The Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, a newly-formed member association for local co-ops, announced last week that Peter Frank has been hired as its first executive director. Frank, 34, is a fixture in the co-op community. He has worked full-time at established co-ops, served on boards, and volunteered his time to getting new co-ops off the ground.
As PACA moves forward with its goal of connecting and developing the co-op sector, Frank will be at the helm. Here’s how a former consultant and Chicago native came to be at the center of the Philadelphia-area’s co-op sector:
Frank first became acquainted with co-ops as a member of a food co-op in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he lived with his wife prior to moving to Philadelphia in 2009.
“I got to understand a little about how they operate, and really sense the community in the brief amount of time I spent in Ann Arbor,” he said.
Frank worked as a consultant on natural resource conservation with a specialty in invasive species that got him contracts working for the military. He moved away from the profession, however, because it felt too “cut-throat” and lacked the sense of mission and solidarity he was seeking. Too often, he said, the people doing the work didn’t seem to care about the impact of what they were doing.
The decision to move to Philadelphia, Frank explained, was not informed by the usual factors associated with big moves — employment, family, economic pressures — but instead a desire to be a part of vital and unique city.
“It’s a very livable city that has a lot of needs, and I think that’s what drew my wife and I here,” he said, adding that other cities, such as Chicago, did not seem as easy to break into.
Frank got involved with co-ops almost immediately upon arriving, beginning a career that would span multiple full-time jobs and volunteer positions in the sector. He also came along at a significant time for the region’s food co-ops: Weavers Way opened a second location in Chestnut Hill in 2010; Mariposa Food Co-op moved to a larger location in West Philadelphia in 2012; and neighborhood food co-ops began grassroots organizing across the region.
One of these neighborhood co-ops, the Kensington Community Food Co-op, is where Frank got his start. He stumbled upon the co-op in 2009 at a farmers market in Kensington, his new neighborhood, and soon began attending meetings. He would eventually help write the co-op’s bylaws and work with consultants on a feasibility study. Now KCFC is soliciting loans from its over 500 members to pay for the construction of a storefront location at the intersection of Frankford and Lehigh avenues.
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Making co-ops a career
Volunteer work was just the beginning for Frank. After getting out the consultant business around 2011, he started working full-time for CooperationWorks! where he advocated for increasing support for co-ops at the federal level. He worked on a specific bill, introduced by Rep. Chaka Fattah, that would provide $25 million in grants and other forms of assistance to co-ops through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Frank said the experience provided a better lay of the land of where money exists for co-op development. It also have him a sense of what was needed. “There are huge gaps particularly in urban areas,” he said. Currently, federal funding for co-ops comes from the USDA, and it is only available to rural communities.
During this period, Frank also became a board member for The Energy Co-op, which connects its members with renewable energy sources. The experience allowed Frank to see another type of co-op in action, but also get an inside look at the key issue of energy, he said.
In early 2013, Frank was hired by Mariposa to work full-time as an organizational development coordinator. He was now working for a co-op that is one of the few in the country to practice workplace democracy ( the staff are organized as a collective that meets to make decisions about the workplace) — something that Frank had long wanted to be a part of.
A hub for co-ops
As the executive director of PACA, Frank is in a position to help the co-op sector collaborate.
“There is an incredible desire for co-ops to work together, particularly the food co-ops,” he said, adding that the challenge will be dealing with the limited capacity of many of the co-ops in the city.
“What’s exciting is the desire and the ideas and the possibility, but where it ends is the capacity of individuals who work at co-ops,” he said. “That’s where I see PACA being able to come in and provide the capacity.”
There is also the fact that all co-ops are not the same. Reconciling their differences is another challenge for PACA.
“How can we create value for food co-ops, a small worker co-op over here, a housing co-op over here, and a giant credit union in the middle?” Frank asked.
In the meantime, making PACA financially sustainable is one of Frank’s most immediate challenges.
“My goal is to get us self-sustaining in the next 18 months or so,” he said. He plans to do this by soliciting grants but also through membership fees.
Generocity.org will track the evolution of PACA and of the co-op sector in the coming year.
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