Building Democratic Culture

"How will you headline your report? ‘Too Much Love in the Air’?” one manager asked me. This year’s gathering of food co-op leaders, besides having the largest attendance ever, had lots of positive feeling.

Over 500 cooperators met in downtown Minneapolis June 10–12 for the 48th annual CCMA (Consumer Cooperative Management Association) conference. More than 100 co-ops sent managers and directors to an intensive array of speakers and training sessions, local tours and networking opportunities, organizational meetings and caucusing, celebrations and fundraising. Workshops were well-attended, with seven different program tracks offering sessions on current co-op issues, management leadership and compensation, branding, basic and advanced board training, customer service, and small co-op challenges. The CCMA conference brings inspiration and value to veterans as well as to the many newcomers. Staff and directors from local co-ops encounter a national network of colleagues along with opportunities to review organizational strategies and further co-op program development.

Record attendance at the June conference and the launching of the restructured National Cooperative Grocers Association signified the new stage of development that has been reached by this generation of co-ops. CCMA has played an essential role in building the training and awareness, the vision and trust that it has taken to get this far. The spirit of the gathering was well captured by speakers, through presentation of achievement awards (see sidebar), and by on-site attendee contributions of up to $50,000 to assist other co-ops and cooperators.

CCMA is generously sponsored by the National Cooperative Business Association with additional support from some two dozen local and national cooperatives and allies. The program was again superbly planned by Ann Hoyt of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Urban Cooperative Initiative. Additional support was provided by Corinne Shindelar and members of the Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops.

Conference action

The opening evening saw brief annual meetings for leading sector organizations CGIN (Cooperative Grocers’ Information Network) and NCGA (National Cooperative Grocers Association). CGIN marked its eighth year of expanding web-based services, now serving 124 retail co-op members and providing hundreds of online resource items for shared use. At www.cgin.coop, password-protected operating and governance documents are supplemented by a public listserve on co-op issues, one for membership and marketing staff, plus a newly created section for co-op board members. Joining the CGIN board of directors after being elected at the June meeting were Doug Walter (Davis Food Co-op), Steve Cooke (Sevananda), and Gail Graham (Mississippi Market).

NCGA sessions followed this spring’s nearly unanimous favorable vote to reorganize into a unified national body with direct membership by retail co-ops. (For background, see “Local Co-ops Build National Presence,” in the previous edition of CG.) The earlier member vote of strong support was reinforced by the annual meeting announcement that 100 percent of the co-ops participating in the regionally based system had committed to joining the new NCGA, to be formally launched July 1. NCGA staff are intensely busy redefining programs and positions for purchasing, promotions, and more (see story, p. 16); a new executive director is to be hired soon. The conference marked the transition to staff and programs in a unified national organization. Past months and years laid the foundation for realizing its mission: “NCGA will provide the vision, leadership, and systems to catapult a virtual chain of food co-ops to a position of prominence in the natural food industry.”

Keynote speakers

Keynote speakers expanded on the cooperative spirit, both its business potential and its broader political and cultural import. A model of successful national unity and “the people have the power” branding was highlighted by Jim Bausell, COO of Touchstone Energy. Touchstone, the nation’s largest utility network, has a membership of more than 550 energy cooperatives in 39 states.

“A democratic culture forms cooperatives in order to defend the culture.” The present culture offers celebrities rather than heroic paths for the young. Cooperatives need to know “what culture we are defending.” These deeper themes were explored by Michael Hartoonian, a recently retired professor of education at the University of Minnesota. Hartoonian portrayed democracy as an “argument” or tension between several basic polarities:

• Law vs. ethics
• Diversity vs. unity
• Freedom vs. equality
• Private wealth vs. common wealth

He also related a fine historical vignette of Jefferson’s phrasing of purpose—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of public happiness”—being corrected by Franklin to omit the redundant “public,” since that is what happiness is or entails. With precision and passion, Hartoonian described components of democratic capitalism: leadership, building human capacity, ownership, democratic practices, and sustainability.

As for the question of what culture are we defending, he told the assembled group that “the minds in this room are more capable of answering that than any other group in the country.” And finally, that we should ask ourselves the classic questions signaled from passing ships:

• Who are you?
• What is your destination?
• Who is your captain?

CCMA will be held again June 9–11, 2005, in the western corridor of the United States.

See other articles from this issue: #113 July - August - 2004