Lots of ink has been spilled over the past year about the Co-op and its Board, and I am as responsible as anyone. But with this year’s Board election in its final week, I find myself reflecting on why this is important in the first place.
To me, the Co-op is fundamentally a spiritual undertaking. It is no coincidence that the driving force behind its founding in 1936 was a minister – Dartmouth College Chaplain Roy Chamberlin -- or that, 80 years ago, the Hanover Consumers Club metamorphosed into the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society after club members heard a talk by the theologian Toyohiko Kagawa.
The lectures Kagawa delivered in 1936 became his book Brotherhood Economics, which can be summarized thusly: “What would Jesus do? Form cooperatives.” The places he lectured – Hanover, Hyde Park in Chicago, Palo Alto in California – all started consumer cooperatives.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not a Christian. I salute the Co-op’s resolute non-sectarianism. But I share with Chamberlin and Kagawa a sense that a cooperative is a fine vehicle for pressing economic activity into service of a higher principle. Those who revere Jesus, like those guys did, would call it the love principle and share all of the famous quotes from the New Testament about loving one another. But, of course, loving thy neighbor is an idea common to all religions and, indeed, to all people who yearn for a greater purpose than just getting and spending.
Paradoxically, what’s cool about the Co-op is its worldliness. It’s a grocery store, not a sweat lodge. It employs cashiers not counselors. Though initially inspired by the Cooperative Values and Principles, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to learn about how a grocery business really works on a day-to-day basis. I think the realities of the grocery business, and how the Co-op struggles to operate within them, could likewise inspire a lot of people if we can figure out how to explain all of that to them.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s an experiment. And, like all experiments, this one might fail.
For most of its first 80 years, the Co-op has been lucky. It established a pretty dominant position as a grocery retailer in a prosperous Ivy League town and leveraged that to get into Centerra Marketplace and the former P&C supermarket space in White River Junction – thus expanding and keeping investor-owned competition out of those spaces.
But industry trends suggest the Co-op can no longer count on luck to assure prosperity. Tough choices lie ahead, and yet the Co-op is governed by a democratically elected board whose members are not necessarily selected for their business acumen.
This makes management nervous. By “management” I don’t just mean the managers of our Co-op – I mean the folks who run all food co-ops everywhere. These career cooperators put their livelihood on the line and so it is difficult for them to trust amateur Board members to make the right choices – the ones that will allow these enterprises to thrive and to survive.
But, in the end, we have no choice but to trust the principles on which the Co-op is founded – which include the kind of openness and democratic control that distinguish cooperatives from other kinds of businesses. If we aren’t prepared to work within that kind of trust, then we should just sell the Co-op to an investor-owned grocery chain and be done with it. I am sure we could find a buyer.
I can’t bring myself to give up in that fashion. That’s why I am seeking to return to the Board at this critical juncture in the Co-op’s history. Might we fail? Sure. But we absolutely positively have to do our utmost to try – not just so we have great grocery stores at our disposal that aren’t ripping us off, but so that we continue to prove that business can and should dedicate itself to the same higher purposes that inspired our funders.
Please vote, between now and April 30, at www.mycoopvote.com!