When I moved back to my hometown in 2017, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a food cooperative was in the making and I eagerly became owner #205 of Silverton Food Co-op. I thought that by buying a share, I had done my part, and I could sit back and await our store’s grand opening. Not so fast.
I periodically attended owner meetings here and there, asked questions about what the Board of Directors was working on, and kept wondering when our store would open. What was the hold-up?
At one owner meeting, I heard myself asking “what are you guys doing about this?” and “have you thought about this?” Then I realized “you guys” were the small group of people that sat before me. Sure there were a handful of other volunteers, but there was no invisible army of organizers, no hired staff, no full-time community movers and shakers. And I finally really heard their plea: “we need help!” If you think back to previous meetings you’ve attended or look back through your inbox, I bet you’ll also recall this longstanding call to action.
In January 2020, I joined the Board of Directors. I looked forward to bringing my enthusiasm for events and community engagement to the table, hoping to plan gatherings for our membership. Then the pandemic hit. Then the pandemic stayed. Then the capital campaign came and went. Our Board worked our tails off through it all to try and activate our membership, bring people together virtually, and raise funds to open our store. I felt exhausted, and to be honest, a little bit defeated after just my first year of holding a Director position. We had pretty much everything stacked against us (COVID, wildfires, ice storms, financial hardships, personal loss, and grief), but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was another force at play. Where were our owners? Why couldn’t we reach our people?
I’ve realized in this reflection that there’s a big difference between increasing size vs. increasing capacity. We have a saying on our lawn signs that reads, “I own it, you can too!” But what does ownership in the Co-op mean? Yes, we each buy a share and get a vote. But ownership doesn’t stop there. Our Co-op gets bigger with each share purchased. Our Co-op grows with each owner we effectively and thoughtfully engage.
We’ve been on a path of increasing numbers and raising capital, but membership engagement, and growth for that matter, has stalled out in recent years. That’s something our Co-op’s leadership is looking to change, to ensure that we are really reaching and connecting with fellow owners. The Board is not our Co-op. We, all of us owners, are the Co-op!
We also need to rethink our approach to volunteer and owner recruitment so that our leadership looks more like our ownership, and our ownership looks more like our greater community. It’s not about making space at the table, it’s about coming to the table of our community leaders - more of those movers and shakers I mentioned above - and passing decision-making power and vision over. How can we become a more equitable and justice-focused organization? How do we make way for new energy and leadership? We are the Co-op and each of us gets to decide what we do and how we do it.
Tell us what you think, come to our upcoming Local Food Equity Discussion on May 7th, and, please, hear the call to action that took so long to reach my ears: we really do need your help!