The Fifth Principle in Philly: Education, Training and Information

Research by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard (center) is the inspiration for a new effort in Philadelphia to make education an intrinsic part of co-op formation. [photo: PACA]Research by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard (center) is the inspiration for a new effort in Philadelphia to make education an intrinsic part of co-op formation. [photo: PACA]Cooperatives work when people are deliberate about learning the cooperative principles, study the recipe for co-op businesses success, and spend time thinking about how their co-op can meet a community or business need.

The Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA)—a nonprofit co-op organization dedicated to growing the cooperative economy and building a movement for economic justice—is no stranger to the critical role education plays in co-op success and sustainability. On April 1, PACA convened 2017 Co-UP: A Community Teach-in for Cultivating Economic Justice.

The day featured a conversation about PACA's program, “20 Book Clubs—20 Cooperative Members—20 Cooperative Members,” an effort that embodies the historic example of learning circles where current or prospective cooperative members deliberately study together for an extended period to ensure their cooperative has the foundation to make a lasting impact in its members’ lives and their community.

In late 2016, 20 groups of people in the Philadelphia area who plan to form worker co-ops began meeting twice a month to learn about co-ops in study circles, a method rooted in African American and Philadelphia cooperative history. Through study, reflection and discussion, each group will identify an unmet need in their community and create a shared version of a new cooperative business to meet that need.

PACA was inspired to create this program by the writings of Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, whose recent book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, highlights how African Americans historically used learning circles to build successful cooperatives.

“Every African-American-owned cooperative of the past that I have researched, and almost every contemporary cooperative I have studied, began as the result of a study group or depended on purposive training and orientation of members,” Gordon Nembhard said.

At the Co-UP Teach-in, Gordon Nembhard talked about the universality and diversity of the use of cooperatives by African Americans and mutual benefit societies, a topic she explored earlier this year during a panel discussion hosted by NCBA CLUSA. She also unpacked the important components of successful cooperative efforts in the African American experience, including:

  • Fostering internal education, study circles, public education
  • Reaching and incorporating youth;
  • Cultivating leadership and empowering women, and
  • Ensuring adequate resources, management, training and financing

In another example of the importance of the Fifth Cooperative Principle at the Co-UP Teach-in, Keystone Development Center was on hand to connect with cooperators to provide technical and research assistance to people considering establishing a co-op.

KDC is a great example of how relatively few resources can be leveraged to create big impact in helping members build people-based economic enterprises. Like other cooperative development centers, KDC uses modest federal grant resources from the Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program to work with emerging and established cooperatives to provide its members business development support. This work—propelled by RCDG funding—has been crucial to countless cooperators and communities as they make it possible for co-op members to gain the skills and training they need to succeed.

Ben Franklin, one of America's original entrepreneurs, helped form in 1752 what many recognize as the first cooperative in the U.S.: a mutual fire insurance company. Even then, Franklin understood the power of people coming together to address the critical needs of families and businesses. Today, people in Philadelphia continue to show the power of cooperation to create economic opportunity.

Doug O’Brien is NCBA CLUSA’s Executive Vice President for Programs. He was in Philadelphia Saturday to participate in 2017 Co-UP: A Community Teach-in for Cultivating Economic Justice.

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