Alex Gyori, General Manager
At the 39th annual meeting of the Co-op, an idea was debated about an aspect of the process of democratic decision-making that is at the core of the success or failure of cooperatives. Specifically, discussion arose in an effort to understand the way the democratic agreement is expressed in governing policy at BFC, that “the board speaks with one voice.” There was definite confusion and genuine concern on the part of some Co-op shareholders about the meaning of these words.
I am not taking up this topic for or on behalf of the board. Rather, it is the democratic process that has sustained me in my role as general manager when the way ahead was unclear.
The underlying agreement must be that all participants desire the highest good of the organization. The idea of “speaking with one voice” is a constructive and necessary rule derived from the democratic assumption that once everyone has properly informed themselves of the facts of an issue and listened carefully to all viewpoints, a decision is made and action is taken. “One voice” becomes the final step in a multi-layered process in which the result is communicated and supported. A widely diverse organization, the Co-op could not fulfill its mission in an environment of endless dysfunction and second-guessing.
Failure to accept a fair and well-considered decision can create organizational instability with ruinous consequences. A high-profile example of such devastating dysfunction in the cooperative sector was the story of the demise of the Berkeley Co-ops in the 1980s. It may be oversimplifying to put it this way, but at the core of that previously thriving co-op group’s downfall was the formation of a rival board of directors by some members who disagreed with decisions of the elected board. The result was overwhelming turbulence preventing constructive resolution.
Change is often unsettling and does not appeal to everyone.
To this point, it was serendipitous that this year’s annual meeting featured the documentary film Food For Change. At one point in the film, Tom Tolg, one of the original organizers of the Montague Co-op in Turners Falls, MA, recalled that when members voted to move to Greenfield, changing the co-op’s name to Franklin Community Co-op in the process, not all were in agreement. Some ceased to participate. It was a survival move, and Franklin Community Co-op thrives today. In an example closer to home, in preparation for the move across the Whetstone Brook in 1988, the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s board decided to make the working requirement optional as it was becoming increasingly burdensome for a growing number of members, who were disengaging. It was an intensely debated decision, some members feeling that without the work requirement, BFC was no longer a co-op. Some ended their association. My intent here is not to disparage those who did not stay engaged due to decisions they disagreed with. Rather, that healthy growth of an organization can cause familiar features important to individuals to be transformed or abandoned, and no longer meaningful to some.
“Speaking with one voice” is a way to ensure the democratic process and avoid terminal gridlock. Through many years of trial and error, commitment, and forward thinking, BFC has taken on a key role in the life of the community, becoming an outstanding example of what a diverse group of people of good will can accomplish. Let us always be appreciative of that.
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