Our little group of a dozen families was running out of time. After meeting every weekend for three years to plan our hoped-for cohousing community, and after investing much of our savings to acquire a few acres of land, it looked as though our dream would fail. We couldn’t find a bank that would finance a cooperative.
It was our local credit union that saved us. “You’re owned by your members? What’s
so odd about that? We’re owned by our members,” the president of the Kitsap Credit Union mused.
With that financing, we were able to build 30 affordable homes and a common house, and to make space available for gardens, an orchard, a playfield, and a tiny urban forest. In 1992, we moved into Winslow Cohousing, the first member-developed cohousing community in the United States.
Co-ops—just like people—can get more done together than anyone can do alone. The good news is that co-ops come in many forms and are more common than you might imagine. They are owned by workers, residents, consumers, farmers, craftspeople, the community, or any combination. What they have in common is that they circulate the benefits back to their member-owners, and these benefits ripple out to the broader community. As Marjorie Kelly explains, cooperative forms of ownership allow the well-being of people, the planet, and future generations to take priority over profits for shareholders and executives.
This is an exciting moment for cooperatives. A growing disillusionment with big banks and corporations is sparking interest in economic alternatives, and new opportunities are opening up:
• The United Steelworkers and other unions are exploring worker-ownership as a means to assure stable, living-wage jobs that can’t be outsourced to low-wage regions.
• Communities seeking alternatives to profit-driven corporate health insurance are forming health care co-ops.
• Hundreds of thousands of people who “moved their money” from Wall Street banks to local banks and credit unions now have a say in how their money is used.
• Consumers are turning to co-ops like Equal Exchange for ethically produced goods, and Equal Exchange, in turn, supports co-ops made up of farmers and producers in some of the world’s poorest regions.
These cooperatives can be powerful forces for change. Vancity, Canada’s largest credit union, targets its investments to local enter- prises that have positive impacts. It divested its holdings in Enbridge due to concerns about the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. And it adopted a living wage policy that applies to its own employees and to service providers.
Cooperative structures can strengthen an economy. For example, Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, where about a third of the economy is cooperative and has far less inequality. Most people there can find living wage jobs, and quality of life is high.
Last year, Winslow Cohousing celebrated its 20th year, and the grown sons and daughters of the early members returned to share what it meant to them to grow up in a community, surrounded by love and support.
My hope? That many more children have the opportunity to grow up in cooperative spaces; that more adults get the respect and empowerment that comes from working in cooperatives and buying from co-ops; and that over time, diverse forms of democratic ownership displace predatory capitalism as the foundation for our economy.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor of YES!
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