A podcast with Jim Johnson on P2P cooperative development
(see below for transcript)
Introduction by Michael Johnson
Jim and I sat down in early June to record for 20 minutes or so how we wanted to do our interview/conversation about peer-to-peer (P2P) learning. We knew we wanted to focus on this as a democratic driving force for cooperative/solidarity economic movements. We also wanted it to help as a lead-up to the ADWC 5 pre-conference to the ECWD conference in October. But we hadn’t worked out how we would cover in the video interview, and keep it within an hour or so time limit.
So we squeezed out a time, sat down, turned on the recorder, and went right to work. Somewhere an hour or so down the road I woke up to the fact that we were just about finished with a whole interview. It’s like it was already there just waiting for the record button.
For the first 30 minutes Jim tells us about his life and how it led up to his becoming involved with cooperative development and movement building as his life’s work. You might think you can cut to the chase by skipping this part. I would strongly suggest you don’t make that mistake. Jim’s personal story reveals how one individual received and developed the culturalDNA for a life committed to a deeply democratic approach to developing co-ops and a movement. And it is P2P learning that can transmit, nurture, and grow this democratic culturalDNA.
Our movement is populated by a number of “organic intellectuals” and I would include Jim among them. This is a term Antonio Gramsci and Cornell West use to refer to individuals who have come to ideas and passionate convictions through lived experience rather than by building theories upon other theories. Jim’s whole development as a human being, co-op developer, and movement organizer flows together from the roots of his family up-bringing.
It is this organic dimension that is, in Jim’s and mine view, captured by peer-to-peer learning processes. The learning happens experientially and through relationship building in contrast to being conveyed conceptually or through exercises for the most part. In this form of learning peer mentors—people who are skilled in a craft such as experienced worker-owners—impart their knowledge and wisdom organically through their relationships with mentees. And they do this in the personal context of the mentees’ problems and struggles as a learner of a new craft. That is, from the lived experience of the mentor and into the lived experience of the mentees. Underlying this exchange is a dynamic and reciprocal reflection on each’s experience so that the role of learner becomes mutual.
But enough of this for now. Jim’s descriptions and stories during the podcast are much more organic than my prattling on.
One last point for this introduction, however. Jim’s vision of how to use P2P learning is multiple. It includes the development of peer mentors as well as them mentoring new worker-owners. Being a successful worker-owner—crafts person of any kind—does not translate into being a mentor. This is a craft in its own right, and must be learned. So for P2P learning to be the democratic driving force for our co-ops and solidarity economic institutions and our movements, it must be used in multiple ways.
Michael Johnson: So, Jim, it seems to me that this [ADWC] 5 is like a big moment in your...I’m gonna use the word “career”...
Jim Johnson: You should use the word loosely, right?
MJ: ...career or life’s work, I mean this...and so...
JJ: It’s more of a passion than a career [laughing] .
MJ: Right..and so therefore it's some way in which it is very central to your own life. So what got you into the field? What was it about the field? Was it in some way in which you are searching your whatever it was...anything in your personal background and history, like your parents may have been Red parents and you went to all the Red summer camps, etc. etc. or whatever it was?
JJ: Yeah, it does go back to my family of origin I think and there is a lot more to it than that, but I do think it starts there. Although I wouldn't say my parents were “reds.” They were progressives, in the, right, really late 50s into the 60s and 70s. but it's important to note, I think, that what what drove them to be progressives was was really just an overriding sense of fairness. It was like they were very different people but that's one thing that they were both very committed to. They are both misfits in their own way. And so for them, there is a natural sensitivity to people who are marginalized and a passion for fairness.
And my mother grew up in really severe rural poverty, and is Acadian, which was very much...in Maine are second-class citizens in the 50s, right? So, she very much felt that prejudice really through the 40s and 50s. So there's a sensitivity there to the underdog for both of them. And that naturally led them, when the civil rights movement started happening they were like “of course, people of color should have equal rights, who could be against that?” It was just a no-brainer for them because they're coming from this fundamental thing about, let's have a level playing field for everybody. Let's be fair, first.
And my father is too free of a spirit to really be all that employable. And so, after a few years working for a big corporation -- that job was arranged for him through family connections -- he struck out on his own with a small business, and that was just his way of coping with his own nonconformity, basically. And they still run a little business out of their house. Sometime in the 50s he did that, late 50s. And it's been that way since then.
So that's the key thing I think, is unlike a lot of progressives who came up at that time, I grew up in an environment of small business, right? And all the kids had to work in the business. And we had...we saw how the money was made, constantly, right? And our business, our family business, was always a do-it-yourself operation. You could say it was a very tangible form of economic self-determination, okay?
So that was always very very much intertwined with progressive values, and the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement that happened at that time. And my parents' house was a hub for local activists, and so there were interesting people coming through the house all the time.
They were very egalitarian -- maybe too egalitarian in their child-rearing philosophy, and so us kids were included in those conversations, we were encouraged to sit in and listen and ask questions during these very big high-minded discussions between progressive activists that used to happen in our living room all the time. And so that was just the culture of my upbringing. And it could be, you know this being the 60s and 70s, it could be very tribal at times. And so that really had a huge effect on me, and particularly the heyday of that period was for me between the ages of seven and 11 or so, which I think were very impressionable times for me.
So for me that was my lived experience, and especially that, you know, your economic enterprise is something that's local, hands-on, do-it-yourself. And it's participatory and transparent and it's completely aligned with progressive values. And so you know, fairness and inclusion and very dead serious about social justice and so to me those things have always gone together.
