The USFWC Work Week: Post Conference Event in New Orleans, June 2008

By Erin Rice and Lisa Stolarski

The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) held its first "Workweek" in New Orleans (NOLA), after the "Democracy at Work" conference this past June. Twenty-two cooperators stayed for four days after the conference and volunteered their time, energy and skills to local organizations and individuals who expressed interest in cooperatives and cooperative development.

Several volunteers wrote glowing articles for their cooperative web sites and the assessments that were returned indicate that the workweek was a powerful experience for many participants. Volunteers got a first hand, close up experience working with Hurricane Katrina survivors and community organizations in New Orleans. Practically every participant has commented that they hope this sort of opportunity will become a regular part of future USFWC conferences. Volunteers were especially excited about the camaraderie and the peer level learning that the workweek engendered; working with like-minded cooperators from around the country on a variety of local projects got everyone jazzed, as well as helping to promote cooperative development!

Some of the comments from the follow-up survey include:

  • I learned a lot from my fellow colleagues, and also from the people in NOLA doing the work: starting up a co-op from scratch, collective organizing, more facilitation skills, financial tips, life in NOLA after the storm.
  • I was immediately able to apply some things I learned from a colleague to a potential cooperative start-up here in my town.
  • I appreciated how people were empowered to make decisions.
  • I learned that I like gardening.
  • I learned how to create a raised garden bed.
  • In addition to giving me hope about cooperation (which I witnessed abundantly during the Week), I am energized and inspired to work harder and more cooperatively with my own co-op workers.
  • A lot of what I've learned about co-ops can really be helpful to others -a lot of co-op efforts are facing problems that I've also faced and successfully dealt with.
  • I learned that New Orleans is an amazing town that still needs a lot of help.
  • Being able to do intensive development work like this - four efforts in four days - gave me more confidence in my own ability to assist very different kinds of co-ops. I can speak from more experience now, and from more compelling experience.
  • To be able to work side-by-side with other developers, including some with a great deal of experience was unprecedented for me, and I want to do more of it.
  • I learned that I have a deep personal need to regularly connect with my peers. The workweek itself served me in this regard as much as it served the cooperators of New Orleans.
  • I learned that I am not as proficient in facilitation as some cooperators and I now know to seek training in this regard.
  • I picked up a thing or three about process and content!
  • I was able to see best practices of what was spoken about in conference workshops practiced "in the field" on projects by my fellow co-operators.
  • I experienced a level of solidarity that I had previously only felt in abstraction.
  • I believe this should be institutionalized at other conferences.

Volunteer cooperator Lisa Stolarski from Pittsburgh provides the following account:

I was excited to stay in New Orleans for an extra few days to volunteer my time and development services to local cooperatives and start-ups.  I was especially involved with the Rhythm Conspiracy, "a music, arts cultural collective," and compiled a notebook full of cooperative development resources for its members.  My teammates and I spent a fair amount of time over the course of two days going over the development process with Rhythm Conspiracy folks. The coordinator of the Rhythm Conspiracy found the compiled literature helpful, prompting our group to consider duplicating the coordination of handouts for other participants in the future.

The work week made New Orleans 08 one of the best conferences I have ever attended. We received much more than we gave from the tenacious, spirited cooperators and community builders of New Orleans. They opened their community to us and shared their work, ideas, dreams and frustrations, taking the time to consider our thoughts on how they might strengthen the cooperative presence in their home town.

It was especially enriching as a co-op developer to see so many other technical assistance providers in action.  As an "east coaster" I learned a lot from watching our west coast allies practice consensus facilitation methods with which I have had little demonstrated
exposure.  I also learned a great deal by networking informally with other tech assistants and hearing stories about the projects they are engaged in at home.

But the greatest gift I received from my peers during the work week was the deep solidarity we shared with each other and with our hosts in New Orleans that quickly became the spirit infused in our efforts. Solidarity is action informed by recognition of the self in the other.  If ever such a thing exists we created it together in New Orleans during the work week.  In the process we built lasting friendships that will undoubtedly shape our lives and work and the future of the worker co-op movement.

Erin Rice organized the workweek from the idea stage and shares her process and experience below.

