Organizing: When No One Shows Up...

Throughout the visioning and planning of the Youth Traveling Cooperative Institute, it has been stated time and time again by almost every person involved that the “organizing” or “getting people to know about the trainings and then show up” is the hardest part. As the planning progressed and I got deeper and deeper into finalizing training rooms, making dozens of cold calls to organizations throughout the region, sending literally hundreds of emails to potential stakeholders, and distributing press releases and radio PSAs, how hard it is to organize people you don't know around an issue they may not know about got harder and harder to remember. A few days before leaving in July to start the trainings in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, it occurred to me (again) – people just might not show up. This renewed realization came to me about three days before I left, and I kept it largely to myself until the day before when I and my partner attended the wedding of another cooperative organizer. He asked me how the preparations were going for the program, and I divulged that I was starting to feel a little bit anxious about people “not showing up.” He laughed and said, “Well, that's organizing, isn't it?”

His response was a bit comforting, to be sure, and I vowed to remember it as I went out on the road to keep my spirits up and the work in perspective. No one showed up to the first training. And, because no one showed up to the training that I could ask about a place to stay, I ended up getting and paying for a hotel room. This was a pretty big hit to my confidence, as I had vowed only to stay in hotel rooms in the most dire of situations, and had structured a lot of my budget around being hosted by folks I knew or met in the communities. It felt really bad to drive hours to show up to a town, not give a training, and charge a hotel room to the budget – for many reasons, one being that I structured the program in an entrepreneurial fashion, i.e. if no one shows up to a training, I don't get paid.


Since that first training, many people have shown up. Not at every training, to be sure, as there have since been two other trainings at which no one showed up (of 12 total to date) – including tonight in Fargo, North Dakota. This location was tricky, to begin with, as it was my first go at trying to organize a training on a college campus – I largely deferred to a graduate student contact I have on campus for the outreach, after getting a room secured through a faculty member. While that didn't really work out, what did work out is that I discovered a seven year old worker-cooperative cafe in Fargo called Red Raven Espresso Parlor. I was impressed to find a worker cooperative in the region that I didn't know about – and, when I looked at their Facebook Page, I found that none of my friends on Facebook had “liked” them – it's like discovering cooperative treasure! The cafe has a meeting room in the back that is frequently used by community groups for gatherings and trainings, as well as a message and community board that seems to be well used by folks in the area. In general, upon walking into the space and seeing the shelves of books for reading, a free box, well maintained stock of board games, comfy indoor and outdoor seating, art show, performance stage, and clientele of young folks – it felt like I had found a hub of community that was already engaged in and likely ripe for more cooperative organizing work.

 

The front door of the Red Raven Espresso Parlor (a worker cooperative cafe) in Fargo, North Dakota.

The front door of the Red Raven Espresso Parlor (a worker cooperative cafe) in Fargo, North Dakota.

I talked awhile with the worker on shift, Sam, and he told me about their history, some of the challenges they face, and he said the Youth TCI sounded like a perfect thing for the back room. From what Sam told me, it seems most of the workers are in their 20s, are from the area, are out of or chose not to go to university, and work pretty full-time at the place. I asked Sam if he intended to stay for the next ten years – he said he probably would. Our conversation also revealed that they were not fully aware of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and what they could offer, nor did they talk to their fellow worker cooperative cafes in the Twin Cities much – I will be following up with an informational email and an introduction to the USFWC Membership Coordinator.

While the training was kind of a “bust,” my stop in Fargo is a perfect illustration of the value of the Youth TCI even when “no one shows up.” As a result of my day spent in town, I found a community of young people interested in the cooperative conversation, an ideal future training spot, a cooperative that could be better connected with the national movement, and a touchstone for the work I am doing in the region. The lattermost point is quite important – having someplace nearby that you can point someone to so they can visit and really experience firsthand what it can be like to be a young person owning your own business is really important. It can be hard to imagine having self-determination in your workplace, especially after years of not having anything close to that. This kind of community discovery and network building is an increasingly important part of the Youth TCI. And, even though no one showed up to tonight's training, it provides further insight into which organizing tactics work for getting people to show up in the long run. Check out some more of my reflections on organizing tactics in a future blog post.