In the first moments of the cooperative workshop held a couple of weeks ago, Rene Mendoza, the architect and facilitator of the session, asked the 40 or so attendees several questions: 1.) When you first heard of cooperatives, what did you think? 2.) What do you think now? 3.) What do you think a cooperative can be?
Each of the questions elicited a range of answers from the participants, but the one that struck me was one man’s response to the third inquiry, about what a coop could be. On that point, he observed that the cooperative “ought to serve as a school for learning,” a place where members ought to be able to become better: better producers, better stewards of the land, better administrators, better colleagues with one another, better providers for their families and themselves. The moment was a passing one, and the conversation immediately took a different turn. But I made the note to myself that this fellow understood the essence of what could be.
The motivations of the attendees for being at the workshop covered the full spectrum. They revealed it in their answers to the three questions. Some were there because they had attended previous workshops funded by WPF over the past several years and they didn’t want to be absent for the latest installment. Some were there because the venue was close to home and the opportunity to check in, have several meals with members of neighboring coops and hear the latest news was just too convenient to pass up. Some attended because they thought there might be a chance to secure new funding from WPF; they said as much. And then, there were those who came because they have begun to understand that the experiences and wisdom of other cooperatives contain a wealth of learning opportunities that are unavailable almost anywhere else. All the reasons for attending were good ones and there are no judgments here about whether one person’s basis for coming was valid or not. We all come to the table with very different histories and circumstances.
But if one of the intentions of the workshop was to create a long-lasting, sustained impact on the lives and the fortunes of rural cooperatives in Nicaragua, then the observation made by the guy quoted above deserves special attention. For the idea behind that comment gets to the heart of lasting change in Nicaragua or anywhere else, for that matter. It is only when we allow ourselves to be in a full learning mode that we’re capable of real transformation, both organizationally and individually. In this case, the comment was made from an holistic point of view, wherein change at the individual level would facilitate change at the organizational level, and the benefits of such changes would scatter through entire communities. But first, every member of a cooperative would have to be willing to bring whatever knowledge he/she possessed, to share in building a true school for learning. That’s what a cooperative does, cooperate to the advantage of the entire group. Easy to understand, more difficult to perform, and particularly against the tide of a culture which has not functioned in such a way historically.
All of the folks in attendance were present for good reasons, whatever those might have been. The good news is that they were there, taking the risk of leaving their comfort zones and exposing themselves to something new. That takes courage and willingness to accept some risk. But a further step to be taken is the one where each member of a cooperative can come to feel the trust and collegiality within their organization. The pieces of the cooperative puzzle are embodied in each of its members and, like any puzzle, all the pieces are needed in order to complete the picture. And when that faith among fellow coop members has been cultivated sufficiently, then in turn the coops as organizations are more likely to turn to one another to further contribute to the solving of the producer puzzle on a territorial basis. Education may be partially dependent upon great teachers, but without willing learners, even the most compelling educator is rendered useless.
Many interesting visions about what a cooperative can be emerged in that discussion several weeks ago. But the notion of “a school for learning” is the one that stays with me, and I hope with the other participants, as well….