Despite coming to the cooperative movement from different backgrounds and sectors, this year’s inductees to the Cooperative Hall of Fame each believe that co-ops have untapped power—power that could solve income inequality, amplify the benefits of ownership and, ultimately, build a better world.
During last week’s Cooperative Hall of Fame Panel and Q&A, the five inductees sat down with NCBA CLUSA President and CEO Judy Ziewacz—herself a 2015 inductee—to discuss how co-ops shaped their lives, why they consider the movement “home” and the “next big thing” they think co-ops could influence.
Partners in both life and the pursuit for racial, social and economic justice in the U.S. South, inductees John and Carol (Prejean) Zippert continue to embody the principles and priorities of the two movements that shaped their lives—the civil rights movement and the cooperative movement.
“I stayed [with the co-op movement] because it was a matter of survival. How were we going to make it economically? Cooperatives became the answer for us, and it became a way of life. It influenced every choice we made,” Carol said.
“It even decided who I would marry!” she added. The couple’s mentor, Father A. J. McKnight—himself a Cooperative Hall of Famer deeply involved in community and cooperative development across Louisiana—first kindled their passion and commitment to the cooperative movement and ended up marrying the couple in 1966.
Inductee Rita L. Haynes joined the cooperative movement because African Americans in her community were systemically denied access to financial institutions and she wanted to give low-income people an alternative to payday lenders. Credit unions that focused on financial literacy proved an ideal solution.
Inductee Richard Larochelle told the audience he stayed with the co-op movement for the simple reason that “co-ops get in your blood.”
“Two aspects were especially meaningful to me: the fact that you’re working for a business that makes a difference in people’s lives and the people you work with share your core values,” Larochelle said. When he started at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association after a brief stint outside the co-op community, it “felt like coming home,” he said.
Now, he hopes to educate a new generation on the benefits of the cooperative business model. As a self-described “full-time volunteer,” one of Larochelle’s projects is a course on cooperative business he developed with Adam Schwartz (founder of The Cooperative Way) for the University of Mary Washington.
“It’s outrageous that you can graduate with a degree in business and never once hear the word ‘cooperative,’” Larochelle said. “Co-ops should be taught in business schools. And it’s achievable.”
Bringing greater awareness of the co-op business model to the broader public was a common thread throughout the panel. Haynes called co-ops the world’s “best kept secret.” Inductee John D. Johnson attributed part of that reality to naval gazing.
“We’ve got a lot of success stories, but in my mind, they’re scattered. So our challenge is, ‘How do you take what you’re doing and make it even more impactful?’ Speaking to the choir is not the solution. You’ve got to get outside of that bubble,” he said.
Focusing on pressing issues like poverty, income inequality and economic and social justice might be a good strategy to look outside the movement, John said, adding that some of the “strongest work” the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund ever did in its 50-year history was getting funding for cooperative development centers in rural America in the Farm Bill. “Rural co-op centers needs to be better funded and we need to get their urban [equivalent] in place,” he said.
Larochelle agreed, adding that the heart of co-op work is “all about empowering others.”
And that’s worth celebrating, Carol said. Over her career, she said she learned to embrace struggle and learn from it, but also to look for moments and milestones to celebrate.
“We need to look for opportunities to celebrate this community,” she said. “We ought to put on a festival. We do that, and it’s another way for people to see and understand how significant cooperatives are.”
Haynes agreed. “I believe that we should celebrate and let the rest of the world know what a great feeling it is to own something,” she said.
From September 30 – October 1, 2017, NCBA CLUSA will host the inaugural Co-op Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—an unprecedented opportunity to amplify the economic impact, diversity and sustainability of a business model that 70 percent of consumers say they already trust.