A Conversation on Youth and Cooperation
[Editor's note: this is part two of a conversation between Cliff Martin of the Young People's Action Coaltion and GEO Collective member Len Krimerman. You can read part one here. Special thanks to Rob Brown for providing the trascription.]
Len: How long have you been working with the youth organization [YPAC] that you’re with?
Cliff: I think this is maybe technically our fourth year working within the school-year calendar. We started more or less three and a half years ago as a group of high school students. I think I was the only one that was into co-ops, but we came together around the idea of, “Hey, you’re an environmentalist, and you’re for gay rights, and you’re for immigration, but we should all talk about these issues together and take action together.” So we came around the idea of building an intersectional youth movement itself. But it took two years to learn how to actually organize, and then a few of us stuck around post-high school to really commit to that organizing. So this year is our first school year really having this core team of student activist leaders from multiple schools strategizing together, learning together. These are the folks that we’re taking to the cooperative youth convergence in January who will get that first taste of ‘if we democratize the workplaces’, well we hope that out of that we can have a conversation about what if we democratize the schools. So we’re really fresh at this. Ultimately, we’ve been doing it for about three and a half years, maybe four, but this is the first year where it’s been really serious and we’re doing what we wanted to. So it’s really exciting. Hopefully we can do another podcast after a year and see how much we’ve built toward this democratizing schools/ solidarity economy vision and the young peoples’ movement, but right now we’re just at the verge of that.
Len: Have you kept any records of once a student leaves and what do they do? How has your program affected their next stage of learning?
Cliff: Yes, that’s a great question. We’ve only started recently developing actual infrastructure to track that, and that’s mostly because we’ve been so ragtag and small. We’re legally nothing but we have a non-profit fiscal agent. And we have two people, we’re organizing; we don’t do a lot of the administrative things. We spend more time on the action and less time on all the other things we could do behind the scenes .But we’re starting to be like, “Ok, how do we actually track our impact with students leaving this space and going into college or the workplace?” So far, the main mechanism has been Facebook, because we’re still friends with all these same people we worked with on Facebook. And we see what they’re doing via Facebook, and it’s amazing — the level of leadership the core crew that we’ve worked with over the last years which have been pretty small, smaller groups of people who really got deeply involved. But the leadership that they’re already taking on their campuses — I think most of them are in college right now, I don’t think many of them went right to work — but a lot of them are taking leadership. Just yesterday, I saw one of them created a Facebook event to invite everyone to see they started an artist cooperative. And I know that this girl knew nothing about cooperatives until she was part of our farming worker cooperative. It’s like hey, I don’t think artist co-ops are going to save the world or anything, but it’s a co-op and that’s exactly the kind of train of thought that people need to be getting on. So that’s our only mechanism so far, but that’s been not knowing what we’re doing very much with tracking. So this year we’re looking a lot more at where we link up analytically, strategically, and in action with people post being a part of this group. So yeah, it’s been good so far for sure, though. It’s been a good experiment.
Len: I did run across one article from dozens or so that I’ve been looking at that describe something that’s going on in, I believe, the Minneapolis area with youth participatory action. If you want, I can send something like that out to you.
Cliff: Oh, that would be great. I would love that.
Len: Also, there’s a book out by a fellow named Jay Gillen. It’s called Educating for Insurgency.
Cliff: Oh no way! I have that book, but have not finished reading it. That’s amazing — I have it sitting on my desk. I love what I’ve read in it so far, for sure.
Len: The connection to Bob Moses and Ella Baker is really neat. And, as you probably know, he has this section about the Baltimore Algebra Project, which is not connected to any one particular high school, but is a self-sustaining enterprise where students who learn algebra then develop businesses and ways they can get money from the school system to help teach other students what they haven’t been able to get from their own teachers and so forth, and they set up other businesses. So it’s almost an incubator, like an incubator of co-ops. It’s mostly individual, but in some cases there are groups that are funded by this, and apparently they’ve brought in millions of dollars to help the students get their college educations, as well. So it’s a fascinating thing. But at any rate, what do you think of the idea that we may be getting pushed in a really promising direction by Trump?
