I once asked a guy named Pedro, who had spent his life founding and working in one of the Mondragon industrial cooperatives, what his most engaging organizational experience had been.
He said, “I can think of two. There was the time we laid the first brick in place for our factory. I’ll always remember that.”
That made sense – the never-again moment of seeing something you have dreamed about coming to life in physical form. I asked him what the second experience was. He paused and gave me a kind of half-smile.
“It was when we went bankrupt.”
Apparently, after a few years of initial success, the cooperative had run into some unexpected market turbulence in the late 70s and could no longer pay its bills. A normal business would have closed its doors or maybe sold itself to new investors. But the members of Pedro’s cooperative refused to do this. Instead, everyone took massive pay cuts and worked double hours for below-subsistence wages for several months to put the business back on its feet. When I interviewed Pedro in 2003 (25 years later), the cooperative was thriving.
Pedro said that it wasn’t simply the accomplishment of bringing the co-op back from the brink that he cherished. It was the way that people related to each other during that time – how collaborative they were, how devoted to what they had created, how invested in their imagined future together. It wasn’t easy, and people may have struggled to align their various needs, ideas, and personalities. But it was during these struggles that the cooperative really became a cooperative.
I thought about Pedro while reading the latest e-bulletin from the Centre for Community Organizations (COCo) in Montreal. I have watched COCo carefully over the last several years as it pursued a series of daring experiments in flatness. It has rewarded my curiosity, strengthening my faith in what a few kind and stubborn people can do with the sustained application of curiosity, intelligence, and a touch of anarchy.
Like any patch of the world, COCo has had its difficulties. But the people there have been extravagant in their commitment to creating a truly participatory culture and structure. And they have increased this commitment during even the most stressful times. COCo doesn’t just look participatory. It feels participatory. It’s the kind of place where people share more than their ideas and opinions. They share their spirits. And even when conflict arises, they manage to remain deeply appreciative of and generous toward each other.
In this month’s “COCo Note,” Laila reminds us that turbulence in organizational life is a gift, but only if we respond to that turbulence by moving even more fiercely toward what we value. When we recommit to our deepest yearnings, then financial problems, programming difficulties, and personality conflicts all offer us a chance to come closer to who we are and who we want to be. But if we suspend our values until we have “fixed” things, the gift is lost. When bankruptcy loomed, Pedro’s cooperative clung devotedly to the ideals of cooperativism. COCo uses its own dark stretches to become even more participatory.
Laila ends her post like this:
If ‘oppression involves a failure of the imagination,’ as Margaret Atwood has famously said, then surely the work to craft alternatives and make them strong enough to weather all kinds of storms must also be a resolute cultivation of imagination – no matter how uncertain the times. In the end, it may be that holding fast to our dreams of more just ways of working is an imperative, not a luxury.
Check out the full post. (Scroll down to the “COCo Note.”)