My foray into the cooperative movement began when I was a student at Indiana University doing campaign-based activism. Along with my fellow activists, I focused on putting a stop to things like the buy-out of the university-owned bookstores on campus by Barnes and Noble and the high costs of rental housing near our campus. After learning about the cooperative model — in which the users of an organization's products or services own and control the organization — our focus shifted to presenting cooperative solutions to these issues. However, our initial attempts at creating a cooperative failed, and we eventually lost energy for the work. I attribute much of this to not having sufficient outside guidance.
When we wanted to launch a network of low-income housing cooperatives off-campus, the lack of support continued to be an issue. I contacted a national organization dedicated to helping students start housing cooperatives and never 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 our initiative. The cooperative, Bloomington Cooperative Living, now owns over a million dollars worth of property and provides affordable housing to more sixty students and non-students in the community. By working with these various groups, I learned by doing and failing, several times. In my over a decade of work in cooperative development, one of my biggest frustrations has continually been a lack of economically and culturally accessible resources for many of those interested in starting cooperatives.
In response, I envisioned a resource that would be both accessible and practical for people of all identities and backgrounds interested in the cooperative model, provide a holistic picture of entrepreneurship, share basic insight into the "hard" skills of starting cooperatives like financial planning, and focus most the more nuanced work of keeping a group together through the ups and downs of starting an organization.
This week, we at the Traveling Cooperative Institute, a peer-to-peer cooperative business development program of the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, launched "Collecting Ourselves," a comprehensive cooperative entrepreneurship curriculum.
The curriculum walks participants through an examination of the philosophy and practice of cooperation, the meaning of "development" and "entrepreneurship" in their lives, the steps taken to develop a cooperative business, and an exploration of two of the most important steps of collective entrepreneurship: organizing people into a steering committee and creating a business plan.
Popular Education methods are used throughout the curriculum, drawing directly on the expertise and insight of participants to guide the learning process, endeavoring to make the content relevant to a wide audience by "meeting people where they're at." The total curriculum is comprised of nine workshops, encompassing up to 16 hours of training. The curriculum can serve as content for a semester class in university, be used in regular community study groups, or for a retreat-style academy. It was developed for young people in their teens to thirties, but is modular and adaptable for most ages, identities, and experiences.
My sincere hope for this resource is that it can serve as a tool to support all people in their efforts to pursue cooperative entrepreneurship. Further, that these pursuits don't just create cooperatives, but also contribute to halting patterns of harm in communities. We are not just creating things with our friends — we are responding to and resisting systems that perpetuate injustice and hurt. Building cooperative businesses, if done with this both grand and fundamental intention, can be a way to contribute to necessary healing and the building of a better world. I hope this resource can help make building a better world a little easier for more people.