Titles, Patterns, and the Unnamed in a Career of Cooperative Praxis

Name what it is you do

In my circa eight years working in the field of consulting to startup co-ops, I’ve never been quite sure how to label what I do. I often squirm when asked that standby cocktail question “what do you do?” because depending on the day or month or year, it looks quite different!

Early on, I was taught that the proper title for what people like me do is “cooperative business development practitioner.” A formal handle–and a mouthful of a one! I’ve been an independent (freelancer) all these years, never exclusively working with a federally-funded co-op development organization, and never employed by one. So, sometimes, it doesn’t feel appropriate to use this language to describe what I do.

A huge part of my work is, effectively, community education. My first job with a worker co-op was also one where I learned how to deliver “hands off,” anti-oppression education—I taught bicycle mechanics to youth and adults in a community bike shop. I learned how to frame myself as an equal to the student I was instructing, how to provide “hands off” instruction, and how to say “I don’t know the answer—let’s look that up together.” Since that time, “popular education” methods have been a huge part of how I facilitate and educate in community co-ops contexts.* Co-ops ALWAYS start with educational processes, undertaken by a community. In addition to the dozen or so co-ops I’ve consulted with, I’ve educated many more people through community classes and workshops. So you could say I’m a community educator about cooperative businesses, and that would be accurate, too, albeit limited.

Other titles that apply would be “facilitator,” “trainer,” “consultant”… Probably—although I am not sure—you could describe my work as organizational analysis, organizational design, even organizational psychology to some extent. However, as I am not formally trained in these things, I am not sure any of these titles are a fit. I definitely identify as a “systems thinker,” and continue my self-directed study in that vein. Since 2016, I have also acted as a cooperative entrepreneur, becoming co-founder of the platform co-op community, Cosmos.coop. And I have dreams of designing, seeding and starting new worker-owned co-ops in my home region of Denver and the Front Range of Colorado.

Of course, I’m not the only person who wears many hats and doesn’t have a single, well-fitting “job title.” In today’s gig economy, many people have responded to changeful work climates by becoming adroit generalists in their field of specialty, just like me. However, my struggle to claim an appropriate title is compounded by having zero “formal” (academic institution) education in this field. I emerged into this work through a passion for community organizing, and a fascination with collective (horizontally-structured) grassroots organizations. From the beginning, I’ve found my way through my own strong curiosity and rich study of why some collectives seemed to be successful and empowering, and others, failed or worse.

Develop organically, move through the mess–when labels fail to encapsulate the reality

I’ve attended tons of conferences (mostly through the generous scholarships provided by the Ralph K. Morris foundation), visited dozens of co-ops and interacted with several dozen professionals. I’ve consumed every bit of co-ops instructional media that I could get my hands on out there–even making a spreadsheet of all the free online resources I could find back in 2014. You could call this being “self-taught,” but more accurately, I was taught through frameworks designed for communities of practitioners–not academic institutions. I was a student of co-op “best practices” even before I knew there was such a thing as a “co-op business development practitioner”; and I was experienced in Consensus decision-making and self-directed collectives for years before I adopted the title. So, I believed I could just walk right into these spaces and make myself a part of these conversations. And among my cooperative peers, I have been embraced. This approach–assuming a participatory, mutually contributing initiative from the jump–has worked.

In academic terminology (something I would only find out years after actually beginning my research into “effective collectives” in 2008) the description for what specialize in is cooperative organizational “best practices”—as in, what patterns make co-ops more likely to succeed? These patterns include: policies, practices, procedures, behaviors, norms, standards, cultural aspects, structures, and so forth. The answers to this question, concerns: What makes for a thriving co-op?

As may be evident to those who know me, I like to do things organically. I believe experience can teach just about everything you need to know, if you know how to study your experiences.

Which brings me to what I feel is the best title for what I do, yet is also the most unspecific title of them all. I am perhaps best described as a student of patterns in co-ops and collectives. Patterns. What are patterns in this context? I mean any recognizable, repeating way that things are structured relative to each other. I believe the term “best patterns” is more inclusive than the term “best practices”–because “practices” are only one component to the total health and thriving of a cooperative.

For more on patterns in organizations, I highly recommend my colleague Katie Falkenberg’s article, Unpacking Pattern Language.

Patterns can be multidimensional (such as in organizational culture and values) or straightforward (such as in a single operational procedure). Patterns, layered and woven together, make for organizational systems–the braided ways people, money, resources, and mission-fulfillment interact.

Immersing in the simple and compound patterns present in co-ops has allowed me a sharp skill for seeing, at the pattern level, what needs to be addressed or changed to make systemic improvements. I can dive into the messy action of the particular co-op, and intuitively trace the general patterns (and distill some targeted improvements) from that. You might even say I am an intuitive working at the pattern level for organizational development and healing. Or even an organizational “permaculturist.” Although those are even wider and edgier titles, and not necessarily more apt than any of the rest!)

I don’t know if anyone else is doing co-op development the way I am, from this “intuitive organizational healer” place–if you are, I would love to hear from you!

What’s the connection between patterns and titles? Simply, as I stated in my earlier post about the power of the word “praxis,” that: having a name for something is a kind of power. It is the power of understanding, and working with that concept, creatively, in one’s life. However, labels can also be too convenient, and thus, misleading. Let us not be too content to think we know what something is or is comprised of. I encourage everybody to practice contemplative equanimity whenever they feel a lack of words… or, an over-fixation or overstock of them.

For me, that means: I may continue to struggle to answer that cocktail party question. But: I might answer it best by asking the other person what they know, think and feel about cooperatives, for starters… and taking it from there.

The organizing continues, and matures. Recently, I’ve begun to notice how much I enjoy and have an intuitive knack for organizing at a different scale: the stuff and behaviors encompassing an individual’s life. It’s funny to reflect on how my passion for creatively organizing the basic systems of a person’s life seems to have emerged from years of experience organizing teams, communities and organizations. Somewhere along the way, I developed a robust appreciation for the efficiency and flow that can be gained through designing a lifestyle to fit a person’s authentic purpose.

I am hoping to parlay this newfound interest into my consulting work, through supporting leaders and executives of cooperative/social/mission-driven organizations with coaching. I’d like to help people look at and evaluate their daily habits, the beliefs and goals those are tied to, and their effectiveness, as well as design habit “adjustments” that may bear better fruits and be built upon progressively. Often, we don’t know how we are stymying ourselves by our unconscious habits, and having a fresh perspective and “accountabili-buddy” for systemic change can be of great help.

I hope to help people move through their attachments (while refreshing their commitments) and invite some fresh air in–some willingness to experiment. Tweaking behaviors co-arises with tweaking expectations and assumptions. An unthinkably joyful future may lie ahead, and is effectuated simply by a few subtle changes in the now. I hope to help people liberate themselves through self-awareness and courageous shifts. One person, one group, one world at a time.

*I am pleased to report that I will be delivering the six-part cooperative entrepreneurship program that I produced in 2018, this summer for a select cohort in a “Train the Trainers” structure in Metro Denver. I look forward to sharing more about the training soon!