Planning

I spent about 10-15 hours per week for two months prior to the conference preparing for this work. The hardest part was finding local projects to support. There was not much cooperative presence in New Orleans prior to the conference and marketing and promotions were a top priority, not only for the workweek, but also for the USFWC conference and cooperatives in general. I spent a great deal of my time tracking down project leads and sending out tons of emails to everyone that might even be remotely interested. The USFWC did quite a bit of advanced promotion and outreach and this helped bring projects in. Two weeks before the conference I had not found enough projects to occupy the volunteer's time, but in traditional New Orleans fashion, the party didn't really coalesce until the last minute. Local grassroots word-of-mouth was the best advertisement for projects for the workweek. Once one or two projects got scheduled, word-of-mouth and sheer persistence brought in several more. Here I would like to point out that I made every effort to work with already established groups working in the field of grassroots economic development. In some areas those folks may be few and far between, and as we know our networks are not always as easily navigable as we would like. Obviously, if there had been an active cooperative development center in the area (or even cluster of cooperatives or developers), they would be the perfect partners for this sort of endeavor."

Finding Projects

Melissa Hoover (Executive Director of the USFWC) had developed a project intake sheet that was invaluable, but since most of the projects came in at the last minute, I had long telephone and email conversations with most organizers in order to try to assess the needs of their groups and match volunteers. I was having these conversations up until the day that our work started. I also asked all volunteer participants to provide me with a list of their business, cooperative and economic development skills so that I could match them with projects. These are the projects that we hustled up for the workweek:

1) The Algiers Community Collective (ACC) is a collective group of concerned citizens who have come together to make sure that Algiers develops in a fair and equitable way. The ACC feels that the community must be involved at every level in this process and that any plan for redevelopment in Algiers should reflect the community's wishes. Members of the collective include: Craige Cultural Center, Blackstar Learning Academy, Common Ground Health Clinic, Leadership Discovery & various individuals. USFWC volunteers helped the ACC refine their group process and shared experience and knowledge about similar cooperative efforts. Volunteers also met with ACC member groups looking to incorporate cooperative practice in their projects.

2) The mission of the New Orleans Food Cooperative is to provide healthy, affordable groceries while supporting local and regional food production. The New Orleans Food Cooperative will open at least one cooperative grocery store in New Orleans, owned by and serving the local community. USFWC volunteers met with co-op stakeholders to provide needed input on democratic process, board development, and membership recruitment.

3) The Renaissance Project operates several farmers markets in New Orleans. The group is also sponsoring the development of 16 community gardens in the city. USFWC volunteers shoveled several tons of soil (donated by a nearby horse farm) at an urban micro-farm! Volunteers also helped construct a rainwater harvesting system and raised garden beds at a neighborhood community garden.

4) The New Orleans Rhythm Conspiracy Collective is the proposed umbrella organization for a variety of New Orleans worker co-op businesses operating within the region's music, arts, creative, cultural and entertainment industries, and also comprised of several associated organizations, businesses and programs. These include: Rhythm Conspiracy Productions - to be a worker co-op providing products and services such as a talent marketing, booking, merchandising and event production agency; CulturePAC - political action committee to advocate and assert the needs of producers, workers and enterprises in the creative industries; An entertainment industry transportation company; Community Development Through Music - a low-income initiative and workforce development/entrepreneurial training program in non-performing aspects of the music and entertainment industry, (artist support services ). USFWC volunteers helped with many aspects of project expansion, specializing in technological development, cooperative management and finance.

5) USFWC volunteers met with various community stakeholders to discuss the possibility of developing a cooperative Biofuel production facility that will serve Louisiana shrimpers. This early development discussion included shrimpers, economic development professionals, local cooperative development organizers and a community lending group.

6) Since its inception seven days after Hurricane Katrina struck, Common Ground Relief has sustained vibrant volunteer-led programs that have served tens of thousands of people, and continues to host a wide variety of volunteer run projects, which provide services ranging from free legal advice to mowing lawns, from construction assistance to wetlands restoration. Common Ground is spearheading several community based cooperative endeavors. USFWC volunteers toured Common Ground projects and provided basic development assistance.

