In this rather lengthy article, I outlined the process and context of the formation of a second-order cooperative – the umbrella for Food Co-ops. In the first part, I cited the social background favoring the formation of cooperatives as a manifestation of grassroots initiatives and the formation of civil society after 2008.
Then I told the story of communication between cooperatives – the exchange of ideas and experiences – which resulted in the joint work on the Definition. This led directly to the creation of Parasol.
In the following parts I have devoted a lot of space to how we run our business and what we focus on. There were also our plans, including the Declaration of Cooperation of Cooperatives, and possible ways of realizing them, as well as challenges we are facing.
At the end, I have presented the causality between the fractal interrelations on different levels – between the individual development of the individual, his/her communication with the immediate environment, the formation of initiative groups, their formation into larger clusters, and finally the impact on a wide change of living conditions of the whole society.
2021, the mid-May, outside the window passed a few days of 30-degree summer and unexpectedly, with a breath of relief, spring returned. It has allowed me to plant plants that will not wilt under the scorching rays of the sun. It also allowed me to transport the bees to their first foraging grounds and enjoy the honey delights for another month. And all this a month later than in recent years.
In Parasol (eng. Umbrella), a network of food cooperatives, we are also having very intensive days of defining who we are: we are writing and submitting our first projects and planning further activities. The seed that we took care of for a year germinated in April and May and life energy that accumulated over the years can finally be turned into a valuable undertaking.
We are revealing our plans, aware of vast differences in how the world is perceived. One reality is moving fast. It is like a train speeding towards unlimited economic growth. It is a space of power, lack of compassion and collaboration, a place of isolation and fear. And then there is the reality of our “slow” movement. Will it be possible to equalize these speeds thanks to the operation of grassroots social movements, such as cooperatives (including umbrella organizations like our Parasol)? Will we manage to slow down the pace of the reality by appreciating the value of a good, simple and conscious life? Will we manage to strengthen, promote and scale up our civic movement? Many of us got caught up in the mechanisms of the current civilization and then they realised that a job disconnected from private life leads to a mental dichotomy and does not give much in return.
The participation in a cooperative gives you a unique opportunity, it allows you to choose your experience. It allows you to build your relationships with yourself and with others by sharing basic needs (for food) and fulfilling them together (through joint shopping). You no longer need to meet your individual needs in isolation and detachment from others (through anonymous shopping in a supermarket).
This social experience no longer flows from the feeling of “I have to”, but from the drive “I want to”: I want to do what brings me the pleasure of creation. By acting together with others, we strengthen our inner sense of agency and belonging. Thus, also our life becomes coherent and we get access to our inner joy of life.
We want to take care of the natural joy of life through providing fair and open access to organic food that supports the well-being of people, plants and animals. By establishing an umbrella organisation, we want to introduce the above-mentioned values to the wide discourse, take care of those values and broaden their influence.
A step of new history in society’s multi-year journey of cooperation
Context of social change
The current wave of cooperativism began in Poland a little over 10 years ago. First, in large cities – Warsaw, Poznań, Łódź, Gdańsk, Kraków and in many others, the seeds of a grassroots social movement started to germinate. The activists in Warsaw, who formed one of the first Polish cooperatives, were frequently asked to share tips on how to get started. However, some of those initiatives faded as quickly as they popped up. And yet, everywhere, not just in Poland, a similar movement was emerging at that time.
The rise of the grassroots social movement coincided with the wave of criticism directed at the economic system that is based on unlimited growth. In 2008 the system demonstrated the scale of its instability and its voracious character. Some say that the system really ended its life at that point and now it is only artificially sustained through costly, endless medical drips. That crash reinforced the belief that the current economic structures serve only a few, but the most people in fact supports those structures choosing to remain unaware in their reluctance to change.
Collaboration – a social response to public discourse
Cooperatives are open, organic, grassroots organizations that care about common good. They are characterized by a healing, constant change. It is a pot of social relations that temporarily take on specific structures, but are always ready to change them. Nobody is irreplaceable here – yet, everybody is absolutely unique. If any free space appears here, immediately someone or something will fill it up. Sometimes it can be filled up by the awareness that this particular piece of work is not currently necessary if no one wants to carry it out.
