Cooperativism Studio

In this Studio, students will explore strategies and challenges for organizing cooperative enterprises that facilitate access to markets and decision making power for members. Participants will work with a green coffee import company based in Oregon and a coffee grower’s cooperative in Colombia. These companies have a buyer/seller relation but are also engaged in a project to organize and build capacity among women farmers.  The long term goal is to strengthen organizational capacity and increase revenues for women, improve the visibility, marketability and revenues of the coop, and strengthen the trading position and price setting capacity of the importer.

“The specialty coffee industry sells difference: coffees that have unique flavors and unique stories about where and how the beans were produced. But how much do farmers actually get to represent themselves in the global market? This Studio is focused on developing strategies for farmer self-representation in the hopes that at some may gain a measure of control over their own image..”
Christopher London
Faculty Supevisor

Students travel to Huila, Colombia to work with community partners and complete independent research projects. 

In this Studio students will explore strategies and challenges for organizing cooperative enterprises that facilitate access to markets and decision making power for members.  The context for this work is two emerging partnerships focusing on these issues. 

The first partnership is with a green coffee import company based in Oregon and a coffee grower’s cooperative in Colombia. These companies have a buyer/seller relation but are also engaged in a project to organize and build capacity among women farmers.  The long term goal is to strengthen organizational capacity and increase revenues for women, improve the visibility, marketability and revenues of the coop, and strengthen the trading position and price setting capacity of the importer. This partnership will be the focus of the 2018 Colombia IFP.  

The second emerging partnership is a with a Rockefeller Family Fund supported project to democratize an electricity coop in rural Alabama.  Founded in the 1940s, the coop has apparently never had free and open elections for its board of directors, does not pay out obligatory dividends to members and does not provide cost effective energy service.  The board is white, while the majority of members are black and, regardless of race, of very low socio-economic status. The goal of this project is to educate and mobilize members to assert control over the coop board and make it serve membership as intended.  There is the possibility of a 7 week Summer 2018, expenses paid, fellowship to work in Alabama conducting community mobilization.

Cooperatives have long been considered powerful vehicles for organizing economic and/or managerial activities in such a way that the benefits of an enterprise redound on the membership.  While there are many forms that coops can take, for purposes of this studio we will focus on two broad categories: those that serve producers vs those that serve consumers. Producer coops allow people engaged in some form of primary production (service providers, farmers, etc.) to pool their production to more effectively position themselves within markets.  Consumer coops are ones that create mechanisms for members to have access to goods (electricity, groceries, etc.) of a kind or at price points that they might not have otherwise. In both cases coops are mechanisms that strive to overcome the competitive weakness of individuals or small enterprises in competing for sales or purchase of goods and services. But the conventional purpose of coops is not limited to engaging in markets.  They are also expected to be democratically organized, member-led associations. Through their operations then coops can both instantiate and model democratic practices that may have reverberating consequences for the social context in which the coop is situated.

But coops can also, of course, be dysfunctional.  Elites can capture control of the coops decision-making and finances and use it for personal gain.  Governments can create hurdles that reduce the competitiveness of coops in favor of conventional capitalist enterprises.  Members can be disaffected or uninterested in cooperative processes, or make decisions that benefit themselves in the short term while harming the coop.  Capitalist competitors can engage in unfair marketing or other practices of disloyal competition that seek to harm the coop for the sake of it. The challenge for coops then is both to establish effective internal organization and protective external operations so that they may meet the economic and political ideals of the cooperative model.

This studio can support: Thesis Supervision, Practicum in International Affairs, Research Portfolio.

Depending on the number of students and their interests (i.e., activities may be adjusted) this Studio will:

  1. Research cooperative models and assess the Colombia and Alabama coop partner operations in light of these.  This will involve developing and/or deploying a typology of coops to better understand these specific examples. We will also visit and learn about the formation, and/or restructuring of coops in New York City.  
  2. Research definitions and strategies for assessing “citizen empowerment” and develop tools to test these with the partners. In the case of Colombia this will focus on “women’s empowerment.”  What does this mean? How do we know when it has happened? Are the initiatives in Colombia solely economic or are they truly empowering? For Alabama it means researching other cases of membership revolt against leadership and efforts democratize coop management.  What practices or strategies can be gleaned from these to help orient the Alabama campaign? How can youth be enrolled as community mobilizers?
  3. Research marketing strategies of cooperative enterprises.  This is especially important for the Colombia coop. The green coffee importer has said that for many of his roaster clients “cooperative” is a bad word.  Why? Is it because of disaffection with the Fair Trade model? Is it more ideological? How then are coops to situate themselves within the market? A key issue will be designing communicative strategies that facilitate marginalized communities to articulate their own narratives as the foundation for marketing and/or advocacy campaigns.
  4. Research price setting in the coffee industry and design tools for improving price transparency so that partners have stronger negotiating positions.  Studio participants will have the opportunity to learn about the global value chain of the specialty coffee industry including cupping, grading, logistics, sales and marketing as well as the “culture” of coffee.  While the focus is primarily on Colombia, other countries will be addressed and the work will be transferable to other contexts.

Students, singly and/or in teams, are expected to produce finished or nearly finished products.  Products may include research reports, marketing strategies, design of field research tools, design of business tools, or any other such product as meets the needs of both the New School team and its partners.  These products will form the building blocks for a Summer 2018 International Field Program in Colombia and/or a fellowship with the Alabama campaign. Participation in these summer programs is optional though encouraged.  Students who participate in the summer programs are expected, though not required, to enroll in the Fall 2018 Studio II in which the preceding work will be used as primary inputs for masters or undergraduate capstone projects.  Spring-only participants are encouraged to also participate in the Fall. Each phase is a 3 credit course.

Community Mobilization, Cooperative Models, Empowerment and Citizenship Practices, Ethical Trade and Marketing, Global Value Chains, Household and Rural Economics, Racial and Gender Hierarchy, Social Justice, Specialty Coffee, Women Leaders, Youth Mentorship

Click here to see work completed by students from the Spring 2018 semester and the Summer 2018! Projects include studies on youth in Huila, life history narratives, explorations of the cooperativism model, and more.