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The Growing Democracy Project

An Interview with Michael Johnson

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October 11, 2021
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The Everything Co-op Interview about the Growing Democracy Project

Vernon Oakes of Everything Co-op interviewed Michael Johnson, originator of the new Growing Democracy Project and community advocate for transformative community development. The Project seeks to enable everyday citizens to make democracy the most potent political force in the United States.

Vernon and Michael discussed the book he is completing, The Growing Democracy Project: A Cultural Strategy for Taking Our Love, Power, and Democracy to New Levels. The interview aired on WOL 1450 AM, 95.9 FM, and WOL Live Stream on July 22, 2021.



Vernon Oakes: Good morning, Michael.

Michael Johnson: Good morning, Vernon. And how are you?

Vernon Oakes: I am great. And how are you this morning?

Michael Johnson: I'm really good.

Vernon Oakes: Good news. Good news. And I'm really looking forward to talking to you about democracy. You know, in high school, I had a civics class on democracy and quite frankly, I don't remember learning anything. And they don't teach civics anymore in high school. And it's kind of interesting. Where does one learn about what does it take to be a responsible citizen and what democracy is? And I haven't -- that's what you're doing. You're wanting to do this? What are you attempting to do here as relates to democracy?

Michael Johnson: Well, what I'm attempting to do is really unconventional in many ways. So I think some of the things I may throw out in the course of our conversation, people are going to say, "uh, what?" But I've been thinking about this since 1968 when I participated in the Columbia University strike, way, way back then. So basically, we don't teach people how to be democratic in a deep and extensive way. People do learn democracy, but they learn it in a very shallow and a very conflicted way. And the purpose of the Growing Democracy Project is to develop a transformative, civic, educational network, in which everyday people are learning how to develop, and deepen, and strengthen their democracy through transformative communities of practice. They need to be local, and they will be networked together.

Vernon Oakes: So I got growing democracy. That's what you're about. You're wanting to make sure that folks really understand what democracy is, and that's the everyday people. And you do that through practice, practice, practice, practice. And when I was playing football or basketball, or learning tennis, you had to practice in order to to hone in your skill sets. And right now, where do we get practice in being a democratic citizen in today's world?

Michael Johnson: I think we get it in in haphazard ways. We get it in the civic associations we belong to, it happens in some of the schools. If you take the cooperative and social solidarity economic movements, it happens in a more focused way. But I think that in order for us to develop democracy the way we need to in order to deal with the world that we've created, it has to be a transformative way. So the growing democracy project is built around three pillars. One of those is

Vernon Oakes: OK, so let me stop you just before you get into of this. My basis for my democracy was in my family. Growing up in Bluefield, West Virginia, with my grandfather having worked in the mines, and my father on a railroad, very much union folk. When elections happened, everything stopped in my family. Everybody went to vote that could vote. Now, I didn't understand it. They never sat down to teach it about it. But it was a big deal when election time came. So I would suggest when you said school, civic organizations and cooperatives for me, the basis were Democrats. So I'm a Democrat. It was that was what my family was. So the family, I guess is, from my viewpoint, is the core of how one learns democracy, and what one does. At least when I've talked to people about, why are you Democrat?, why are you Republican? What my father was, my mother was, my grandparents were.

But also my family said, you vote for the person that's going to be the best for you, whether Democratic, independent, Republican. That was another core belief. But voting was critical, and as a kid it was like I didn't understand it,. It was next to Christmas, and excitement, and enthusiasm, and bustling around to make sure folks got to the poll. So, yeah, I guess if you're in a family where people don't vote, you don't get that. You don't learn that thing. And we have such a small amount of people that vote. So I just wanted to add to you, where do we learn from? I get critically family, secondly it's probably school civic, organizations. But in co-ops and I've experienced this, you really learn what voting is and why it is, and what it is, in this co-op world. OK, let's talk now about this kind of formative growing democratic project. And you started to say before I cut you off, there are three parts of that.

Michael Johnson: Yeah. The three pillars are very briefly the primacy of culture, transformative learning is the second, and rethinking democracy is the third. Now I want to start with rethinking democracy, because you're talking about it in terms of voting and party politics, et cetera, et cetera. And I really understand this. On Election Day in 1948, my parents were going out to a party, a different kind of party, and we were listening to the returns on the radio. This was Truman and Dewey, and they told me, "listen, because when we come home, we want to know who won." So I was being trained at age six to participate. But that illustrates the point that we learn how to relate, and how to live our lives, through culture. Family is the first cultural institution.