Community activities create new forms of participating in social life and they shape social changes. Their foundations are transparent activities aimed at establishing relationships. The only tool that can guarantee the development of such processes open, transparent communication and participation leading to the sense of agency. These elements create a space to initiate a profound change.
Cooperatives let’s unite – the seeds of the meta organization
Tourning point – the global food sovereignty movement
Already in those years (2011−14), the first cooperatives reunions were organized. This was a time of exchanging experiences and knowledge and getting to know each other within a group of people for whom the quality of food, supported by close relations with producers, is important. There were already ideas about creating and association but it turned out that we were not ready then. Many meetings ended up with the exchange of lofty, philosophical thoughts and emphasizing the differences in our approaches to daily practices. The bridge between those approaches was not strong enough at that time.
A few years later, in December 2018, there was another opportunity to meet and talk – a national conference for researchers and practitioners “Edward Abramowski – from solidarity to cooperatives” in Gdańsk. It included a panel session “Cooperativists – unite!” Why we need a nationwide association of food cooperatives ”. The need for an association was expressed strongly at that time, particularly during backstage talks. However, the organizers were not willing to be responsible for establishing it. Among us, the participants, there was not enough energy to take on such a big challenge.
The cooperation on a higher level was first established at the Food Sovereignty Forums organized by Nyeleni Polska. It is a local branch of the global food sovereignty movement that was founded by people from cooperatives and a permaculture environment. The topic was strongly present especially at the 2nd Forum in 2020, with the workshop: “Umbrella for food cooperatives”.
It was not just the opportunity to meet, but also the exchange of thought, defining what we do – pushed the association process forward. Food sovereignty is a set of food policies that give people the power to decide what local supply chains look like and how they work. It also includes practical knowledge about where the seeds came from, who planted them, who watered and looked after the plants, who collected and transported them to my plate. This is local history, geography, biology and sociology.
The cooperatives are ready to start activities aimed at establishing collaboration, writing down an agreement and creating plans for the future based on the needs of the entire community. A working group, established at the Food Sovereignty Forum, began a one-year process of identifying who we are. They finalised our definition. Concepts such as digital sovereignty, post-growth and the common good, although they are embedded in what we do, were difficult to define for practitioners. Thanks to experts – lawyers, philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists, we were able to grasp the definition.
First steps together in “Parasol”
Since we managed to adopt the definition (although it is still open for comments and consultations), we felt confident enough to submit an application to the European Union Plan for Social and Solidarity Economy. We hope that its provisions, which are supposed to be published in the last quarter of 2021, will have a real impact on our activity.
One of the avenues is the possibility to obtain financing from the European funds in the field of the New Cluster Policy. We hope that we can get it as a heterogeneous but collaborating group of initiatives. The formula of the Cluster of Social and Economic Innovation is increasingly recognized in Poland, which may give us a chance to get financing from local government in the near future.
Constructing on strong foundations -The Umbrella for food cooperatives
The definition turned out to be a key element in establishing our cooperation. Basing on this foundation, at the beginning of 2021the leaders of those cooperatives that are most involved in the association process began regular network meetings. We met once in two weeks and discussed our operating methods again.
In a few largest Polish cities, there are altogether about 50 cooperatives, each of them having from a dozen up to 600 household members. diverse forms, however, arise from common values, and these values are of key importance in bringing people together.
It soon turned out that there were more topics for discussion than there is time; the meetings ran until late in the evening and we could talk forever. So we started to combine the meetings of Parasol (The Umbrella) with the works focusing on our first attempts to formalize our collaboration. Currently we meet every week.
Accord of The Umbrella
We need a common position for several reasons. On the one hand, we would like to document the history of our activity. At the same time, we want to strengthen the credibility of our initiative. This would allow us to represent our community vis a vis public institutions and build contacts with the scientific and technological communities. We hope that these activities will provide us with greater visibility and allow for consistent and stable development.
Accord of The Umbrella for food cooperatives (pl. Parasol dla Kooperatyw Spożywczych )
– a network associating food cooperatives in Poland
We, the undersigned, representatives of Polish food cooperatives, declare our intention to cooperate in “Sieć Kooperatyw Spożywczych – organizacja parasolowa/ Food Commons Cooperative Network – umbrella organisation” – an organization serving the purpose of a coherent image of food cooperatives, mutual support and stronger impact in the public sphere. In order to provide stable support for the development of the umbrella organization, we express our intention to cooperate in the name of the values that serve our organizations who identify with the cooperative movement.
