Does your co-op look like your community? 

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We know cooperatives are forces for good in the communities we serve. Beyond providing power, food, credit, housing, and support for workers, small businesses, farmers and many more types of industries co-ops create broader programs. Things like Operation Round-Up which allows electric co-ops to pool together donations from their members to serve their community. Or the Howard Bowers fund that supports people at food co-ops get the training they need or the dozens of credit union foundations supporting financial literacy. The regional development work that has a direct and lasting impact on the well-being of our members.

But as I think of these kinds of initiatives, I find myself taking it a step further. Though co-ops are often the catalyst, the reason such programs are successful is because they are aligned with the values and ideals of our communities. By the actions they take, co-ops are in many ways reflections of their memberships.

If this is true, then I think we need to ask ourselves, how closely do we, in fact, reflect our members? Tomorrow, as you’re going through your day, ask yourself, “Do the faces I see in the halls, offices and board room of this building look like the ones I see outside it?” 

This obviously means different things for different communities, and there’s no “right” number or percentage. But asking the question provides a useful perspective and food for thought.

I’ve come across many studies which clearly show that companies who proactively emphasize diversity and inclusion in their workforce tend to be stronger, more adaptable, and more resilient. Having a broader array of ideas and perspectives at an organization gives an undeniable advantage, particularly when facing times of change.

I’ve most definitely seen this in my own experiences with the cooperatives I’ve visited over the years. The co-ops that strike me as the healthiest and most forward-looking are the ones that, among other things, actively seek diversity in gender, age, culture, religion, and race in their hiring.

Sessions that I’ve hosted at conferences for co-op CEOs and directors have been very heartening for me. The participants in these discussions have not only openly and honestly talked about where their co-ops are on this issue, but how they as individuals are confronting a subject that can be very uncomfortable to address.

We all carry certain unconscious biases. This a natural condition and is based on our brain’s need to simplify the huge amounts of information it processes daily. 

So, What Can We Do?

So how do we open our eyes to these tendencies and transcend them?

As with many issues, I find that seeking an outside perspective is often most effective.

Diversity workshops and training for co-op leaders are a great start.

Hiring a consultant to assess your co-op could be useful.

I’ve been working with a tool lately called an Intercultural Development Inventory, which measures cultural awareness of individuals or organizations. It’s a very eye-opening exercise, and I recommend it.

As with any internal initiative, it’s important to assess your current situation, set goals, and establish benchmarks.

It’s not easy. I’ve been on my own journey for several years assessing my biases and assumptions, and I can tell you, there are truths that are hard to face. But it’s worth it.

The changes we’re confronting in our society and in the industries we serve will require the absolute best your communities have to offer. Folks from the widest variety of backgrounds are and will be your future members, and some will even be your employees or supervisor.

Is your co-op ready to welcome these new faces?

It’s a question that’s worth reflecting on.

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