2014 was the year when the next generation of co-operators came to the fore. Not only do co-operative schools now number more than 800, but students and graduates involved in co-operatives are starting to make an impact.
Most significantly, with support from Students for Co-operation, two student housing co-operatives were launched this year. Similarly, the worker co-operative AltGen, which works to help young people start co-ops, has become more prominent, promoting worker co-operatives as a way for young people in precarious or part-time work to band together and secure decent employment for themselves.
The new-found confidence of young co-operators was mirrored internationally with a powerful declaration by the ‘young leaders’ at the International Summit of Cooperatives in Quebec in October, which called for greater support for and openness to young co-operators by the established movement.
MARCH: Student housing co-ops in Edinburgh and Birmingham
Two student housing co-ops launched in 2014 – a 106-room building in Edinburgh and another in Birmingham, funded by the Phone Co-op. Student housing co-ops thrive in other countries but the UK – despite repeated efforts – has never had one; as such, these student-led initiatives represent a first for the UK co-operative sector.
OCTOBER: International Summit youth declaration
Co-ops were urged by youth leaders to commit funding, knowledge and resources to young and other marginalised people. A document unveiled at the International Summit called on co-ops to allocate “resources to support young people to start and develop new and innovative
NOVEMBER: Altgen launch youth prize with Co-operatives UK
A £10,000 competition was launched to help students set up co-ops. Altgen, which supports young people to start up co-ops, teamed up with Co-operatives UK and universities to launch the Young Co-operators Prize to recognise new student and graduate co-ops and provide business and financial support.
Sean Farmelo said the events of 2014 had offered the movement a “double-edged sword”, with an expansion in student and worker co-operatives taking place alongside the crisis at the Co-operative Group and Bank.
“It has been interesting to see this,” he said. “Secure funding streams have been pulled beneath the feet of incredibly valuable projects like the Enterprise Hub and CETS, while at the same there has been a real linking up of people involved in between the consumer and non consumer movements.
“Support that allowed the creation of the Student Housing Co-op in Birmingham by the Phone Co-op and BCHS is a prime example of this. The Co-operators Camp at the Green Gathering saw a fantastic mix of people from different sectors of the co-operative movement coming together to organise a whole weekend of workshops.
“Additionally, Co-operative Congress showed the willingness of many of those in the consumer movement to broaden their engagement with other
co-operatives in the wake of the collapse of the Group.
“Support for Students for Co-operation was chosen as one of the key priorities for the year ahead by people from across the movement.”
One of AltGen’s founders, Rhiannon Colvin, agreed that 2014 was a mixed year. “The UK co-operative sector is in a phase of crisis, transition and renewal following the collapse of the Co-operative Bank. While this has been difficult it has created space for many new and interesting initiatives to emerge.
“However, 2014 has been a very exciting year for AltGen. We officially registered as a worker co-operative, got the word out about co-ops in media as diverse as the Guardian, MTV, Vice and Positive News, formed a ground-breaking partnership with Co-operatives UK to deliver the ‘Young Co-operators Prize’ empowering the next generation of co-operators.”
The prize was described by Co-operatives UK secretary general Ed Mayo as “designed to unearth the next generation of innovators”.
Ms Colvin also helped draft the declaration at the International Summit of Cooperatives. “If the co-operative movement wants to have a future,” she says, “it needs to put significantly more time, resources and knowledge into empowering the next generation of co-operators to take ownership of this movement so they can innovate, progress and take it forward.”
Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Cooperative Alliance, joined the discussion on youth leadership at the International Summit. She called on the movement to not recognise youth as leaders of tomorrow, but as leaders of today.
She said: “If what they’re saying is a bit edgy and radical, then remember – when my generation was taking over, we were edgy and radical to our parents. They’re going to take us into technological advances.
“Let them take us.”
At the Summit, the Alliance’s youth representative Gabriela Ana Buffa stressed the importance of the youth declaration. “There are different solutions for different needs. Young people need to participate in the decision-making process,” she said. “There are some young leaders who don’t have the opportunity yet – but they have the need and desire to feel like they fully participate.
“We live in a world of profound inequality, with youth not studying or working … How can we create employment, what tools can we share and what resources can we make available?”