The Text as of May 22, 2021
Since the very beginning we were aware of setting off on a long journey, so we decided to do it with small steps. Thus, the proposed text is as general as possible and, we think, it is acceptable to the wide community. Despite all our differences, this text is supposed to unite us. The Definition emphasizes our shared values, and the Accord sets the direction of our actions.
Mapping food cooperatives and new members of Parasol
We want to speak with one voice, on behalf of the whole cooperative community, at each stage of building the association and we take into account also those will only join the cooperative movement in the future. We have been through the first steps that will let us build our internal processes, including membership rules and choosing the tools that will ensure smooth and open communication.
We will contact other organizations with of similar profile in the near future. Our definition is still open so that it can be modified by other interested parties, while Accord is supposed to encourage others to join our network.
The activities of many cooperatives are based on voluntary engagement of their members. Thus, at the moment the issue of financing the association remains and open and unanswered question. It remains to be discussed whether we adopt donations, regular support, sponsorship, membership fees or try to obtain grants. Perhaps a more widespread adoption of digital currencies will stimulate further discussions.
The foundations of the sharing economy. Communication as the basis of cooperation
Open and transparent communication is the basis of what we want to achieve. Today’s technology allows people from all over Poland to remotely carry out shared tasks. While working on the Definition we already set up the basic and simplest channels of exchange: an e-mail group and shared files allowing common work in real time.
Subsequently, one of our members set up a forum which provides much clearer access to information, while the history of our activities that does not disappear in the maze of daily e-mail messages.
We now hold our weekly meetings at a regular link and everyone has equal access and possibly to organize meetings. The topics of the meetings are planned as far in advance as possible, which makes it easier to join the activities.
The pool of cooperative knowledge
The basis of our cooperative activities is taking care of the common good – food and everything related to it. A beautiful example is the cooperation between several Warsaw cooperatives, who share the resources of local farms among themselves. There are a lot of people living in cities, but there are very few organic and ecological farms in the vicinity. So every day or every week, a different cooperative takes priority in ordering products. Thus, the orders do not accumulate, while the farmer has the guarantee of permanent demand and is able to meet it on daily basis.
We started our cooperation by mapping our resources – namely, how we implement our goals and how we face various challenges in our mother organizations. We analysed not only our material resources, but also the models of our organizations and the processes running in them. This analysis allowed us to talk about future joint plans.
And the goal seems enormous. But yet, perhaps with the use of the latest technologies, taking into account the theory of complex systems (the dynamics of relations in cooperative structures and their surroundings) – maybe we will be able to develop a set of features that will help to understand what an effective cooperation algorithm should include, to design and then to implement it, trying to avoid our mistakes.
Knowledge about how we operate is one of those things that we can share with others. For this, however, you need a publishing space, preferably with the possibility of two-way communication. What is needed is the tool to allow the flow of feedback, comments, and maybe even an online analysis system connected to decision-making, which will give a complex image of our community and help determine the further direction.
In the first step, basing on our agreement, we decided to get a domain in the .coop extension. It is regularly verified whether the information displayed meets certain social values. This is where interested people will be able to add something and join our activities. It could be a space for international meetings or conferences in the on-line formula, which would require a multilingual editing of the website.
For now, the main space for information exchange is the e-mail group and forum, which will be integrated with the website in the future. There are also plans to include remote workgroups with shared files and virtual management and planning boards.
The platforms that we want to use entrust ownership of the data to the users. The users gain the ability to manage the data, which creates added social value. In such systems, there is no place for fear of the dictatorship of the software owners. While on the other hand, trust and confidence build an inspiring environment for creative exchange.
Digital sovereignty along with the social character of technological tools and the so-called human-oriented design (as opposed to goal – or profit-oriented) are consistent with the philosophy of food sovereignty and care for the common goods. That is our direction of combining a progressive vision of the future with the traditions and ethos of social and agricultural action.
From a purchasing system to a cooperative platform
During over ten years of history of cooperatives, I have witnessed at least a few attempts to build systems dedicated to the needs of the community, but none of them gained sufficient support. Some were proposed as ready-made products without prior consultation and knowledge about the real needs of cooperatives. Others, coming from the inside of the community and financed through grants, failed under the real pressure of the heterogeneous group of organizations. However, this issue has always been an opportunity to establish relationships between various organizations.
