Education, Training and Information
Education has been part of our legacy since the Rochdale Pioneers set up a classroom in their store on Sunday afternoons. There, members of the first successful consumer cooperative learned about all sorts of history received uplifting lectures on morality. Many people had their first experience of group leadership and public speaking at the cooperative, which became a center of the campaign for women's rights.
In 1995 the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) revised the principles which had guided cooperatives since 1966. They are now couched within a Statement of Cooperative Identity, which defines the values that motivate cooperators to organize and operate their businesses. The Statement calls the cooperative principles "the guidelines by which cooperatives put their values into practice." Since cooperatives can only function if members understand the theory and practice of cooperatives, it is vital to educate them. Seen in this context, education is both a value and a practice!
The fifth principle is now called Education, Training and Information. It states:
"Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the general public - particularly young people and opinion leaders - about the nature and benefits of cooperation."
While our natural food stores have led the way in teaching the public about natural food and the importance of environmentally sound agriculture and food production, we have not been as effective at teaching about the practices of cooperatives themselves. If we are to win the hearts of increasingly health-conscious consumers, we need to become experts on teaching "the cooperative difference." Failure to do this will lead us to become indistinguishable in the public mind from privately owned natural food retailers such as Whole Foods, Inc.
Cooperative education has to be more than product information, as critical as that is. Co-ops can play an important part in solving some of the knotty problems the world now faces when trying to feed, clothe and provide economic opportunity to the burgeoning population. But it will only work if people are willing to be engaged in the process. How to get them engaged? Teach, teach, teach!
Natural food co-ops entwined their public image with ideas that have no basis in co-op tradition. For example, people assume that member-labor, collective management, bulk food, discounts and the refusal to grow are central to the definition of cooperatives. Now we are in the difficult position of having to "un-teach" these notions as we change to meet changing circumstances.
Cooperative principles are flexible enough to encompass a variety of organizations with a variety of products. Co-ops range from little stores run by members to huge marketing groups like Land O'Lakes and Sunkist. We share a vision of people helping themselves by working together, guided by the cooperative principles. We need to redouble our efforts, to teach our members, managers, the public (future members) and above all, our children, about the heart and soul of the cooperative dream: the cooperative principles.
Cooperative Education Column for Co-op Consumer News Nov/Dec 1996
Member Services Director, Wedge Community Co-op