Cliff: Yeah, isn’t it such a funny thing? One of the takes we’ve been talking about internally with the Young Peoples Action Coalition and just the kind of movement people who I’m talking to, is that for a long time — and I’m sure you all have experienced this — a lot of us have been saying the crises are only going to get worse. The environmental crises only keep getting worse, the social crises, also economic, political...But you don’t exactly know the form the next crisis will take. So Trump gets elected, and it’s like, oh my god, well we knew something bad was going to continue to happen until we really build the Left in general and build solidarity, new systems, and movements that are really strong and can really take on the people destroying the planet, then bad stuff is going to keep happening. But it was still such a shock, you know. But the nice thing about the shock — and I’m sure you all see this and are experiencing this — is it’s woken up a ton of people, just thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Maybe millions of people went to their first protest the night after the election.
It’s a symbolic “this sucks”, and that’s still really good; that gives us a huge opportunity to bring people into our movements and into our organizations. I’m always on the fence and back and forth about “Is it that we need a third party? Is it just that we build the solidarity economy? What’s our relationship to the government and the state?” We didn’t have a big — and not Democrat, not Republican — but still this broad, big picture organization for people to flock into and join as the alternative. And there’s been a little bit of that, but, as the whole Left across the country, we don’t a big revolutionary party to join, you know? We don’t have something like that. I don’t know if that’s exactly what we need, but that day I felt that I don’t have one thing to point people towards that touches on all of it. There’s a lot of single issue things.
On the whole, it’s opened up this massive moment of lots of people ready to join something. And that’s been very beneficial. I think it’s very much still up in the air about the Trump administration’s policies and the effects they’ll have on the economy, and therefore the effect they’ll have on markets and our ability to start up worker co-ops and lots of things like that. We just don’t really know. But on the whole, one of the things that has always attracted me to the solidarity economy is that we can generally follow the trends of how the economy’s slow, and we can design worker co-ops and other economic enterprises within that. Or we can also go beyond that, and we can organize our own markets so our worker co-ops don’t have to be at the whims of the free market in competing against capitalist firms all the time. We can do so much within that context that politics can’t usually touch too much.
And then, on the whole, we can build a kind of stable baseline infrastructure of economic institutions that are really able to hold down space and money and time and energy and people for Left political action. And by political I don’t just mean government; we’ve got social justice movements. So it’s kind of like we just need to keep building the solidarity economy. This is a long-term project we’re part of. It takes a long time to build these institutions, and it takes them an even longer time to get up and be strong and really be able to provide support for other movements and stuff like that. So it’s like if we’re in it for the long haul and serious about that, then this is just another expected bump in the road. That may be a bump to our benefit in some ways and isn’t in other ways, but that’s one thing on it. How about yourself? What do you think?
Len: Yeah, I think it’s going to be a bump in the right direction. I think it will bump people who, like you said, would never think of protesting or coming out of their shells and saying, “Well, this is just too much.” But also, I just wonder have you had contact at all with any of the worker co-op initiatives and groups in Minnesota and places around Minnesota?
we have a massive opportunity as a solidarity economy movement to invest in educational system organizing for massive change
Cliff: Yeah, and it’s a funny thing for Minnesota, I think. Minnesota has a lot of co-ops compared to other states. And I believe a lot of those are mostly in food, like grocery consumer co-ops, but I think there’s actually a pretty significant number of worker co-ops compared to a lot of other states. And one of the funny things is that we are very much situated in the social justice Left movement kind of spaces across Minnesota, and co-ops barely have a presence there. Barely. Sometimes there may be a worker co-op or a food co-op that will provide space or a big donation of food or a sponsorship for an event or something like that. But on the whole, it’s separate worlds. And it’s one thing that we have not been able to spend enough time trying to organize through the gap of the worker co-op/ solidarity economy sector and the Left movements for justice, and even in Minnesota where we have a strong tract of both. I know a lot of people in that space in Minnesota, and I have contacts there, but there are almost no organizations or infrastructure to facilitate exchange between those groups for the most part. That’s the short version. What are your thoughts?
