How do we teach young people about co-operation?

‘Why is there such a lack of diversity? We invite people of colour but we are not involving them in the production of those events’

A session at Co-op Congress looked at co-op education, where panellists tackled difficulties of bringing young people the culture of co-operation.

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh from Stir to Action described his organisation’s New Economy Programme, which works with people aged 25-45, on issues such as crowdfunding, community wealth building and sustainability.

Stir To Action is also training young people to host workshops, and helping 18-35s in Brixton develop community and co-op enterprises to deal with local needs and issues.

With its BAME partners giving referrals, Stir To Action has also set up international residentials, which included a visit from Mississippi co-op city project Cooperation Jackson.

“We’re also working with book clubs … it’s a good way of engaging with youth looking for alternatives… Culturally young people don’t like to identify as entrepreneurs, they are more interested in collaboration. Book clubs give them a chance to learn about this business model and get the skills.”

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He added: “I don’t think older organisations can repeat what we do by reading about millennials; more funding is needed for partnerships.”

Asked why this was the case by Simon Parkinson, principal and chief executive of the Co-operative College, Mr Gordon-Farleigh said: “To a large degree it can’t be authentically reproduced; it needs partnerships.”

He added: “Some things are culturally native to younger generations,” pointing out that the Stir To Action team is now finding similar difficulties itself as it engages with the youngest generation as it enters the arena.

“We need co-design and co-delivery with young generations,” he said. “Why is there such a lack of diversity? We invite people of colour but we are not involving them in the production of those events; it’s the same with young people.”

He added: “Having younger members of staff helps but there’s still a huge cultural issue around older organisations.”

Tanya Noon from Central England Co-op responded: “I do have to defend our work with young people; we bring a lot of expertise to the table. We found the youngsters did want to learn from us. It’s intergenerational work – it’s important to pass on our skills.”

She told delegates how her society was helping young people set up co-ops.

“We’re planting a seed to get them to look at co-ops … we connect them to the Hive, and students learn about consumer and worker co-ops. Students enjoy peer group working.”

She said this meant students no longer saw the Co-op as “just another shop” and now favour it over rival businesses.

Vivian Woodell, who was there to discuss his role in the foundation of Student Co-op Homes, said: “The way generations relate to each other has shifted. As long as you approach people in an open way, don’t tell them how to live, they are willing to engage.”

He said young people were keen to learn about alternative business models – giving the example of students in Sheffield, where these models are not taught; in response, they have set up their own forum.

Mr Woodell also discussed his time at the Phone Coop, when he led the organisation’s efforts to help students set up housing co-ops.

A group in Birmingham was struggling to get a mortgage so the Phone Co-op bought a house and leased it to them.“They’ve improved the property, added value and built two room,” said Mr Woodell. “We repeated the exercise in Sheffield, then a group in Edinburgh set up.”

He called for more resources to scale up the model, including the development of secondary co-ops and the use of share issues to raise finance.

“This is an opportunity to reach people at an important time in their lives, and open up the possibility of getting them involved in the co-op movement,” he said. “It’s an alternative to experiencing the cynical world of landlords and a chance to learn what they can achieve by working together.”

He added: “Many of those founders are now working in co-ops; one is youth rep on the National Members Council of the Co-op Group, and working at Phone Co-op; others have gone and started co-ops.”