So naturally, when I struck out on my own, you know, one of the first things I did was I found a food co-op, and that was, I just, you know...My mom joined food co-op, I was working the volunteer hours on behalf of the family so we could get our 40% discount. And it was just a natural fit. And through the community of people that I found through that food co-op, I found all sorts of other avenues. I found nonviolence training. I found an antinuclear activism. I found Quakerism, the Movement for a New Society. You know all sorts of alternative threads.
And this was a period, it was the late 70s, but to a certain extent, you know, the country was still shaking off a lot of the conformity that followed after World War II. A lot of the reason the counterculture happened in the first place was a reaction against just how conformist the US was at the time. I'm not sure a lot of folks today recall or appreciate how incredibly conformist the US could be in the 50s and 60s.
MJ: This is during the late 40s and 50s.
JJ: Yeah, exactly, and so much of the counterculture was a reaction against that. And of course it was the Cold War. and also I’m not sure a lot of people today can appreciate the incredible chilling effect that the Cold War had. How we were taught to think that every day was a battle for survival. We did nuclear fallout drills in my elementary school: “duck and cover,” right?
MJ: I remember.
JJ: You remember. Yeah, see? And a lot of folks... So there was that presence that like, “nuclear war could happen any day.” “The Russians could bomb us any day,” right? And it was just really oppressive. A lot of people were rebelling against that and saying “No, there are different ways.” So, that’s all the context.
I basically transitioned out of the family home, and out of the family business, and right into what was left of a lot of the dissident movements in the late 70s and early 80s.
MJ: So how did you get into the cooperatives, as not only a lifestyle, but as the way you’ve fed yourself?
JJ: Well, it started with being comfortable with business, in the family business, and then getting into the food co-op and through the food co-op I found more radical collectivist projects. And one of the things I hit, once I moved into DC in 1980, and one of the things that made me feel different was I had business experience and I understood customer relations. I knew how to sell a good or service to a customer. I had learned that stuff, right, and I was accustomed to what was essentially a freelance lifestyle at that time. And most of the folks I was hanging out with these radical collectives in DC: middle-class, upper-class, educated, but no business experience. People who are more academically inclined, or artistically inclined, or inclined towards literature or fine arts, but they were not business people. And so this was something that was a little strange to them.
I remember having debates about the environmental movement with these folks and saying, “Look, you know, this is a false framing,” how the environmental movement – and especially I was wrapped up in the radical environmental movement – “you know, the economy is not our enemy. We have to find a way to get our economy and the environment aligned and that’s going to be the key to the environmental movement actually prevailing.” They thought I was crazy. They would literally laugh at me when I said that.
But there were some people back then who were just beginning to see the same thing. This was the beginning of the green business movement, and sustainable economics. But that was a foreign concept to most people, including very advanced thinkers in the movement were not thinking in terms of sustainable economics. It was much more about “we need stronger government regulations, blah, blah, blah...” So that that the alignment of progressive values with economics, for the progressive movement actually have a strong economic program, is just not where they were at. They were still they were still getting over Stalinism, basically. Still shaking it off in a lot of ways and finding a better way.
And so, that was sort of how I was different than. But that also naturally meant that we could find common ground on something like Mondragon. And my affinity group studied Mondragon in 1982 or so. This BBC documentary about Mondragon came out and we screened it in our collective. That was a very validating moment for me. Because we looked at each other like, “this is it.” We have an economic model that we can all believe in, as progressives, and it's already happening. It isn’t some theory, right? This thing is vibrant, and functioning, and it’s a regional economic democracy. This is where it’s at. So, then I started reading more about the collectives in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and realized that there really is...You know this is a model.
So, that went from there, and I went through the 80s and continued to operate in a number of collectivist efforts. Did a little bit of consulting to my local food co-op. But there was a lot going on and it was the Reagan era, the Reagan-Bush era. There was, you know, up until the end of the Cold War, what really diverted us was trying to stop nuclear war. That was kind of an all-consuming effort that didn't leave a lot of room for long-term sustainable economic planning. We were trying to make sure the world didn’t end tomorrow.
And so when the Cold War ended in late 80s, early 90s, I think...
MJ: ‘89 was the Berlin Wall.
JJ: The Berlin Wall came down and I think the Soviet Union collapsed not long after. That really changed the equation for progressives a lot, in the US. And it was disorienting in a way, but it also opened up a lot of space in the activist sphere. We were like, “okay, nuclear war is looking like a lot less of a threat, and so maybe we can focus on ecological sustainability. Maybe we can focus on longer-term things now. And then sustainable economics started rising.
So I did a lot of reflecting in the early 90s, I had to do a lot of shifting of gears myself. I was freelancing, I got into computers. I basically, you know...my family business was electronics, so I had been making a living as a freelance electronics technician, and that naturally got me into doing freelance computer tech support, pretty gracefully. That was about the mid-80s. But what really drove me into that was “how can we use technology to help activist movements?” And that fit in nicely with the cooperative sector, actually, because there were a lot of co-ops, especially food co-ops that were growing. The food co-op movement, what we call the third wave of the co-op movement, started in the mid-70s, and continued very quickly to grow consistently through the 90s and beyond. And in an activist context that's unusual because, you know, I got deeply involved in different movements in the late 70s, but those movements are also in the process of shrinking, and the country was in the process of swinging right, and electing Reagan twice and Bush 41 once after that. So the country was moving right and these progressive movements were really shrinking all through the 80s into the 90s. But what I discovered in the early to mid-90s was that cooperative movement was growing. It took awhile for that to show up on my radar, but I guess like I say, after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union there was an opportunity to think more long-term as an activist. And I did a lot of reflecting and I looked back on what are my strengths? What am I good at? What comes naturally to me? What am I naturally passionate about? I came I came back to progressive activism and sustainable economics, green economics.
