today. The key is finding the work that is ours to do. The national apex association of the cooperative community includes established, at-scale co-ops as well as emerging, co-ops that seek to be more transformational. The key seems to be to finding alignment for the greatest impact with this broad, diverse community – and paving the way toward that impact. The trick is keeping everyone on the bus as we travel that path.