Lawrentians attend an enlightening co-op conference in Ann Arbor

Julia Callander

Six Lawrence students attended the North American Students of Cooperation Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich. from Nov. 3-5. The annual conference attracts people interested in learning about different kinds of cooperative living and working.
This year, 420 people from the U.S. and Canada attended the conference. Many of the participants belong to student housing and dining cooperatives similar to the McCarthy Co-op House at Lawrence.
Members of co-op businesses, in which workers own and control a financial enterprise, also attended. Although college students made up the majority of the institute’s participants, many members of community co-ops also attended.
Examples from NASCO’s website include “food co-ops, housing co-ops, arts and crafts co-ops, book co-ops, bakery co-ops, bike co-ops, farm marketing and supply co-ops, rural electric co-ops, financial co-ops (credit unions) and insurance co-ops.”
Joe Pfender of the McCarthy Co-op attended the conference and appreciated this co-op diversity.
“The inspirational presence of all different kinds of participants – grad students, nonstudents living with other students, straight up community co-opers – brought to the forefront of my mind many perspectives that in my usual undergrad-only environment would never have occurred to me,” he said.
The typical student housing and dining co-op is an organization where members pay dues instead of rent to live and eat in a building. These dues are pooled to pay rent for the building, utilities and food.
Because it is cheaper to prepare food in one kitchen for 24 people instead of in 12 kitchens for two people each, members save money or are able to purchase better ingredients. In many co-ops, members also donate work hours, like cooking or cleaning, thereby saving more money by not needing to hire cooks or custodians.
Lawrence’s McCarthy Co-op House operates in the same spirit but with less autonomy as it is an on-campus formal group house. Members pay normal on-campus room fees and purchase a FGH board plan that gives them the minimum number of Downer meals with another sum of money going into the house’s budget.
The Co-op House then has a budget to plan and cook seven meals a week in their house. Each member cooks in one meal a week, and the money saved on labor enables the house to purchase more local and organic foods.
At the NASCO institute last weekend, the Lawrence delegation consisted of six people, including current McCarthy Co-op members as well as members of Greenfire who are strongly interested in starting a second co-op on campus. The bulk of the conference activity consisted of workshops and classes.
Amongst themselves, the group of Lawrence students attended almost 30 workshops in a wide range of subjects including “Small Cooperative Group Finance,” “Basics of Cooperative Decision Making,” “Open Source Software for Co-ops,” “Community Responses to Sexual Assault,” “Co-op Architecture,” “Revolutionary Politics in Non-Revolutionary Times,” “Meal Planning and Nutrition,” “Environmental Justice,” “Collective Politics,” “Sustainable Kitchens,” “Biodiesel,” “Ecovillages” and “Urban Gardening.”
Bethany Kondiles of Greenfire especially liked the workshops on ecovillages and green architecture for co-ops.
“Both were topics I was interested in, but more than just a lecture, they were opportunities to ask questions directed towards our own goals at Lawrence”, she said.
“I feel like I took the most away from these two [workshops], and I can’t wait to see what I can do with these ideas on our campus.”
Jess Vogt, another Greenfire member, also liked the ecovillages workshop, saying, “There is so much being done and in such leaps and bounds – if only the entire world could embrace such eco-friendly concepts instead of just little pockets of activity here and there.”
The keynote speaker at the conference was Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American and longtime Detroit resident who at the age of 92 is still active in social justice work in her community.
In the ’60s, she and her husband were at the center of the Black Power movement in Detroit, and in the past two decades she has founded and been active in Detroit Summer, an intergenerational youth program.
The institute also functioned as a congress for co-ops that are dues-paying members of NASCO. These members caucused and elected representatives for the year to the board of the organization, which works to provide contacts, help co-ops with funding and start new co-ops in the United States and Canada.
The institute was a great opportunity to meet and be inspired by other “co-opers”, learn about their experiences, trade ideas, and gain a better idea of how cooperation at Lawrence fits into the larger world of co-ops.
Although people at the conference were drastically varied in terms of ages and geographical, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds, there was a strong sense of unity and friendship between these hundreds of people. Each person’s experience had shown that through pooling resources, ideas and energies, everyone achieves more.
“Everybody there was so dedicated and confident, but at the same time so relaxed and chill,” Vogt commented. “It’s so comforting to see so many like-minded and inspiring people all in the same place. It gives me hope that we can fix this messed-up world.