Lessons from 10 Years of Building the Cooperative Movement

When TESA first launched roughly ten years ago, it was hard to see a week into the future, let alone a decade. It’s incredible to reflect on so many years spent working with so many people on cultivating the cooperative movement. In this time, we have been committed to building a more just and democratic economy, on both the local and national levels, with a powerful collection of partners.

We take significant pride in the programs, tools, and games we have developed for the co-op movement, as well as the fact that we have been involved in dozens of programs and projects across the US to support worker-ownership and the creation of a new economy. We have learned so much over this period of time, from so many people, and we wanted to share with you some of the big takeaways and observations we have compiled over the past ten years of building cooperative power.

We Need to Develop Trust – But Trust within Context

Building trust, while understanding the context of the people you are working with, is the most important part of developing a successful educational program, let alone a co-op program. An essential part of TESA’s pedagogical model is built around the idea that we work with our partners to develop tools for them, and we never assume we know the best path, or what makes the most sense for their members and participants.

Instead, we want to support those who are geographically and culturally centered with the learners, and use our pedagogical knowledge and expertise to help people meet their goals and objectives.

Finally, looking at this from the angle of curriculum design for cooperative programs, more time needs to be spent getting to know each other, creating a collective identity, and building trust between all parties.

Building the cooperative movement on both the small scale and the large scale is a process, not an event, and building trust should be a priority across the board.

Cooperative Programs Need to be Centered on the Participants

We can’t say this enough: break away from the powerpoint.

Powerpoint (or Google Slides and other similar programs) remains one of the most overused tools in all fields of education. It is our belief, and our experience (oh, and the science is in on this, too!), that projects and programs that center the content and outcomes on the needs and interests of the participants are by far the most effective.

If you want people to develop co-ops, don’t spend 10-months ticking the boxes on the “necessary” content like co-op law, the seven principles, and the history of co-ops, just to move through them like a checklist. Instead, develop a 10-month project with the participants that allows them to explore those topics through their own project-based learning. Create milestones, practice interpersonal skills, have meetings with funders and lawyers, and have it all fit into a larger programmatic arc that will leave participants with experiences they can learn from and build upon.

We Need Patience, and We Must Provide Ongoing Support

We take on a huge responsibility when we support people in starting a business, especially a democratic one like a cooperative, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. If we want to build a new economy that breaks out of the old frameworks, we have to be patient, and we have to create networks and layers of support. This takes years, not months.

Co-ops and programs that take this long view are creating more than individual co-ops, they are creating cooperative ecosystems, and these are built for longevity.

We Must Develop a Vision – Together

Co-ops are more than a business model, and they have the potential to be transformative. That being said, without a framework and political ideology, they don’t have this potency. It is important to infuse cooperative education with an understanding of how race, class, patriarchy, and all other systems of oppression have fused together to create an exploitative, violent, and exclusive system.

Often what gets people so excited about co-ops is that they are part of a solution; so in addition to identifying and analyzing the problems, we need to articulate the vision for what we want to build. This can be an exhilarating and powerful experience to explore with participants, whether it be a one-time co-op workshop or an 18-month co-op incubator program.

We Need to Develop Goals – Together

This may seem basic, but it is foundational. Without clear, measurable, and attainable goals – a cooperative program or curriculum will be stuck in the doldrums. If the goal is to have participants ready to start co-ops, it is essential to map out how, why, and what that even means. Are the participants incorporating, do they have a business plan, have they got funding, or is the goal to show people the options?  

Whatever the goals are, there needs to be a clear pathway to accomplish them. Better yet, like we said earlier: develop those goals with the participants.

Creating and Leveraging Support Networks is Key

We call it “cooperation” for a reason. Cooperative organizations and developers have built existing networks and support systems for co-ops, and those must be leveraged as well as advanced. (For example: the peer-to-peer network for worker co-ops, The Co-op Clinic.) Developing support networks so that people can help each other and build on each other’s work is as important as understanding your bylaws. In fact, in some cases, it might be more important. Creating and sharing these networks that exist within the cooperative moment should be one of the major building blocks of any co-op development program.

We Must Use Everyday Democracy Through All Parts of the Co-op Movement

The way we learn is how we engage with each other. If we are teaching about co-ops and expect participants to practice everyday democracy, we have to do the same in return in the spaces where we are educating about cooperatives.

The co-op classroom should be a laboratory to create, explore, and engage with cooperative practices and principles. This starts with pedagogical techniques and curriculum design, and manifests in as much of the cooperative program as possible. Treat the classroom like a co-op and opportunities for learning will emerge that could never have been planned for.

After all, cooperatives are about leveraging our collective power. We should be leveraging our collective knowledge and passion, too.

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TESA is proud to lead the development of games, tools, and programs for social change. You can support our work while having fun: buy our games about changing the world. TESA can also work with you to build a game, program, or tool for your cause!