Olympia is fortunate to have long-time institutions that have for many years served the progressive needs of this community. Three of these are The Evergreen State College (TESC), Traditions Cafe and World Folk Art, and the Olympia Food Co-op (OFC).
TESC continues to give us graduates who infuse creative liveliness and social awareness into Olympia’s art and commerce. Traditions Cafe has long been a gathering place where locals meet, engage in conversation about issues important to the community, hear music in an intimate setting and know that the folk art offered there comes fairly traded from cultures around the world.
The Olympia Food Co-op, around since the 1970s, brings organic, environmentally sustainable food and other products to our community, while also working to stand for social justice as an underpinning of the staff collective organization.
While these three testify to our community’s healthy past, each of them continues to grow and change as they face the future. How each of these engages with their community in this process may well nurture the direction of Olympia’s growth—not only as a city, but as a community.
The unique position of the Olympia Food Co-op
The Olympia Food Co-op’s key position, as one of the primary sources of local produce and other healthy products, and with a unique commitment to social justice, has the potential to help us create and move into a future that is environmentally sustainable and socially just—one that contributes to a community that is both conscious and compassionate.
We currently live in a very divisive social and political environment. The media constantly promote a bleak and frightening future that causes many citizens to live in fear. It carries a narrative which insists that we are all separate individuals competing with one another for survival. This story does little to support community, and in fact, our capitalist economic system depends on this point of view to fuel its continued spread across our planet.
There is another view, though it is often trivialized and discounted. This world view insists that we actually are all made from the same star stuff, with very little real difference between us in our essential humanity. That if we realize how truly connected we are, we might just treat each other—animals and plants and our planet itself—with more respect and even reverence. The cooperative movement, finding a foothold in our culture during the 1970s, recognized cooperation as an answer to that capitalist competitive business model, and even more now, depends on and attempts to reflect this point of view.
The Co-op reflects the people who participate in it
From the very start, those who founded the Co-op had a vision of how we as a species could move gracefully into the future. Food being a primary source of our wellbeing, the Co-op has long held a key position of leadership in this community—one that can help usher in a kinder, more conscious and more “socially and economically egalitarian society.”
Part of establishing this sort of leadership is determined by the world view held by those at the Co-op who are guiding its direction. The Staff Collective and the Board of Directors of the Co-op are the more visible members currently doing this work. They are the primary ones responsible for how the Co-op’s mission is reflected in policies and carried out in practice. Co-op members are also responsible for ensuring that the Co-op lives up to its mission, through informed participation and voting. These roles determine how the co-op will continue to grow and change even in these divisive times.
The Staff and Board endeavor to live by the Co-op Mission Statement. In fact, it is read before every Board meeting and often at Staff Collective meetings to remind us that:
The purpose of the cooperative is to contribute to the health and well being of people by providing wholesome foods and other goods and services, accessible to all, through a locally oriented, collectively managed, not-for-profit cooperative organization that relies on consensus decision-making. We strive to make human effects on the earth and its inhabitants positive and renewing, and to encourage economic and social justice.
The Staff Collective
The Staff Collective is doing serious work in the study of Anti-Oppression, Racism, and White Supremacy in order to uphold the tenet of the Mission Statement that declares the “encouragement of economic and social justice.” Just watch the media in all of its forms, including the internet, and you may be successfully convinced that this is a huge battle we all must wage. Some on the Staff Collective have taken on this task with serious determination. Much of their budget revolves around this work, including their policies regarding members and working members, and their efforts to ensure the wellbeing of all Collective members. At the same time, some are working often long hours to “make good food accessible to more people,” while struggling under the need to enlighten the membership on the evils of our currently oppressive society.
We depend on their efforts to make available to us the amazing array of environmentally and socially sound products now being offered at the Co-op. It is th
rough their work that small local businesses can get established and thrive. It is up to us—all of us as members— to insure that their work environment also reflects the cooperative model that honors and cares for each of us, both individually and collectively.
The Board of Directors
The OFC Board of Directors stands in a different and unique position. They are asked to represent all Co-op members: Board, Staff Collective, Working Members and General Membership, as they create and regulate policy. All members. In order to do this, it has become increasingly clear that for any of us to follow a world view that isolates us from each other—that causes us to judge and view some as friends and others as enemies in need of punitive response, even within our own membership—can no longer serve us if the Co-op is to not only survive these difficult times but to offer thriving leadership into the future. It is the job of the Board to nurture and encourage a more positive world view, and to take it into account in policy creation.
Creating policies and practices that reflect these values can become difficult in an environment as individualistic and divisive as our society has become. The temptation to take an approach that isolates us from each other, that causes us to judge one another—to view some as friends and others as enemies—is real. We rely on these elected leaders to find ways to take the Co-op in a direction that does not give in to pressures for self-interest through ego-driven identities that separate, but rather one that unites us in building toward a kind and durable community.
The Co-op members
Critical to this more conscious movement into the future involves a third part of the Co-op community—its members. Co-op members hold a key position in any cooperative. They are the life-blood of the organization. Without the membership, there would be no Co-op. Through their patronage, they are the ones who pay all of the bills. Several hundred Working Members at OFC serve in a variety of capacities to lighten the workload of the Collective. It is the savings the Co-op receives from their contribution as stockers, cashiers and more that makes it possible to provide the Staff Collective with the good salaries and excellent health care benefits they now enjoy. Efforts are currently being made to give this part of the workforce more voice in the future of the Co-op.
When motivated, members can offer guidance and direction to both the Staff and the Board, through their in-store suggestions and during participation in the Member Comment portion of Board meetings. Further, they can bring their voices to the table by running for election to the Board of Directors, and by attending the Annual Meeting (See sidebar for more info). At the Annual Meeting those running for election have the opportunity to speak to fellow members and share their thoughts and concerns about the future of the Co-op.
As with our local and national legislative processes, Participatory Democracy is the key to ensuring that the Co-op can move gracefully into the future. All of us are challenged to examine our own worldview, our own stories about each other, and how we can walk in the world in a way that brings us to a sustainable and peaceful existence.
Just as our national political environment benefits greatly from citizen input, so too does this hold true for the Co-op. More member participation is called for and needed now if this cooperative community business is to flourish and “make human effects on the earth and its inhabitants positive and renewing.” A new story, a new world view, needs to emerge and it is only through us all coming together, listening to each other, overcoming any perceived differences, and working cooperatively that this can happen.
Desdra Dawning is a retired educator and writer. She has been a member of the Olympia Food Co-op since she made a home in the Pacific Northwest in 2011. She served several times on the Board. She has a passionate concern for the health and well-being both of the Co-op and the Olympia community.