Therefore, building and strengthening relations between cooperatives, between urban and rural communities, connecting farmers, consumers, prosumers and public partners together with tools (that deepen our understanding of social change and strengthen them) could be the goal of a wider and far-reaching project.
Living in the post-communist, capitalist economy in Poland and taking care of common goods, we need to find a legal formula for our activities. Polish legislation does not sufficiently recognize and acknowledge the principles of cooperative movement. That is why we want to develop new legal solutions that would ensure the stability of functioning to our organizations, provide opportunities to develop, and above all, give us certainty that we are acting in accordance with the law.
Cooperatives, based on collaboration paradigm, represent an underestimated and insufficiently visible reality. They encourage citizens to be active and are not focused on unlimited growth. They practice real and deep democracy in decision-making processes and non-hierarchical management. The current regulations do not give an opportunity to create an environment conducive to the stable operation and development of such organizations. Meanwhile, we are a living example that this model is possible to apply in real life. We exist!
We realised that if we want our community to be visible and recognized wider in the society we need to creatively approach the existing Polish law. We do not assume the possibility of changing the law any time soon.
In the first step, we will prepare a Cooperative Charter, in which we will provide a specific manifesto of our beliefs and values. On this basis, we will be able to create a set of principles that guide our community, and – in cooperation with lawyers – we will translate them into legal language. This document will be a testimony of our growing community. With the growing public support it will translate into the visibility of our consortium among public institutions.
We feel that this will indirectly raise public awareness about participatory processes in civil society. So-called participatory democracy increases any individual’s sense of agency. Moving decision-making closer to people helps to solve many problems. But above all it protects against decisions about social issues being made in a the top-down, bureaucratic, centralized and elite manner.
Currently, in many cooperatives, we are trying to promote citizens’ assemblies. They are a manifestation of deep democracy, as we understand it. We are using this method in our community for making decisions.
Our goal coincides with another process of broad, systemic transformation that is currently taking place. We are part of the ongoing process of building an environmentally sustainable solidarity economy based on trust, respect, cooperation and sharing.
Local Cooperative, Local Poland, Local Union, Local World
A cluster is defined as a collection of galaxies or stars. It is a group of similar objects, bound together by gravitational forces. I first came across this name while reading about “the memory of water”. It is in this unique, life-giving substance that information clusters are formed: groups of molecules line up in specific configurations and create structures (clusters) that map specific environmental factors. This means that water molecules look different in various circumstances: in natural conditions (e.g. in a mountain stream or in an ocean), in our cups or when they are subject to sound waves. They always reflect the environment in their structure.
Thus, by taking our collaboration to a higher level, we are creating a cluster: a structure composed of many different bodies (both formal and informal) who agree to connect with each other, bringing their individual experience to a common platform. During joint work, conversations and group processes, they share and analyse their methods of operation and develop new ones that can serve the community more effectively and at the same time enrich the leaders and their mother organizations.
In our discussions there are voices that food cooperative are just one manifestation of a wide phenomenon of self-organization. Thus, our comprehensive approach may help others.
In many of our organizations, other forms of association have manifested themselves. Due to the fact that they grow on a common foundation, they can easily transfer experiences and adjust solutions to various sectors and circumstances.
The idea of clustering cooperatives can be easily replicated in other sectors, such as cycling and housing cooperatives, and even those related to energy or circular economy. Certainly, construction cooperatives can also benefit from our experiences, while at the same time enriching us in this exchange process.
Clustering continued or the cooperation of the Umbrella with other entities
In further steps, we are planning to establish broader cooperation: to include other organizations in our cluster or establish a new one with organizations operating in the spirit of cooperativism, food sovereignty and agroecology. We could collaborate that way with suppliers and producers through their associations, as well as with small, organic and permaculture farms. We could also include social innovation centers, representatives of scientific circles supporting the development of cooperativism, and other, even broader ones, such as activists or lawyers working for the climate. We want to collaborate closely with the food sovereignty movement Nyeleni Polska, to which we owe so much. We are also interested in exchange with other partners at the European and global level.
