Tag Archives: Donna Balkan

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

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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

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

A pilgrimage to Rochdale

29 Oct

Jonny Priestley, Jenny Broadbent and Gillian Lonergan of the Co-operative Heritage Trust stand outside the newly-refurbished Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum

The dictionary definition of a pilgrimage is “a journey to a sacred place or shrine”.  Ask most co-operators what that means to them, and the answer would invariably be Rochdale.  It wasn’t the home of the world’s first co-op (a weavers’ co-op in Fenwick, Scotland seems to be the top contender for that honour), but it is usually  recognized as the place where the British co-operative movement began.  Most importantly, it was the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers who drew up the Co-operative Principles upon which today’s co-op principles are based.  And as a result, this town a stone’s throw from Manchester is indeed a sacred place.

In 1844, the Rochdale Pioneers rented a warehouse at 31 Toad Lane for £10 per year. Their store, which opened for business on December 21 of that year sold four key items: butter, sugar, flour and oatmeal.  They eventually expanded their line of goods and in 1867, moved to larger quarters.  But Toad Lane has always had a special significance for British co-operators; the building was bought by the co-operative movement in 1925 and run as a museum since 1931.

In August 2010, the museum was closed for renovations, and today, more than two years later, it held its official re-opening. Now owned by the Co-operative Heritage Trust and managed by the Co-operative College,  the museum includes not only a reproduction of the original ground-floor store, but also a plethora of displays, exhibit spaces and a “learning loft” for co-op education.  The renovation was made possible by, among other donations, a £1.5 million contribution from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which uses part of the proceeds from lottery ticket sales to support heritage-related projects.

“Since the college took over, we’ve been moving from just making sure things are preserved to looking at how we move forward – how we use the collection to inspire people,” said Gillian Lonergan, head of heritage resources for the Co-operative Trust. “We don’t want people to just look at history — we want people to come here and know that it’s part of  a living, breathing, worldwide movement.”

The re-launched museum certainly accomplishes that goal.  The historical exhibits are still there, but so are panels about the co-operative movement today.  And it was clear that the dozens of co-operators from around the world who attended today’s official opening were pleased with what they saw.

To find out more about the Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum, visit their website at www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop.

— Donna Balkan

First stop…the Co-op

28 Oct

Your intrepid blogger (in the raincoat, of course) visits The Co-op

It’s a typical rainy Sunday  in Manchester, but that didn’t deter me from doing a little exploring before all the action begins later in the week. Armed with a map, I headed toward the main shopping area in the city’s downtown; I had walked for about 10 minutes when I suddenly noticed a familiar sign: The Co-operative. My heart skipped a beat as I found myself face to face with a UK  institution that I had written about on numerous occasions, but had never seen in person.

The Co-operative Group – or just “the Co-op” as people call it in the UK — is a remarkable organization with a fascinating history. It’s story goes all the way back to 1863, when the North of England Co-operative Society was launched by some 300 co-ops in Yorkshire and Lancashire. By 1872, it had become known as the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and in subsequent years, a wide range of other co-op organizations merged with it to create The Co-operative Group we know today.

By the 1990s, the Co-operative Group was facing hard times; it had lost much of its market share  and consumer perception was that it was dowdy and old-fashioned. In 2006, it embarked on a rebranding campaign that created a modern and unified brand image for all parts of the Co-operative Group, including food stores, travel services, pharmacies, funeral services and the Co-operative Bank.  The rebranding campaign – and a series of mergers with other UK co-operative organizations — turned The Co-operative around.  Today it has over six million members, more than120,000 employees and is the UK’s fifth largest food retailer.

I was greeted at the Co-op by a lovely woman  who was very friendly, and even friendlier when I told her who I was and what I was doing in Manchester. In fact, she is one of the legion of co-op volunteers who is helping with the set-up for Co-operatives United, and brochures for Co-operatives United were prominently displayed in the store. “Do you have one of these?” she said, holding up a brochure.

The store itself was very attractive, with a wide variety of products and eye-catching displays. A prominent sign at the cash said “You can now find one of our stores in every UK postal area,” and bore the tagline “good with food”.   It was a wonderful start to a great day in Manchester.

— Donna Balkan