Co-operatives United: reflections on an amazing event

5 Nov

Manchester Central: a perfect venue for Co-operatives United

It has been three days since the end of Co-operatives United, and now that we’re back on Canadian soil, it’s an opportunity to reflect on what took place in Manchester over the past week.

It was, by every possible measure, an amazing event. Not only were the topics interesting and the speakers engaging, but there was also an atmosphere of celebration that made it more than just a conference or  series of conferences; it was truly a festival of co-operation.  There was something for everyone:  co-op leaders, co-op practitioners, co-op members, networkers, book lovers, foodies, historians, families with children, film buffs, sports fans…and yes, the broader public.  Some 10,000 people passed through the doors of the Manchester Central convention centre, and at least some of them had little or no previous connection with co-operatives. Congratulations to the organizers for reaching out to the people of Manchester and making this an event that all could enjoy.

The Midlands Co-operative’s “rocket hearse”: co-op funeral services can be fun!

There was a lot to be learned from Co-operatives United, and not just from the speakers and the sessions.  Here are some of the most important lessons this remarkable experience taught me:

  1. Show, don’t just tell:  The ICA Expo, Co-operation Street and the Co-operative Living area were not only a feast for the eyes, but also a wonderful way to learn about the scope and diversity of the co-operative sector.  We need to go beyond traditional conferences and trade fairs and make our events both visual and interactive.
  2. Make time for play:  Sometimes we take ourselves a little too seriously; we need to look at the lighter side. From the children’s sports area in front of the convention centre, to the “fun pod” on Co-operation Street to the football game between the ICA and FC United, to the incredible performance by Angel Square t the International Dinner, Co-operatives United was as much fun as it was educational.
  3. Appeal to a wide range of interests:  Even within the co-operative movement itself, we have many different roles and interests.  Thursday’s Practitioners Forum was a wonderful opportunity for people performing specific functions within co-ops to deal with topics affecting their day to day work.  There was also a conference on Fair Trade and a Gender Forum, which provided an opportunity to go in depth on specific issues related to co-operation.
  4. Involve volunteers.  Like the International Summit in Quebec City, Co-operative United had an army of volunteers helping us find our way around and answering our questions.  This not only made life easier for the participants, it was also a great way for the volunteers to learn more about the global co-op movement,
  5. Integrate social media into the event planning:  Thanks to the folks from the Co-operative News Global News Hub, there was probably more social media action at Co-operatives United than at any co-operative event in history.  Not only did the News Hub provide live video and opportunities to interact with the event online, there were also social media workshops, a social media work area and a concerted effort to spread the news via Twitter and Facebook. And special thanks to the News Hub for running posts from this blog throughout the event.

    Making space for social media

  6. Make things easy for the media:  Throughout Co-operatives United, there were a number of news conferences which provided both  mainstream and co-op media an opportunity to get face time with such movement leaders as Dame Pauline Green, Charles Gould, Klaus Niederländer of Co-operatives Europe, Carlo Borgaza of Euricse and others.

I’ll sign off now with a big thank you to everyone involved in organizing Co-operatives United. It was an inspiring, engaging and unforgettable experience. Congratulations on a job well done.

— Donna Balkan

It’s all in the hyphen

3 Nov

On Friday November 2, 2012, on the final day of Co-operatives United I had an incredible experience. I know the International Year of Co-operatives has been an incredible gift for co-operatives and any time I see a publication or product with the IYC logo, or hear about a creative event that a co-operative has done to celebrate I am proud to know that fellow Canadian’s see value in being involved in the Year.

This past week has been the first time that I have travelled outside of Canada during IYC and all week as I have moved through Manchester Central (the Co-operatives United venue) I would see the IYC logo being used by co-operatives large and small from all around the world, and each time I see the logo I am touched knowing that we are all in this together. Yesterday morning I was in a communications session and Mary Lou Schaffer, Retail Co-op Experience Manager with The Co-operators was presenting on their “It’s in our name” campaign, part of which has included the fabulous commercial series using ‘the hyphen’ as a way to show Canadians how The Co-operators is a different type of insurance company and how the co-operative principles are rooted in their business. If you have not seen one of the ads, check this one out:

During the Q&A period someone from Wales made a comment about how they really liked the commercial series and loved how the hyphen had been emphasized as a link and a point of connection to illustrate the significance of co-operatives. To this comment he added that he now understood why ‘the Canadians had made the effort they did to create an English version of the IYC logo where co-operative is hyphenated’. I am in no way trying to brag but I could not help but smile and know that in some small way I had just received the greatest compliment and a decision that seemed relatively simple at the time has had a significant impact.

It’s all in the hyphen and this week I have seen the incredible role that Canadians have played in the International Year of Co-operatives. That makes me one very proud co-operator!

