Celebrating Co-op Month

Sara Fiore
October 24, 2017
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October is Co-op Month! At Equal Exchange, we’re proud to be a worker-owned co-operative and to trade with democratic farmer co-ops worldwide. Co-operative values are key to who we are, and they manifest in our daily and long-term work.

A worker co-operative is an alternative for-profit structure based upon standard democratic principles. It is not designed to maximize profits, nor returns to investors, but rather to bring to the workplace many of the rights and responsibilities that we hold as citizens in our communities. These principles include one-person/one-vote equality; open access to information (i.e., open-book management); free speech; and the equitable distribution of resources (such as income). 
In honor of Co-op Month, we asked a few of our own worker-owners to reflect on their experiences working in a co-op, and what our company values mean to them.

“As worker-owners, we get a share of the profits and a voice in major decisions and governance. That's pretty powerful. But we're not "owners" in the traditional sense -- we lose our ownership share when we leave, and the company can never be sold for a profit. I like to think that we're more caretakers than owners. The business really belongs to everyone who contributes to our success -- not just workers, but also farmers, customers, investors, the folks who came before us, and the planet itself. We try to make decisions in the best interests of all these stakeholders. So everyone is really just looking out for each other. It makes me happy to come to work each day.”
 
-Daniel Fireside, Capital Coordinator and Board Member
“I love the openness and honesty a co-op brings. Knowing that we are all treated fairly and our voices are heard is quite amazing. I always feel a sense of support with my struggles, goals, and experiences.”
 
-Nakita Turner, Equal Exchange Cafe Manager

“I’m from Guatemala, a beautiful country that I miss a lot! I've been working at Equal Exchange for four years. I started as a temporary worker in the assembly department for six months, then after that I got a permanent position in the distribution department,  and then I moved to the finance department. After a year, I became a worker-owner. Being part of Equal Exchange as a worker-owner means a lot because I believe in the work that we are doing with the small farmers, fair trade and the commitment to the environment. The values are very important when you are doing business with real people, people from many countries who love and respect the motherland and the products that they got from her. I am very impressed with how Equal Exchange impacts the lives of small farmers. I had the opportunity to visit Chiapas, Mexico, last year, and I saw how the people work very hard, cultivating and harvesting the coffee, but most impressive was how they work together as a family and with the community -- real cooperation!

Being part of this great co-operative makes me more aware of the impact that we are making for those beautiful and great countries with amazing people producing great and delicious products, including coffee from my original country, Guatemala (proud of that)!” 

-Marlon Cifuentes, A/R Administrator

“I’ve always believed that people are more creative and powerful when working together. Our ability to innovate, share ideas, and solve problems is one of the most fascinating and beautiful things about being human. Working for a co-operative allows me to live those values in my day-to-day work. As an Organizer for the Equal Exchange Action Forum, my priority is to help build a strong community of individuals who have the autonomy to speak their minds, share their opinions, and have a seat at the Equal Exchange table of building systemic alternative trade. We talk a lot about the tensions in the global industrialized food system and the alternative food system from our perspective and work in building small farmer supply chains. By sparking debate and discussion, we are also seeking to organize each other and educate each other. I will base a part of my success in this position on my ability to demonstrate the values to members that I have learned working for a co-operative. My goal is to build a community that is democratic, inclusive, and accountable for building a movement together.”

-Frankie Pondolph, Action Forum Organizer

“Before I started working for Equal Exchange, I didn't even know that worker-owned co-operatives existed. Now that I'm part of one, I have a hard time imagining going back to working for a corporate-style business where I would have no voice or any real stake in the success. I appreciate the balance of rights, responsibilities and shared accountability that the co-operative model offers and I feel like I'm truly contributing toward building something that I believe in with my fellow worker-owners.”

-Bethany Karbowski, Community Sales Events Coordinator

“I originally worked in a more corporate environment, and coming from that perspective first, I have a deep appreciation for the co-op model. Worker-ownership encourages a more collective way of thinking about everything, from singing karaoke with my fellow co-op members to the feeling of shared responsibility and desire for Equal Exchange to succeed on all levels. In the corporate world I felt disposable and undervalued, like a cog in the wheel. At Equal Exchange I am treated like a human being with a voice, that actually feels listened to. I am grateful to have been voted into the co-op and look forward to where Equal Exchange will head next.”

-Danielle Robidoux, Action Forum Organizer

“When I stumbled across the job posting for a Food Safety Coordinator at Equal Exchange, I knew that I had to submit an application. I was working for an organization with a mission that did not align very well with my personal values. I was also working in a toxic environment where communication lacked between management and employees; racist, misogynistic, and homophobic comments were tossed around casually; and the threat of termination (without many other comparable, viable professional options nearby) was always implicit in workplace discussions. This environment discouraged meaningful employee involvement, and I could not shake the thought of working for an organization made up of worker-owners committed to sustainable agriculture and social justice.

It feels refreshing to be part of a welcoming community of people striving collectively to realize cooperative principles, and my membership is not something I take for granted. In completing my application, I was asked to respond to the following question: ‘Equal Exchange's mission is to build long-term trade partnerships that are economically just and environmentally sound, and to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers. How do you think food safety fits into this mission?’

At the time, I had a vague idea of how the two could relate to one another. After myriad opportunities to become more educated on cooperative principles and the history of Equal Exchange's work, I now feel that I am capable of a much more informed response to the question I was tasked with answering a little over a year ago. Moving forward as a worker-owner, I hope to deepen my understanding further and turn those ideas into meaningful actions that help to demonstrate, as our mission states, ‘the contribution of worker co-operatives and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.’ The way our organization is structured, and the culture that has evolved to effectively maintain that structure, leaves me feeling confident that my ideas are welcome, valued, and have the potential to make a difference.”

-Daniel Walls, Food Safety Coordinator

How have you been involved with co-ops? Share in the comments below!