Pushing out co-op stories through a strategic media partnership

Co-ops are all the rage these days. Positive media coverage of co-operative organising is on an upswing. But that’s not good enough for Laura Flanders and Brian Van Slyke....

Co-ops are all the rage these days. Positive media coverage of co-operative organising is on an upswing. But that’s not good enough for Laura Flanders and Brian Van Slyke.

Laura Flanders’ GRITtv and the Toolbox for Education and Social Action – a worker co-op whose members include Brian – are teaming up to create a series of videos blending how-to education with a look inside the processes of co-operation. They hope to provide a supportive but critical look that is often missing from media coverage of co-ops.

TESA describes its mission as creating “educational tools and programmes for your cause.” This four-member co-op is best known for creating the board game Co-opoly, which has made frequent appearances at co-op conferences since its development through a 2011 crowdfunding campaign.

The game also served as the seed for the media collaboration now emerging.

As a former host for the Air America network, Laura Flanders was well aware of the US economic system’s shortcomings. She founded GRITtv in 2008 to create an independent progressive voice as Democrats took control of the White House and Congress, and to explore different ways of organising besides the dominant models usually considered in mainstream political debate.

“If not this, then what?” she recalled asking herself as the capitalist economy showed its weaknesses, illustrating the need for more community-based models. “What would that different look like?”

While covering a May Day rally in New York City, following the early-2012 peak of Occupy Wall Street, Laura encountered a board game called Co-opoly. She was intrigued, so she posted a picture on social media and discovered that the game’s co-creator was the brother of a friend.

The connection lay dormant until early 2014, when Brian Van Slyke noticed that the TV host was going to be attending a conference in Chicago, where he now lives.

He reached out because GRITtv had “been doing some great co-op coverage,” he said. “They’ve got a real co-op beat.”

Co-operation, warts and all

The two met for breakfast, and over waffles found their basis for collaboration: They shared a concern that much coverage has been focused on celebrating an alternative and so the challenges faced by co-ops can remain unknown until they become serious.

“We decided that an honest, hard look would be a powerful, cool, unique offering,” said Brian. “There’s plenty of coverage but a lot of it doesn’t look beneath the surface.”

Laura also saw a need for balance in coverage, to include both the good and bad of co-operation.

“Some people think that co-ops are impossible, that they are nothing but meetings,” she said. “On the other hand you’ve got the idea that there’s no individual risk because the risk is all dispersed. We’ll all muddle through and no one has to have an MBA.”

“We want to encourage people to think before they jump in,” she added. “Co-ops are part of an ecosystem and we need to think about different types and sizes doing different things.”

Opening a window

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Video is a key part of their vision, as it provides a connection of seeing and hearing co-operation in action. “What we’re hoping is that it will be a window into a world, and a trigger of questions,” said Laura.

As an initial collaboration, the groups co-produced an eight-minute video about the Jackson Rising conference, which took place 2-4 May in Mississippi’s largest city – one of the poorest in the U.S.

Jackson had recently caught much attention among co-operators nationwide, and Laura Flanders saw Jackson Rising as a great opportunity to get beyond some stereotypes of co-ops, which she sees as an organisational form that can bridge political and cultural divides. By sharing video of such gatherings, she hopes to help broaden consideration of co-ops by helping viewers engage from a variety of settings.

To fund coverage of Jackson Rising, TESA and GRITtv launched an Indiegogo campaign that raised $8,380 from more than 100 donors in under three weeks. A further $5000 was provided by the Fund for Democratic Communities as matching funds for small donations.

They are now launching a new round of fundraising for their productions, with this drive aimed at co-ops, allied organisations and developers.

TESA and GRITtv are now moving toward a fall release of a short documentary outlining how to start a co-op. Brian Van Slyke envisions this 20-30 minute video being available free online, but also screened on PBS stations. The video will be accompanied by as many as six supplemental resources, including a curriculum and interactive workbook.

They also plan follow-up videos on topics such as democratic decision-making, using their chosen media to build narratives around the subject matter. “It won’t be step one, step two,” says Brian. “We’ll make it very story-driven.”

  • This article was amended on September 8 2014. An earlier version incorrectly included the Fund for Democratic Communities match as part of the amount raised through Indiegogo.
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