MJ: So, you'd been thinking long-term for a long time. That was always part of your modus operandi. Not just in terms of the issue.
JJ: Right, right, very much, and like I say, you know, the potential for nuclear war was largely a distraction, and I always felt that way through the 80s, when I was in my 20s. I was like “all we’re doing here is trying to prevent disaster, we’re not really building a sustainable society with what we’re doing”. We were reacting to an emergency, and so when we had the opportunity to actually do some long-term planning I went right back to my roots, and that naturally led me back to the Mondragon example, and the food cooperatives. I realized that this is my chance to actually start building something, instead of fighting something, right?
MJ: So is that when you guys started the tech worker cooperative?
JJ: Yeah. It was a great example of how getting deeply involved in one co-op leads you to other types of co-ops, because in the mid-90s I decided to volunteer in my food co-op, and I was like, “Where should I go from here?” You know, “I want to get back to pushing on sustainable business. Is there something I can contribute that a lot of people are elevating or lifting up?” and what can I bring to it? I can bring tech skills.
So I started volunteering at my food co-op, and right away they were like, “Oh my God, we need so much computer help,” right? And so they needed a lot more computer help than I could give volunteer, actually, so they were like, “okay we’ll pay you.” So that became my first long-term consulting gig to a co-op, doing tech support – computer tech support – for my local food co-op and they needed a lot of help. And so that just went on and on, and it turns out like so many co-ops at the time – this is mid-90s – they needed to expand. They were bursting at the seams. They had way more business than their little store could handle and they needed to open a bigger store, and they wisely realized they needed to get to a point-of-sale system, they needed networked computers, they needed to develop all those skills as an organization just to manage their own growth.
And so there were some things, like I didn’t know a lot about point-of-sale systems, but I knew a lot about computers in general and databases in general. So I struck a deal with them and I was like, “Look, I’m going to be learning on the job but I'll give you a low rate.” And they were like, “that's great because we can’t afford to pay, you know, a full rate.”
And so I worked for them for years. Often, 30, 40 hours a week, as a somewhat low-paid contractor, and I got deeply into food co-op point-of-sale systems, IT systems. And one of the reasons I got into IT in general, as an activist I was always interested in what makes an effective organization. And one of the best ways to build a really good understanding of organizations is to study their information processes. When you are an IT consultant to a small organization, you learn everything about their organization, because you have to track how every piece of information flows through the organization. So it’s one of the best ways to get into organizational development, is through IT.
MJ: So you were this long-term consultant with the food co-op, it is that when you started your own business? So that was what, about mid-90s or…?
JJ: Yeah, that was mid- to late-90s, and you could say that – I mean I had been freelancing before that. I did a stint for a few years as a headhunter for computer programmers, so that I could learn about the computer industry. Also as a freelance electronics technician, usually through word-of-mouth, connecting with different people.
But yeah, that was really when it became this solid full-time gig for me, doing consulting to a co-op full-time. And networking with other food co-ops. One of the great advantages of the co-op sector is co-ops don't compete with each other, they help each other, right? And so I plugged into that network of food co-op IT people, which was national, that was extremely useful for learning things and connecting me to other co-ops, giving me a sense of larger movement.
And then another thing happened that was very important, which was there was a small software company just a couple blocks away from my food co-op. And they became aware of my work at the food co-op, because they were shopping there. And I made a connection with them, got acquainted with them, developed some rapport. They were a growing company and they had a small tech-support division,and they were having a lot of success on the software development front, but they still had some tech-support customers. They started farming out their tech-support work to me. And that went on for a year or two, it worked out really well. And then they needed a programmer, and I had one part of my freelance work in building websites in the mid-90s. When the web came along I looked up some old radical friends and we were all thinking the same thing. We were like, “let's get into building websites.” So in addition to all this other stuff I was doing, I was building websites on the side with some of my old friends.
So I had some skill building websites, which in those days was really not that complicated. You know, the technology was new and you could really pick it up pretty quickly if you were already in tech. So this little software company, they took me on as a contract programmer for a few months, helping them build websites. It was a steep learning curve but they were coaching me on a lot of stuff, and the fact that I already had a business relationship with them – they knew they could trust me, they knew I was committed to quality work.
And so they gave me a long runway in which to come up to speed on this really rather sophisticated website programming that they were doing. And so that went on for a few months and everybody was happy, but at one point they said, “this is great, but we’re paying you like 50 bucks an hour and we can’t afford to keep doing that. We want to hire you instead, as a W-2.” And up until that point, I had never been a full-time W-2 in my whole life. I’d just always been a freelancer, occasionally some part-time W-2 stuff here and there. And so I was like, “well I don't usually do that, you know, it’s just that's not my thing.” And they knew my history, with my family business everything, so I said, “Look, I will consider becoming a full-time W-2 and taking a significant pay cut going to a W-2 instead of as a contractor, but I want an equal share of the business. I'm accustomed to owning my own business and that's really what's going to be valuable to me. You can pay me less money if you make me a co-owner.”
