IMPACT 2021 challenges cooperators to recommit to their shared identity—and responsibility

Dr. Karama Neal delivers a keynote message at the 2021 Cooperative IMPACT Conference.

Drawing close to 700 cooperators together from around the world, NCBA CLUSA’s 2021 Cooperative IMPACT Conference provided an unparalleled platform to reenergize the cooperative movement and expand the conversation around co-op identity. That theme linked two tracks, more than 50 hours of programming and 118 speakers across five days of programming that inspired learning and action.

On Monday, NCBA CLUSA president and CEO Doug O’Brien set the tone for IMPACT 2021 by calling on cooperators to understand, share and act on our shared cooperative identity. “It’s time to reexamine our values and recommit to our principles,” O’Brien said. “It’s time for cooperators to ask each other, ‘Is there more we can do to help create a truly inclusive and equitable economy?’ ‘How can we work together to gauge success and failure, and hold each other accountable?’” That challenge anchored sessions throughout the week.

On Tuesday, we started the day with the first session of our IMPACT International Track. Made possible by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), these sessions were sponsored by the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) and its members. Through dynamic speakers and engaging panel discussions, we saw how co-ops around the world are innovating for impact, strengthening communities and building resilience in the face of climate change. “The world has not been given to us to observe, but to transform,” said Ana Agirre, co-founder and worker-owner of Tazebaez Co-op. That quote from Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, who inspired and helped found the Mondragon network of cooperatives, should be “a call to action for all of us,” Agirre said.

Our keynote on Tuesday featured an inspiring conversation between Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union and Freelancers Insurance Company and Esteban Kelly, Executive Director of the U.S. Federation of Southern Cooperatives. They discussed Horowitz’s book, Mutualism: Building a New Economy from the Ground Up, and how everyday cooperators can build momentum for political and economic change. “We have been waiting for everybody else to do this for us,” Horowitz said. “No. It starts with you, right now, in your own co-op. It’s up to us to build the next economy.”

“We have been waiting for everybody else to do this for us, but it’s up to us to build the next economy.” – Sara Horowitz, author, Mutualism: Building a New Economy from the Ground Up

On Wednesday, we heard from globally recognized researchers and scholars Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Anu Puusa. Their keynote conversation explored where the co-op movement is headed, led by our shared identity. “It’s not just a business model—it’s about humanity. We have a model that has proven to do good business and do good at the same time,” Puusa said. “It’s time for us to stop being so alienated by our economic systems,” Gordon Nembhard added. “Cooperatives are a tool to regain and assert our humanity.”

On Thursday, Sens. Tina Smith (D-MN) and Mike Rounds (R-SD) accepted the 2021 Cooperative IMPACT Champion Award, kicking off our live, in-person programming at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Sens. Smith and Rounds were recognized for their work co-leading the bipartisan Senate Rural Working Group.

Then at noon, Dr. Karama Neal, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service joined us to explore how co-ops and USDA can partner to fight climate change, boost food security and build fair, resilient agricultural markets. “We want to be partners in prosperity with you,” she said.

“We want to be partners in prosperity with you.” – Dr. Karama Neal, Administrator, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service

The final day of IMPACT 2021 began with a keynote conversation between Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Their conversation focused on the critical role cooperatives play as people work to build back an economy that is more equitable and resilient for everyone.

Vilsack’s comments amplified previous challenges for cooperators not to wait, but to begin building the world they envision. “The country needs you,” he said. “The cooperative notion of finding common cause and common ground is more critical than ever. Co-ops have the responsibility to unite this country in a new direction.”

“Co-ops have the responsibility to unite this country in a new direction.” – Tom Vilsack, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, right, and Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, during a keynote conversation.

But first, O’Brien reminded IMPACT 2021 attendees, cooperators need to rally around their cooperative identity. NCBA CLUSA’s newest project, the Principle 6 (P6) Initiative aims to do just that. With 65,000+ cooperative establishments in the country, there is incredible potential to work together to elevate the cooperative identity and demonstrate its value to members and communities. As these cooperatives work to grow their businesses and impact their communities, the P6 Initiative challenges them to consider an underutilized strategy: cooperating with other cooperatives.

O’Brien recognized the key funding partners of the P6 Initiative, starting with NCBA CLUSA’s leading partner, National Cooperative Bank. Other early contributors to the initiative include Blue Hawk, CoBank, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), CUNA Mutual, DC Credit Union, National Co+op Grocers, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation and Nationwide.

“Our funding partners are helping to accelerate cross-sector co-op collaboration, a key step on the path toward building a more equitable and inclusive economy,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, Principle 6 is about helping grow cooperatives and increasing community impact. Now is the right time to act on this essential cooperative principle.”


IMPACT 2021 sessions are available on demand to conference registrants throughout the month of October. If you missed a session, just log back into the conference platform and choose “On Demand” from the “Schedule” tab drop-down menu. If you haven’t registered for IMPACT 2021, it’s not too late! Register now for access to all of last week’s sessions, in addition to next week’s IMPACT+ programming

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