The Challenge of Community Oganizing

Tonight was the regular meeting of the board of the yet to materialize H Street Community Coop Market. An effort emerging from the desire of a number of NE DC residents to increase their families’ and the community’s access to local, natural foods, the idea has grown over a period of more than five years.

Anyone familiar with community organizing can certainly relate to the challenges confronted by the project, however. Driven by the man hours of a few dedicated individuals, it is far too easy for interest to wander and for visions of an end product to come into conflict.

Sunday of Bounty

A son of Minnesota’s agricultural heartland, a connection to the land and the people who coax from it the delicacies I grew up loving has always been important. Alienation from this archetypal aspect of humanity has become all too prevelent, sadly, in modern cities.

Sunday mornings at Dupont Circle, one of Washington DC’s busiest gathering places, is both a step into the past and into the future. It is both a festival of nostalgia, an attempt to reclaim the purity and health of a simpler time, perhaps a priviledge of the affluent in the modern city, and at the same time the evolution of an element of food production that  has to be part of the modern urban human.

And the bounty of the Eastern USA… well, I love Minnesota, of course, but what amazing variety here!

DC Chillin

Work is a fashionable affair for this Office Lizard. And, a great mural on the side of the Hardware store on P Street and 14th NW.

Election Night, 2008, Washington DC

I found myself at the unrepentently liberal Busboys and Poets, on 14th and U St. I got a seat at the bar, showing up early. The line was down the block by 5:00.

Now, the morning after, there is so much work to be done. I hope people are inspired to realize that there is nothing given about the future. May we all do our jobs, work hard and do them well, and think about what it means for the rest of the world as we do them. Semangat!!

 

Coops Going Viral!!

This article was originally published in the Houston Chronicle

What caused our current economic crisis? It was greed, deregulation, predatory lending, so popular thought goes.

 

Mortgage lenders and Wall Street are guilty of many of these accusations. But there’s one major flaw in the logic of this finger-pointing – these are symptoms, not causes, of our financial system. In other words, it’s the nature of the beast.

 

Investor-owned businesses, pressured by investors’ beckoning for higher returns, place the highest value on profit. An unsatiated pool of investors can flee, destroying a company’s primary source of capital and bankrupting the business. For business leaders, this is clearly not an option.

 

Investor-owned businesses can also find that their employees’ or consumers’ interests are at odds with those of the investors. That executives often hold large amounts of company stock creates an even deeper conflict of interest. Are higher-ups making the right decisions for the company, or are they just making the decisions that boost their own portfolios? Unfortunately, as the subprime mortgage crisis revealed, it’s often the latter of the two.

 

This high-risk, profit-first model has, in many ways, failed. While it made our country affluent, it also left us vulnerable.

 

People want to know where we go from here, what sort of business model could have averted the crisis. The answer is simple, and decidedly American.

 

We need to invest in business cooperatives.

 

People gravitate toward comfort and security in times of crises. That’s exactly why business cooperatives are so appealing right now.

 

Structurally, cooperatives are distinct from investor-owned businesses. Those who use a co-op’s services actually own an equal share of the business. There are no majority shareholders or single owners, and fluctuations on Wall Street exert only an indirect influence on business.

 

Co-ops include Fortune-500 businesses such as Land O’Lakes and Sunkist, as well as the Associated Press, and are some of the most powerful food suppliers in the country. According to a vast, USDA-funded study at the University of Wisconsin, co-ops hold over $1 trillion in assets, and have over 125 million members.

 

Following The Great Depression, credit unions – another type of cooperatively owned business – grew exponentially. Experts, including Ivy League finance professors, agree that credit unions will most likely see a similar surge in the near future.

 

Credit unions have remained stable in the current wave of bank failures. George Hofheimer, Chief Research Officer of the Filene Institute, a non-profit think tank that studies credit unions, said that they’ll attract members because they haven’t had to tighten their lending standards. Credit is flowing as freely today as it was a year ago.

 

That’s because credit unions, like other cooperatives, don’t answer to investors. Consequently, they’ve made less risky moves, like packaging subprime mortgages into stock and selling them on the market. Because every member is an equal owner, there’s no incentive for anyone – President, CFO, or CEO – to try to manipulate stock price. No single person stands to gain more than another. The excesses of AIG simply couldn’t have happened in a co-op.

 

This makes for business with a face. Because revenues stay local, credit unions’ gains represent gains to the community. And as owners, each member has a say in the business’ governance. This creates a culture of transparency, a far cry from the culture of many investor-owned corporations.

 

These efficiencies manifest in real, tangible benefits to consumers. Credit unions offer better interest rates on deposits, and lower interest rates on loans. The average interest on a 48-month car loan at a credit union, for example, is 1.4% lower than at a bank.

 

What draws members to credit unions – strength, good deals, self-reliance, community focus – also draws people to other types of business cooperatives. Food co-ops, housing co-ops, purchasing co-ops (buyers that come together to leverage economies of scale) – all have blossomed in recent years, bringing services to people who either couldn’t afford them or were geographically marginalized.

 

There’s no such thing as an invulnerable business model, and certainly co-ops feel the stress of a weakened economy. But as The Great Depression showed, business cooperatives can help stabilize an economy in turmoil.

 

By working cooperatively, Americans will regain the trust in each other, and in the economy, that the recent weeks has been so severely damaged.

 

Paul Hazen is the President and CEO of National Cooperative Business Association in Washington, D.C. E-mail him at info@ncba.coop, or visit NCBA on the web at www.ncba.coop.