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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Democratize the Education System!

Engaging the Youth in Cooperative Culture

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GEO Original
May 5, 2015
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The cooperative movement in the United States is growing. Many sectors of business are being encompassed by this wave as more people recognize the immense value of owning and controlling their livelihoods through shared democracy with their fellow workers, producers, consumers, etc.

People have a wide variety of reasons for joining the solidarity economy movement. The need for good jobs, a voice at work, power in making ethical decisions -- these are all real needs that are resulting in tangible solutions and the foundation of a new way of doing economics. We have to address the root causes of multiple issues in order to affect the most change. A major root cause of our problems is that our dominant culture tells us a story (and our beliefs and behavior reflect it) of competition and separation. The Movement Center For Deep Democracy cites the dominant culture’s three divides:

  1. We are divided from ourselves;
  2. We are divided from each other;
  3. We are divided from the planet;

From this separation, those in power can justify oppression and supremacy and cite competition as the basis of not only their success but the driving force behind all life. In constructive opposition to this view, our movement presents the world with a story of connection, cooperation, and the commons.  This is lived through daily practice of ownership and control over our own lives and institutions, as individuals in powerful community with each other.

Or at least that's the goal. It is worth contemplating (and out of the scope of this article) how to combine power structure and intention to create a culture of connection, care, and teamwork. Is that culture achieved inherently in every cooperative? Yes or no, many of us, as cooperative developers and organizers, have in our hearts the goal of creating a space where people can realize their inherent worth, embrace their true power, and really be themselves.

If we want to achieve this culture, we must invest in all of our worthwhile institutions, not just a few.  Both the worker cooperative movement and the solidarity economy movement have left a key player out of our work and analysis.  There is one major system that is crucial to creating the culture we desire and the individual institutions we seek to build.

If we want democracy in the workplace, we must have democracy in the schools.

The institution of schooling and education has been a battleground of reform, organizing, and struggle since it's birth as an established system. It has seen waves of movements for all issues, including democratization. For the sake of building the foundation of analysis that informs our strategy and thus action, it is imperative that as a movement we address this piece of the puzzle as not only a necessity, but as an incredible opportunity.

The necessity comes when we analyze our work developing culture and training people in the practice and skills of democracy, and in the importance of intersecting with other movements for justice and liberation. The opportunity lies in the chance we have to build our movement to an unprecedented scale, as well as responding to the boiling underbelly of resentment. This resentment is a result of the treatment of young people in schools. It lies close to the surface of nearly every public school student in the United States.


Starting cooperatives (or any democratic institution as part of this movement) is hard. In recognizing that our goal is to create a more just and cooperative culture for people to thrive in, we have to acknowledge that most everyone is coming from learned behaviors that are the opposite. We have been taught to be individualistic, competitive, and even greedy. Through dynamics of oppression and privilege, some cannot compromise, and some cannot speak up.  Overall, we’re all kind of lousy at working in teams. Regardless of the way you develop your cooperative, a group of people learning democracy is hard work when coming from such a place.

Many cooperative developers believe that founder driven co-ops are the best way for people to develop the right skills and culture. That, however, is not the only way to start a cooperative.  There are three main co-op development models:

  • Founder driven:  the people who will become the worker-owners are the ones driving the process and business planning. This method has the most long term success in that a culture of ownership grows from the worker (or whoever)-owners themselves and (mixed with a good business plan) can result in a group of people with the ability to work together and believe in themselves.
  • Incubator: A group of developers creates a solid business plan and hands it off to a group of potential worker owners. This process can work and has success but is often marred by the incubator organization expending a lot of time and money towards training and developing an ownership culture for the workers and has mixed success in long term stability or sustainability.
  • Conversion: a singular business owner sells their business to their employees. Often similar to an incubator in that there is a ready business handed over to workers who likely have no experience in democratic control and are used to living under the decisions of someone else. It takes a lot of time and money to contradict these behavior patterns and learn new ones.

So if we know that dominant culture is teaching people behaviors that are not conducive to democratic decision making, what do we do?

We have to organize where this culture and these behaviors are taught and internalized. But isn’t that everywhere in all of our institutions?

Definitely. However, it is easy to recognize that one of the institutions of foremost importance in developing an individual’s identity and behavior is school. And I mean all schools, not just college (in fact specifically not college: for the rest of this article, I mostly mean middle and high school). The earlier that young people learn democracy, the better.