And so they said, “well you know that's really interesting because we have wanted to become a democratically-owned business, and we’re already sort of informally, democratically worker-managed, but we want to formalize worker-ownership. We don't even know how to do that.” And I said, “well, have you looked at becoming a worker co-op, like Mondragon?” And they said, “what’s a worker co-op? What’s Mondragon?” So I was like, “well, okay, I can talk you through this. I can coach you in this.”
MJ: So this was your first development job as well?
JJ: Yeah, well you could say it was my first worker co-op job, absolutely. You could say I was doing food co-op development, on the IT side, already, right? Because you do IT, you’re going to end up doing business development too, right?
But yeah, this was my first worker co-op project, and it was a conversion of the company that I had just joined. So they hired me on, we had some very vague plans about what we wanted, and basically we started writing bylaws. And you know, coaching everybody through that process. I was already familiar with the process of food co-op bylaws and it wasn't that different.
So we got some help from the ICA Group and they actually gave us model bylaws to work from, so that was a huge leap forward. But it took a long time, partly because this little software company was having like explosive growth and we went from – I was worker number four and within two years we had hired three more people. So we went from 4 to 7 in like a year and a half, or something. Mondragon has that motto, “we build the road as we travel,” right? And so that's exactly what we were doing. This little company was traveling fast, it was growing fast, and we were building out this worker co-op infrastructure at the same time. So it was a lot of multitasking, a lot of work. And just a lot of having to talk things through. Because how workplace democracy actually works – what do you do in this situation? what do you do in that situation? – it was a lot to work out, but we did. We worked it out.
So that was my first conversion, and my first worker co-op, and my first worker co-op development experience all in one.
MJ: How long were you in that?
JJ: I was there for 10 years, total. The founder of the business stayed on for a couple years after we converted to full democratic, every worker is equal, worker-ownership. When he left, after a couple years, they wanted me to become president. And I was like, “I’ll become president as long as it's strictly a ceremonial position and there’s no authority involved.” So I spent the last three years there as president.
MJ: But it was a leadership role.
JJ: It was a leadership role. What that really meant was I didn't have any power but when there were pissed-off customers on the phone, or when government officials or lawyers called up, they would say, “oh please hold, I’ll connect you to the president.” It’s like, “Jim, there’s a live one coming in.” And I’m like, “great.” But that has a value. Sometimes, you know, it helps people to know that they’re talking to the president. They become more reasonable even though, push comes to shove, I would say, “well, actually we have a seven-way partnership. Every worker here is an equal owner so it’s really a partnership you’re dealing with.”
MJ: So you transitioned out of that business. Did you transition into worker co-op development? Or actually cooperative….actually, you been doing cooperative development because you were working with food co-ops, so did you just transition into that as a full-time…?
JJ: One of the things that happened, I had a number of clients when I joined the software company, and one of them was the food co-op. And so when I joined the software company, I brought my clients to the software company. And told my clients, “alright, you can still use me, but you’re gonna be billed through my company now, through this new company that I’m working with.” And everybody's cool with that. So, I continued to consult to the food co-op through my worker co-op. And that eventually became, actually, management consulting, it eventually expanded out of just strictly IT. And the general manager there used me to do basically management consulting, like designing and filling new positions, and things like that. And essentially overseeing the IT department of the co-op in some important ways.
Because IT departments can be very difficult to manage, because in the food co-op sector, very few workers in the food co-op really understand what the IT people are doing. And so it can be difficult to make sure they're actually working on the most important stuff, using their time effectively, and solving the problems they’re supposed to solve.
So I continue to consult the co-op through my worker co-op. Also, one day we were talking about how we needed an attorney who was savvy with co-ops. We had an attorney, but we weren't happy with him. We had a CPA, we weren’t happy with our CPA. They didn't get us, really, and so it was difficult to work with them because they didn't really understand our priorities or our culture. And so, I was like, “alright, dammit, I'm going to find us a lawyer who actually aligns with our values.” Where do I go for this? Well, I started talking to other worker co-ops. Let me find the other worker co-ops in our region and see which lawyer they're using, right? And I got feedback. Most of them I talked to were like, “hey we’re unhappy with our lawyer too, and if you find a good one, let us know.” Okay, but in the course of that I found the GEO Collective website. I was out there on the web searching around, and I found the GEO website, and that's how I ended up joining the GEO Collective.
MJ: You joined in about 2005?
JJ: Yup, 2005. And I didn't know about the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. I was not in the loop in the worker co-op movement that much. And so it was members of the GEO Collective who told me about that conference. And so in 2005 I flew to New Hampshire and went to this conference and it just totally blew my mind that the sector was that organized. I was able to connect with all these different worker co-op people, including other IT work co-ops. And the whole universe just opened up for me, at that point.
And that conference actually had a track by the ICA Group. A whole track in the conference is about how to start a worker co-op. And so five years after I had joined this software company and started the conversion process, I finally went through a formal training course for starting worker co-ops, which was extremely enlightening. It was very, very helpful.
And then that kind of plugged me into this national network, and I found out that just a year before the US Federation [of Worker Cooperatives] had been founded. There was this national Federation, too. And so that was extremely important. And then a really funny thing happened not long after that, which was, a woman who was the executive director of a national network of co-op developers called our worker co-op with a request for some software development. It was a software application she wanted to develop for this network, and this was CooperationWorks! And she consulted with us at length about how to build a software application that would benefit co-op developers, and make their lives easier. And it’s through this process, through that contact, that I became aware that there was this national network of co-op developers, and that they had a training program. And so in 2006 I signed up for that training program. And it was a total of three sessions, over a year. And through that – and I took a couple weeks off to do two one-week sessions, and I took a couple weeks off at different times, flew to Madison or drove to Madison – I forget which, I think I drove to Madison – and spent a week with co-op developers from all over the country, and people learning to be co-op developers, and became aware of this whole network of co-op development centers, and the funding – where they get the funding, and how they do it. These are cross sector co-op developers.