Finding volunteers

Finding volunteer participants was easier than finding projects. People responded with excitement at the opportunity to serve. Volunteers learned of the opportunity through email announcements and information on the USDFWC web site. I was personally excited to see such an amazing mix of new cooperators and old hands. Demographically we had a wonderfully diverse group. I think the approach of offering various opportunities appealed to many people. It seemed very important to be able to give people who felt they had fewer development and business skills the opportunity to volunteer in other, very productive ways. We initially had in mind to help with housing rebuilding but that landscape is changing in New Orleans. Happily we found the community gardening projects, and the enthusiasm for getting down in the dirt by all participants was unparalleled. Strange as it may seem for such a food centric culture, New Orleans is something of a food desert, so this work was very rewarding on many levels. Moreover we had all just spent several days inside meeting rooms at the conference and getting outside was restorative.

Coordination

My approach to coordinating the actual work was to introduce the general idea to prospective projects, listen closely and ask questions of them, and then schedule a time for some work. I determined who of the volunteers might be a good match then sent all the information to a team leader (I used my best judgment on this and assigned "leaders" as I saw fit). I gave detailed information to the team leader about team member skills, contact information, the project information and contacts and then let them go at it. I tried to schedule time for group meetings before the project work and I brought a library of cooperative development materials in the trunk of my car and let everyone have access. Though the projects assessed their own needs to a great degree, with "new" ideas such as cooperation it can be hard to know what help to ask for. It is a case of "not knowing what you don't know." It was good that we had materials available to give to project folks and to refresh ourselves about such principles as cooperative development stages; consensus based decision-making guidelines; and general cooperative business best practice.

As I mentioned, some of the projects did not come together until the day before the workweek was to begin. Happily we had some last minute volunteers with good skills who had not been assigned to other projects. I plugged them into ad-hoc preparation meetings and watched some amazing last minute, crunch-time organizing take place.

Scheduling was the most interesting and complicated part of coordinating the workweek. Several things seemed crucially important to me. First, I wanted to match volunteer skills with projects, but I also wanted to expose volunteers who had less development experience to the talents of the "old-pros." Every team had at least one member who had completed the Cooperation Works training. Every team had several actual cooperative worker-owners and every team had a variety of skills and experiences. Second, not every volunteer stayed the whole time and some had other commitments in town during the week. This had to be carefully manipulated. I also wanted everyone to be able to do a nice mix of what we called "brain" and "brawn" work. Everybody who wanted to got the opportunity to do some serious community gardening in the very hot New Orleans summer weather. We did some excellent good work in this regard and had a ton of fun as well. Lastly I had to remember to schedule in time for meals, transportation and tourist type fun! (Here I might add that cooperators work and play hard like nobody else I know.)

In order to keep a handle on all of this I developed a fairly complex matrix (I used Microsoft Excel) of projects, volunteer availability and skills, and time constraints. I then massaged it all until it gave in and fell into place.

Happily, the scheduling seemed to go fairly well and the few exceptions were easily forgiven, as the volunteers were very aware that this was a first-time event and that it was all something of an experiment.

Housing

I arranged cheap housing at a local university and almost everyone was satisfied with the accommodations. Of course there were some tough last minute logistical problems (for example, the swipe-cards for food at the cafeteria did not work for two of the four days) but those are to be expected in a complicated situation.

Budget

The budget for the workweek was simple. Income consisted of volunteer money and grants. A couple of volunteers did not initially realize that volunteering has its own costs and needed housing and food expenses paid. I promised everybody a spot, regardless of ability to pay and gratefully Melissa Hoover hustled up a bit of money for housing, travel and food scholarships. Our expenses included the facilities, transportation (though several volunteers bought their own vehicles, we rented a car which proved invaluable), and compensation for me. We also spent a little bit of money on gardening projects that would not have gone forward without supplies.

Project Results

It's easy to see the squash and peppers growing in the community gardens as direct results of our work, but the development work is obviously harder to quantify. As we know, the results of our good work are not always immediately apparent. USFWC development volunteers spread the fertile soil of cooperation and sowed some skillful seeds, but of course results may vary! This is a list of follow up activities and some results that I am aware of that came out of our labor.