You know, we learn to speak English in the family. And it's also reinforced by the other groups that the family belongs to, the churches, the schools, etc., etc.. So what happens? And this is one of the things that's emerging from a whole lot of developments in social science -- what happens is that culture embeds itself, through the family and these other collectives, into my body, into your body. We speak English. It's because it's embedded in our body and we embody it. So there's an embedding/embodying process. And from my viewpoint, this trumps ideology. Ideology is the second factor. So if we really want to talk about developing a deep democracy, we need to think primarily in terms of culture. How can we use this embedding/embodying process to grow your democracy, to grow my democracy?

And that's where transformative learning comes in, because not only did I learn democracy growing up, I was one of four boys. We were Texans, we were male, and sibling rivalry never stopped. In fact, it still goes on to this day.

Vernon Oakes: Now, you say Texas?

Michael Johnson: Texas. Yeah, I was born and raised right where you are now.

Vernon Oakes: OK.

So this rivalry -- "I'm the better man" -- got deeply embedded and embodied in me. So that runs so contrary to democracy. So I was growing up with this conflict, with this contradiction within me. And I think it applies, you know, across the board. I wasn't anything unique, except the particular way in which I put all of this together as I grew up.

Vernon Oakes: So I just I need to stop you because I don't have I don't know if the audience had this embedding and embodying. So I want to take this sibling rivalry to make sure I get it.

Michael Johnson: OK.

Because there were three boys in my family. We were all stairstep, and then three girls. There was none of this sibling rivalry between the boys and the girls, but between the three boys? Yes, there was a lot of it. So you said it gets embedded in. My father used that rivalry between us to hone our fighting skills. He was a World War II vet. We were in a bigot, racist society, African-Americans, and we integrated the school in 1955, and so we had to fight. I didn't know my father was teaching us how to fight when he had us fighting and boxing each other, OK? But that's what he was doing. And so it was embedded in us to fight, and he taught us if somebody comes and said, "we're going to hit you," you hit them first. And it was those kinds of things. And that was sort of embodied in. He embedded it, I'm getting it, he embedded us, you have to fight and you have to know how to fight, and you have to win. And we would be fighting each other, which I did not like. I did not like my father doing this, particularly without telling us what he was doing. And then after that, it got in my body and all of my cells of my body to fight.

Michael Johnson: Got it. That's what I'm talking about.

Vernon Oakes: OK.

Michael Johnson: I would just add to that, if this got embedded in your father and he embodied it, that's how it's transmitted to you.

Vernon Oakes: Absolutely. I got that.

Michael Johnson: There's a whole network of cultural places and circles that's reinforcing. Go ahead.

Vernon Oakes: All right. We have to take a break. I love it. I'm learning. Thank you so much. We're rethinking democracy. We want to transform it, looking at how we learn about democracy, how it got embedded in us and how we embody it. And we're going to come back and talk about what are the kinds of things that we do -- this is what this whole program is about -- to make it such that we have a much better democracy than we have right now. We'll be right back. Please don't touch that dial.

Welcome back, everybody. This is Vernon Oakes, and the program is Everything Co-op, and we're talking to Michael Johnson this morning about something very, very exciting to me. And that's our democracy and how it's become what it is, and what must we do in order to improve it. And he's been thinking about this since 1968. I did a little math. He was about 26, and he talked about the Columbia University strike, and his parents had started him to embed this democracy in 1948, when he was six years old, and Truman versus Dewey. In 1948, Michael, I was one years old and you were six. So that says since I'm 73 going on 74, you're 78 or 79 now. So it's this five years difference. And you've been thinking about this since 1968.

In '68, I was a senior in college, really dealing with the Vietnam War, and not wanting to get drafted, and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I wasn't thinking about politics, even though Hubert Humphrey came down to Bluefield State to go down in a coal field, and since I was the president of Democratic Committee on Bluefield State campus, I got to ride with him in the car going down to McDowell County in the coalfields, and we had nothing to talk about to each other. It was sort of wasted, for me, opportunity to talk, and try to figure out what was happening in politics, particularly at that time. But that did turn out to be a wasted experience. And now it is. How do we not waste experiences? Let me go back and say it differently. Why is it that we need this now? What is the situation of our politics? I didn't get it with Hubert Humphrey. What's our politics now, and that would cause you to want to do this now?

