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Documentary Explores Austin’s Intergenerational Cooperative Approach to Solving Problems

Wednesday, 31 July 2013 13:46

NCBA CLUSA’s Colette Beyer recently sat down with Jim and Erik Jones to learn more about their latest project ‘Many Hands’, a documentary exploring how nearly half a century of lessons from the Austin cooperative community can help build a greater cooperative future for generations to come.

Many Hands, a newly released documentary by father and son team Jim and Erik Jones, provides a unique intergenerational approach to exploring the cooperative movement in Austin, Texas, from its inception in the early 1960s to today’s bustling new economic landscape. The film focuses on how lessons learned in the past 50 years can help new cooperatives avoid common pitfalls when getting started and scaling growth.

Baby Boomers and Echo Boomers Work to Create 21st Century Cooperative Experience
Veteran co-op activist and historian, Jim Jones, arrived in Austin in the early 1970s and spent much of his career as a cooperative manager with the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO), a federation of housing cooperatives in the United States and Canada.

Baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, were college students during the 1960s and 1970s and are now at an age where they are looking at how to handle their post-work years. “There is some concern of loss of identity and involvement with the larger community,” said Jim. “What we’re talking about is creating a different type of co-op, a cross between a co-housing project and the student co-op housing model where we have a dining co-op inside a housing co-op.”

Jim’s son and the documentary’s producer, Erik Jones, saw a growing desire for community building in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A fortuitous conversation with his father spawned the idea of a road trip to Austin and a hands-on lesson with those who used cooperation as a tool to transform the city during the 1960s and 1970s. “There are a great number of ‘connectors’ in Austin who are good at bringing together those who have been in the city since the 1960s and those who are new,” added Erik. “When they all come together in a centralized way it becomes much more powerful.”

When Opportunity Knocks – A City United by Principle 6 and a Mindset of Success
When asked what sets Austin apart from other cooperative hubs in the United States, Jim emphasized that individuals in the city are good at seeking out opportunities. “They are always scanning the horizon to see what will help co-ops,” said Jim. From flawed accounting practices in local food co-ops to attempts by the Reagan administration to close the doors on the National Cooperative Bank, a source of vital funding for Austin co-ops, cooperators in the city are always looking for a cooperative solution to their problems.

Principle 6: Cooperation Among Cooperatives, of the 7 Cooperative Principles established by the International Co-operative Alliance, emphasizes the power of working together to build economic democracy. Many Hands illustrates how Austin’s established cooperatives are lending a helping hand to popular startups in the community. Take NCBA CLUSA members Wheatsville Co-op and Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery. The two organizations came together following Black Star putting out the word that they wanted to transform their garage-based operation into a member-run pub. A $40,000 investment by Wheatsville, a 37-year-old food cooperative, along with other organizations and individuals helped to jump start the 2,000-member pub. In the film, Dan Gillotte, General Manager of Wheatsville, stresses the important role well-established co-ops need to assume in order to grow the movement. “Get a big brother or big sister co-op. When we were were trying to do it alone we really struggled, and when we started reaching out, we started finding great success and that was true of us as an established co-op and it is especially true of startup co-ops”

“People in Austin have struggled through so many impossible problems, but they found a way to do it. The difference is that they start with a belief that it will work and it does. There are failures and they learn from them. It gives you a sense of optimism as to what is possible,” Jim added.

So what advice does a veteran cooperator with more than forty years of experience have for startup co-ops? Don’t reinvent the wheel!

“It is important to realize that whatever you are trying has probably been tried in the past, learn from those who have come before you,” said Jim.

As for Erik, he is excited to accelerate the growth of the 27-person housing cooperative he helped to form by utilizing lessons learned from the Austin cooperative community. “I see this as a launching point for a greater cooperative movement in the city of Grand Rapids and beyond.”

For more information on ‘Many Hands’, please


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