Len: I think some of the folks that I know in the Minnesota area would be quite interested in talking to the students that you work with and indicating what sorts of opportunities there are for either starting new co-ops or joining co-ops that have been around for awhile, and so on. That sort of thing, I think, is what we’re trying to get the US Federation of Worker Co-ops to think about: doing some recruiting within high schools, and certainly on the campuses. And that will often mean just getting somebody there who can talk at length and know what’s been happening in the co-op sector.
Cliff: Yeah absolutely. It’s definitely not just a dream, but an ambition of ours is to start bridging that divide. And through our organizing we want to talk to students about social justice issues which can lead people to realize we need a different economy, and that’s our approach. But we’d also love for someone from the co-op world in Minnesota to come into the schools and be like, “Hey, there’s a bunch of job opportunities in worker co-ops, and here’s why we think these are better than in a capitalist firm,” you know. That would be incredible even if it’s just a regular job fair at school; it’s facilitating that exchange of knowledge. It’s just something that I don’t think anyone’s had the capacity to put energy into.
One of the areas where we are really starting to do that more fiercely, as far as it pertains to education, is from the Cooperative Youth Council....But this is the national structure for young people in the cooperative movement across the country to help them come together to organize and strategize, but how do we get a cooperative curriculum on the college level or the high school level? Mostly that’s been a college campus conversation, because that’s the student base that’s in the cooperatives, which is why we’re so excited to bring a whole bunch of high school kids to our next gathering and talk about all this. We’re starting to get there. Even just the little things, like here’s the job openings and here’s what a worker cooperative is, just to plant the seed, to plant the seed of separation per se. Just to do that, I think we’re getting close for sure — closer than we’ve been in quite awhile. So it’s exciting. We definitely don’t have the infrastructure in place right now, but it’s getting there.
Len: Good! Sounds like we’re on many of the same pages.
Cliff: Absolutely. And you’re in Connecticut? You were talking about participatory action research from a whole bunch of places. Where have you seen this happening on the east coast in general and with the co-op movement on the east coast? What’s the relationship there?
Len: There are a number of initiatives coming out of New York City and the CUNY system. There were people who actually were able to initiate participatory action research in a group setting which included students who are not in New York City but in one of the wealthy suburbs, so there are all sorts of questions of privilege and so forth. Really interesting. There’s a book called Revolutionizing Education, and it has a lot of examples that took place back in 2008, 2009. I think some of them may still be ongoing. So that’s one thing.
Some interest in it in the San Francisco/Oakland area, a lot of participatory action research there. In that case — some of the others have done similar things, but never to the same extent — they actually had a full summer program for the students. They take them out of Oakland and get them to be in kind of a safe haven space, because they sensed a need for healing and not just for a different kind of style of learning. But these are, in many cases, students who have lost their self-esteem or who are angry at not being respected within the school and so on. There has to be some sort of healing area, some place that no one can invade and disrupt. I think that’s not there in every case of participatory action research, but it’s there in a good many of them.
Some work has been done in New Mexico. I actually don’t know of any in the Boston area — there may be some now — but of course there’s that one in Baltimore. There’s a fellow named Ben Kushner who writes about the stuff that he did in working on youth activism — which is not quite the same thing as youth participatory action research — in Colorado where there were issues between Latino and white students. He opens up this book with the setting where students with Mexican ancestry were going to come to school celebrating May 5th (Cinco de Mayo), because they saw that the school celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. And instead they were hooted at, and they got a really bad reception and so on. That generated, across the school setting, the need for some kind of recourse and out of that they developed a multi-sector form of participatory action research which was triggered by this very, very hostile situation that the students came and endured. So there are a lot of books out on it, but I think they tend to be in the same sort of place. That’s why I was so interested in the activity in New Hampshire, which is coming not so much from students themselves in an urban context, but it was initiated by the Department of Education in New Hampshire, that very rural state. And there may be more stuff like that.
Cliff: Right. That reminds me, in particular, of being in a rural context for a ton of my work. A lot of my work, especially for youth organizing, is up in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, but the rest of my work is really out in rural Minnesota and thinking about what is the role of the Solidarity Economy/Left movement organizing out in rural areas. What’s the role out here? It’s critical; that’s the short version. I’m trying to work on a piece of writing for the role of the solidarity economy in rural America, and it’s huge. No one is organizing unions in rural America, and that’s very normal. The Left barely has a political presence in rural America. So who does that leave rural working class people to? Neo-nazis; they do a lot of political organizing in the white rural working class, but in general, there’s no one.