Michael Johnson: We're so polarized, which to me is like when a body gets sick, and the symptoms have to show to know that there's something wrong. And right now, on a wide scale basis, in almost every dimension we can think of, there is this profound polarization. And we keep trying to address that in terms of having the correct ideology. And people on the left say it's the people on the right, and the people on the right are saying it's the people on the left. And then the some people on the left and some people on the right who are trying to say, "guys is there any way we can get together and think together, rather than screaming at each other?" And they're not really being -- well, they're having a hard time really being heard because of this overwhelming, polarizing energy.

But it didn't come out of nowhere. We've had these tendencies from the very beginning. You can look at the Constitution in maintaining slavery, all of this underlying polarizing ideas and thinking about what we are as a nation. It was always there. And it erupted in the Civil War, it erupted in Jim Crow, and it erupted with the Civil Rights Movement. And so we've been moving in a great direction in many ways, but we haven't been able to go deep enough. And that's where the transformative learning component becomes so essential.

Because you learn to fight and you learn to be Democrat. I learned I got to be the best man, and I'm going to be democratic. But I went through about a fifteen year process of finding out that I was driven to dominate every man that I had an engagement with. And this had to be pointed out to me because I wasn't seeing it. I wasn't aware of it. And I wasn't aware that what that actually added up to was if you and I were engaged, in order for me to feel OK about myself, you had to feel less value in yourself. I had to destroy your value. And this is a basic component of our culture, that I've seen in other cultures, too. So how do we deal with this overarching conflict, that I want to be democratic, and yet I want to be the best person here. I want to get the most. It plays out in multiple, various, and amazingly devious ways.

Vernon Oakes: I just want to I want to make sure because I'm African-American, you are Caucasian or white American, that when you want to dominate, it isn't necessarily race. Sometimes it could be, but you have the same feeling, if it's white on white, white on Asian, you on any other male, you have to be the dominating force. OK, and that you got from culture.

Michael Johnson: We're sitting in a bar in a very beautiful woman walks in. I want her, you want her, he wants her. it's there, you know, it just it comes it comes right up. And in many ways, we don't have to kill it, we just have to understand it. And know, I don't want to go there. I have an alternative way to go. I have a way in which I can relate to men in which I can set all of that stuff aside, or calm it down if it gets triggered, so that I'm trying to see your value and help you to see my value. And that's pretty much -- this leads to the whole thing about rethinking democracy, because in the Growing Democracy Project, democracy is seen as a way of living and relating, before it's seen as a way of governing.

Vernon Oakes: Wow. Living and relating. And I'm still at the bar wanting to to fight you, OK? With good looking woman that walked in? OK, assuming we are right now, might take the other stigma out. We're not married, we're not with anybody and there's three of us at the bar and a good looking woman comes in, dressed impeccably, you know, looks like maybe has some influence, or money, or intellect. And we all want her. And so it's like, who's the dominant male? Who is going to get. So we're going to fight from Jump Street.

Michael Johnson: That's right. Yeah.

Vernon Oakes: OK. And that's our culture. And you see it on Cheers, or any program that you look at, they bring that out and they make fun of it.

Michael Johnson: And take it as that's the way it is. That's Normal.

Vernon Oakes: Because that's in our culture, that way. It's been embedded in our culture...

Michael Johnson: That's it. Embedded and embodied. That's why it's that way.

Vernon Oakes: And then we embody it, each of us individually. You have it in you. I have it in me. It was in my family. It's in your family. It sometimes looks like white against black. When we start talking about you mentioned Civil War, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, it sometimes look like Black and white and sometimes it is. But it is also white on white, Black on Black, Asian on Asian.

Michael Johnson: Yeah. And it's certainly in terms of distribution of wealth and and the income.

Vernon Oakes: Well, I don't know why you brought that in when the average net worth, the average financial net worth of a white family is $171,000, just before covid, and the average net worth of a Black family is $17,500, one tenth of what the white family's is. And it's shown up that way. And I looked at Tulsa, it looked like some of the white folk just didn't like Black people having wealth. They end up finding a reason to burn it down. So, yeah, all of that happens in our culture. And you're saying it's in our democracy.

