How do I even start to talk about where I live? The beginning, yes, but the self-conscious freshman that started hanging out at the co-ops doesn’t quite understand the importance of the whole matter. And starting in the middle is asking for a whole lot of “this is cool and this and this and oh yeah that…” so the beginning it is.
I discovered cooperative communities through the on-campus Tri-Cooperatives during the winter quarter of my freshman year. After one dinner and one garden party, I was so hooked that I now find myself in the middle of that cooperative, garden-crusted, compost-making space as a resident, not a visitor. Though I’ve been living there for two quarters now, I know I still have a lot to learn. So that’s what this column is for — I’m hoping to take you on this adventure with me. I aim to delve into all the aspects of the cooperative community that, over the course of the last year, I’ve just accepted and ran with. For example, what even is a cooperative community?
Why, thank you for asking! Loosely put, it’s a group of people that agree to work together to meet some sort of ends, be it economic, cultural or social. While my experience is in a housing community focused around us all having a place to sleep and a social base, the idea of the cooperative extends to businesses, such as the Davis Food Co-op. As a business, the Food Co-op shares ownership with its customers. Instead of having a Big Person at the top of the line, the Food Co-op is literally owned by anyone who wants to chip in.
That’s a somewhat obvious example, since it includes the word “co-op” in the name, but get this, unions can actually be considered co-ops. (Did you know that? I didn’t know that.) Unions are worker cooperatives, essentially, because all the workers cooperate to get better wages and working conditions and all that jazz. If we look back to the earlier definition of a co-op, the union meets that definition. Workers voluntarily become part of a group that cooperatively pursues economic benefits.
Co-ops, including the Food Co-op and unions, fall under various owner models. The Food Co-op is a consumer co-op because it’s owned by various members (who are usually customers) while unions are worker co-ops because the members do work that benefits the whole of the cooperative. There are even more owner models: retailers, non-monetary, volunteer, business/employment … and beyond ownership models, there are types of co-ops: housing, utility, agricultural and even banking co-ops. (Is this more complicated than you expected? Yeah. Same here.)
Fun Fact: out of all the types of co-ops, agricultural co-ops are the most common, which isn’t too surprising coming from the home of the Aggies and the water tower that’s secretly a cow poo scented air freshener.
With these definitions in mind, I’m realizing that this place I’ve come to call home is way more than just a house filled to the brim with cats and people and tasty food. While I’m interested in exploring the little details of cooperative life, such as when to plant chard and how many freaking gallons of milk 14 people go through in a week, I’m intrigued in taking a step back. I’ve realized that this special and strange world I live in is actually a huge system that means a lot more than a refrigerator full of food that I chipped in money for and a few hours of garden work a week.
The decades of people before me actually thought a lot about what they were getting into. Even though there are all these definitions that are designed to define co-ops, and they seem to apply pretty well to business-like co-ops, I’m not sure where to begin when it comes to the housing cooperative I live in. Can a group of ridiculous and entertaining individuals even be defined like that? Maybe by the end of this column, after I’ve figured out the details of the details, maybe then I’ll know if I can write the answer down and pin it to my muraled wall. But I don’t think that’s going to be possible.
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