For many, cooperatives represent the past, not the future. But young people around the globe are challenging that notion. At the International Cooperative Alliance Conference, held in November in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, members of the Youth Network, a multilingual, diverse, global initiative to connect and empower youth to join and create cooperatives around the world, spoke passionately about why it is imperative to invest in a youth-driven cooperative future. The role of young people is crucial to the future of cooperatives, which are being increasingly seen as critical to not only addressing income inequality, but meeting sustainable development goals. Campaigns like #Coops4Dev are pushing cooperatives around the world to participate to help attain the United Nations Sustainable Development goals.
We spoke to three members of the Alliance's Youth Cooperative Network, the youth wing of the Belgium-based International Cooperative Alliance: Sebastien Chaillou, a leader in the French student co-op movement; Ieva Padagaite with the Blake House Filmmakers co-op in the United Kingdom; and Ali Ashan Takur from the Pakistan based Karachi Cooperative Housing Societies Union, about how young people can play a role in bringing about a more cooperative, democratic global economy.
Nithin Coca, Shareable: Can you tell me how you got involved with the cooperative movement?
Sebastien Chaillou: I was a student unionist, who fought for years for equality and social justice in French universities. I saw in cooperatives a way to empower the students to face the challenge of public-services withdrawal. It was an outcome of my previous commitments. We started in 2012 the first "student life cooperative" to provide services on campus.
Ieva Padagaite: After graduating as a filmmaker from university, I wasn't very lucky with the bosses that I got. I couldn't handle toxic hierarchical cultures and the mad pressure to make enough money each month in an industry that offers no security. Most importantly, I couldn't find meaning in my work and became disillusioned and isolated. Simply put, I felt like a proper failure. My fellow filmmaker Simon and I reinvented the workers cooperative model as a way to topple hierarchies and the exploitation of workers in the film industry — only to find that this way of working already exists and there’s the whole worldwide movement sharing our values and vision of a more equal society. We started attending events all over the U.K. that made us feel like we’re not alone and quite frankly, changed our lives.
Why is it important that more youth get involved with the co-op movement?
Ali Ashan Takur: Like any other institute, the weight of the cooperative will depend on the youth. The co-op youth movement can give the youth the chance to rise up from slumber and create their own way in terms of business.
Ieva Padagaite: Our generation actually cares about what we do and what impact our work has on others but we get stuck in jobs that drain our passion, tell us to suck it up and leave us disillusioned, isolated, and depressed. We are told that this is how the world works, this is what success looks like and that we have to race or we will be left behind. The co-op movement is an inspiration, a proof, a springboard, a safety net — we don't have to play by the rules that make us miserable, we can evolve the game, we can find others that are more fun to play with. Young people are thrown out in a world that they have no ownership over, no say over the things that matter to them. Cooperatives turn that upside down.
Sebastien Chaillou: The cooperative way of doing is a present solution for many challenges the world youth faces. Unemployment, climate change, precarious work, all those issues can be solving by cooperation and cooperatives. In addition, it's also an answer to the global feeling that youth have. We feel powerless on politics because profits run the world. Through co-ops, we can bring our citizens into the economy that's truly gets youth empowered.
Can you give me some examples of youth-led co-op initiatives that are especially unique or inspiring?
Ali Ashan Takur: The Financial Literacy Program, conducted by Indira Panta, is a youth-led program and is flourishing successfully in the regions of Nepal. The model is so simple that can be replicated by anyone to form a business and help develop their community into a socially responsible one.
Sebastien Chaillou: During the conference and meeting, I met many astonishing and innovative youth-led projects … somes examples, in Kenya some students started a bank to access cheap loan and pay their studies. In France, young people from a disadvantaged neighborhood started a co-op to sell their skills to people and companies to a better price.
Ieva Padagaite: Another great example is young people joining into peer support networks all over the world to share their journey and resources as well as push the boundaries of the cooperative movement. See the Young European Cooperators Network and national networks or inspiring campaigns like Cultural Cooperatives, AltGen Co-op, or We own it.
That is inspiring and hopeful. But I also imagine it’s not easy to start a youth-led co-op. What are some challenges for youth in the co-op movement? Are there enough opportunities, or resources, given to youth cooperators?
Ieva Padagaite: It's not easy — there aren't adequate funding opportunities and economic support for young people to start enterprises without giving up ownership. The cooperative movement itself is aging and institutionalized. It speaks a strange, technical language that isn’t very engaging or easily digestible.
I am part of this movement, and I'm very grateful for all the support and opportunities it has given me, but we need to be on our toes and make sure we speak the language of today and give co-ops the representation they deserve. Cooperatives are liberating. They are the foundational bricks for a more equal society, yet many talk about them like they would talk about a very boring administrative activity. Why?
Ali Ashan Takur: The word youth itself is a challenge. It's a phase in life where we youth needs to address and discover our skills or get left behind. It's a phase where we know everything and yet nothing is clear. We are given resources but we are not sure how to utilize them on a major or minor scales. We are present but our lack of knowledge to utilize opportunities is limited. We need to hold hands and work to overcome our weakness by working together the cooperative way.
Sebastien Chaillou: Clearly it depends on the country and the movement. I think [the International Cooperative Alliance] is globally ready to give more space to youth but we need to get over some resistance and get some resources. Our challenges are to connect each other and learn from one co-op to another. Have meetings, build regional and national youth co-op movement, create tools and trainings, to succeed we will need a strong support including financials resources. We also need a true recognition; it means we need to have a youth representative, elected by youth, in all regional, national, and sectoral boards.
So lastly, how can our readers, and in particular our young readers, get involved?
Sebastien Chaillou: We are close to starting a big project, a large mapping of youth involvement and initiative in co-op, and all the young cooperators should participate. We need to know about each other to be able learn and exchange. They can also help the movement by gather together in local youth networks and joining the ICA youth network.
Ieva Padagaite: For those who maybe know less about co-ops, if you too are not happy how the world is shaping up, feel like you're tired of this rat race and struggle to find meaning in your work — read about co-ops online, find other co-ops around you, reimagine your work, your housing, your education, invent your own type of co-op. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s certainly one way to start a revolution from your standing point.
Ali Ashan Takur: Simply, find a co-op, join in, learn, and prosper. Just give it a try and you will see that, at least it will give you a direction to move ahead.
Header image courtesy of the International Cooperative Alliance