Michael Johnson: And so the challenge becomes, how can we embed and embody deeper, richer forms of democracy, thought of as a way in which I live, and how I relate to you, and you to me. And that's the purpose of transformative learning. And the basic tool is the transformative community of democratic practice, which is local groups of 10 to 20 people who get together in order to create an environment in which they're talking about real stuff, real struggles, and in the process, learning to embed and embody different values. To change my male domination orientation, and increase my ability to want to hear and understand you, especially if we disagree. And willing to tell you what's going on with me as genuinely as I can. And this generates the trust. So that kind of group is creating a new culture, is creating its own culture to deepen and promote democracy within each of us. And then we work in the local situation, et cetera, et cetera, and we network these, transformative communities of practice into a network that's supporting each other, and developing better ways of doing this.

Vernon Oakes: OK, we have to go into our second break here in a minute. And you've just said in the last two minutes, several mouthfuls, and which we're going to come back and break down to make sure I understand it. And maybe if I understand it, folks out there can understand what it is that you're saying that you want to do. And first off, I really love what you're talking about, this transformative learning. I want you to come back and describe -- define that for us. What is this transformative learning? Living and relating better, listening to each other, hearing each other, understanding each other. Both being able to say what we're about, which a lot of times men have trouble communicating, but learning how we say what we're all about, and listening to the other person, and really getting what they're about, in a way that we're trying to solve real problems in our communities. And then I heard you say you get a network of these smaller groups that are doing this.

Michael Johnson: That's the idea. I mean, we haven't launched yet, but that's the idea.

Vernon Oakes: We'll be right back and talk more about this and get into it. I really like what you're talking about, Michael Johnson. We'll be right back. Please don't touch that dial. Welcome back, everybody. This is Vernon Oaks and the program is Everything Cooperative. We have Mr. Michael Johnson on the show with us this morning talking about growing our democracy, having it to work better. We understand how polarized we are, the left versus right, or Democrat versus Republicans, and folks in the middle have difficulty getting people to hear each other. We don't listen. Our way is right. We're so much embedded into proving how right we are. It's happening, and he's wanting to change that. And we got that he started thinking about democracy in 1948, and really thinking about this change since 1968. And he's writing a book about a 300 page book. This program of Growing Democracy Project has not gotten started yet, although I want to, if we get into this, I think it may have started, but just haven't been defined, haven't been outlined, and we won't get to that. So you are talking about transformative learning. And I say when we come back, I want you to define what do you mean by that?

Michael Johnson: So in you're growing up, you embody the value of fight, and I embodied the same thing, I refer to it as the primacy of the male. You know, I'm going to be the top dog male. And we live with that, and we live that out, once it's embedded and embodied, unless we can change it. Unless we can mitigate it. And that's what transformative learning is about.

And it happens in a group, not a class, where you have a teacher who is lecturing, etc. It happens through the interaction between people who are focused on, "I need to identify what I'm doing that's not working. And I need feedback from people to give that to me." And we need to trust each other, and we need to work together to help each other through whatever our conflicting cultural differences are. And that in fact, is where we're creating a different kind of culture than what we live in. It's kind of an alternative culture. Yes. It's a place where we can really say what we want to say, need to say. We can be heard. We're really responsible for hearing and understanding the other. And we have lots of problems doing this, because that's really the bottom line difficulty in human relationships. And you see it in moving in story after story.

And so the purpose of the transformative learning is to use processes and methods that help us identify what's been deeply embodied, and how to change it so my relationships, my democratic work go better. And it's been over the last seventy five years that these approaches and the method of thinking of this transformative learning has been emerging. And I wouldn't really say it's mushroomed, but there's been substantial development. So there's a variety of approaches, and techniques, and theories about it that people are putting into practice. So there's a body of practice. People are {inaudible} already. And this is what groups would do, they would be drawing on the ones that work for them. And each group {inaudible} It's a unique group. What works, you know.

Vernon Oakes: So when I'm getting those, I wanted to get this transformative learning. And so as you're talking, it's changing, changing from you have to be the dominant male to you can really listen to somebody else and get what they are. You don't have to be on top all the time. You don't have to win all the time. You can allow somebody else to win.

