Co-ops as a tool for youth empowerment

Meet Sylandi Brown from Middle Georgia EMC!

We spoke to 22-year old Sylandi Brown, one of the 25 young co-operators under the age of 25 selected to tell the world what the co-operative identity means to them. Run by the International Co-operative Alliance, the 25 Voices campaign will use real-life examples to show the co-operative difference..

When Sylandi Brown joined the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s popular Youth Tour programme in 2016, she was inspired to drive change in her local community.

The programme took her to Washington DC to learn about the political process and interact with elected officials. While there, she met Adam Schwartz, founder and principal at the Cooperative Way, a consulting firm for co-operative businesses. His work on building awareness around the co-operative movement and enhancing its culture has been  an inspiration to her.

A year later, she became national spokesperson for NRECA’s Youth Leadership Council, which helped her realise she wanted a career in communications. She then pursued an undergraduate degree at Valdosta State University, where she helped the university host its first Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week. This was followed by a professional industrial-organisational psychology master’s at the University of Georgia.

Throughout, she remained close to the movement and upon finishing her studies she joined electric co-operative Middle Georgia EMC, in 2020, where she helps to raise awareness about the contribution of electric co-ops to rural communities.

“The unique business model is what really drew me into co-operatives and made me know that this was where I wanted to be,” she says. “One of the amazing things about co-ops is how people-driven they are. I think that’s something very unique and very special. The fact that our workforce can be your neighbour, down the street, that our principles and values are so deeply rooted, allows co-operatives and our business model to have a firm foundation.”

Ms Brown thinks projects like the Youth Tour and 25 Voices enable co-operatives to show that their long lasting principles stand the test
of time, staying relevant to today’s issues.

“Our generation is looking to make a change,” she says. “I think co-operatives are the perfect avenue to help drive that change. Here in the US civic engagement has been such a tremendous issue, especially just coming off of elections, so making sure that our young people are engaged is critical and co-ops are playing a role in this.”

One of her first projects on joining Middle Georgia EMC was a virtual read aloud of the book One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote, to raise awareness about the importance of voting. The session was posted on social media to start the conversation about voting, about being civically engaged from a young age.

“Democratic member control is one of our principles,” she adds. “Everyone has a voice in a co-op. One of the things my generation realises is that civic engagement doesn’t just start when you’re eligible to vote. Being civically engaged in your community starts from a young age.”

She thinks co-ops also foster diversity and inclusion through their open and voluntary membership principle. “We have our seven principles that really drive and fuel these issues that are important to our communities.”

Still, a key challenge for co-ops in the US and around the world is to address misconceptions about their business model being old fashioned. “A lot of people think co-ops are not relevant today,” she says. “I love having conversations with individuals with those perspectives because I love being able to share how co-operatives play a role in their communities.” 

Her tip for the movement is to meet young people in their communities, whether in person, through specific projects or via social media. Apexes NRECA and Touchstone Energy Co-operatives have developed digital resources aimed at engaging young members.

“It’s important to know what young people are interested in, what they like, what issues are important to them and learn how your co-op can help address those,” she says.

She suggests using a variety of tools, animations and graphics to reach a younger demographic, and having a multi-generational workforce to provide input on how to reach a youth audience.

“I think there’s a lot of collaboration and learning that can also happen in a multi-generational workforce,” she adds. “There’s definitely a learning and mentoring process that can take place there that helps for the sustainability of the co-op as a whole.” 

Despite the challenges of 2020, Ms Brown thinks the electric co-op movement in the USA will go from strength to strength.

“Co-operatives operate from the idea of seeing a need, meeting a need,” she says. “Now that need is rural broadband. Our electric co-operatives are doing such a great job in building partnerships and really making sure that broadband is being deployed to these rural areas to make sure they aren’t left behind.

“Electric co-operatives are very involved in communities and their economic development. We can really see co-operatives continuing to step up to the challenge of making sure that every member every community is being served how they should.”

She thinks the 25 Voices campaign can help reach to younger audiences as well as connect young co-operators around the world.

“The co-operative business model shows the stability of co-ops,” she says, “no matter what region of the world you’re in, no matter what your specific business, or product or service is, you’re still driven by that same internal spirit. And I think that’s what truly connects us, connects our co-operative identity.

“What we’ll see throughout this project, throughout the course of the year, is each of our co-operatives may have a different service externally, but each of them are so driven by that same internal co-operative spirit.” 

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