The oppression of young people, as it is fostered by the current education system, is particularly notable, especially in the resulting behaviors as adults, as it pertains to ownership and control. This oppression is fundamentally about telling two stories to young people:

  • Your value is based on your performance compared to the performance of other people.
  • Grades, appearance, sports, roles in theater, friends, all of it is rooted in your self worth as defined through competition with others.
  • You are powerless. This is the logical way for you to be, because you are too young and therefore incapable of making any decisions for yourself or with each other. You have no experience, no wisdom, no skills that are needed to run institutions. Adults, on the other hand, have all the answers, and you have to listen to them.

Arguably, this is always bad, but it becomes particularly traumatizing as young people start to grow in their sense of independence. Young people get to a point where they want to start taking responsibility, leadership, and control over their own lives, experiences, and identities. Our current system, on the other hand, does not embrace these feelings and ideas by altering the structure of our schools and how young people experience the education system; rather, it exerts its control and authority even more strictly than before. This is primarily around middle school and well into high school, enforced both in the classroom and at home. The result of this is  what we have now: young adults (who become old adults) who at this important time of their lives, have the door slammed on their own power and the idea that they could figure things out for themselves or with each other. On top of that, young people of marginalized identities have it even worse and are hit with a much harder barrage of stories and experiences that contribute to our picture today: adults who do not believe in themselves, their dignity, or each other, and who have a hell of a time starting and maintaining a cooperative together. This culture starts in the schools.

Ours has to as well.

The necessity is this: In order to build and sustain a new political economy and culture, we must build the democratic experience into the education system as a whole. The result is a simple but powerful idea:

If we teach the skills and culture of democracy to young people systematically through schools, we will have a base of young people who already have the skills and the mindset needed for workplace democracy (and other such institutions). They will be ready to start and take over businesses and other institutions. The phrase "you can’t teach an old dog new tricks" is not true.  However, making it work costs a lot of time and, consequently, money.  Is it worth it? Absolutely, because it can transform peoples lives and society. However, thought must be given to the ease with which co-ops could be started and run by people who are already trained in the practice and believe that this is the best and most logical way to do things. That’s the game we are playing. If we believe that we indeed have a better way to do things, then when people experience these ideas, they should walk away nodding their heads saying “that was great, let’s try it over here!”

But obviously, changing all schools across the land won’t be easy, it will take a long time and lots of work. It will be a transition, like many of the models we are building now.

But here, nonetheless, lies our opportunity.


The first opportunity we have is true both as a transition strategy and as part of a whole system. Many of us see that our work inherently intersects with other movements and issues. We see our work as a part of systemic solutions for inequities in race, gender, climate, class, ability, sexual orientation, etc. We have a chance now to concretely meet young people in their struggle for liberation, as well. Isn’t this the kind of connection we are seeking? Are we not constantly looking to make relationships with movements of liberation to lend (and ask for) a hand of solidarity? Education is a unique issue in that our organizing is not single issue and does not impact only one group of youth. Our organizing, unlike many other causes, is about the entire structure of school. Since we are talking about one primary institution that is of the utmost importance and that our movement can play a critical role in, this is our opportunity to be a significant part of moving towards the emancipation of young people. When presented with a chance for solidarity in liberation, it is always a chance worth taking.

The second opportunity is this. Young people across the nation are ready for a movement to change the education system. Since the first day their power and independence is shot down, they are ready to fight back. You don’t have to look hard to figure out that young people of oppressed identities, especially low income, hate the education system. Amazingly, we can see that most young people of the most privileged identities (including/especially that of being “smart” within the system) are also unhappy with most aspects of the system.

A quick story: A high school student leader in our organization and I were leading a workshop on root cause analysis and strategy for a room of about 35 high school students at a youth environmental conference. About half of these young people were relatively politicized and the other half may have been incentivized to come in some other non-activism related way. We had excellent engagement from the majority of the racially and gender diverse groups except a small table of high school students who presented as upper-middle class and “mainstream” or “athletic/sporty” in appearance. For nearly the entire workshop they remained silent and somewhat distracted. Then we got to school. We asked “What don’t we like about the education system?”. All of the normal participants were not only actively engaged, but were even more excited and had more examples than with previous questions. Most notably however, the non-engaged table suddenly perked up! Within moments they were all throwing out thoughts and ideas and talking amongst themselves about shared perspective and experience. Their attention was grabbed and stayed for the rest of the workshop.



