What happened when co-operatives went to the White House?

On May 4th, for the first time in US history, the White House held a national briefing for the widest range ever of US co-op leaders. The trigger...

On May 4th, for the first time in US history, the White House held a national briefing for the widest range ever of US co-op leaders. The trigger for this historical event was the United Nations declaring 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives (IYC).

Clearly, the extensive IYC efforts of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) and its members have had national impact on the White House. Seeing co-ops as a particularly bright spot in the US economy, the Obama Administration asked Liz Bailey, the Interim President of NCBA to invite 150 co-op leaders to come to Washington, DC. The White House wanted to engage US co-op leaders in a national dialogue around community development, job creation and economic opportunity.

Paul Hazen, former President of the NCBA and one of the early champions of IYC, remarked: “The IYC 2012 has provided a platform to raise the cooperative profile. We did that earlier this year with a Senate Resolution and now this event at the White House.”

That morning, it took what seemed an eternity for 150 co-op leaders to go through the security checks and mount the 50 steps to enter the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Building. However, the 236-year wait would be well worth it. Just the conversations between cooperators waiting in line made the White House event a success. As Liz Bailey (interim NCBA President) said, “It was equally impressive to me to see the networking going on between members of our delegation.”

With every seat filled in the auditorium at the White House the US cooperative community represented what Chuck Snyder, CEO of NCB calls “America’s best kept secret.” In the room were representatives of 29,000 cooperatives which serve one in three Americans, do $652 billion dollars in annual sales and support over 2 million jobs.

Liz Bailey, Interim President of NCBA, opened the meeting by describing the strength and breadth of cooperatives in the US economy. Kyle Lierman of the Office of Public Engagement spoke of the White House’s excitement in working with NCBA’s cooperative sector. It was evident that NCBA and the White House staff were cooperating at the highest level to create a productive partnership.

For their part, the White House Office of Public Engagement pulled out all the stops to show the importance they placed on the briefing of NCBA’s co-op leaders. Although not listed on the program, the surprise entrance and remarks of Jack Lew, Obama’s White House Chief of Staff were the highlight of the President’s executive policy lineup.

On behalf of the President, Chief of Staff Lew welcomed the cooperators to the White House. He said: “It is an honor to have so many of you here, that as part of the cooperative community are building our American economy and creating jobs.” As a member of a credit union, Lew praised credit unions for being a fundamental source of banking services to so many Americans. Lew spoke to the President’s goals and took questions.

One key issue raised with Lew by Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Southern Federation of Cooperatives, was the impact of cuts in the social budget that affect cooperatives serving the poor, especially in the South. Lew responded by saying strongly “As we look at hard budget cuts we have to keep our values in front of us.” Lew added, “We need to help people step up.” He spoke to broadband communication and other issues that Paige brought up by commenting that rural people should not be left out.

“It was gratifying that the new White House Chief of Staff, Jack Lew, stopped in, a good indication of the current Administration's support for cooperatives,” said Martin Lowery, Executive Vice President of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

Members of the President’s policy team making formal presentations were in order of appearance: Greg, Nelson, Deputy Director for Private Sector Outreach; Judy Canales, Deputy Under Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); Danielle Gray, Deputy Assistant to the President, National Economic Council and Carlos Monje, Chief of Staff, Domestic Policy Council. Liz Bailey (NCBA) was impressed to have as many of the White House participants relate stories of their own personal connections to cooperatives.

The back and forth between the White House presenters and the co-op participants was rapid-fire. The three-hour dialogue covered every co-op segment with discussion of issues about agricultural cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, credit unions, health and housing cooperatives, mutual insurance, rural electric cooperatives and worker cooperatives. The overall discussions moved through every generation, from co-op hospitals to child care cooperatives to student cooperatives and all the way to senior cooperatives.

The composition of the group, with so many diverse co-op interests represented, gave the White House a much broader sense of "co-op" than they had before the meeting. In fact, the White House staff were somewhat stunned to hear that there were so many types of cooperatives playing such a substantial role in the economy and serving America in so many ways. One could see the surprise on the White House staffers’ faces. Co-op questioners took a little time to give a sketch of their particular segment to the White House staff. Cooperators everywhere in the US would be proud of the education effort put on by their representatives.

The day before at the NCB Annual Meeting, Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Co-operative Alliance, had told cooperators of the importance of being ready to “tell your co-op story.” Dame Pauline was a special guest in the audience at the White House and was impressed by how enthusiastically American cooperators rose to the occasion.

The second part of the White House program was a Listening Session conducted by Jon Carson, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

When Carson laid out his co-op lineage he was immediately anointed by the audience as the White House winner of “How many co-ops have you been in” award. Born on a farm in Wisconsin on which his family has resided for over 100 years, Carson talked proudly of the co-ops his family were members of: a supply co-op, rural electric co-op, credit union to name a few, and how his dairy co-op was now a member of Organic Valley.

Carson listened intently to comments and questions from the assembled co-op leaders. He and his staff feverishly took notes as cooperators throughout the room used the opportunity to give the Obama Administration ideas and feedback. Many of the co-op leaders were grateful for the responses they got from Carson and his staff. In a number of cases Carson was quick to point out that certain good ideas could be done immediately by the Obama Administration and did not have to wait for Congressional action.

The third part of the program were “Breakout Sessions” for NCBA’s Co-op Leaders to meet separately with officials of USDA, the Domestic Policy Council, the SBA and Treasury. The NCBA group was honored to have Rosa Rios, Treasurer of the United States chair the Treasury session. These sessions were particularly helpful to those with specialized interests.

Throughout the three hour session ideas were shared, lists were drawn up and actions were planned. The follow up from the meeting will be key. NCBA has agreed to take the lead while the White House has committed to achieving outcomes. Without a doubt from anyone it was a very productive partnership for both cooperatives and the country.

The entire NCBA group then came back together for closing remarks. Liz Bailey thanked the White House staff for the quality of the speakers and for their effective hosting of the briefing. Kyle Lierman of the White House Office of Public Engagement thanked the cooperators in attendance for their participation and ideas and outlined numerous concrete ways in which the relationship would move forward.

When the applause died down we were told it was raining outside so that the scheduled photo of the group in front of the White House could not take place. Instead, everyone gathered around the podium of the White House auditorium.

It was there that the historic photo was taken of a meeting that had taken 236 years to arrange. Everyone seemed excited about the morning event but even more excited about the collaboration and partnership that was ahead. For the attendee cooperators, the International Year of Cooperatives was definitely a change maker.

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