Thanks to these steps, we will be able to achieve a wide synergy effect and the possibility of collective use of skills, knowledge, experiences and resources that will strengthen the human and social capital of individual regions. Such wide-ranging activities will also contribute to the change in the food strategies and policies towards the presence of local food in public institutions. Thus, they will help preserve existing farms and create new jobs in the production, processing, distribution and retail sectors.
We know that shortening supply chains counteracts the decline of agricultural traditions, revitalizes rural areas and re-connects them with urban communities. At the same time, it shifts the economy towards a low-emission path, bringing measurable environmental effects. We are part of this process.
Relationship with oneself and with others
The sense of agency and the power to change
Obviously, all of this requires individual commitment from each of us. This is an unpredictable factor that is present in the reality of all bottom-up initiatives. Funding makes this issue less challenging, but should not be treated as a silver bullet. In cooperatives, there are several organically developed rules that help to maintain regularity of activities and support group processes. When individuals are burdened with excessive responsibility, they have a tendency to unique and act in secrecy. Sometimes they do not hesitate to use their excessive power, which generates conflict, inequality and exclusion.
Our meetings are conducted in the spirit of equality and natural communication, with only limited moderation by someone who agrees to have a neutral attitude of a facilitator. Many of us are familiar with and close to non-violent communication, assertive and mature communication. We are ready for and open to feedback, exchange of thoughts and opinions.
This approach, although not always easy, helps us to build our competences also in everyday life. It allows us to sustain satisfactory relationships. This approach, combined with our social achievements gives us real self-esteem and allows us to assume committed leadership positions.
The urban community of leaders, imaginative people, who do not hesitate to implement even the boldest ideas, works to change their local surroundings for the common good. The changing urban fabric may indirectly transform other, less connected spaces, such as rural areas. Thanks to our actions, we strengthen the potential of the traditional, small-scale agriculture. We also increase biodiversity, bringing from our municipal farms and gardens the latest agricultural trends like permaculture and other natural methods of land care, for whom yield is rather a side effect than the primary goal.
On the other hand, the reality of rural areas educates the city dwellers by helping them to be closer to the land and food (after all, you become what you eat). It helps them to notice and take care their bodily needs. It also reveals the enormous potential of relaxing through physical work, deep relationships with nature and people, and opens up opportunities such as the establishment of wind- and hydro power plants cooperatives. It reminds us of the severely deteriorated culture of cooperation between farmers and those who process food.
This contrast supports the development of individual skills and the formation of a strong civil society capable of taking care of its needs and looking boldly to the future. The goal of the Cooperative Cluster is also to build and strengthen the relationships between the countryside and the city.
Learning to be
As part of our activity, we want to create future local leaders – sovereign, responsible individuals, full of internal desire to bring change to society and to realize their desires and passions. Cooperatives are incubators of social initiatives and events based on sharing knowledge and experience. Additionally, the cluster is supposed to gather the knowledge and experience of how cooperatives work in order to help create new cooperatives, thanks to activists aware of their potential.
After all, members of cooperatives are ordinary people facing everyday challenges and problems. Our inner growth and transformation needs to be coherent with what we want to do in the outside world. An individual, having reached maturity and sharing it in action, with the provision that he/she remains constantly ready and open to change, influences the society, which is thus able to adapt faster to changing conditions (such changes in climate or technological progress). Therefore, the growth of cooperatives depends on our individual development, and our individual strength to act in Parasol depends on how mature the cooperatives will be. People who want to experience themselves in a shared environment engage in developing cooperatives. And we in Parasol, also as members, constitute the pulse of these changes.
The next steps are ahead of us. We decided to make them consciously and slowly building a permanent structure that will satisfy our needs, and at the same time it will give similar possibility and tools to other similar communities. And with this holistic approach to common reality, we attempt to create the reality of collaboration.
Poznań food cooperative
in cooperation, with thanks and gratitude to:
Ewa Jarosz from Wawel cooperative
Ela Dopierała from Poznań cooperative
Andrzej Mazur from Lublin cooperative
Bartłomiej Błesznowski from Dobrze cooperative
and many others supporting and participating in the process of creating the Umbrella for Food Cooperatives.
Article written on behalf of Fundacja Ekorozwoju, ul. Św. Wincentego 25A, 50-252 Wrocław
Article written for the needs of the project “Restart your life and thrive. Innovative models for sustainable local living”, financed by International Visegrad Fund No.2190240