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Q&A: ‘Cooperatives Aren’t Charity’

Kanya D’Almeida interviews BRIAN VAN SLYKE, founder of a worker-owned cooperative

WASHINGTON, Aug 25 2011 (IPS) - As industrial production penetrates all corners of the planet and transnational capital gains have unfettered access to virtually every country and community, the United Nations has declared 2012 to be the ‘International Year of Cooperatives (IYC)’.

Brian Van Slyke, founder of the Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA). Credit: Courtesy of TESA

Brian Van Slyke, founder of the Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA). Credit: Courtesy of TESA

Slated to be launched on Oct. 31 at U.N. headquarters in New York, the IYC should be a “reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

While the high-level meeting will no doubt generate enormous awareness on the necessity of sustainable and alternative economies like cooperatives, many individuals and organisations have been working quietly for years to bring worker-owned enterprises to fruition.

IPS Washington correspondent Kanya D’Almeida spoke with Brian Van Slyke, founder of the Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), a worker-owned cooperative created to democratise education and the economy, while furthering the cooperative movement.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: What was the philosophy and vision behind TESA? A: TESA was created to strengthen two intertwined movements: the efforts to democratise education for social change and the struggles to democratise our economy. I believe the connection between these two movements is crucial because the ways in which we learn and teach directly influence the ways that we work and interact with each other.

TESA’s mission is to create democratic educational resources that cultivate people’s abilities to make social and economic changes in their communities. We build and distribute our own materials as well as work with other organisations to develop educational resources for their needs. TESA is a worker-owned operation, which strives to be involved with the cooperative movement.

Q: What is TESA doing to further the cooperative movement? A: One of our most interesting initiatives is Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives, an exciting game about the growing cooperative movement.

This is a game of solidarity, where everyone wins – or everybody loses. By playing Co-opoly, people discover the unique benefits, challenges, and workings of the cooperative world. The game cultivates an understanding of how the co-op model can strengthen communities and organisations, and allows players to practice the skills needed to participate in a co-op.

TESA also runs Cultivate.Coop, a free online hub for sharing knowledge on cooperatives and cooperation, as well as a space to collaboratively build educational tools for the co-op community.

In addition, we are collaborating with the Green Worker Cooperatives (GWC), who incubate environmental- friendly worker-owned co-ops in the South Bronx – one of the most impoverished parts of New York City. GWC and TESA are creating a democratic-education curriculum for GWC’s “Cooperative Academy”.

Q: Can coops thrive in small, disparate pockets? Or do they need to go global? A: Co-ops are surviving in independent pockets in many places, but have also succeeded in creating regional and even national cooperative networks.

In the Basque region of Spain, the Mondragón cooperative system is a federation of over 200 successful worker cooperatives. Other countries, such as Italy, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan, also have thriving cooperative networks.

In the U.S., unfortunately, cooperatives have tended to have little connection with other co-ops. Thankfully, this trend is shifting and co-ops are beginning to collaborate on a wider scale, with growing organisations such as the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives as well as the recently launched Principle 6: Cooperative Trade Movement initiative.

Q: The United Nations has declared 2012 to be the International Year of Cooperatives – what could this theme hope to achieve? A: In this age of austerity, in which basic social services are stripped away while mega corporations continue to reap extraordinary profits, people are really starting to embrace alternative models.

The slogan of the International Year of the Cooperative is “cooperative enterprises build a better world”, and co-ops all across the globe are gearing up to utilise this unprecedented endorsement to get out the word about their mission and to invigorate the cooperative movement.

What’s important to know about cooperatives is that they aren’t charity – co-ops are solidarity-based and self-help efforts. They’re organisations in which the members equally own one share, equally make decisions with one vote per member, and receive an equitable benefit from their participation in the co- op. Just as importantly, they are a solution that can be implemented to improve people’s lives right now.

The International Year of Cooperatives will provide all co-ops a major platform on both the world stage and at the local levels to strengthen their connections with their communities as well as to help with the creation of more cooperatives.

Q: Where does your work fit in with the Year of Cooperatives? A: TESA is leading a national campus cooperative “teach-in” programme, which will coordinate with campuses, cooperatives, and social/economic justice organisations to facilitate educational events about co-ops at schools. The goal is to cultivate a new generation of cooperative movement leaders through engaging educational opportunities that speak directly to the needs and interests of campus communities.

We’ve also reached out to the cooperative community in order to raise awareness about Co-opoly. This includes an event at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City on cooperatives and urban renewal.

Q: Do you think that youth have a particular role to play in the formation and development of cooperatives? Why? A: Several years ago, I ran a class for mostly disaffected youth on how to start a cooperative music enterprise, and it was a smash hit. Through this, I learned that when you help youth realise they can achieve their dreams through collaboration, their creativity and determination are awe-inspiring.

What’s more, in order to really thrive, the cooperative movement is going to be dependent on youth; and today’s youth are the ones we are all going to depend on to build more just and equitable economies, communities, and societies. In fact, this is already being accomplished. For example, in Worcester – an impoverished city in the middle of Massachusetts – there is an inspiring youth-run cooperative called the Toxic Soil Busters who work to find and clean up lead-poisoned soil.

By getting youth involved with the movement through democratic education, they can work to build cooperatives that offer creative solutions for lasting social and economic change.

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