Michael Johnson: I would take it a step further. That really pragmatic step is I can surrender.

Vernon Oakes: Oh, fantastic.

Michael Johnson: I can surrender and really take you in, so I can understand you.

Vernon Oakes: So in that surrendering, what the difference between changing and transformation that I've gotten, is once you are able to do that, you don't go back. When you change something, it can be fleeting. It can happen for a minute or two, or a week or two, and then if you're not careful, you'll go back to the way you were doing before. I said you constantly change to where you want to be, and go back to where you were. And if you're not careful, you go back and stay back where you were. When you transform it, it's there. You change, so you really can and do surrender, OK? And you don't go back to dominating.

Michael Johnson: Yes, but not quite.

Vernon Oakes: OK.

Michael Johnson: I have no hope of eliminating this drive for me to be primary.

Vernon Oakes: It's always there with you.

Michael Johnson: It's so deep, but I have weakened it, and weakened it, and I have built up the capacity to surrender more often than not. I might be a little bit...

Vernon Oakes: OK, so...

Michael Johnson: And I'm still learning. It never stops. You know, you keep learning. I keep recognizing, "you know, I was an asshole," excuse me, "I was off base there, I was really off base. I was pushing myself. I wasn't trying to understand." But I don't punish myself for that. I say, "all right, next step. Use that." Something Cornell West says over and over again, "try and fail. Then try better and fail. And try again. And you will fail better." That's how transformation works.

Vernon Oakes: So this is transforming the way one is being, to a way of a being that is better for self and for society, better for self in the culture. And you get this transformative learning through practice. And I have it that you're looking at creating smaller groups that are doing this on a continual basis so that people can work together in this transformative learning. And therefore, you have some people to talk to, to hone in your skills, if you will, whether that's skill with playing tennis or basketball or football, you have to hone those in. Writing, reading, arithmetic, it's always practice and practice and practice. OK.

Michael Johnson: Once you stop practicing, you start losing,

Vernon Oakes: going back to where you were --

Michael Johnson: The basics, probably. If you want to restart, you don't have to go back to zero. But it's the constant practice that keeps honing the skills that are there.

Vernon Oakes: So are you and your four brothers still have this rivalry?

Michael Johnson: I would say that we have established a simple level of interaction where if we start getting into it, we can all go, "woah, woah."

Vernon Oakes: Back up.

Michael Johnson: I don't think we really transformed. I mean, in terms of our interactions.

Vernon Oakes: OK, OK,

Michael Johnson: And we've always loved each other. At our worst, we were still loving each other. But to me that one of the most important observations was made by William Faulkner in his Nobel speech, when he won it for literature, it's quite a statement. He said, "the only stories that are worth writing about are about the human heart in conflict with itself." And that's really -- transformative learning is a way to access that conflict we all have, and the very unique ways it plays out in our lives. And that's human nature, and transformative learning is about using that conflict in order to work with it. Identifying it, researching it, understanding it, the transformative communities of democratic practice and that whole network is a laboratory for doing this. And the thing is, is that the people who are doing it are the lab coats and the mice at the same time.

Vernon Oakes: OK, so the members of these transformative communities are the people with the lab coats on. They are the ones who are doing the research and they're the mice

Michael Johnson: They're both.

Vernon Oakes: Yeah, OK.

Michael Johnson: And this is designed for everyday people. So this isn't about going out and recruiting the cream of the crop. It's designed to, or will be designed -- all this is going to have to learn how to do this. But the basic idea is to bring everyday people into this process, because if you get legions of every day becoming deeply democratic, that's what's going to change.

Vernon Oakes: So we got transformative communities, the members of these transformative communities are the people that are doing the research and they're doing the research on themselves. So they are the mice and they are the researchers looking at the conflicts that they have within themselves. And William Faulkner said, those are the only stories worth writing. OK, I'm getting this. I'm just repeating it. So I make sure I've got it. And this is designed for everyday people. You said not the cream of the crop, but I got it. We're going to come back to that because I have it that everyday people are the cream of the crop, OK, particularly when they know how to do this that you're talking about. And that's been my experience and the reason I like co-ops so much, because I've seen everyday people make extremely intelligent decisions, long term decisions, at best with a high school degree. But they've learned what they need to learn to make decisions and hold each other accountable. And I was the property manager for housing co-ops and they would hold me accountable, hold each other accountable. And they made really, really great decisions. And that's why I started liking co-ops. So where are you now with writing your book and getting started with this growing democracy project?

