by Emily Lippold Cheney, TCI Program Director and author of Collecting Ourselves
In my over a decade of work in cooperative development, one of my biggest frustrations has been a lack of accessible resources for those interested in the work. My foray into the cooperative movement began as a student doing campaign-based activism at a state college in the Midwest. Our work focused on putting a stop to things like Coca-Cola exclusivity contracts, the buy-out of the university-owned bookstores on campus by Barnes and Noble, or the increasingly high costs of rental housing in the area. After learning about the cooperative model - in which the users of an organization’s products or services own and control the organization - the work shifted to focus on presenting cooperative solutions to these issues. These initial attempts failed at creating a cooperative, and, over time, the groups assembled around each issue unraveled and lost energy for the work. I attribute much of this to not having any formal guidance or support.
When efforts moved on to start a system of low-income housing cooperatives off-campus, lack of support continued to be an issue. I emailed a national organization dedicated to helping students start housing cooperatives and never even got a response. Almost two years of work went by on these cooperative projects with virtually no outside assistance, resources, or expertise. Despite the lack of support and formal expertise, we were ultimately successful in starting a system of housing cooperatives. The co-op now owns over a million dollars of property and provides affordable housing for over sixty students and non-students in the community. By working with these various groups, I learned by doing and failing, several times.
In subsequent years, I continued my cooperative work by helping others, particularly young people, start their own cooperatives. I still struggled to effectively empower and inform groups because the support I was able to give focused on sharing my expertise through long emails or lengthy phone conversations that left me, and the people I was supporting, feeling drained. Most existing written resources to which I had access were narrative “brain dumps” of information and were written in ways that were inaccessible to many of the people with which I was working.
As the years went by, I envisioned a resource that would be both accessible and practical for those interested in the cooperative model, a resource that would provide a holistic picture of entrepreneurship and insight into both the “hard” skills of starting cooperatives (e.g. how to make a budget) but also the more nuanced work of keeping a group together and functional during the ups and downs of starting an organization. And so, “Collecting Ourselves” was born.
A heartfelt thank you to all those who shared their excitement for the project and contributed their expertise to its many revisions and updates. While I may be listed as its author, this project was truly a cooperative endeavor supported by many members of my communities. In reflection of the resource’s cooperative nature, the curriculum is offered as free and open source through a Creative Commons license. It can be downloaded through the NCF Website or purchased at cost as a hard copy via the Toolbox for Education and Social Action’s online store.