CCMA Conference–Austin, Texas
by Jon Megas-Russell
On June 4th I landed in Austin, TX, with our general manager, Alex Gyori, to attend the annual Consumer Cooperative Management Association Conference. From the moment I arrived in Austin, I began to meet fellow cooperators from around the country. I met folks from food co-ops in Santa Monica, Fairbanks, Bloomington, Montpelier, and many more cities and towns.
Everyone I met shared the same passion for food co-ops and embraced the cooperative values.
Every city that hosts CCMA has a co-op that acts as host; this year, the host co-op was the Wheatsville Co-op. Wheatsville is the only food co-op in Texas and showcases 4,500 sq. ft. of retail space with13,000 owners. In August, they will open their second location in Austin and plan to expand beyond two markets in the near future. GM Dan Gillotte boasts an impressive food co-op that oozes personality, has a top-notch staff, and supports the organic and non-GMO movement!
The conference kicked off on Thursday when we took bus tours through Austin to visit the Wheatsville Co-op, Austin Beerworks, and the Black Star Co-op! Austin Beerworks is a triple-bottom-line beer brewery with stellar offerings. The Black Star Co-op is the world's first cooperatively-owned and worker self-managed brewpub.
On Friday the speakers and seminars began. The first keynote speaker was Kristen Christiansen, who in 2011 initiated Bank Transfer Day, which called on people to switch from national banks to small, local credit unions. This action called attention to the cooperative difference, particularly in light of the excesses of the banking industry. Another keynote speaker was Mark Winne, who challenged cooperators to rally around ending food insecurity. Both speakers were excellent and added depth to the weekend conversation between cooperators.
The seminars were outstanding and the first one that I attended on Friday discussed the topic of food access. Many staff and board members of co-ops shared ideas about how they create access to good food for their members. It was inspiring to hear the many ways that co-ops were responding to the needs around them by creating buying clubs for outlying communities, extending broader discounts to more members, and trying to bring more cultural diversity to their co-op.
The second seminar I attended was hosted by staff of the Wheatsville co-op, sharing their experiences in providing great customer service to their members. They offered ways they have improved, recruited, and trained staff to be the friendliest
co-op in Texas!
My third seminar was an open dialogue with other board members from around the country. One topic that we covered was engaging shareholders/members. Many perspectives were shared, ranging from ice cream socials to breakfast with the board and even growing gardens at a co-op. It was one of my favorite seminars and was helpful in better understanding my role as a board member.
I also attended a seminar on tools for effective decision-making. Tools, strategies, and examples of effective governance were provided, in addition to small group conversations.
Following these discussions, I participated in conversations with fellow board members about how they engage their shareholders and what works and what does not. Jake Schlachter led this discussion and was an animated and rejuvenating facilitator on Saturday. He made the point of how important it is for boards to engage their shareholders in volunteering, democratic process, and believing in the importance of healthy food and a community space.
Art Sherwood, CDS consultant and member of the Bloomingfoods Co-op, facilitated the last seminar I attended. He was a powerful force who got our group engrossed in a presentation and discussion on involving board members, shareholders, and community members in the democratic process. Art stressed that in food co-ops, democracy is meaningful participation by owners in the process of reflection and choice! Finally, the point was made that co-ops must use democracy as a key differentiator when competing within the marketplace and we must communicate our unique difference within our communities!
On Friday evening CCMA held an awards ceremony to honor those co-ops who exhibited excellence in their service to the food cooperative movement. Our neighbor, the Monadnock Food Co-op, was named the Startup Co-op of the Year!
The final evening at CCMA culminated with a party at the Texas State History Museum with cactus and pulled-pork tacos, walks through the museum, and a live band. Attending CCMA was a wonderful experience. I learned so much about being an effective board member and I left inspired by the community of food cooperatives that we have across our country!