MJ: So this is all peer-to-peer learning.
MJ: Just immersed in it.
JJ: Yes, exactly. I'm glad you're taking it back to that. So the peer-to-peer learning, the conference connecting me with other worker-owners and other worker co-ops. CooperationWorks! connected me to other co-op developers. Peer-to-peer between developers, not between worker-owners. But very much about peer learning. Yes, totally.
And it's worth noting, that’s pretty much the way I've always learned. Because, you know, there wasn't money for college in my family. There was the family business instead. They didn’t send me to college, right? And so the family business was very much do-it-yourself. I mean it was electronics, and the field of electronics was constantly evolving. And so, very much like in the IT industry, the electronics industry in the 70s and 80s was evolving very quickly. I started fixing televisions in the mid-70s. We were just starting to get away from vacuum tubes. We were just starting to see all these completely solid-state televisions, and my father was bewildered by these. He was a vacuum tube guy. So he threw a few books at me and said, “learn transistors,” right? So I went through the books, and I had televisions that I could practice on. So I learned electronics basically from books and from this vacuum tube guy who sort of understood solid-state a little bit.
MJ: So from the very, very beginning your lived experience, which is really what is the power of peer-to-peer learning. Everyone's working from lived experience. You had it in running a business, of being part of a business. So you are a business person. Pure, lived experience. Electronics, and you got immersed in cooperatives in four or five different ways, and then you got immersed in a movement about all of this that was drawing on all your lived experience. So there’s a whole continuum of learning through lived experience.
JJ: It’s all...practically every useful piece of learning that I've done, everything I’ve ever learned has been experientially. Either by doing it or by, you know, collaborating with people who are doing it. Sharing information and mutual coaching with people who are working from their lived experience, their experiential learning. And like I say, the field of electronics growing quickly, IT growing quickly, co-ops growing quickly, and software is very much about this too, is it's changing so fast the universities don't keep up very well. You can only learn by doing it, really. And those few years I did as a headhunter, at one point I crunched the numbers and I realized that half of the really good computer programmers that I had ever placed did not have degrees. They were the nerds in school that had just taught themselves things fiddling around with the stuff, what we now call makers, okay?
And so it's all experiential learning, and if I have a bias, that’s it. It’s the type of learning that I value, and if you can imagine doing this up until the mid-90s, doing this without the net. It’s got to be from books, and personal connections, begging time from people who know more than I do, buying lunch, buying dinner for people who know more than I do, so they let me pick their brains, right? And so it’s very much about, you know, making those connections with people. And the fields of co-op development, and worker co-op development, and peer-to-peer of course, is very much about those relations.
MJ: And this very much shaped your approach to being a cooperative developer.
JJ: Very much, very much. And there are some tension around that too, because there's co-op developers that come from the grassroots co-op organizing world, like me, and then there's also co-op developers who come to it through, you know, academic learning, through classroom learning. They’re in some other profession and they bridge over to co-op development, right? And so it's...those folks are, maybe incorrectly, sometimes called professional class of developers. And they come from a professional culture, as opposed to people like me who come from more than organizing culture, you know? We see it needs to be done, we jump in and figure out how to do it. And the experiential learners versus the more Academy-type learners.
MJ: What we have right now is a burgeoning, not only of worker cooperatives, but I think of the whole field of cooperative, solidarity economics or alternative economics. So the role of the developer becomes very key at this point. There is more money coming in from cities, there is more money coming in from the nonprofit world, and maybe just from individual or a small group of philanthropists, or what have you. So, how to use this? And then there's this tension between...you’ve got two different approaches to cooperative development that are in tension with each other. And you're definitely committed to a peer-to-peer development approach, as opposed to the expert..or maybe you should characterize the other approach because you're more acquainted with it than I am.
JJ: It's interesting. I mean it’s...I think it's important to...this is tricky, but I think it's true: it's not completely either-or in terms of who brings what value to the table. And when I was, in 2005, 2006, when I realize that, okay there’s this network of professional co-op developers out there, there’s this training course, the CooperationWorks! Training, pretty much the only place in the country at the time that you could be trained as a co-op developer. It was the only place to get it.
And so, I went there and it was definitely a very different culture. There were people there who were grassroots like me, including the Executive Director of CW at the time. But there were people from many other cultures and most of them were operating in rural areas because that's where the funding is for co-op development, or at the time most of the co-op funding was for rural co-ops.
MJ: It comes out of Roosevelt’s programs. The TVA, and...they had a lot of co-op money going into rural cooperatives.
JJ: Especially electric cooperatives, exactly.
MJ: And then it was some kind of an agreement that Roosevelt had to make with...we don't go into the cities because that's the capitalist territory. There’s kind of a division of the country.
JJ: I don't know exactly how that fell out, but there was a key program that was instituted in 1995 called the Rural Cooperative Development Grant Program that was very special because it was millions of dollars being put directly into organizations that were doing rural co-op development. This money came out of the USDA. And a lot of it was built up around the farm bill, and there was a lot of activity around in the late 20th century about family farms and preserving the rural way of life. So there was a lot of political will to preserve rural economies and that became millions of dollars from the Federal government going directly to co-op development. So that's where a lot of CooperationWorks! came from, or most of it came from.
