When I tell people that Linda and I lived in a housing cooperative for 10 years it usually elicits the same response - "What is a cooperative?" I am always patient and understanding because before we became members of Sundance Housing Cooperative, I didn't know much about this method of organizing and meeting needs either.
According to the International Cooperative Alliance, a cooperative is "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise." That is a nice, if not somewhat academic way of putting it.
The way I describe it to the uninitiated is, "a cooperative venture is a group of regular folks getting together to share and meet needs without the interventions of a parasitic, private, for-profit system of middlemen and other leaches that funnel money to themselves and a small elite at the expense of everyone else and the environment."
In a report issued to commemorate the beginning of the 2012 UN International Year of Cooperatives, it was noted that globally there are 3 times as many members of cooperatives as there are corporate shareholders. It highlights a basic, yet oft-ignored/covered up, aspect of humanity - our nature is to want to help each other, and share in the bounty of our combined efforts.
There are many different types of cooperatives with the most common being agricultural. However, you may be more familiar with other shared ventures such as: food, housing, retail, and car coops, as well as credit unions.
With the lack of mainstream media attention, who would know how popular coops really are? I guess that was the idea behind the UN designating 2012 as the year to get the message out to the masses. That message is: cooperatives work... for you.
It is not surprising that we don't know more about cooperatives. They are based on values we learn in kindergarten, but leave behind as we grow up and discover that they are not compatible in the 'real world' of business.
"Cooperatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others." - from the ICAI can imagine why our political and business 'leaders' wouldn't want people to give in to their natural instincts to share, take care of each other, and form cooperative ventures. Most everything that is done by government and private enterprise could conceivably be done better as a cooperative.
Are the values that cooperatives are based on even compatible with the way business and governments conduct themselves theses days? What if all our institutions were based, really based, on these same values?
We should not underestimate the power of 1 billion cooperative members. Our innate desires for sharing, caring, and helping, when expressed through organizations like coops, have the ability to change our world for the better.
That is definitely what living in the community of Sundance Housing Coop did for Linda and me. I can say without hesitation that we are improved individuals for having been members of this safe, supportive, and compassionate group of amazing, hard-working people.
- Globally, India has the most coop members (240 million), followed by China (160 million), and the United States (120 million).
- In Europe, the countries of Ireland (70% of population), Finland (60%) and Austria (59%) have the most coop members.
- 21% of the population of the UK are members of coops.
- Housing coops, unlike the private real estate sector, are dedicated to providing safe and affordable housing.
- There are a quarter million people living in housing cooperatives in Canada.
- Over one and a half million families in the U.S. call housing coops home.
- Coop members own and control ventures that are dedicated to a strong local community, and environmental sustainability.
- Coops operate without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
- Members exercise control and actively participate in setting policies and making decisions.
- All members share equally in profits and benefits.
- Cooperatives promote education, training, and information exchange.
- Coops make life better for 1/7th of the world's population.