How Do We Sense Make Of It All

picture shows large masked crowd at Black Lives Matter protest with most prominent sign reading "No One is Free When Others are Oppressed"
Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire from BBC News

Several years ago, in the aftermath of the protests in Wisconsin supporting labor unions, I wrote about sensemaking and how resilient cooperatives can be in adjusting to the changes in the economy and providing an antidote to the Shock Doctrine. Essentially, Karl Wieck argues that we are constantly building our identities through a process that he calls “sensemaking” and at times a shock can cause this process to founder. When sensemaking breaks down, it can have disastrous consequences. I ended with a quote from Arizmendiarietta, one that I return to constantly in 2020 when working with co-ops (especially those where the membership is predominantly older and whiter):

Our co-operatives must primarily serve those who see them as bastions of social justice and not to those that see cooperatives as refuges or safe places for their conservative spirit.

Don José María Arizmendiarietta, Reflections, 461

This year has created a massive shock to all of our systems:

  1. A global pandemic with a sneaky virus that doesn’t create the physical threat like Ebola, but slowly creeps up with some not showing any symptoms (but maybe have long term health consequences) and others dying.
  2. A global economic shutdown coming on the heels of a recession caused by a trade-war between China and the USA.
  3. A global uprising against the continued attacks on Black people and demonstrations denouncing systemic white supremacy.
  4. New youth leadership and protest methods that break from the polite parades of a previous generation.

In 2012, I commented that our co-ops aren’t facing forest fires, but a new economic challenge. Today, we are facing a whirlwind of change. We need to adapt to that change and this requires us (as co-op leaders, developers, and members), to adapt our organizational and personal identities to be true to the foundation of the Cooperative Identity. Critical Sensemaking offers a methodology to make the change.

. . . critical sensemaking provides a framework for understanding how individuals make sense of their environments at a local level while acknowledging power relations in the broader societal context. The critical sensemaking framework takes a very complex combination of variables including social psychological properties, discourse, organizational rules, and the formative context in which organizations exist and offers an analysis of how these forces combine to allow individuals to make sense of their environments and take action on a day-to-day basis. Critical sensemaking . . .is useful in analyzing the relationship between individual actions and broader societal issues of power and privilege. It also provides a lens through which to view connections between the formative context, organizational rules, and discursive and socio-psychological properties of sensemaking that influence how individuals· make sense of the world around them.

Helms-Mills, Thurlow, Mills (2010) “Making Sense of Sensemaking: The Critical Sensemaking Approach” Qualitative Research in Organization and Management: An International Journal. 5 (2)

The protests for Black Lives Matter along with protests against the right-wing militias have created some significant angst among our communities and has threatened the ability of some co-ops to continue. Part of this is that the nature of the protests are not as polite as people have become accustomed. Statues are being toppled as emblems of racist power, organizations are being expected to do more than simply put of “BLM” sign in their window or issue a board statement that says they support “Black Lives Matter”. It is a difficult time. Co-op leaders are now expected to act, and they should. We can’t just write a statement, we need to be the change.

What I have found disturbing is that a lot of people (mostly white and mostly older) are feeling defensive and challenged. I hear from so many that they are scared to offer an opinion for fear of being called “racist” or that they will be pushed out of the organization that they love and care for. It is a scary time–behavior and language that might have been acceptable just a decade ago is no longer acceptable. For them, I have to tell a secret: it was never acceptable, but no one on the receiving end of that behavior or language felt that they had the ability or the power to challenge it until now.

I should own that I have definitely used a lot of words, made jokes, and engaged in behavior that I regret–I don’t want to sound like I figured it all out. I often have flashes of memory that cause me to want to just hide in a closet in shame, but self-flagellation doesn’t make the world better. Change makes the world better and adjusting one’s identity with the new information helps make the change real.

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrong-doing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

Aldous Huxley, (1947) Forward to “Brave New World”

The current protests are rooted in three of the Co-op values: Equality, Equity, and Solidarity. The system that our society has lived under since 1492 attacks these values every day and it is our obligation to support and nurture these values in ourselves and our organizations. These values were present in the founding of Rochdale in 1844 when only white men who owned property had a voice in government. These values live in the Black co-ops formed in the United States during Jim Crow, and these values are at the heart of every worker co-op and solidarity co-op.

As cooperators, we have the set of values, ethics, and principles to adjust to the demands of the world today. We, on paper, exist as a place committed to social justice through caring for others, concern for community, and social responsibility. However, some might be going through an identity crisis and the staff and membership of every co-op will need to figure out how to work through these issues. Those of us who have been around for a while (2-3 decades) need to learn new ways of engaging. We need to adapt our personal identity to the changing world around us. We need to trust the people coming into leadership. They have a lot to offer just as we did in our 20’s and 30’s.

One of the thinkers that I follow likes to say “good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions.” In that sense, I have always believed that people are only free when they can make mistakes. The role of older co-op leadership should be to offer our experiences and help use that information to make a good decision while recognizing that the world we live in today has never existed before (economic collapse, pandemic, and revolution against white supremacy all at the same time).

People don’t have to be part of the physical protests to make a difference. Due to issues around the pandemic, I have only attended one demonstration in person and it was a youth of color led event that organized it in a manner that it centered the discussion physically with black and indigenous people in the center surrounded by other peoples of color and white people on the outer ring. It was a very powerful and emotional event. There are plenty of places for people to be of service to building a better world.

What we can do is work to build that same energy in our co-ops–recruit youth and youth of color into leadership, review policies with an eye towards decolonizing the process and language, be willing to step into a support role over a leadership role, and challenge ourselves to adjust our identities based on the information of today.

To refer back to the Mann Gulch Fire, we need to either drop our tools or jump into the fire circle. We need to recognize that the events of today are outstripping our experience. If we can’t do that, they we need to step back from leadership positions. For many in the Boomer generation, this might sound familiar in a more musical context:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A Changin'”

I know that am being a little tough on “the olds” in this post (and I consider myself in that category). It is my hope, though, that people who are experiencing issues in their organizations take a moment to understand that the older generation in their co-ops might be undergoing a crisis of their own that they may not recognize. Part of the very values and principles that cooperatives embrace should also guide us as we try to address people who should be allies (and likely believe that they are allies). We should try to meet people where they are and help them manage this process in sensemaking. In some ways, I think that people are in a grief process for a world that they knew that is dying. This world needs to die, but it is a world tied to their identity and it might need grief counseling or therapy (and I’m not being flippant).

Our organizations should be centered on social justice and building a resilient society. Ultimately the arc of history moves towards justice, I hope that we can bring as many people with us, but a change is going to come.

Recommended Reading:

Jacques, Roy (2005) “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Reflections of a Pale, Male, Stale in Managing the Organizational Melting Pot: Dilemmas of Workplace Diversity. Sage Press

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops 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.
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