Democratic Power and My First Suit

Power is such an interesting concept to ponder. I am going to start with thinking of the spaces that I feel most powerful. I feel power at work when I have made a change or impact or have connected partners that will do good work together. I feel power in my family life as a matriarch-in-training. I feel power in my gender when I am connecting with my sisters and female friends and there is a certain energy in the room. I was surprised to feel power when I bought my first suit at age 35 when I started at Capital Impact- maybe I am internalizing the patriarchy but I felt like a badass.

I think many people in America associate power with corruption and greed. When I tell people I was raised in a Union family, I get a lot of comments about the downfall of labor, the union bosses got too powerful, too greedy, the mafia controlled labor, etc.  This narrative seems to have replaced the power of the workers to change the entire landscape of employment in the United States. Even though not every business had a union contract, workers learned to expect and demand more from their employers (like the weekend).  There is a perception that power is bad- in fact I have read comments in the media about the power and influence of Black Lives Matters to shape the coming election, what if they want to support a third party and Trump gets reelected? People are fearful of power. So we need to reshape this narrative and speak about positive power, democratic power that is not dominated by one person, this is where share ownership comes in.

Shared ownership has a huge potential to shift the power dynamics in this country. I feel resistance to ideas from so many partners who are nominally familiar with the co-op model: it is too niche, not a real business, would never work in an individualistic country like America, could never compete in an open market. There is resistance from many lenders and financial institutions to embrace the co-op model, one of the most notable examples is the SBA’s loan requirement of a personal guarantee which is contradictory to the co-op model. There is resistance from communities of color that feel that the co-op model is not for them, much of this is due to the fact that they have been excluded from revisionist white co-op history (thank you Jessica Gordan Nembhard for Collective Courage).  I also want to note that there many people within the co-op world that are content with their sector or geography and are not looking for new partners or ideas. So how do we combat all these forms of resistance?

I think we need to reshape the goals of the cooperative movement and create a collective narrative around social change and racial justice. I know this has already happened in the worker co-op sector and parts of the food co-op sector (and probably more that I don’t know about) but it needs to be more widespread and concise. We need more partners and allies to grow the tent but also support  from the more established co-op sectors like rural electric and agricultural. Is it too ambitious to try to reach across the urban/ rural divide which means sometimes reaching across party lines? Should we just focus on progressive partners who could amplify the message? Maybe I will bring this up in the small group discussion tomorrow.  I am hopeful that the conditions are ripe for structural change in this strack covid reality where we are seeing the drastic loss of small businesses, racial inequities, failure of health care, etc.  I think structural change would come in the form of policy implementation that would encourage the growth and support of co-ops nationwide, with a focus on historically marginalized communities, and include funding for culturally competent technical assistance, catalytic grants, patient capital from non-extractive lenders, tax incentives (there are already some great drafts in some sectors) . Then there would be a cultural campaign to educate folks on the role of co-ops as a model for social change, asset building, racial justice (already so many good examples). I would love to discuss more with the peers in this group and get into more details,  looking forward to your comments.

One thought on “Democratic Power and My First Suit

  1. Great post! I received my undergraduate degree because of union negotiated education benefits. Incredible. My org is a beta stage multi-stakeholder tech coop. I’m encouraged by the young people who have really embraced our mission and want to join my team as leaders. Our collective future is bright despite perception barriers. Again, thank you for sharing!

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