So the bottom line there, it was culturally very different. At the same time they were very intrigued with worker co-ops, they were very interested in the prospects there. The more forward thinking developers were very interested in worker co-ops. They saw the potential there. And so, there was no other training program, you know, this was it. And so you know I'm just enormously indebted to the folks that put together the CooperationWorks! training program and the fact that participating in that program also gave the relationships with all those people, and plugged me into that network where I could get experiential learning. Where I can have colleagues, or I can send an email, or call ‘em up and ask ‘em questions, and they'll talk to me for 20, 30 minutes or longer, right? They’ll give me their time because I'm a developer too. And so at that period…
MJ: And you were also...it was a give and take. People were calling you.
JJ: And they would always make me their IT guy, you know. When we got together it’s like, “Jim, you know, try to figure out how to make the projector work.” It was always like that. Okay so there was a lot of give-and-take.
And so the bottom line there, though, is that there was this great scarcity of access to the process of becoming a co-op developer, and this CW training was it when I was starting out. The Federation existed, but it was still getting on its feet, and that's one reason I – speaking of experiential learning – when the Federation in 2009, finally got to the point where it could mount its own training program for worker co-op developers, or what we call peer advisors, that became the top priority in my life.
MJ: This is DAWN.
JJ: This is what became DAWN.
MJ: DAWN stands for…
JJ: Democracy at Work Network. But the roots of it go back to 2004, at the very first national conference for worker co-ops – which I think was in Minnesota, in Minneapolis I believe – and they polled everybody, and they said, “what are our priorities? We now have a national federation, what are our priorities?” I think there were half a dozen or so...Ajowa was there, she would know...but there were about a half a dozen priorities, and one of them was “worker co-op peer technical assistance network.” That was it. That that was the magic phrase, right? And so for the first year or two DAWN's working title was actually WCPTAN. But that vision was right there, right at 2004. And it took 5 years before the Federation could start bootstrapping that vision, but it was right there: peer technical assistance.
And so when that finally came to fruition, when Melissa Hoover convened...you know, picked 10 people to convene nationally, I was one of those people. Because I'd been going to Federation events, been going to conferences, I was coaching people where I could. I met people like Tim Huet, right, and Margaret Bau, and other people who had actually been doing worker co-op development. Jim Megson from the ICA group.
There weren’t that many. There was this key moment, actually. This tells you the state of the state of worker co-op development at the time. Margaret Bau was one of my trainers for the CooperationWorks! Training and she was the first person I met who had started more than one worker co-op. And she had started a number of them. She was a full-time USDA employee doing co-op development, and I said, “how many people are there in the country who have started more than one worker co-op?” And she started counting them up on her fingers, okay? And it was like, “oh, well there’s the ICA group, and there’s Tim Huet,” and there’s herself, and maybe a few others. It was like less than 15-20 people in the country who have started more than one worker co-op. It blew my mind, right?
MJ: This is 2009?
JJ: This is 2006, 2007. And it was just like “this is a tiny field and it is incredibly important. It is so freaking important and the lack of experience here is staggering.” And speaking of experiential learning, right, for me it was like that is the top priority. And we’ve got all these worker owners out there who successfully started and run one work co-op, and if they can get experience with one or two more worker co-ops their universe of knowledge will increase tenfold, right? They’ll get like a parallax, right? They’ll have a very different experience starting another worker co-op, and another worker co-op. So their frame of reference will be much, much larger. And so experience is the essential quantity here. Everybody just...it remains the key thing for people who want to get experience starting worker co-ops, they should be able to get it.
But the hardest thing to teach is ownership culture. So to me this is why it's so important to press the model of worker-owners becoming co-op developers, or worker-owners becoming what we call peer advisors, gaining experience helping other worker co-ops, because they already know the thing that is hardest to teach: culture. And so if we’re looking at how do we increase the capacity of knowledgeable people who can provide assistance in the country, the quickest way to do that is to invest in worker-owners. People who already understand ownership culture. That will be the hardest thing to teach and where co-op developers fall short, I think, is often because there are cultural dimensions to the people they're trying to help that they don't understand. And that's where I think co-op development falls short most often: we don't actually understand the people we’re trying to help.
MJ: Just a quick jump back. You said the fastest way to develop a worker co-op. Is it just the fastest, or is it the deepest, in the sense of…
JJ: I think it's expedient but I think it's also more effective. And it’s probably, I think, more empowering to the people were trying to help. And I’ve experienced that with my experience with DAWN, with my experience of having been a worker-owner helping other worker-owners. I feel like I get that again and again and again. There are things they don't have to explain to me, about why they're doing it, about what they're doing, about the challenges they’re having. All sorts of things that they're going through that I usually get right away, and that becomes a much higher quality experience for them. They develop more faith in the process. They therefore have more patience in the process. They become more invested in the process of working with an outside consultant when they sense that consultant is like, “oh, they get us, they understand this. We feel safe with this person, we won’t have to explain every little thing to them, we don't have to defend the way were doing things.”
And one thing that happens in practically every worker co-op, and every start-up group is that there are some things that they're embarrassed about. There are always things that they feel inadequate about, and it’s all of them. It’s like everybody goes through that, and it's not just worker co-ops, it’s food co-ops and everybody else. Everybody feels like they’re being stupid about stuff. And so when they're sitting across the table from someone else who can actually talk to them about the stupid things that they also did, right? And it’s like, “oh yeah, we were just so naïve, and we did this and we should have done that and we had this really painful lesson, you know?” You get that trust and rapport very quickly.
