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Building Toward 2012: International Year of Co-ops

2012 National Year of the CoopIn the wake of a global recession that has devastated communities and livelihoods, people are hungry for alternatives to corporate greed and stock market speculation.  As we look at challenges such as climate change, unemployment and growing disparities of wealth and ownership, people are looking for opportunities to grow sustainable, resilient regional economies.  In this context, co-operatives are both a viable model of enterprise as well as tangible expressions of economic democracy, self-help, and community enterprise – a way of doing business that puts people and community before profit.

Co-ops are also more common than one might think.  The International Co-operative Alliance estimates that a billion people worldwide are members of co-ops.  Still, despite the fact that an estimated 1 in 4 Americans are members of about 29,000 co-ops in the U.S., it can be a challenge to communicate the impact and potential of the co-operative movement.  How can we share the stories of countless people across the globe who, faced with needs or opportunities in their communities, have taken matters into their own hands?  How can we talk about people from all walks of life who have become “co-opreneurs” – innovators, activists and businesspeople engaged in the development of enterprises dedicated to meeting member needs and goals, and the advancement of their communities?  How can we remind people, in this difficult economy and with so many challenges on the horizon, of what it is possible to do together?

The fact that the United Nations (UN) has declared 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives is an unprecedented opportunity to share our message.  In establishing the Year, the UN recognized that co-operative enterprises “in their various forms, promote the fullest possible participation in the economic and social development of all people, including women, youth, older persons, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples, are becoming a major factor of economic and social development and contribute to the eradication of poverty”.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon puts it more simply: “Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”

In our own region, co-ops have been leaders in spreading the word about the Year of Co-ops.  In May, 2011, the Board of Directors of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) approved a resolution recognizing the Year, dedicating itself to “efforts to raise the profile of co-operative enterprise, to demonstrate the benefits of co-ops in building local ownership and wealth, and to apply the co-operative model to new challenges and opportunities in our communities” (To download a copy of this resolution, click here.).  Building on an initiative of the National Cooperative Business Association, we then approached our member food co-ops and other organizations in the region to consider similar resolutions.  Partners such as the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops and the Cooperative Fund of New England quickly joined in as did the New England Farmers Union, which noted “a majority of our country’s 2 million farmers are members of about 3,000 agricultural co-ops, helping them to sustain their farms, livelihoods and communities.”

Our region is home to a vibrant co-operative community including producer co-ops and food co-ops, credit unions and worker co-ops, energy co-ops and artisan co-ops.  On the eve of 2012, discussions have begun on how we might use the opportunity presented by the UN International Year of Co-ops to make our co-ops known, to advance the co-operative economy in our region and to make the benefits of co-operation available to more people.

Erbin Crowell is Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, a network of over 20 food co-ops in our region, locally owned by our more than 90,000 member-owners who care about food, farming and the future.  He serves on the board of the National Cooperative Business Association and may be contacted at erbin@nfca.coop.

This article was re-posted with permission and appeared originally on the Neighboring Food Co-op Association website.

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