Michael Johnson: I'm going through the process of doing the last revision for the book. And the problem is -- a problem that has been there all the time -- is that as I go through any phase of revising: a new idea. I go, "God, no, stop." So I'm trying to get through this phase without too many new ideas coming in and make me go back to the beginning.

Vernon Oakes: You are in Chapter 10, you get a new idea, which means you have to change chapter one, two, three, four, five. And so for some point, you just have to put a stake in the ground and say, this is it. The second revision, you'll get new ideas and new research and new stuff. OK, I got it. So you have a date of when you think you're going to get this, because I would like to get this book as soon as is out. It sounds very exciting.

Michael Johnson: I'm hoping to get it done by the end of the year.

Vernon Oakes: Oh, fantastic.

Michael Johnson: I'm hoping.

Vernon Oakes: Oh, I hear you. But you have to go.

Michael Johnson: I said that last year, too.

Vernon Oakes: OK. So hopefully this book will be out the end of this year, Growing Democracy Project and we can get it out to everybody and start practicing and growing these different communities. Now, when we come back from our next break, which is already our final break, we're going to talk about co-ops and how co-ops work and this growing democracy project. And it's already working is how I have, as you describe this to me. We'll be right back. Please don't touch that dial.

Information is power. Information is power, and that's why the National Co-operative Bank has been sponsoring this program for almost eight years now. October will be our eighth year. October is great because that's when the NCBA has their cooperative impact conference, and that's when my birthday is. So we'll have the anniversary of Everything Co-op, we'll celebrate my 74 years on earth. Michael Johnson would be 79 years on earth, and he's been working with this idea of cooperation since 1948, but particularly since 1968. National Co-op Bank's mission is to support and be an advocate for America's cooperatives and their members, especially in low income communities, by providing innovative financial and related services. And by sponsoring this program, we are giving people information so they'll have the power to change their communities, figure out the problems in their communities, create a co-op and go about solving problems in community. And that's exactly what Michael Johnson has been talking about. And that's why I want to talk about co-ops. He has said -- and Michael, would you go back over the tenets, what's the main focus of these Growing Democracy Project.

Michael Johnson: Is recognizing that culture is the dominant force which determines how we live. So in political terms, it means ideology is a secondary fact. We want to grow democracy, we gotta think primarily in terms of culture. The second is transformative learning, which is the process of people getting together, and talking and exchanging the reality of each other, so that they can deepen and develop their democratic practice. And the third is we have to rethink what democracy is. And I think that starts with recognizing that it is primarily a way of living and relating before it is a way of governing.

Vernon Oakes: I like that living and relating, versus I've only had it as a way of governance, not a way of living and relating to each other. OK, so I said to you before we took the break that I have it that this is already have been working in real life, has been working in co-ops. And I just quickly say co-ops have seven principles and voluntary and open membership. It doesn't make any difference about race, age, political affiliation, religious, it doesn't discriminate, so anybody can join a co-op if it's acting as a co-op. If it is a co-op, then the second is Democratic member control one member, one vote. And so that's where you can really get people engaged and then their member economic participation. You put some money in and when, if and when after profit, you get the money back out. Autonomy and independence, you have control. You have to have control of the business, those members, and then there's education, training, information, and you've mentioned that several times so far, Mr. Michael, that people have to learn. It's continuous learning in a cooperative. And then the second thing or third thing you've mentioned, is cooperation among co-ops. You didn't say it that way, you just said that these groups have to be there, in small groups, and then they have to work together. We talk about a cooperative ecosystem, with co-ops helping out co-ops. And there's seven principles, concern for community. And again, as I said earlier, most of the time co-ops are formed to solve a community problem. But then part of the profits that they make most often or not co-ops will donate back to some other community issues, or help other co-ops get started to solve community issues. So you have this ecosystem that you've talked about in the Growing Democracy Project, of people working together and solving problems together. And this is keeps growing, growing, growing. So I have it as you describe the Growing Democracy Project, it's already in existence in this co-op world, but not necessarily defined that way. And we've seen over and over again that members of co-ops end up being members of school boards, members of city council, and then you have more people in co-ops voting than necessarily non members of co-ops, because they really get what it means to vote and what it means to be a citizen, and to be held accountable and hold others accountable. So I have it that already exist. What do you have to say about that?