What we and anyone who works with high-school-aged young people know is that they are ready, dare I say waiting, for radical questioning of the system of education and radical ideas to change it. It’s not just the disenfranchised groups. Almost all identities of young people are fed up and have much to say in critique of school. That’s more than enough to start organizing around. Schools are a ripe fruit high in a tree. Left alone, our chance will fall to the ground, rot, and feed the roots of the same old system. However, if we act, if we are willing to reach up and pick the fruit, that energy can feed the health of a new system. All that’s needed is a hand. We can be a spark.

Why our movement, you might ask? Because we can get to the root. We can immediately ask the big questions, the scary ones because they are so tempting, so contradictory to what we have all been told. Questions about power, worth, and who should run this place.

Our opportunity is this: the tangible vision of what this kind of collaborative organizing could look like, we can imagine action based on a narrative and strategy of democratization of the school, but rooted in an analysis of ownership and control, who benefits and who decides? We don’t need to start the conversation with young people around work and banks and neighborhoods and so on, we can start at that basic frame. We can build real campaigns and demands around that frame, we can engage in popular education around that frame, and importantly, we can push that same thinking to apply to the rest of our institutions/system. When young people are politicized around controlling their school, it will not be a far leap to ask the same question of the workplace, the police force, the financier, the government, etc. We can politicize at the level of thinking about the school and radicalize at the level of questioning the system. In doing so, we will be organizing a grassroots base of the next generation of leaders of the solidarity economy movement. When they leave school, will they get a normal job, or start a coop? Will they bank at Wells Fargo, or a credit union? Will they rent apartments and get white collar jobs, or live in coop housing and do organizing and sustainable farming together to continue building the movement? Of course, all resulting actions will look different, but we will have built a base of people to carry the work forward into all of the institutions necessary in adult life.

In closing I will share a brief example. In Young Peoples Action Coalition we use a strategy that involves engaging high school students in worker cooperatives, education to build analysis, and direct action. In this combination, we have been able to develop frames of understanding that strengthen each other around democratization. Many young people have come into the organization out of interest in farming or protests. Over time, a radical analysis of the flaws of, and solutions to, the current education system has been adopted by many of the people involved.  The worker co-op and educational spaces have provided a platform for this analysis to develop, especially in connection to the limits of direct actions that ask for reform and not structural change. In conversation, questioning, and in practicing democracy (what if school ran the way we ran our farm?) we now have a base of people that are planning on convening more high school activists in the summer to plan for a school democratization and general reform campaign for the next school year. The connections are clear and the power is growing.

Through joining young people in organizing for education system democratization, we build the movement of worker cooperatives and the solidarity economy.  We stand beside them in their fight for liberation; a struggle for freedom that will shape the paradigms and actions of everyone involved far beyond their time in school.

This is a call to action for the solidarity economy and cooperative movement. We must organize, mobilize, and educate around a narrative of ownership and control, who benefits and who decides, with young people in the education system. If we want the world we are fighting and building for, then there must be no institution left behind (except the ones we don’t want i.e. prisons, militaries, etc.). These ideas and frames can connect us for much needed unity, clarity, and capacity. From the workplace to the school; solidarity! In our movement, we must have both.

Young People's Action Coalition is an democratic, youth-run organization dedicated to intersectional movement building among high school aged young people in Minnesota. YPAC has four major components:

  1. Popular/political education on social and environmental justice issues, root causes, and movement building strategy.
  2. Mobilizing young people to direct actions and other events in solidarity with other organizations and campaigns.
  3. Publishing and distributing a zine with art, interviews, and articles from young people across MN.
  4. Running a worker cooperative farm and teaching and engaging in systemic change strategies.


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Cliff Martin is an organizer with Young Peoples Action Coalition. He specializes in grassroots organizing and strategy, popular education/training, and community wealth building strategy/practices in rural Northfield Minnesota. He is a worker-owner of a sustainable farm cooperative along with other youth from YPAC. He is currently working with the city of Northfield, local anchor institutions, and community organizations to develop and carry out a city-wide worker co-op development plan.


James Dunn (2015).  Democratize the Education System!:  Engaging the Youth in Cooperative Culture.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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