The Middlebury Manifesto and Me

On March 5, I had the honor of speaking briefly at the annual meeting of the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association (NFCA) about the organization's founding document -- the Middlebury Manifesto -- since I was the manifesto's principal author.  Here's what I said:

Hello Everybody:

Let me start by thanking Erbin and Bonnie and the NFCA Board for inviting me here today to share a few reminiscences about the Middlebury Manifesto and the spirit of that bygone era in 2007 that engendered it.

Sheer luck cast me in the role of serving as the manifesto’s Thomas Jefferson.

In 1997 I blundered into a community where the local full service grocery store was a consumer co-op – an idea that instantly captivated me as a relatively recent law school grad.  Six years later, thanks to a non-contested election, I put myself on the board of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society.

There wouldn’t be an NFCA today but for the persistent efforts of four great cooperators:  Mark Goehring and Alex Gyory – then the president and GM of the Brattleboro Co-op, and their counterparts from Hanover – Mike Yacavone and Terry Appleby.  Mark, Alex, Mike and Terry started getting together to talk about a regional organization in 2004 and simply refused to let the idea die.  They just kept on meeting and conspiring until the rest of you people caught on to what a great idea this is.

Meanwhile, more good fortune for yours truly:  In 2006, I succeeded my friend and mentor Mike Yacavone as president of the Hanover Co-op – and thus I also inherited Mike’s spot in the infamous gang of four.  I could not help but notice that in a national community that resists system-wide collaboration that includes both board and management, this project has always given both the career cooperators and the volunteer fiduciaries seats at the same table.  But I digress.

Seeing as how I am an excellent typist, I was in a fine position to volunteer when someone suggested we draft some kind of inspirational document that everyone could sign at a big gathering we convened on June 2, 2007.

So, you might ask, why’s it called the Middlebury Manifesto?  I had in mind the famous “Port Huron Statement” that campus radical Tom Hayden drafted so it could be adopted in 1962 in Port Huron, Michigan by Students for a Democratic Society, the heart and soul of what we now know as “the Sixties.”  For me it was another happy coincidence that we were meeting at a church in Middlebury – that gave me an excuse to make sure the title of the document was an alliterative allusion to my undergraduate alma mater.

And I should also point out that for me the document was literally sealed in blood.  I nearly sliced my thumb off while slicing cantaloupes at that danged church right before the meeting. Happily, Robyn O’Brien of the Putney Co-op had a first aid kit and kept me from bleeding to death.

For me, what jumps off the page now, and takes me back a decade or so, is the reference to “public happiness” – a direct quote from Thomas Jefferson – shared with us, as some of you may remember, by the scholar Michael Hartoonian during a very inspiring keynote address at CCMA in Minneapolis in 2004. 

Public happiness – as distinct from private happiness.  The idea that what is truly worth savoring in this life is not the pleasure we accumulate individually but the delight we experience by doing stuff together.

So in a cynical time, we proclaimed in the Middlebury Manifesto that one of our key purposes was to “engender joy, enthusiasm and optimism.”  What a rebellion.

Nine years later, American culture is if anything, even more cynical and coarse now than it was then.  We seem as a nation to be ever more small-minded and small . . . handed.  Sadly, this has taken its toll on my co-op and perhaps yours as well – the grocery business is more competitive, so workplace tensions proliferate, mistrust multiplies, anger boils over at board meetings and even among the members.

But the rebellion that is the Middlebury Manifesto endures.  It calls us not to try to beat the investor-owned competition at its own mean-spirited game, through mergers and corporate secrecy and sharp dealing, but by persisting in this effort to come together to cultivate public happiness.  Thomas Jefferson was onto something.  So are we.

[Interested in reading more about my candidacy for election to the Board of the Hanover Co-op?  Scroll down to the next blog post -- there's a whole list of stuff I'd like to help the Board accomplish.]