  • Cooperative development and non-profit consulting were provided to the Latino Farmer's Cooperative of Louisiana in August. The LFCL is a non-profit service agriculture association of farmers, gardeners and consumers organized and incorporated under the Louisiana Agriculture Cooperative Law. The Latino Farmers Incubator Project is the group's cornerstone project, intended to build capacity of a new generation of farmers and address the social- economic inequalities of the New Orleans community. The USFWC also provided grant money for the LFCL to develop a web site.
  • Common Ground representatives are hoping to participate in the upcoming Praxis tour of the Mondragon cooperatives.
  • A work week volunteer set up a communications web site for the Algiers Community Collective.
  • A post conference follow-up meeting was held with several development volunteers who attended the work-week, representatives of the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center and the Louisiana Cooperative Association, to discuss continued national support of New Orleans cooperative development. This dialog is scheduled to continue.
  • An Algiers Community Collective founding member visited volunteer cooperators in Minneapolis in August.

USFWC work-week volunteers are eager to continue the work and are hoping to revisit New Orleans sometime this coming fall.

What I Would Do Differently

Having people from various disciplines and interests involved in planning and promotion got a lot of bases covered and I was thrilled with the broad involvement from the community for both the conference and the workweek. However, one can never do enough outreach. A "marketing plan" tailored to the area might have been a good option. Many areas of our country do not have a strong cooperative business understanding and if given the chance to redo the workweek I would have had us reach out to even more groups of people in order to spread the cooperative message. Volunteers could do more basic and generalized community outreach in addition to specific projects. For example, volunteers could be scheduled to speak about cooperatives to business classes at local colleges. We need to remember that our allies are everywhere (they just may not know it yet!). Right now there is huge interest in cooperatives from many sectors and we have a lot of bases to cover.

I would have also insured that volunteers knew more about the community before we started our work. I regret that I did not find someone to do a briefing for participants. There was quite a bit of information on New Orleans available through the conference but an hour long presentation specifically for volunteers would have been very useful.

In retrospect, it is very clear that there should have been a built in follow up plan for projects. I did not have an "out-take" survey prepared. I did stress to project coordinators that they should remember to share cooperative resource options with project participants. Happily, lists of resources are available from the USFWC and other like places, but it seems important to have actual personal follow-up. Perhaps we should have had a team member serve as the "future-follow-up-point-person" for each project. It is hard to know exactly how to keep in contact with projects and how to help support continued momentum. Ideally there would be a local cooperative development center in place to work through but in New Orleans that was not the case. Several of us national folks are trying to find ways to help New Orleans develop a local nexus for cooperative development as this seems to be paramount for future development.

Continued communication with volunteers fell into place naturally. It is not possible to insure continued excitement and involvement by all the people all the time. I am happy that about 6 or 7 volunteers stay active in continued New Orleans cooperative development efforts through web-based communication. A centralized web area may be called for in the future if workweeks are scheduled at subsequent USFWC conferences.

Final Thoughts

I think I do not need to recount the reasons that New Orleans seems such a perfect spot for sustained cooperative attention and development. It is a complicated and beautiful city with a unique, frequently painful and recently tragic history, and a magnificent, rich and very distinctive culture. Perhaps most importantly, a whole bunch of good, regular folks live there who are trying to find a way to revive and sustain their town. It is all things worth working for. As a native of Louisiana working in our field of grassroots economic organizing in New Orleans for the past two years, I am proud of and pleased with the cooperative presence that the USFWC conference and workweek brought to the city. I am grateful to my fellow cooperators for their hard work and support. Cooperatives and cooperators rock!

If you are moved to help out with ongoing cooperative development efforts in New Orleans, please contact our colleague Harvey Reed at the Louisiana Association of Cooperatives at (504) 319-1085 or by email.

Please email me if you have more specific questions about organizing the workweek. You may also want to join our workweek yahoo group. You can view pictures of our work here.

Erin Rice was a worker-owner at Collective Copies in Amherst, MA for 12 years. She is currently a doctoral student in Management at the University of Houston and is studying strategic advantage and worker cooperatives. Erin is a member of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives.

Lisa Stolarski's home is in Pittsburgh where she is involved in cooperative education and development through Keystone Development Center, East End Food Co-op and Jane Street Housekeeping CC. She is a board member of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the publication coordinator of A Discussion Course on Cooperatives available at www.discussioncourse.coop.

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