Last week I visited Madison, Wisconsin for work on one of my energy policy analysis projects. As described in Part 1 of our series on what cities around the country are doing to support cooperatives, Madison has a major effort underway to promote coops as a strategy to strengthen the economy and reduce inequality. So while I was there, I took some time to sit down with Charity Schmidt at the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. She coordinates the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition (MCDC), the organization born out of the more than 20 community and labor organizations that came together to collectively respond to the city’s request for proposals.

After they were awarded the grant, Charity told me, MCDC went through some growing pains as they tried to get their basic organizational systems set up while simultaneously learning to work together. One of MCDC’s key goals is to build capacity to support coop development within the many community based organizations (CBOs) participating in the coalition. These organizations are already active in the communities MCDC wants to serve. Adding coop development to their skill set will greatly broaden the Madison coop ecosystem and multiply MCDC’s reach.

However, getting more than two dozen organizations — with a wide variety of priorities, structures, leadership styles, and organizational cultures — on the same page about how to collaborate proved to be a challenge. It took several months and some reorganization to get set up and begin rolling out programs. In retrospect, Charity says, it might have been better to have a tighter process at first, and do more internal education about the cooperative model in their early months, so that everyone would be more on the same page about how they wanted to collaborate.

Two years in, they’ve gotten the kinks worked out. Programs are up and running and the first co-ops they’ve assisted have been incorporated. MCDC is providing cooperative education to the CBOs in the coalition, offering mini-grants to support CBO coop development work, and providing scholarships to CBO staff to attend coop development training. They also have mini-grants available to coops in formation to help pay for legal fees, market studies, and other professional assistance, as well as a revolving loan fund to assist coops with capital requirements once they get underway.

Centro Hispano is one of the first organizations to take advantage of the mini-grant program. Their Community Wellness program connects Latina community wellness workers (promotoras de salud) with families to support health needs such as diabetes education, pregnancy and postpartum support, and raising children with disabilities. With MCDC’s support, Centro Hispano has been working with a group of promotoras to incorporate as a worker-owned cooperative. The new coop, Roots4Change, is now eligible for a mini-grant from MCDC to continue its development.

“Whatever life brings to us, we have been equipped to rely on ourselves, to rely on other women.”

On a WORT radio show last week, Mariela Quesada Centeno of Centro Hispano and Roots4Change described how the process of forming the coop has changed all the promotoras. “Wherever we go now, whatever life brings to us, we have been equipped to rely on ourselves, to rely on other women, to rely on the knowledge we have gained, and no one will take that away from us,” she concluded.

Other organizations working with MCDC include the Northside Planning Council, which is supporting development of a home-based childcare coop, and Worker Justice Wisconsin, which helps some of Madison’s most vulnerable workers with the challenges they confront on the job. MCDC is providing training to their staff on the coop model so that they can include it in the toolbox of options they can offer those they serve.

Another new coop underway is Soaring Independent, a black women-led home care coop, that aims to professionalize this often poorly-paid work, offering training, more control over working hours and conditions, and better pay. MCDC has helped them to connect with established home care coops in other parts of Wisconsin and in Philadelphia, to learn from their experiences. MCDC is also looking to strategically build coops that can serve other coops, to create an integrated coop supply chain. The first one incorporated under this model is Common Good Bookkeeping. They provide an array of business services, including payroll and tax processing, data entry, database support, file backups, social media support, web management, and event planning.

Incorporating a handful of coops in one year is a good track record for a new organization. It’s slow work. I said as much to Charity and she replied, “It’s true that it takes time to set up a coop. The more people involved, the longer it tends to take. But after three to five years, half of non-cooperative new businesses are already out of business. A coop that successfully forms tends to stay in business. So it’s worth taking the extra start up time.” Good point.

MCDC is also offering education about the cooperative model and how it can support economic development to the general public through monthly Coop 101 presentations at public libraries, and to city staff through lunch and learn presentations. The city has gotten particularly involved in promoting cooperative conversions as an option for small businesses whose owners are approaching retirement. Participation in MCDC has also reinvigorated Madison’s long-standing worker coop peer network MadWorC, which is re-forming as a nonprofit and working on connecting new and existing coops to serve each other’s business needs. For example, the Union Cab coop, which grew out of a taxi drivers’ strike 40 years ago, is in discussion with Soaring Independent about serving their transportation needs.

