Power in Purpose: The NCBA/CLUSA Olympia Roundtable

Morning Presentations

Diane Gasaway, Executive Director of NWCDC, starts the session discussing the variety and number of co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, how these co-ops focus on core needs: housing, food security, employment.

The day begins with brief presentations from around the co-op ecosystem. Unfortunately some of the technology did not work as hoped. Unfortunately, we missed presentations from Michael Droke, Jason Wiener, and Brian Estes.

Grace Cox (Olympia Food Co-op)

Grace Cox is the staff liaison to the Olympia Food Co-op Board of Directors, a member of the staff collective for 35 years as well as a long-time community activist. Food Co-ops in the PNW are in their 40s (part of the third wave of the co-op movement). These co-ops started because people wanted access to good, wholesome food. Most of the PNW food co-ops started as a ragtag group in buying clubs. The timing was a convergence of a lot of issues (chemicals being used to grow food and fight wars, farmworker justice movements, and higher rates of cancer in farming communities). These founders wanted to correct the inequities in our food system and society. We wanted to fix it all–the food co-op movement came out of social justice. As a result, many food co-ops have become a voice for their communities and represent their communities. Each co-op is unique to its community. Co-ops owned the natural and organic product line, but as this market developed, for-profit companies moved in and now many co-ops focus on local and supporting local farms. The centralization of our food supply still is untenable and wasteful.

Kent Lopez (Washington Rural Electric Co-op)

General Manager of the Washington Rural Electric Co-op Association–there are 15 electric co-ops in Washington headquartered in the State and a handful from out-of-state that serve customers in Washington. Some of the electric co-ops have been around for over 100 years. Co-ops arose in rural areas because there was not enough money to make for the for-profit companies. The first co-op started in Corinth, Mississippi after learning of the model in the UK. The first appliance attached to the power grid was often a washing machine (the most labor intensive house labor and mostly done by women). FDR pushed this model out nationally. WRECA co-ops serves 25% of the land mass and only 5% of the population. Even today, rural electric co-ops still provide access to things many urban dwellers take for granted. Electricity is a unique commodity in that it cannot be stored and the payment comes long after its use. Directors need to learn how to manage a co-op and run an electric utility. Today, Electric co-ops are beginning to use broadband and 4G service.

Cindy Brooks (Washington Small Business Development Center)

Cindy Brooks works in Skagit County and Islands County. She shares a passion for co-ops and with the passage of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, has a new found role as a Small Business Development Center advisor. Just getting ESOPs and Worker Co-ops on the SBDC menu is a major deal for the region. SBDCs are still learning how to be good partners. One role is to help people find the co-op developers, but also work with the developers and develop pathways that allow both groups to work together and create synergy that allows more people to be served. The areas between urban centers tend to be underserved in a lot of areas. Problems with affordable housing, accessible transportation, as well as general isolation. In addition, as mentioned by others, there are more businesses for sale today than ever before. We need to find owners willing to plan their retirement now, not when they are ready to shut the door. If we can help people get into co-ops, either housing or workplaces, we can shift the sense of inequity in our communities.

Nora Edge (Capital Homecare Co-op)

General Manager for Capital Homecare Cooperative based in Olympia. Nora started in caregiving 10 years ago. The average wage nationally is $11/hour and average income is $18,000 a year. It is a very demanding job both emotionally and physically. As the population ages, caregiver demand is rising, but it is a high-turnover industry (over 80% annually). Home care co-ops tend to operate at a 30% turnover. CHC started with 2 active members and 18 months later has 14 people on staff. For every active caregiver in Thurston County, there are 23 people who cannot afford care. Homecare co-ops offer better working conditions and benefits to caregivers by empowering them.

Miles Nowlin (ROC Northwest)

NWCDC’s own Miles Nowlin speaks about the ROC Northwest program. ROCNW is an affiliate of ROCUSA that serves 16 states. The work is to help preserve affordable housing through the purchase of manufactured home parks. This involves knocking on doors and setting up the purchase as well as providing on-going technical assistance for a decade or longer. There are 15 co-ops in Washington with 2 in conversion. Many of the parks are senior or immigrant communities. ROCNW manages about 2 conversions per year, but it is not enough. Limited Equity Co-ops need greater support. Most of these co-ops low-income and diverse communities (race, age, ability). In the last year, we advocated at the State level to raise awareness and build support from the State to further grow home ownership within this community. Some of the victories included a real estate tax exemption for sellers, property tax exemption for co-ops, and more. We hope to see an opportunity to purchase law that would allow residents the right of first refusal and housing preservation grants.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-op in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the late, great Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle for Sociocracy for All. He has taught on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College and Presidio Graduate School.
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