I met with Farzana Serang, the executive director of CoFED, at their offices in Oakland’s Impact HUB. Our conversation covered cooperative business models, CoFED’s national reach and ditch digging.
FS:I never saw myself as a “coop” person. I grew up in a house with all my aunts and uncles, and we lived cooperatively. We all pitched in, the house was co-owned. Later when I was working, I felt really removed. I was talking about “Change” that had to happen at a high level (policy) and was disconnected from what was happening on the ground level. So, I took time off and traveled to Argentina and was there during this huge coop movement.
I worked in Cordoba in the first women’s collective construction company that was going to build the first women-owned textile business, and they were also going to have housing there. I spent three months with them, drinking lots of mate and they asked what are you, this Indian woman, doing helping with coops in Argentina? I had never been a part of building something so tangibly, and also building something theoretically – the idea of how people can work and live differently at the same time. It was really powerful.
I remember my advisor saying, “Are you sure you want to do this, it’s going to be really hard, it’s construction.” But, I’d rather use my body and do something tangible than remain in this country and just talk about ideas. And, I remember going there every morning to dig out concrete and there was a line of women waiting to help out, to take turns, because everybody wanted to help. They knew as they were building it, they were building their new homes and their future.
Tell me about CoFED, what do you do and how do you do it? CoFED provides tools and trainings to campus communities to create access to healthy food and to create thriving, resilient, equitable local economies. We try to create an alternative to extractive and un-nourishing options on campus through building alternatives. We do that through co-ops, we work with students, community members, professors and administrators to think about where they could be getting food locally from farmers, from potentially other co-ops and how they can use that to start their own projects. So sometimes they will do food carts, they’ll do bulk buying groups. And, it allows them to know what it is to build their own business through a coop, which I think is also really important – so they build their own business on campus that’s cooperatively run and supports the whole community and provides good, affordable food.
What is a coop? A coop is a different way of doing business. Everyone who works there is an owner. They become part of decision-making, from everything from the menu to the wages to hours. It’s a different structure. It means investment comes from the members, the people that are working are putting money in to make the business thrive, they are putting in their insights and all are benefiting from the work that they do directly.
There are different types of coops. There are coops where the members are the ones who are shopping, and those are consumer-based coops. For example, you may go to a grocery store and they ask you to be a member, and your membership helps support the business model. Some of them are hybrids where there are worker-owners that put down their money to open the shop and they also have consumer members. There are a lot of different ways to do a coop.
Are you a membership – what’s the CoFED model? We are now a nonprofit, but we are working towards how we can be sustainable, and hopefully transition into more of a coop or collective. We work with 60 student groups that are now in our network. We’re launching a more formal membership next year, and our goal is to build out our work next year so that we have services that we deliver and are able to develop enough income from that so we can sustain ourselves.
Who is helping you make decisions? Our board. We pull from people who have been doing coop work, food work, social entrepreneurs, cooperative developers, also people who have credit union experience, and students, people who are have been on campuses and organized.
As a startup organization (CoFED has been in operation for two years), what advice would you give to those who want to jump in and create something new? Let your passion run wild. Sometimes it’s hard to believe in the impossible, but I’ve seen so many people actually make a difference. It gives me a lot of hope. That’s the privilege that I have in my job is being able to see that we can make a difference.
Believe in yourself. When you believe in what you are doing and are passionate about it, I think people will come around to support you. That’s what we’ve seen in our work in New Mexico, for example. It was amazing. The owner of the biggest food co-op in New Mexico was on the advisory board and donated his time to help the students within their first year. When you’re committed to change that’s going to benefit the community, people want to support that.
Be easy on yourself. Sometimes the best advice is to think three steps ahead but also have a plan b, c and d.
How do you work in a small team? I went from an established, well-funded nonprofit to – hey, we’re all building this together! I think it takes seeing ourselves in a different structure, because I think sometimes a nonprofit can feel like you have to do it a certain way. Communication is key, for me, I’m learning how to text and be okay with it. I set up hours.
How do you get the word out? When we first started, we were really grassroots, so students gave each other the word of mouth, and we’ve started to broaden who feels like they could start a coop. When it started, the coop movement was not as diverse as it could be in terms of reflecting the future, and communities of color and low-income communities. They have a history in the South, they have a deep history with mutual aid, Fannie Lou Hamer and W.E.B. Debois. Knowing that, how do we allow people to reclaim some of that history? Because of that we’ve been more intentional with our outreach. We’ve researched schools, looked at community colleges, black colleges and universities and mainly Hispanic colleges and universities and colleges, tribal colleges, and looked at their sustainability programs, ethnic studies and urban planning programs, and just sent out emails to some 300 schools. Part of this is working grassroots, but if we’re trying to employ an equity agenda, that requires intentionality.
What about funding? We’ve been lucky to have partners that have been funding us for a few years, and that multi-year support is great. What’s hard is so many small nonprofits going after the same limited amount of money, and because we’re a startup, we’re still building the trust and we’re not big enough to have the scale for those larger grants, but if we were given more, we could. It’s a chicken and the egg. Or, we’ve tried to go in on grants with other nonprofits who are doing similar work around coops or youth organizing and trying to see if going after it as a collaborative would be more successful. And, for us to be three people and have worked with 60 schools nationwide, that’s pretty big.
Are there resources you’d recommend for people who want to learn more?
Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon Nembhard – collective thinking and coop roots in the South (see interview below)
Daniel Reyes on Ask Cathy Co-op – how food coops can support low-income neighborhoods
Sustainable Economic Law Center SELC – resources on the different types of coops
Democracy Collaborative – for their reports
Where is future of CoFED?
I would love for the idea to be ubiquitous – the understanding that it’s a really strong business model and we can work differently and have a different relationship with money. Japan has so many student coops that they have a national student organization, a national student coop organizing body. Puerto Rico has coops in 300 schools as part of a legal requirement to teach cooperative curriculum in high school. They also create coops in prisons.
We’re at a point when we look at the future and our disparities are already so wide, and what’s always been compelling for me is that it’s about people working together when they don’t have a lot of options to create wealth. So, when I think about where we are now, and who those people are, and the population that’s incarcerated is unjustifiable, and when people don’t have access to education and don’t have generational wealth, having a job is a really important part of their future. Having a coop teaches you how to create your own job and retain that as your wealth. Japan’s doing it, Puerto Rico’s doing it, we should be at the forefront. And when I think about our food system and our farms and who owns that and small farmers who are really struggling to meet the market demand, I’m thinking of how the coop structure can support them, so that we have dynamic local communities. (Large photo from Inquiring Systems)