At their annual conference in Edinburgh, student co-operators looked at what the co-operative movement could do to implement ‘liberating policies’.
Leading the seminar, recent graduate Helena Dunnett-Orridge said the Rochdale Pioneers were a good example, with policies that laid the basis for an enterprise in which men and women were equal.
“This provided more liberation for the movement at that era,” said Helena. “People have used co-ops to create their own businesses and spaces where they can have control.”
The seminar asked students to explain what liberation meant for them. Answers included making sure that all groups of society are included, liberating people from exploitation and not leaving them trapped by categorisation.
“We shouldn’t assume pronouns,” Helena told the seminar, explaining that transgender people should be able to choose pronouns.
The session also heard how members of the Birmingham Student Housing Co-operative adopted a Safe Space Policy, to keep members as safe as possible during interactions, meetings and daily life.
“I wrote the safer spaces policy for the housing co-op based on ones I’d adapted from other groups,” said Helena, a founding member of the housing co-op, “after getting inspiration from the NCAFC (National Campaign Against the Fees and Cuts) policy.”
Helena previously wrote a safer space policy for the Women’s Association and Disabled and Mentally Ill Students Association, while studying at the University of Birmingham.
“Each policy caters to a different situation. You need to consider the group that you are working with, any specific requirements or issues they might have and what, practically, the group will be doing. We adopted the policy for the housing co-op pretty much straight away, as we had written a part of it into our tenancy agreements so that, practically, we had grounds to evict tenants seriously in breach of it.
“However, we haven’t had too much chance to test the policy as nobody has seriously breached it as of yet.
“As there are only eight tenants, we are quite a close group and all tend to agree on the importance of liberation, challenging oppressive behaviours etc. Nonetheless, it is important to have this policy in place for future generations, or for house guests or potential fractures.”
Under the Safe Space Policy, discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Members are advised to avoid assumptions and identifications of others, including assumptions regarding sex, sexuality, gender identity, preferred personal pronouns, socio-economic background or religious beliefs.
“The Safe Space Policy is something to consider in the co-op movement in terms of how we enact liberating policies,” added Helena. “The whole house is a safe space. If anyone has a problem they can take it to a meeting.”
But there are issues surrounding how this policy is interpreted, students told the workshop. When someone fails to understand what a ‘safer space’ means, it should be explained how they have breached the policy, and there should be a dialogue with the other members. However, this can prove to be a challenge if the person offended does not want to talk to the offender.
Helena said this was a subjective judgement call, adding that it was possible to have softer measures to begin with and more drastic measures if the person persists acting in an offensive way.
“Education is important because if you don’t educate people they become more alienated,” added another student.
Helena thinks that student co-ops have the potential to be liberation co-ops. “Within students there’s greater awareness of these issues, which need to be brought forward in some co-ops by putting a younger generation into the movement.”
A similar safe space policy is being developed at Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative.
“We’re putting together a safer spaces policy and members are also organising regular discussions about radical, environmental, co-operative and liberation politics,” said Mike Shaw, network coordinator of Students for Co-operation.