Charity gave me a heads up that that very evening, Ed Whitfield of the Fund for Democratic Communities was speaking at Madison’s Social Justice Center, home to Madison’s time bank, mutual aid network, and housing cooperative network, along with Common Good Bookkeeping and several other organizations. Ed is a longtime activist who has spent years helping communities move towards self-reliance and economic democracy. I had seen Ed spoke here in Kingston at the Land in Black Hands event in February, and I was grateful for a chance to hear more from him.

The audience waits for Ed Whitfield’s talk to begin at the Madison Social Justice Center.
Photo: Evelyn Wright.

Over tamales before Ed’s talk began, I met Martha Kemble, a member of Common Good Bookkeeping. I told her about my visit to Madison, my conversation with Charity, and my interest in growing support for cooperative development at home. She said, “People have to work cooperatively. That’s the most important thing. So it’s good that it takes a long time to get started, because we need that time to really learn to work together.” I sat and chewed on that statement, along with my tamales, next to a couple who had moved to Madison from the Kingston area nearly 20 years ago after IBM closed.

Rebecca Kemble, Martha’s sister, city alderperson, and a longtime worker-owner at Union Cab, introduced Ed. They met many years ago on a tour of the famous Mondragon cooperatives in Spain’s Basque region that have served as inspiration for so many coop projects around the world. She said that night they had a lively debate about Mondragon, and over the years she’s come to count on Ed to say provocative and controversial things. I hadn’t seen that side of him at the February event, but he played it up, calling himself “an iconoclast” and cheerfully offering up statements we could disagree with.

The night’s topic was “Making Sure We Make a Difference”. Ed urged the coop movement to be clear about the sources of inequality and the urgency of redressing it. “We have slipped into language and thinking that miss how we got to where we are,” Ed said, “as if inequality were the result of chance, bad luck, or character defect.” We need to be clear that it came about because of specific historical processes.

“If a community has zero wealth, zero assets, it’s because someone else has them, someone else has taken them. It’s not about the color of your skin. It’s the history. Something happened. People ask me, ‘Ed, when are you going to stop talking about that old stuff?’ When I don’t see the impacts of it all around me anymore.”

Ed said that he doesn’t favor expressing calls for social justice, for housing or health care, in the language of human rights. “Who would enforce housing as a human right,” he asked. “The UN?” He prefers to talk about human needs, the power to meet those needs, and where that power currently resides.

“When we talk about power imbalances,” he said, “we are talking about access to tools, and the skills to use those tools. Capital is a tool. Markets are tools. Like any tool, they are good for some things, but not others. Potatoes yes, health care and justice, no.” Access to those tools and skills is fundamental to controlling our own labor, and ultimately our lives. That’s why, he says, when he talks about reparations, he doesn’t talk about giving people money. “They’ll just spend it. We need to give people productive capability, so they have the tools to meet their own needs.”

He concluded by challenging the coop movement to centralize this reallocation of power. “The coop movement has to look and say, ‘OK, if I was able to create a good job for myself, what has it done for my community? I was able to create that because I had access to tools and skills. What am I doing to spread those? How am I pulling someone else up with me? What have I done this year to make that power imbalance smaller?’”

Ed’s talk provoked a spirited discussion about how well Madison’s cooperative development process is doing in spreading access to tools and skills throughout the community (good start, but a long way to go), universal basic income (Ed’s against it), and how to respond to the urgency of the impending crises we’re facing. On this, Ed recommended being prepared to have lots of uncomfortable, truth-telling conversations, creating projects that can serve as “existence proofs” that other ways of doing things are possible, and creating liberated zones, self-sufficient communities that sustainably meet their own needs for food, housing, clothing, meaning, and art.

On the way out the door, I stopped to talk with Rebecca. When I told her about our startup efforts in the Hudson Valley, her advice uncannily echoed her sister’s: “Take your time and build your relationships. You have to learn to work together.” Good advice from a region already rich in cooperative relationships, pushing to take the next steps in broadening those relationships and truly sharing tools and skills throughout the community.