Hello! Welcome to my blog where I will meditate on my experience traveling the world for a year. As a 2017-2018 Watson Fellow, I will visit cooperatives in six countries (Spain, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand, Germany, Canada) to explore how they succeed and when they fall short. While I see cooperatives as a revolutionary and beautiful idea, they can stand at odds with the prevailing economic system. Global capitalism values growth and efficiency above democratic participation and worker power. Are cooperatives able to survive, principles intact, in this economy? Does a global emphasis on profit impede cooperation? How do cooperative regions, such as Mondragon in Spain, compete for resources with traditional for-profit corporations? Do these worker-owners identify with the internationally accepted co-op principles and values? What compromises need to be made to achieve economies of scale? What are the limits to the cooperative revolution? What makes a successful co-op?
Some of you might be wondering what ‘what the hell is a Watson?’ and ‘how did she get lucky enough to travel around the world on someone else’s dime?’ I’m still asking myself the latter question (feeling unironically #blessed every day), but I’ll attempt to answer the former. The mission of the Watson Foundation is to offer “college graduates of unusual promise a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel—in international settings new to them—to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.”
So what is purposeful exploration? It can mean something very different for each fellow. I will spend two to three months in each country, shadowing and interviewing worker-owners at the cooperatives. If a region has a cooperative federation or organizing body that provides resources to individual cooperatives, I have reached out to contacts there. Seeing cooperatives on the ground is crucial to understanding the overall movement. Co-ops can’t work without true communication and strong relationships. I could read about the history of cooperation and learn all the important dates and definitions, but I cannot know how they actually operate or how the worker-owners (without which the cooperative would be nothing) relate to one another without seeing them in person.
As I travel, I will record my findings with creative writing, essays, and photography. I want to build a portrait of the world’s worker-owners and the solidarity economy that they have fostered. In places and moments where a language barrier inhibits communication, I will learn through watching and photographing the experience of being a worker-owner.
Wait, backup, what’s a cooperative?
Well I’m glad you asked! In case you can’t tell, talking about cooperatives is one of my favorite things to do in the world. You might even spot me in the bathroom line at a party giving a mini-lecture about the awesomeness of co-ops (true story, New Year’s Eve 2017).
The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) defines a cooperative as “an autonomous association of persons voluntarily united to meet their common social, economic, and cultural needs through a jointly-owned, democratically controlled enterprise.” Cooperatives follow seven principles defined by the ICA, and they strive to embody ten values: democracy, solidarity, self-help, self-responsibility, equality, equity, social responsibility, openness, caring for others, and honesty. Worker-owners of cooperatives collectively and democratically run their businesses. Each of their voices is weighed equally (‘one member, one vote’) in decision-making processes, and they split their profits evenly. Co-ops return power to the hands of every worker, despite unequal class and identity privileges. In short, co-ops can democratic, anarchist, revolutionary, and—as I often describe them to my friends—absolutely dope.
I chose my itinerary after a series of conversations with coop experts from the New Economy Coalition, the BC Cooperative Association, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and more. Some countries that have thriving cooperative networks (such as Mexico) are off-limits for Watson fellows because they are on the State Department’s Travel Warning list. Others seemed logistically out of reach for my project because they required a language that I have not studied.
All the countries on my itinerary host strong cooperative movements that shape local economy. Each place will provide a different perspective on the way cooperatives can be successful (or unsuccessful). I will visit cooperatives in a variety of sectors including agriculture, energy, and local industry. If you think I’m missing an absolute must-see cooperative region, please let me know.