There’s a massive gap around economic organizing, political organizing, and to me it’s a critical function that we start to get into the rural schools and the rural economy in particular. Let’s say these are failing us right, these are failing tons of rural working people — black, white, or brown. What do we need to do to change it? I think that’s particularly true in the economic system and the education system. Those are so pertinent in rural peoples’ lives in ways that a lot of rural people feel like the government isn’t there. And so there’s a rich history of rural schools that have actually done things like what you’re talking about from New Hampshire, which comes from the middle of nowhere it seems with a really progressive, democratic form of education that’s really empowering. There’s a really amazing history of that happening even right now.
There’s tiny towns where they do really incredible education that’s really student-centered, and the students have an amazing time. And there’s only, say, twelve of them because they all live on massive farms out in South Dakota in a town no one’s ever heard of. And I know people in some of those places. It’s a really rich environment of possibility for these massive reforms and changes in the school model, and that bleeding over into the solidarity economy model in rural America. I think your example from New Hampshire, for me, rings true, potentially. Not knowing the entirety of that context, that situation, I think it speaks to that broader pattern of having an area rich with this kind of organizing — there’s so much potential here — but no one puts any capacity behind it. We’re trying to change that in Minnesota. We want our worker co-ops that we’re starting in Northfield to be able to fund the work of organizers to go do more organizing in other rural areas and that kind of thing. So that’s what we’re moving towards, and education fits exactly into that as well as that whole democratic, cooperative, solidarity education system. So that definitely rings true for me seeing that pattern.
Len: Well this has been fun — very interesting connections.
Josh: Could we have some closing thoughts? Is there anything to wrap this up that either one of you would like to say?
Len: Well, I say I want to keep looking at what’s happening out there in Northfield as a model that we could, as GEO, circulate and get other folks to realize that this is a real possibility, and see if some of these participatory action initiatives might be introduced possibly by folks in the youth activism initiative there into the school system. Then we can sort of ‘walk on both legs’ and just keep the mindset that we keep pressing the institutions until we feel they’re no longer serving us and we need to start separating and developing our own kind of educational institutions. One of the things I will bring up is the big issue of why isn’t there a school for cooperatives, or something that’s sort of a college or a learning center, maybe many of them in different regions? Apparently that hasn’t gotten much traction, but we need that if we’re really going to develop generation after generation of new cooperators and new people who work in the solidarity economy.
Cliff: Yeah, my closing thoughts are very much in a similar line, just in that I think that politically in general and in the solidarity economy movement, there’s just not a lot of youth organizing on any front. It totally exists, and where it does it’s often really, really awesome, or sometimes really lackluster. Honestly it’s kind of either/or, sometimes not much in-between. I think that, as the solidarity economy movement, we have a critical opportunity in that we can invest in organizing in schools to kind of build democratic solidarity schools, and do that as an investment in the solidarity economy. But just like we’ve been talking about, we need to invest in the generation of young people who are going to be able to learn the skills of democratic management, and teamwork, and a culture of social justice, and bring them into the solidarity economy movement.
It’s kind of like you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s going to be easier to train those things into young people who identify with them on a moral level of ‘this is a better way to do life’, than it is to take adults who grew up under capitalism, in capitalist firms, in capitalist culture, and slowly train adults to show us how to do teamwork and democracy. Obviously it’s worse doing that for adults than young people. But we have a massive opportunity as a solidarity economy movement to invest in educational system organizing for massive change that can link a lot of these things together in a really critical way. So I think all this kind of comes back home to that for me, and it’s exciting work that we get to do in Young Peoples Action Coalition. But we’re super excited to get to do it with more and more organizations, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to talk about it and hopefully get it heard, get the word out there a little bit out in the solidarity economy world in particular even more so. I appreciate the opportunity to talk today.
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Cliff Martin (2017). The Kids are Alright, Part 2: A Conversation on Youth and Cooperation. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/kids-are-alright-part-2