Michael Johnson: This is probably going to get me into a whole lot of hot water.

Vernon Oakes: Come on.

At the beginning, I said my approach is very unconventional, so this is the perfect place to apply it. I had come to some general basic ideas back around 2006, 2007, and I need to go out and do field research. And that's how I got involved with the work of cooperatives and eventually got also into working with GEO. And I did a whole four years of field research in western Massachusetts with the cooperative network that had emerged there. And I get about 40 interviews and I got involved and talked a lot. And then over the years I've been involved in various ways.

So I think you're right when you say that the basics are all there in the cooperative movement. And I think the cooperative movement is really taking full advantage of those basics. They've got a number of things that are in the way. So there's very little recognition of transformative learning within the cooperative movement. One person I interviewed was really very, very clear that a cooperative business has two tracks. It has a business track -- you got to run the business, you've got to make it work. And it has a democracy track. And that's a really difficult thing to carry out. The transformative learning is to really think in terms of, we're not nearly as democratic as we need to be, and we need to find out how we are not democratic and what we can do to change that. And if that takes 10 years, if that takes 20 years, if that takes 30 years, that needs to be a vital component because there is no way that we -- the co-operative movement or the solidarity economic movement -- has matured democracy to an adequate level for its own purposes.

Vernon Oakes: Now, when you say that democracy, are you talking about the democracy inside the cooperative or in the culture?

Michael Johnson: Inside the cooperative, between the cooperatives, and within the movement. I referred to the cooperative/solidarity economic movement -- cooperative slash solidarity. I see them as being very, very close together, in fact. So that's one point. The learning, it's there to some extent, but there is really no in-depth appreciation for it.

Vernon Oakes: So it is getting people...

Michael Johnson: It's a very unconventional thing. One shouldn't expect it to be flourishing. If it was, the movement would be in a very different place.

Vernon Oakes: So what's missing is the people in the co-op world itself do not have transformation as a part of it, transformational learning. It's there in the sense that cooperative has a business track and a democratic track. And I have it to the extent that the democratic track is adhered to and understood, then the learning happens in the co-op in that fifth principle of how decisions are made, how you listen to each other, how you solve conflict, the things that you were talking about. And then you have a really good business that works because people are engaged, people listen to each other, people hear each other and people make decisions together. And you get a very, very an excellent business and people feeling really, really great about themselves and their group. It doesn't always happen. Matter of fact it could happen slightly, but when it happens, it is phenomenal.

Michael Johnson: The basics are there. But though we tend to celebrate the {inaudible} that what we have, as opposed to critiquing what we have.

Vernon Oakes: Critiquing and improving.

Michael Johnson: Yeah, I'll give you an example. We attended one of the networks meetings, and they were all different cooperatives, it was a regional network, etc., etc. had a great meeting and all of that. Afterwards, we were going to go out to the bar, you know, to have cheers and blah, blah, blah. And there were two members who had traveled with someone else and they wanted to go home. They didn't want to go to the party. And the woman who drove the car, they cornered her, two men cornered her and...

Vernon Oakes: Demanded.

Michael Johnson: They overwhelmed her. Yeah. So you went from the great stuff to...

Vernon Oakes: Back to the old way.

Michael Johnson: Yes. We don't see that we're doing these things. That limits the {inaudible}.

Vernon Oakes: So what I'm hearing you say it could have happened in this group, transformational learning in the group. But then when they got outside the old behavior of the men dominating women, it happened right away. Last thirty seconds. What do you want to be people with?

Michael Johnson: It's possible to expand democracy beyond our imagination, but it takes years and years and a great deal of work.

Vernon Oakes: And dedication, and understanding what we're doing wrong.

Michael Johnson: It's a very upbeat program.

Vernon Oakes: OK, I'm looking forward to getting your book, buddy. Get your book out, please. I'm looking forward to it. Thank you so very much, Michael Johnson, for being on the program this morning.

Michael Johnson: Thank you. You are a wonderful interviewer.

Vernon Oakes: I enjoy learning. You're teaching everybody out there. Please live this week cooperatively. And we'll see you next Thursday. Great. Thank you, Michael. Bye now.


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What does the G in GEO stand for?