Co-ops have a long history of commitment to social and economic justice, starting with the early industrial age when skilled tradesmen used them organize to their revival in the ’60s and ’70s. But as co-ops have become more popular and inclusive, how politics and co-ops mix is an open question.
“Maybe as co-ops have become more popular they’ve lost some of the political identity behind them,” admits Laura Smoot, education and outreach coordinator at the Mariposa Food Co-op.
Smoot is the lead organizer of Mariposa’s educational programming, which includes lectures, community events and a “Social Justice Book Club.” These programs are designed to teach employees, members and customers about the role of co-ops in driving change, according to Smoot.
For Mariposa, which has made concerted efforts to be inclusive as well involved in social justice, this question looms large.
Mariposa moved its storefront from the first floor of a row house on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia to its current location one block west where it occupies a former bank with 7,000-square feet of space. The reason for the move was to make Mariposa a more inclusive and dependable grocery store for the community, Smoot said. In addition, Mariposa opened the store to non-members and has made a point to provide a comprehensive selection of food to meet different customers’ needs.
Their former location fit a co-op model that catered to a small but committed group of member-owners who lived in close proximity to the store.
“We took a long time to decide how and when we would move to a bigger space, but we knew for years that the kind of co-op that we were was more exclusive than we wanted it to be,” she added.
Though the transition has been a success in terms of sales, Mariposa is still attempting to strike a balance between a straight grocery store and an organization with a political agenda, whether its an outward commitment to fair trade, sustainable agriculture or affordability.
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The co-op’s political activities include joining an initiative of 50 organizations called the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land. It also launched a Food Justice & Anti-Racism working group and blog, which covers the co-ops social justice activity and is connected to the Social Justice Book Club.
“Mostly we’re running a grocery store,” Smoot said. She added that staffing the store, ordering from farmers and keeping the shelves stocked are the co-op’s primary concerns.
This is where programming such as the Social Justice Book Club comes in.
The periodic meetings have brought together the community and co-op employees to discuss social justice issues as well as the history of co-ops as grassroots, political organizations. The last reading selection was For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America by John Curl.
In an interview with Generocity, Curl elaborated on co-ops and their role in social justice. “A commitment to larger social justice in society and the world is part of the co-op mission, but how that plays out in any particular situation is complex and uneven,” Curl said. He also stressed the importance of inclusivity.
“The idea is to bring as many people as possible into the movement,” he said.
There are other ways for co-ops to stay engaged in social justice, such as opening a nonprofit branch that can seek grant funding and operate independently of the store. This is what Weavers Way Co-op, located in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, did in 2007 with the launch of Weavers Way Community Programs (WWCP).
For now though, Mariposa is using something as simple as a book club to keep the notion alive that co-ops can fight for social justice.
“Just because our doors are open doesn’t necessarily mean that issues of power and racism and gender go away,” Smoot said.