Achieving diversity, equity and inclusion commitments will require tremendous change


Change—good change—is rarely an accident.

Good change happens when people come together to meet a common need and advocate for a set of policies that enable their efforts. The best change happens when it is rooted in a set of shared values and principles. Our own context, with its extraordinary challenges—a global pandemic and its economic consequences coupled with deeply rooted racism and inequity—presents one of these opportunities.

Last week, I spoke at the Colombian Association of Cooperatives (ASCOOP)’s 35th annual conference under the theme “Identity and Commitment: Builder of the Common Good” about this moment.

During these turbulent times, one needs an anchor. As a movement, our anchor has always been our shared cooperative identity. This people-centered business model has transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people; we know it can meet today’s challenges. As cooperators, we cherish the values of self-help, responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. And our identity finds perhaps its best-known expression in the seven Cooperative Principles.

While we often think of these principles as unchangeable, part of their beauty is their ability to adapt to meet contemporary opportunities and challenges. For example in 1995, the global cooperative body voted to add our seventh Principle, “concern for community.” Now may be the time to consider how these principles are expressed in today’s context. We should ask ourselves, do they reflect today’s reality? Do they embody our vision to  to empower people from all walks of life—particularly those left behind by a shifting economy and facing the greatest economic and societal barriers? Building on this vision, in October 2019 the Board of NCBA CLUSA adopted a resolution supporting efforts to ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion are clearly understood and enacted priorities within the Cooperative Identity.

Think about the First Principle focused on voluntary and open membership. While it prohibits discrimination, it does not expressly encourage diversity or inclusion. And as Jessica Gordon Nembhard said earlier this month during her keynote address at the Cooperative IMPACT Conference, “It’s not good enough to be diverse; it’s not even good enough to be inclusive. We need to deliberately promote and practice racial equity.”

This might mean clarifying the language of the principles to make clear that not only do cooperatives not discriminate, but that we are diverse, inclusive, and equitable. The difference is critical. To not discriminate is to open the door to those who might be different from you if and when they knock. To be inclusive is to actively invite them in and make sure they feel welcome and heard. To be equitable is to give everyone the same chance to even get to the door.

Achieving our diversity, equity and inclusion commitments will require tremendous change—to our society, to our economy and to our policy landscape. As cooperators, we are not immune. It falls on all of us not only to lead this change, but to demonstrate it in our cooperatives and in our identity.

This moment calls for courageous, visionary cooperators to collaborate with our allies within and external to the cooperative community. The change we want will take vision, creativity and a willingness to take risks. It will not happen by accident.

—Doug O’Brien is president and CEO of NCBA CLUSA, where he works with the cooperative community to deepen its impact on the economy.

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