— Tanya Gracie

Co-operative Living

2 Nov

The Manchester convention centre known as Manchester Central is a very large and expansive space, and this week houses Co-operative United, which includes the ICA Expo—kiosks of co-operatives from different countries all over the world. The Expo flows out into the hallway and adjoining rooms where there are kiosks mainly from more local co-operatives throughout the UK. Mixed within these kiosks are igloo-looking structures that offer a series of workshops called “Big Ideas” to small audiences of 20 or so people. And finally before arriving at the at the main auditorium participants pass through “Co-operative Living”—It is another very large room that has been transformed into a village of all things co-operative. The village looks like a typical English village, complete with a city square in the centre.

Surrounding the square are all of the shops and amenities.


You can experience the travel co-op.


The food co-op with an ongoing series of cooking demonstrations.


Learn about the co-operative schools project taking over the UK, where schools are converted into multi-stakeholder co-operatives with staff, students, parents and members of the local community running the schools and embedding co-operative values into all aspects of teaching and learning.


You can learn about the The Co-operative Group as a farmer, and how they approach sustainability.


And of course what English community would be complete without the pub, and don’t forget it’s a co-operative as well, so you own it!


This space is incredibly lively, there have been street performers and local school groups performing. It also has the feel of a community, with some people just passing through and others taking some time to stop and experience the town.

Oh and of course not a detail was missed. As you enter town, each guest is given a membership card that affords you additional benefits when you visit the various co-operatives.

This is a really great space, full of energy and such a wonderful way for the full spectrum of guests, from local to international to see ‘first-hand’ the applications of co-operatives to our daily lives. As the program states “there is always a lifestyle option that is simultaneously a co-operative option.”

-Tanya Gracie

Co-op culture

1 Nov

The Manchester band Angel Square: all the musicians are employees of The Co-operative Group

What is a culture, and does the co-operative movement have one?  At Co-operatives United, there has been a lot of discussion about co-operative identity,and what reinforces identity better than a distinctive and visible culture?

For a social movement, culture has two main benefits, one internal and one external. Internally, it gives the participants in the movement a feeling of belonging and connectedness.  Think of the secret handshakes and rituals of the secret societies that go back to ancient times.  Or the singing of Solidarity Forever at labour conventions.  Or the women’s music festivals that were so popular in the heady days of feminist activism back in the 1970s.

Playing Co-opoly at Co-operatives United

Externally, culture helps familiarize the broader public with your movement and its objectives.  The great American folksinger Woody Guthrie sang about unions and workers’ rights, and his popularity went far beyond union members and activists.  Soul singer James Brown’s anthem, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” sensitized many white Americans to the civil rights movement.  During the 1960s, the peace symbol became a universal icon, thanks to the efforts of the anti-war movement.

So where does the co-op movement fit into that?  We don’t have a single song; a single icon; a global cultural touchstone we can all relate to.  But at Co-operatives United, there have been numerous examples of what could be considered co-op culture.

At last night’s International Dinner, the entertainment was provided by a band called Angel Square.  Why Angel Square? Because that’s where the new Manchester headquarters of The Co-operative Group is located. And every member of the band is a Co-operative Group employee, including CEO Peter Marks on drums. They don’t necessarily sing about co-ops (although they performed the classic song, Lean on Me, which is about as co-operative as you can get), but their association with co-ops has become well-known to non-co-op audiences.

Artwork from the graphic novel about the Rochdale Pioneers

Games are also a component of culture.  Co-opoly is a co-op themed board game that was published by a US. worker co-op last year; it has now found its way to the UK and a group of enthusiastic co-operators played it at Co-operatives United earlier today.  Many of the participants felt it was not only a good game, but also a useful learning tool about the co-operative experience.  I myself have introduced the game to a number of people who have nothing to do with co-ops, and it was a great way to give them a glimpse of what co-operation is all about.

Some more examples of co-op culture: At last night’s dinner, the International Co-operative Alliance announced the winners of its Coop’Art competition, which was open to young people from around the world; similar competitions, and the creation of co-operative artworks, have taken place during the International Year in Canada and many other countries.

Just before Co-operatives United, The Co-operative Group published a graphic novel about the Rochdale Pioneers, and art panels from the book are displayed in the exhibition hall.  And this evening, I’ll be attending the world premiere of a feature film about the Pioneers, starring some well-known UK actors.

All this augurs well for our movement – slowly but surely, we are seeing the genesis of a co-op culture.  Now all we need is our own version of “Solidarity Forever”.

— Donna Balkan

In praise of people’s history

30 Oct

Co-operators gathered at the People’s History Museum to get to know each other, visit the exhibits and hear speeches by Co-ops UK’s Ed Mayo and the ICA’s Dame Pauline Green.

