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Cultivating Community Leadership: Applying Lessons from Cooperative Models

September 7, 2022

By Corin Bauman, Network Equity Coordinator, Vital Village Networks

Contributions and edits by Ronda Alexander, Director of National Partnerships at Vital Village Networks & Diana Rivera, NOW Program Manager at Vital Village Networks

On August 25, 2022 the Networks of Opportunities for Child Wellbeing hosted its second webinar of the year, Cooperatives as a Practice of Community Leadership featuring Darnell Adams, Firebrand Cooperatives, and Stephanie Waters, Young Child Wellness Council / Black Warrior Community Action Team. This year’s three-part webinar series looks to unpack the NOW Playbook and explore how the playbook’s levers of change are being applied by NOW Network leaders and other community leaders in their work.

Part two’s featured speakers highlighted how different principles and practices of cooperative models can be leveraged to build shared community leadership, and using their wisdom and experience, provided additional advice and insights to attendees.

What Resonated:

The conversation about cooperatives as models for shared community leadership made me think about courage. Courage, whose Latin root cor- means heart, emerged for me as a theme when Darnell Adams shared that cooperatives take “heart-work.” Both Adams and Stephanie Waters iterated that this “heart-work” looks like a willingness to step into unknown spaces together, to radically reflect on our relationships to power, money and other assets, and to make space for envisioning outside the rigidity of existing structures. So how can we build and sustain motivation by inviting imagination into the design process? How can we ensure collective accountability to reciprocal partnerships and shared power by building relationships of trust? Waters, a member of the NOW Cooperative Design Lab - a collaborative of 15 community champions from across the country who engaged in reimagining funding structures to center, honor, and uphold the values of local communities and coalitions - shared insight to these questions through the illustrated graphics of the lab’s work, which are featured throughout this article. The graphics highlight the members’ collective work learning about cooperative models and their role in advancing economic and social leadership; engaging in a collective design thinking process to envision new funding structures; and showcasing the work to funders, advisors, practitioners, and invited guests.

Cooperative Design Lab Series - The Process

Image credit: Corrina Keeling, Love Letters for Everybody

Lever of Change for Action:

The NOW Playbook provides guidance on how to do this “heart-work,” and specifically I was drawn to reflect on Lever 3: Engage Communities Authentically and with Dignity – Strategies to Expand Parent and Community Leadership.

Emergent in the conversation with the featured speakers was the importance of engaging communities with authenticity and dignity, and centering the wisdom, power, and experiences of those most directly affected by a community issue in cooperative models. As was highlighted by Waters, service is one of the four practices for fostering dignity-centered cooperative funding structures. Service requires a commitment to understanding what is most important to community members and prioritizing these community-determined needs. The other three practices, along with guiding principles can be found in A Dignity Centered Guide to Reflecting on Cooperative Funding Structures, a co-developed product from the Design Lab’s members who met virtually over the Spring of 2021 to embark on the journey of reimagining funding structures.

Cooperative Design Lab Series - The Guide

Image credit: Corrina Keeling, Love Letters for Everybody

Lever three for social change was additionally reinforced by Adams in her reflection on how the International Cooperative Alliance’s (ICA) principles show up in her work. She specifically highlighted principle 7, “Concern for Community” which requires cooperatives to center community voices in policy and decision-making. Adams shared an example from her past work with food cooperatives, explaining how an evolution in the movement has pushed food co-ops to address community concerns around equity, access and power, including calling funders to prioritize transformative community-led projects instead of projects that perpetuate racist and exclusionary power structures. You can read more about the work of food co-operatives in Adam’s recently published article, “What If We Owned It?” in NPQ Magazine.

Cooperative Design Lab Series - Guiding Principles and Practices

Image credit: Corrina Keeling, Love Letters for Everybody

Thinking about children, families, and communities in my work differently

From the conversation on cooperatives and community leadership, I was invited to hold both the truth of the urgency of this work and the pace at which this work happens. Both speakers shared that the work of using cooperative principles and practices in their work can be a slow process, but shared community leadership is necessary to build the beloved communities we need. The ability to hold this tension of the urgency for and pace of this work ensures that not only the products of our work, but also the process of our work, uplifts the wellbeing of children, families and communities. The Design Lab invites us to explore co-operatives as a way to build capacity, nurture relationships, and center community-led decisions. Through iterative human-centered design we can leverage principles of co-operatives to build shared power and reciprocity with the children, families and communities connected to our work.

Cooperative Design Lab Series Overview

Image credit: Corrina Keeling, Love Letters for Everybody

Taking Action

Both inspired and eager to learn more, I am putting the following action steps into place over the next few months:

  1. Attending the National Community Leadership Summit! I am excited to attend this year’s summit and connect with others from across the country as we explore this year’s theme of “Crafting Our Legacy: Collaborative Action for Love, Liberation and Joy.”

  2. Inviting others (including you!) to submit an abstract for the Summit poster session. Abstract submission and poster presentations provide an opportunity to share examples and stories of learning, growth, and transformation from the community perspective. Read more about guidelines for submission and connect with us if you are curious about presenting.

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