Representative Chaka Fattah (D–Penn.) has been working closely with members of Cooperation Works! and NCBA to create legislation that will more than double the national capacity for co-op development and provide federal funding for cooperative technical assistance focused on underserved areas for the first time. In August Fattah spoke with the CBJ about this exciting new legislation being readied for introduction to the House this fall, and the economic opportunities it will create.
CBJ: How long have you been interested in cooperatives? Could you tell us about some of your experiences?
CF: I have been interested in co-ops for many years and I have been particularly knowledgeable about housing co-ops; but in my district we also have Weaver’s Way which is one of the most successful grocery co-ops anywhere in the country. They’re doing a wonderful job of providing affordable, quality food … Co-ops are a very important part of the opportunities for communities to deal with economic challenges that they have in terms of being able to purchase quality goods and services. We have seen it in the rural parts of our country, for instance, through electric co-ops. What I think we ought to do now and the reason why I am interested in this legislation is that as a matter of national policy, we should create much more of a welcoming mat, a red carpet for co-ops to be able to do business and interact with our national government in a way that can help promote this way of doing business in our communities.
CBJ: How did you become interested in writing a bill that would endow the development of cooperatives in low to moderate income areas?
CF: As most great ideas, it came up from the neighborhood. That is I met with a number of co-op leaders here in Pennsylvania and a number of them right here in Philadelphia, and we talked about some of the challenges [they face] as they interact with the federal government. You know, up there [on Capitol Hill] … people don’t understand what a co-op is in many of the [federal] agencies and departments. So that’s how it came about. I think this legislation is going to be really an exciting moment. We’re at a tipping point where I think we can really grow the co-op movement nationwide.
CBJ: What does the proposed legislation entail?
CF: It will create, in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a National Development Center for Co-ops so we can grow co-ops and provide technical assistance to the co-op movement. We are going to provide some $25 million in fiscal years 2012 to 2015 to help create technical service centers, at least three of them, that can provide the technical support necessary. I just visited a supermarket out in New Haven [Conn.] that’s going to be opened up in a few weeks as a co-op. What is interesting is that there had not been a supermarket in New Haven proper for years—much of the city is a food desert. The only way you could get one started was to do a co-op because none of the traditional supermarket chains were prepared to move in. They now have 24,000 square feet, they have a fuel cell, it’s an exciting project. I had a chance to walk through it. And you know, these are the kinds of things that we want to see happen throughout the country. We can use co-ops where other forms of business enterprises may not work for a variety of reasons; co-ops could work.
CBJ: What would you like to see as a result of this legislative effort?
CF: What I’d like to see is [for us] to strengthen the co-ops that exist, but also to grow the educational level in communities around the country about how they can use co-ops. I mean, I went and visited a co-op in New York City, a healthcare co-op where the health care workers, the home healthcare aides, own the business. They are providing services to their neighbors in their homes, which is reducing health care costs and allowing people to stay in their own homes. [The neighbors] get quality care and the members of the co-op, you know, they own a part of the business. My wife and I are members of REI because we are avid bikers and we like [outdoor] activity, but not only can we shop and get reasonable goods, but also we earn dollars at the end of the year because we own part of that business.
CBJ: When do you plan to introduce the bill?
CF: We’re going to introduce it this fall and I think that we’re going to see a lot of support. We are now communicating with all of the members of Congress to see who wants to be early supporters of this proposal. And I know that throughout the co-op movement there is a lot of excitement. I think we are going to get a bipartisan group of members to be original cosponsors to this legislation. And you know this is a big deal. I think it’s an exciting time for co-ops. And as we think about the economic challenges that the country faces, obviously, co-ops provide an opportunity for us to employ more people, to provide better services whether its food, housing, healthcare, recreation materials and equipment, insurance products, electricity, you name it, co-ops are providing it today and doing it at affordable rates with quality goods and services. So we want to expand that and make sure that the federal government is a friend of the co-op movement and has a welcoming sign on the door.
CBJ: What would you like to see in Philadelphia as a result of this legislation?
CF: We already have a fairly robust co-op movement here in Philadelphia, but I’d like to see it expanded to communities …where we don’t have supermarkets, or quality affordable housing, or other types of services, I believe even auto insurance… there are a lot of areas where the working class communities are at a disadvantage because the private sector has been unable or unwilling to provide quality services there. [In Philadelphia] we can use co-ops as a model to address some of these remaining needs.
CBJ: Is there precedent for this bill? Do any other programs exist that complement this legislation?
CF: Well over there in the United States Department of Agriculture, Secretary Vilsack is doing an excellent job. They have a Rural Cooperative Development Grant program that helps develop co-ops in rural parts of our country. This would be a complement to that program because we could focus some of this development in urban cities. You know, the fact that you can have a Detroit, Mich. with food deserts, no supermarket in whole neighborhoods of the city… if we look at the New Haven model we can use the co-op based supermarket program and put it right into Detroit. So this is the thing, it works in rural America, [so let’s] use this business model in other underserved areas in the country.
CBJ: What can cooperators around the United States do to support this legislative effort?
CF: Well I have been very successful in passing major initiatives in the Congress: The American Opportunity Tax Credit, which I passed through two years ago, the Energy Efficiency Block Grants Program, which is now a $3 Billion initiative in 1,000 cities across the country, and my signature program, GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs). So the first thing I want people to know is that I am very serious about making this the law of the land. We’re going to work very very hard, and I think I have the best staff on Capitol Hill because of their know-how. We have a young lawyer, Brenden Chainey who is taking the lead on this effort. But the co-ops around the country should first of all learn about the bill, second of all, talk to their members of Congress about being early, original co-sponsors of this legislation because we intend to get it passed during this session of the Congress, the 112th. So I want to get everyone on board early, and move this bill through the process.
Cooperation Works! and NCBA are dedicated to promoting the National Cooperative Development Act of 2011. To find out how you can become involved in this effort call Peter Frank with Cooperation Works! at email@example.com or RL Condra at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit www.ncba.coop to learn more about this bill and other efforts to promote cooperative development or to make a donation to our grass-roots outreach. Cooperation Works! and NCBA would like to thank Congressman Fattah for his efforts to promote cooperative development and for championing this important initiative.
This interview originally appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of the Cooperative Business Journal.