Monday, March 25, 2013

Speaking of Co-ops, Dada Maheshvarananda

I’ve always found it strange that our political democracy is oblivious to economic democracy. Maybe it’s because co-ops aren’t well known or understood.  After more than 35 years of co-op experience, I’m invested in exploring and developing the highest potential of co-ops.

One of my earliest inspirations was Mondragon, a group of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. Started in the 1950’s to create jobs, it has become so successful that it now provides fair wages, job security and health care benefits through worker, consumer, producer and banking co-ops. It is a community of people making a better living with each other.

Co-ops create a sense of community because the members come together for a common purpose. Co-ops are not motivated by profit, resulting in a shift in the overall economy: jobs rather than profit, local suppliers rather than shipped in goods, quality products rather than cheaper products.
Someone who shares a co-op vision with me is Dada Maheshvarananda.  He advocates for economic change to improve quality of life in Latin America.  His idea is to create an ethical and fair economic structure, and co-ops are a big part of his economic plan.  Cooperative ownership of the majority of businesses would shift economic and political control away from big business. The focus would change from “how can a few get richer?” to “how can everyone have a better life?”

Dada’s economic model encompasses political, social, ecological, and spiritual aspects. He is the director of the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela.  Prout was the brainchild of S. R. Sarkar, who devised a plan to reorganize society and the economy for the welfare of everyone.
Dada Maheshvarananda will be speaking about his book, After Capitalism, Economic Democracy in Action, on April 1, at 7 pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 4500 Kensington Ave.  Come out and hear what he has to say.

Here’s a link to the event page on Facebook:!/events/574704812542446/?fref=ts

Cheryl Marschak, Richmond Food Co-op Steering Committee



Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Growing Richmond's Citizen Sector

My first boss out of college, Ashoka founder Bill Drayton, often talked about eliminating the terms “nonprofit” and “nongovernmental organization” from our lexicon. He felt it didn’t make sense to be defined by what you were not. Furthermore he argued the term “nonprofit” sent the wrong message to both businesses and “charities” (an equally flawed term) and failed to capture what many in this ever evolving third sector were all about. Instead we championed the term “citizen sector.” It all felt a bit silly at the time. More and more though, the term is starting to resonate with me. This is particularly true when I think about why I am a part of founding what will be the Richmond Food Co-op.
Co-op models across the country fall across a wide spectrum of taxcode definitions. But I believe they are almost all best defined as belonging to this “citizen sector.” They are citizen owned, citizen run, and citizen-serving. Co-ops and other like-minded institutions, businesses, and organizations operate within a framework that can harness the best practices of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors while often avoiding some of the pitfalls and shortcomings of both.
These are not models that ignore or eschew capitalist principles of profit, efficiency, or economies of scale. Rather these principles are embraced and maximized to the benefit of all. This is capitalism at its best…a collaborative capitalism, a cooperative capitalism. What this, other co-ops, and fields like social entrepreneurship offer is the grand compromise of collaborative and cooperative capitalism. And I use the term compromise intentionally because the compromise goes beyond the business model. I feel confident in saying that this co-op will not be perfect. What it will be is a compromise that moves the needle forward and improves the local food system. 
I don't think for a second this co-op will be a perfect solution to our food access issues, but it will be a piece of the puzzle...a puzzle piece with membership available and affordable to all (including a discounted rate of $15 for qualifying members), in a central location accessible to as many people as possible. Despite our best efforts the Co-op will not reach everyone. The co-op will, however, become one of a number of other institutions working in their own ways to improve our food system and an active participant in an ongoing conversation. Richmond needs small neighborhood grocers like Little House, vibrant urban farmers markets like Byrd House Market, unique business models like Fall Line Farms, grassroots urban garden efforts like Roots of Woodville and McDonough Garden, and other “citizen sector” organizations like BusFarm/F2F, Tricycle Gardens, Renew Richmond, Shalom Farms and the Richmond Food Co-op working together on creative models to get healthy local produce into the urban core. This co-op is one more thread in the ever-improving fabric of the Richmond food system. That’s why I’m excited to be a part of it.

-Dominic Barrett, Steering Committee Member