Back home in Canada, there has been some controversy about the federal government’s recent decision to rename the Canadian Museum of Civilization the Canadian Museum of History.  There are some who fear a purely historical museum would forego the anthropological focus that has made the museum so popular; others are concerned that it will focus on wars, industry and big-P politics: areas that have historically been the preserve of men and the ruling classes.

But what it it were to become a museum of people’s history: one that focuses on things like the women’s suffrage movement,  the fight for a minimum wage,  and the joining of people together to form co-operatives?

Sound farfetched?  Not in Manchester, home to the People’s History Museum and the site of tonight’s Co-operatives United welcome reception.

It was an appropriate venue in a city that has been pivotal to so many social movements over the years.  The museum’s political perspective was clearly somewhere on the left (the museum cafe even calls itself “The Left Bank”), and many of the exhibits focused on the labour movement. As one UK co-operator told me, “That’s Manchester. You probably wouldn’t have this in London.”

But not all the exhibits were political.  In the cloakroom area, there was a collection of historical artifacts from everyday life: 45 r.p.m records; shoes; handbags; and just outside it a display of old record covers from the likes of Nat King Cole and The Platters.  That too, is people’s history, and it was good to see it acknowledged as such.

A typical display panel at the People’s History Museum

A number of the museum exhibits focused on women’s battle for the right to vote

As Canadian co-operators, we often complain that co-ops aren’t taught in either our business schools or our history classes. As my colleague Tanya Gracie commented during the reception, perhaps the new Museum of History will provide an opportunity to make the case to give co-operative history the visibility it deserves.  If it can happen in Manchester…not to mention Rochdale…why not in Canada?

A list of museum funders, including The Co-operative Group, several government departments, Manchester City Council and the Heritage Lottery Trust

–Donna Balkan

What does Toad Lane mean to you?

30 Oct

Yesterday, I had the amazing experience of visiting Rochdale and the Rochdale Pioneer’s Museum, a location that co-operators throughout the world know of and view as a centre for the beginning of co-operation as we know it today.

Many know the story and have seen the famous photograph of thirteen of the original members, and we have seen the original shop space at 31 Toad Lane, all of which are inspiring and even more so once you see and are able to stand in the doorway of the very place where it all began but last night I heard the a less well known story, the story of the first female member of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society-Eliza Brierley. Eliza joined the co-operative just 15 months after it opened in March 1846. Her name is in the minute book along with the record of her membership payment. She paid a full 1 pound, which was rare at the time as this was a couple of weeks salary and therefore members would pay a few pence at a time until their complete membership could be paid off. There are no other records about how she continued to be involved in the co-operative or what other contributions she made to the Rochdale community. As Gillian Lonergan, head of heritage resources for the Co-operative Trust was telling me, there may have been other female members in these early days, there were certainly no restrictions against female membership within the Society, but the reality of the times, money was often controlled by the male in the household. Memberships to the Rochdale Society in these early years were most often taken by the male on behalf of the family versus each individual and therefore it is only the name of the male that is listed in the membership roster.

So last night almost exactly 168 years after the pioneers first opened their Rochdale co-operative, as we gathered for remarks everyone was handed a postcard size note with the question on it “What does Toad Lane mean to you?”. Visitors to the Museum have the opportunity to leave their thoughts on this card or on a very cool video message recorder on the second floor.

So let me share what Toad Lane means to me… Toad Lane is a place of inspiration, a place and a symbol of what people can do when they come together, and I would like to think that the motivation within the original pioneers and within Eliza Brierley continue to be relevant motivations that drive co-operators like myself and co-operators throughout the world. The formation of the Rochdale Equitable Pionner society gave voice to ordinary working individuals in Rochdale and this has grown into 1 billion people-co-operative members- around the world having a voice and a way to contribute to the betterment of their lives through social and economic participation. Toad Lane is a symbol of what can happen when dreams are translated into action.

-Tanya Gracie

A Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum photo gallery

29 Oct

There is no substitute for actually seeing the Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum, but here are some photos to give you a glimpse of what is there:

Tanya Gracie, CCA’s International Year of Co-operatives manager, demonstrates what the original Rochdale co-op store looked like

Rochdale Mayor James Gartside was front and centre at today’s event

The colour of the upstairs exhibit cases is familiar…even though they were designed before the International Year of Co-operatives logo was announced

Kathy Bardswick, president & CEO of The Co-operators, was one of several Canadian co-operators who attended the museum re-launch

A panel on financial co-operatives pays tribute to Alphonse and Dorimène Desjardins

Old meets new: this gizmo lets you record your own video messages about the museum

The learning loft features a big screen and lots of room for educational activities

Co-operators from around the world  held a moment of silence in tribute to the Rochdale Pioneers

Denyse Guy, CCA’s executive director (left) and your intrepid blogger in front of the museum

–Donna Balkan