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Cooperative! Part 4
Torn between me and we

by DK Holland

Most early cooperatives started as small grassroots organizations in Western Europe, North America and Japan. In 1844 a group of thirty artisans working in the cotton mills in Northern England faced miserable conditions: They could not afford the high price of food and household goods. By pooling their scarce resources—one pound sterling each—they purchased basic goods at lower prices and opened a shop. These weavers formed a co-op, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. The Pioneers decided it was high time shoppers were treated with honesty, openness, respect while shar­ing in the profits. Every customer in the shop would become a member with a true stake in the business. They should have a say in their business, follow the principles of democracy. Today, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society is The Cooperative Group with 3 million members and 125,000 employees all of whom embrace the Pioneers’ model. By 2010 they had revenue of over twelve billion pounds and expanded their benefits to include healthcare, travel and automotives. They get involved in issues like climate change and human rights and because of their huge size, they have influence. One hundred and fifty years later, the Rochdale Principles remain the basis for a modern cooperative movement and it has spread around the world.2

Conditions for change are often created by crisis. In 2007 my area of Brooklyn was considered a food desert (i.e., no good affordable sources for food). A reporter was looking for a story for her local paper. Any story. She needed to fill space. I said, quite off­handedly, “What if we had a food co-op here?” She loved that idea. Of course no one was organizing a co-op (which I quickly added), but I’d been studying the concept of cooperatives and I was a new mem­ber of the legendary Park Slope Food Co-op (PSFC) with 16,000 members, 65 employees and annual revenue of over 44 million dollars. I was entranced by the spirit of cooperation in the store, learning how and why the worker co-op (as opposed to non-work­ing member) model was essential: Anyone can join but to share in the benefits, they have to also work a shift. Like the Cooperative Group, everyone benefits from the cost savings, high-quality goods and camaraderie. Everyone has a say.

©State of New York, 1977
Design by Milton Glaser.

I figured if anyone was going to start a new food co-op, they’d have to first confirm the climate was right for one here. A local article could provide that barometer. I figured, “Maybe some people will surface who want to take this on.” The reporter interviewed Kathryn Zarczynski (a friend I roped in) and me. They took a photo of the two of us juggling fruit in my kitchen. The story led with, “Fort Greene and Clinton Hill foodies are contemplating the organic crime of the century: They’re considering starting a rival version of the Park Slope Food Co-op.” OK so the reporter missed the point, the cooperative message, but regardless, the article went viral. Within 3 months, 900 neighbors had signed an online petition (started by 2 young techies). PSFC wholeheartedly supported us. We were holding regular open meetings at a local church. I say “we” because “the people who might surface to take this on” turned out to be Kathryn and me.

We were starting a grocery store with hundreds of our neighbors and it was as stressful as it was joyful. Several neighbors stepped up immediately to help organize. We established metrics includ­ing guiding principles, committees, bylaws. We surveyed. We debated all this plus much more while sitting in open meet­ings held in a circle. Random people would show up to one meeting, new people for the next. Eventually we decided all who showed up would be considered members since we needed to vote to go forward. Our website was a wiki, our discussions and process egalitarian, transparent, thoroughly engaging and respectful. Our votes were and continue to be almost entirely unanimous and positive. We voted on a criteria for a name: it must be memorable and reflect our neighborhoods. Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. It should be short, not initialized, positive in its visual imagery and distinctive from other food businesses. This led us to the name the Greene Hill Food Co-op. But at the beginning Greene Hill (a name that conjured up a very idealistic, environ­mental and positive visual) was far more virtual than tangible and many early hard-working “members” had to move on unable to wait for it to become real (or fail in the trying).

Now we needed a well-designed brand identity system—and to use a cooperative process to get there, the kind that designers typi­cally hate: We needed to vote on a logo. Miraculously Geoff Cook, a new neighbor, happened into a general meeting where I was having this very thought in the most intense way. A partner of the international design firm Base Design, Cook volunteered his team’s expertise and time to develop our brand design. He became co-chair of the branding committee with me. I established a research pro­cess that started with surveys of the “membership” that probed how we wanted the co-op to look and feel. Then using an agreed-upon criteria, I worked with Base Design on three possible direc­tions that we presented at a general meeting along with a ration­ale based on the research and the co-op’s agreed-upon guiding princi­ples.3 We included visuals of different types of stores we wanted to differentiate from or be inspired by. The general membership had strong visceral and pragmatic responses to all this. We took it all in. Base Design came up with an entirely new direction and the new system was approved in a stunning, unani­mous vote. Many of our non-design members stood agape, “We already look suc­ces­s­ful!” Like a million-dollar operation, yet we had not dollar one in the bank nor would we open our store for two more years.

In October 2012 due to all of our cumulative effort and persistence, we had a 2,700 square-foot-store and 1,200 members proving that by everyone doing their bit, everyone can share equally. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.