Can radical new visions restore an old sense of community?

A look at some of the sessions at the recent Stir to Action festival

Stir to Action – the worker co-op which promotes a democratic new economy – held its annual festival last month. The event – forced online by Covid-19 – saw around 30 panel conversations around new economy subjects.

Sessions included a discussion of transatlantic initiatives by Cath Muller from the UK’s Radical Routes, Esteban Kelly from the US Federation of Worker Co-ops, and US journalist and academic Nathan Schneider.

Mr Schneider said the platform co-op and Occupy movements had delivered forums for a transfer of ideas, which in the US had “created pathways for democratic ownership”. “The challenge is to find a tool to help that or to deliver more worker ownership conversions,” he said.

Esteban Kelly agreed that “cross pollination helps to unlock and accelerate innovation” but stressed that a more inclusive membership structure is also important to foster growth; the majority of the USFWC board are multilingual and people of colour, he said, which helps ensure that representation, training and education are “culturally relevant”.

Related: Co-ops and mutuals can help UK rebuild after Covid-19, says report

Cath Muller said the US worker co-op movement seems better resourced than that of the UK. This has allowed the US to develop ideas but which the UK can use. “Legal structures might be different but there is a common cultural basis”.

Mr Kelly said organisation was important: it had been useful to keep USFWC separate from the US co-op apex NCBA Clusa; and it was important to harness radical ideas from the grassroots in response to challenges.

“When we were founded 16 years ago there was no organising to connect the dots in a strategic way. When we started we had one part-time staffer … there was no massive grant; there was some solidarity from the other co-ops … but we decided we needed to do things ourselves.”

To develop the project, USFWC brought in people from grassroots movements such as Occupy, immigrant organisations, worker movements or community responses to disasters like Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Ms Muller said independent sources of funding are valuable; citing the current review of funding for UK co-op organisations by the Co-op Group, she said reliance on a single source of support leaves organisations vulnerable. In the UK, the Worker Co-op Solidarity Fund was set up in response to that weakness and offers the worker co-op movement more independence.

At the same time co-ops have to work with other social movements. “Co-ops are a model and if they are as great as we say they are – and as promising for solving migrant and refugee issues, the future of work, digitisation, precarious work … these movements should be linked together,” said Mr Kelly.

Mr Schneider agreed, and asked: “How can we rethink the co-op so it can be part of this broader effort?” He warned that the Rochdale Principles look like a “colonial idea” to indigenous communities. “How do we decolonise the co-op movement?”

Examples of radical grassroots thinking came up in several sessions. A discussion of community led housing included a look at Foundation B.A.D – a creative space set up by members of an art school in Rotterdam, who squatted an empty school building. 

Conceptual artist Kamiel Vershuren said that when the building needed renovating, the group worked with a housing corporation to buy the site and gave it an energy-efficient makeover. 

“We’ve gone from squatting for more than 20 years to a sustainable collective,” he said.

In Leeds, community arts projects are working in deprived neighbourhoods to help them reshape their spaces. Jon Wakeman, creative director at E Street Arts, said the project offers “a foothold to properly interact with rest of city in developing cultural programmes livelihoods”.

“We’re helping people have a voice through creative action,” he said. “In an area where 50 languages spoken in a square kilometre, how do we work with people and engage with them so they feel they have a right to a voice?”

E Street Arts’ response includes an Art Hostel which is “about using culture as a way to live differently” and it is now looking at using a church site on the edge of Leeds.

Community responses to crisis have also borne fruit in London, where parents banded together to rescue an affordable childcare service. 

Anna Birley – Co-op Party policy officer and Labour/Co-op councillor in Thurlow and Lambeth – told a session on childcare the project started when a school was transferred to academy status and closed its nursery.

She got involved as a councillor when parents came forward and help them set up Cherry Tree Community Co-op. The goal is not just to offer affordable childcare but to develop the site a facility for the community.

In contrast to Esteban Kelly’s experience of coming to co-ops through his background in radical action, Cllr Birley says for parents in the nursery co-op this is their first taste of engagement; they were not politically involved and many hadn’t known what a co-op was.

“It allows people to see themselves as changemakers,” she said.

These contrasting routes into co-operation were highlighted in two different sessions on land ownership. 

One session focused on land ownership and racial justice, which looked at the continued shaping of colonialism on land ownership – with much land still in the hands of those whose ancestors had profited from slavery.

The session heard from Josina Calliste – co-founder of anti-racist group Land In Our Names – a black led collective which looks at land from racial justice perspective. It works with black communities for new ways to relate to land, put farming and food justice at their heart.

Progressive movements like permaculture are often white-dominated which alienates them from “the ancestral farming practices they talk about”. To find a solution she visited Soulfire Farm – an anti-racist community farm in New York state – to learns how projects in the UK can make land reparations by setting up new farms led by people of colour.

Related: A co-op future for common land?

Another session looked at how a financial problems had led generations-old farming families to community ownership. 

Charlotte Hollins said her family had run Fordhall Farm in Shropshire for centuries but rising costs in the 1990s brought things to a crisis. Not wanting to leave, she ran a campaign to relaunch it as England’s first community owned farm in 2005. 

A community benefit society run on a one-member, one vote bases, it raises organic livestock with local people “sharing ideas and their own passions and visions for what Fordhall can be”.

While this is a new model, it draws on traditions going back centuries, she says – drawing on the community support echoes historic patterns of land stewardship when local people came to farms for work and leisure.

View the full set of sessions here