MJ: That image of sitting across the table from someone who is starting it up, and they got all of the – I guess one of the primary things that they need is to develop your self-confidence.
MJ: “I'm not an idiot for trying to do this, etc. etc.”
JJ: They’re always filled with self-doubt.
MJ: And they’re sitting across from someone who can tell them his or her story of their struggle with self-confidence, in which it resonates, and that's where the trust begins to emerge. That exchange is so different from “okay, this is what you are supposed to do: you do 1, 2, 3, 4” and you have a format laid out and “are you going through these steps?” and it’s not really the shared experience that's underlined, it's there's a format, and this is the third objective format. That I'm looking at it and guiding you into that format. Not quite the same.
JJ: Much closer to a paternalistic model. “I am the expert, I come in. I’m the person who knows how to do this and I will instruct you in how to do it.” And, okay that can work, but is it really solidarity?
MJ: This comes back...the words bring us back to culture, and I want to try to concretize culture, because the a lot of people think culture is the fine music, good wine, you know, the arts, etc. Which is great, they are. But we’re talking here about about culture in the same way that Tocqueville talked about it. I want to bring democracy into this because that's kind of the whole thing I'm obsessed with. And I have...if there’s any major discovery that I’ve made, it’s making a distinction between culture and structure of democracy. Structure relates primarily to the way we govern. There’s Congress, there is voting, all the legal things etc. etc. But democracy in terms of culture is the way we live and relate. And in the situation with developing worker cooperatives, and their solidarity with others, if there isn’t a real shared ways of thinking, living, working together and relating, then it is going to have internal problems. And I think that's the biggest thing that we struggle with throughout the movement, which is we come from the big culture, which is filled with the contradiction between, for shorthand terms patriarchy and democracy, and there is this embattled contradiction between the two.
It's in me, and I see it in you, and I see if we are unable to work with that embodied contradiction that’s in our culture is now inside us, then we’re undermining our work constantly, because we're allowing this to go, we don't even know how we become paternalistic. All of a sudden you there's a big gulf that’s happened because we moved in that direction.
JJ: Or if I understand you correctly, it's like we inadvertently re-create systems of oppression.
MJ: Absolutely that's what I'm saying. In the context of that word, “culture.”
JJ: Yes. Huge problem. And I think none of us are immune.
JJ: None of us is immune from that. It's just we have to assume that by default we will inadvertently re-create systems of oppression. We need to be vigilant and constantly trying to improve our methods for checking ourselves on that.
I think it's a big topic, and it can be hard to get your arms around, but I think from the standpoint of the movement – I don’t know if this is the direction we should go off into right now, but this is what's on my mind is – we need to look at in which models of development are we investing as a movement? Where are we putting our resources? That we don't have enough resources, we can’t put resources in all the places we should. We have to prioritize, right?
So do we put resources into this grassroots, horizontal, peer-to-peer model, which needs a lot of development. It can work very well, it has been working very well, but every model has its challenges and it needs more development. Just in the 10 years that DAWN existed, we just kept getting better and better at what we were doing.
MJ: So you’re saying that the work of developing cooperatives needs ongoing development.
JJ: Because it's still such a young – especially worker co-op development in this country – it’s still a young practice. I've watched it grow so quickly, just in the last 10 years. It's grown by leaps and bounds, just in terms of methods and tools and so it's...there's so much to do, there’s so much potential, and there's so much development of the development processes that is still needed. And so it's a very, very consequential decision about where are we putting our resources.
Do we take our very limited resources and put them into “professional” models of development, so-called professional models? Where it’s someone who has not been a worker-owner necessarily, who doesn't necessarily get the culture, but they have much more of a business school approach, more of an ESOP approach, perhaps, something that doesn't come from a horizontal democratic culture, that doesn't come from...You know, you’re sharing power in the workplace. I mean every worker in that place is also an owner, right?
Let's put it this way, I think one of the fundamental differences is a healthy worker co-op runs on soft power, not hard power. It runs on solidarity, right? That concept of we’re all equal owners, we share equally in the risk and the hardship, we share equally in the benefit, in the surplus. And that is the core strategic advantage of worker ownership and workplace democracy. That's where it can out-class other types of business models, potentially. I don’t hear people talk about this a lot. I think that worker-owned models can be a vastly superior model of enterprise, but it still needs development. We’re still figuring out how to do workplace democracy in a lot of ways. There's some very good working models out there, but in terms of our ability to consistently and successfully implement workplace democracy again and again, predictably, that’s still really challenging because so much depends upon the culture that you develop, the culture that the people bring in.
So there’s a huge amount of development still needed, but the potential is enormous, arising from this shared-fate, shared-risk, shared-benefit model. But when you have hierarchy, when you have top-down, when you're day-to-day business operation is running on hard, not soft power, you lose that solidarity, you lose that shared fate, or at least a lot of it. And I'm not sure that folks who haven't actually been in a workplace democracy...often I get the impression they just don't understand that. They don't realize that's the goose that lays the golden eggs.
MJ: That comes back to the whole business of culture, is that someone who has their whole work career has been involved in a “hard power” culture. That's their lived experience.
JJ: It may be all that they know.
MJ: And for someone...and I'm thinking of someone who “grew up in IBM” and just saw the contradictions and moved out and started their own small software company, and tried to make it as cooperative as they could is a very unusual event, because it really takes a lot to be able to see the culture that’s shaping you and knowing that that there has to be an alternative. And that's a major that's a major shift in one's awareness. So it’s very difficult to expect someone raised in that to see the difference.
