Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Cooperation [Photo by ZR]

Cooperation Photo by ZR

Choosing to cooperate

As part of Co-operative Fortnight [19 June–3 July], a group of local people gathered at The White Rock Hotel to share their experiences and explore the pros and cons of co-operative living and working. With Hastings Online Times about to step towards a co-operative working structure, HOT’s Zelly Restorick went along to learn more.

Most of us have grown up in the world of authoritarian hierarchy and competition – at home, at school and at work – and yet there are huge benefits on offer from working in harmony and co-operation with others. Sharing their experience of working as part of a co-operative were Rhian Thomas and Vivienne from Trinity Wholefoods,  Felix Lozano from Wave Graphic Design Co-operative – and Milan Rai and Emily Johns from Walden Pond Housing Co-operative.

Leading the workshop, Mil asked each person about the advantages and the disadvantages of co-operatives – and what they wished they’d known when they first stepped into this alternative working and housing structure. Account handler, Felix Lozano from Wave Design told the group that “working together is empowering… the equality is a positive and you share the risks. The main asset is the people, but also the people can be the trickiest element… all our differences and needs need to be balanced, but we’ve never had to fire anyone. The co-op is really supportive of its members. That’s possibly one of the drawbacks – once you’ve worked in a co-op, it’d be hard to go back to a structured hierarchy within the work environment, as you’ve had a taste of empowerment, independence and self determination.”

The founding members of Trinity Wholefoods, one of whom was Vivienne, started laying the foundations for their co-operative in 1984 and began trading a year later. “It’s the equality, democracy and egalitarian approach that I like”, explained Vivienne. “It’s supportive. Everyone has skills, we capitalize on our own and each others’ strengths. In a more traditional structure, you have a hierarchy, whereas in a co-operative, you thrash out the problems together – and if you’re united in the principles, you find a way through. Most essential for us was the amount of groundwork we put in, where we established the group, out trust and commitment. It made us all stronger and lead to the thriving co-op we are today.”

Rhian Thomas, who’s been working within Trinity Wholefoods for over a decade, added, “every year, we have an AGM and we decide our roles – Treasurer, HR, Secretary, Health and Safety, wages, shifts. I like being involved in making decisions about my workplace – it’s really empowering. I give work 100% – and the results come back to us and the business rather than someone else. Currently, it’s brilliant, as we’re working with other co-operatives in other areas… we’re all really willing to share and support each other.”

Founder member, Emily Johns, spoke on behalf of Walden Pond Housing Co-operative, explaining that they started with three people, grew to a group of eight and are currently five. “It’s been a very stable co-op as housing co-ops go. We now own a house and a flat, although we started out renting, which was good for us as a learning experience. The most significant aspect is having secure and stable housing – we’re not trapped into ‘money jobs’ in order to have a home. We share intelligences, resources and skills – and different ways of looking at a problem, which means we’re more likely to come up with a good solution. We’ve made relationships beyond the family and there’s a sense of optimism; these human connections are our utopia, where we’re united in our values, principles and ethics.

“Possibly one of the disadvantages of a housing co-op,” continued Emily, “is the capacity to generate an intensity of conflict, where you might not be able to walk away. But we’ve all developed a deeper understanding of human relationships; I trained in conflict resolution and mediation and shared the information. It’s good when the knowledge is spread, so that the power doesn’t become concentrated in one person. We’re now a stronger, richer co-operative enterprise”

I asked the different co-op members about the qualities that a person might need to fit into this alternative housing or work structure? They suggested: shared values and principles; knowing yourself; flexibility; enjoy both shared and personal responsibility; commitment; a desire to be a part of something; an understanding of what you think, feel and what you want from life; honesty, openness and caring for others; being able to relate well to other people; an ability to make decisions and choices; a belief in – or at least a willingness to explore – the values of democracy, equality and solidarity – and a desire to make a contribution to the common good.

Felix talked about the incredibly diverse range of co-operatives around the world and the millions of people involved in them – and I saw the following in Trinity Wholefood’s window display: Co-operatives operate in all sections of the economy, varying in size, structure and working methods. It’s a different way of doing business; driven by its ethical values, a fundamental respect for human beings and a belief in their capacity to improve themselves through mutual is jointly owned and democratically controlled by members. [Co-ops UK]

Apparently, decades ago, Hastings Council used to have a Co-operative Development Manager and time and money were directed towards this way of living and working. Nowadays, sadly this is no longer a post, but you can contact the organisation, Co-operatives UK, for further support and information – or the organisations, Radical Routes and Seeds For Change.

And if you’re interested in exploring the co-operative ethos in more depth, face to face, you can connect with members of the local groups mentioned here, who said they’re very happy and willing to share what they’ve learned from their years of experience – and encourage the spread of this alternative way of both working and living.

Trinity Wholefoods in Trinity Street, Hastings

Wave Design in Robertson Street, Hastings

Walden Pond Housing Co-operative via

Co-operatives UK also offer a wide spectrum of information and support.

Radical Routes and Seeds For Change also offer information and support.

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Thank you for your continued support!

Posted 16:04 Wednesday, Jul 2, 2014 In: Home Ground

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