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

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