So just to kind of pull some of the pieces together in what you’ve been saying as I've been hearing it. You’re seeing the entire worker co-op movement – and I’m gonna extend it to the cooperative solidarity movements, because they're all pretty much in the same game, they operate off of solidarity and they're all new, and they have this whole cultural development thing that is core to all of their work – but you see the whole megillah as developmental. Here we are at this stage, keeping in terms of the worker co-op, it wasn't until 10 years ago that we had a real conscious, focused, organized approach to developing worker cooperatives; reached a new level of coherence. And that's not old at all. That means were really early in the game.
JJ: We’re babies.
MJ: We’re babies, and so there is so much more development has to go on. And it's like if I was someone brand-new, and 18 years old instead of 77, or 20 years old or 25, and I entered the movement out of for some reason whatever that might be...I’m entering something in which my fullest engagement is one in which I'm going to let myself be opened up to becoming a worker-owner, to supporting and building that worker co-op, to connecting locally with all the other ones, to how can we develop. I should be thinking developmentally across the board. That's kind of the jist of what I'm hearing you say.
JJ: As a movement, I think that's what we need to be looking at, because there is so much more development that is needed, the resources are so scarce, so what are our priorities? In which model should we be investing in order to realize the long-term, very real, strategic advantages that are possible for us. And it’s tough, you know?
MJ: And the core of this development is going to stay rooted in democracy, and in cooperation, and solidarity, the peer-to-peer exchange, learning, advising whatever. The peer-to-peer is is is is the dynamo.
JJ: It is the essence of our strategic advantage. And not just the strategic superiority of our model, but the just and sustainable superiority of our model. And the key is that the interests of the individual worker are actually aligned with the interests of the organization. I mean, how many organizations can you say that about, okay? And so the trouble is, in a way, this is the trouble of success. If you want to say what's happening in the last 10 years since Evergreen, is the mainstreaming of the worker co-op movement.
And so culturally think of what mainstreaming means. I means we’re going to come right up against the cultures of funders, governments, nonprofit organizations, other types of businesses, investors. We’re going to come up against those cultures, which by and large are hard power cultures. And so how do we do that without getting co-opted? If we’re getting funding from those entities, support from those entities, if they're praising us, right? Then how do we do that without buying into the power structure?
MJ: I think that really points to the real necessity of the personal development of all of us in the movement. Because we need to be at a place where we are internally very aware of how I can be co-opted, and by very in tune with that, so that I can maintain. I can see how I'm starting to be attracted down those lines.
JJ: And we’re all on a slippery slope because most of us, if not all of us, have grown up in that hard power dynamic. And we need to not kid ourselves that, you know...I would argue that probably every single one of us in the movement, no matter how committed we are, we’re still at risk for the slippery slope of hard power, top-down, imposed hierarchy. We’re always at risk for that and so we will continue, all of us, will continue to be at risk for that. It is almost like it's an eternal vigilance situation, we gotta be holding that line all the time. We’ve gotta be rigorous in our self-evaluations and our internal movement critique, and we need to recognize that that's the risk: that we have this goose that lays golden eggs, it is a precious thing that I'm not sure anything else in the US economy really has something like this. I think the worker co-op movement may be genuinely unique within the US economy in that it is its strength is in soft power. And I just am not sure we could say that about any other organizations. That means that ethic is always at risk for being dissipated as we form more connections to these organizations outside of our movement.
MJ: Okay, we have a few more minutes left. So, in terms of that last thing you said, what about food co-ops? Do you include them?
JJ: Food co-ops are in a tough place right now.
MJ: Okay we won’t go into that one...
JJ: It’s another story, but there are a lot of challenges there, and a lot of them are hard power challenges.
MJ: And consumer co-ops, like credit unions?
JJ: Every sector has challenges. Yeah, credit unions. There are some very enlightened credit unions and some very enlightened food co-ops out there, but they are a small minority. And they've all substantially been influenced by the dominant economic model.
MJ: So, just to kind of put the bow on this conversation, the worker cooperative movement, in your view, has reached the point of development in terms of the cooperative, democratic dynamics and culture, it has reached the point where it has a very strong responsibility to influence the other cooperative sectors, because we have this 10 years running of the peer-to-peer cooperative development.
JJ: In the formal form that the Federation did. Of course, peer-to-peer co-op development has been going on forever.
MJ: It’s ancient.
JJ: It built the movement really, but in terms of formal organization, yes, we formalized it starting 10 years ago, exactly.
MJ: And we are learning how to do it more and more and more, and that's something that can be transmitted to other cooperative sectors.
JJ: Yes, exactly. And we should acknowledge organizations like NoBAWC and VAWC, that were doing it before the Federation existed, even. VAWC might have come along shortly after, but VAWC existed before DAWN and they were doing it before DAWN. And NoBAWC, of course, goes way back.
But yeah, I feel like that's really, in a sense, it’s what we have uniquely to offer, and it's also at the heart of our strength. What really could make us different and could continue to make us different, and could continue to make us more just and sustainable. But we have to lift it up, we have to value it , and we have to make it a priority to invest in the model.
MJ: Jim, thank you very much, this has been a great conversation. We've been working together for 10 years, and this is really the first in-depth exposure I've had to how your whole life is wrapped up in this and I really appreciated it.
JJ: Glad to do it.
GEO Collective (2019). Driving Our Movement with P2P Learning : A podcast with Jim Johnson on P2P cooperative development. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/driving-our-movement-p2p-learning