campaign-website-sCooperators around the country are mobilizing in support of a bill to provide cooperative business development funding. If the National Cooperative Development Act of 2011 passes, it will have a lasting impact on cooperative development the likes of which may not have been seen since the Rural Electrification Act in 1936. That act of Congress helped create electric co-ops that developed a significant portion of the power infrastructure we continue to enjoy today.

The bill’s proposal includes federal support for the creation of co-ops in underserved urban and rural communities in low to moderate income areas. The idea behind the bill is to create jobs and increase economic development by promoting co-ops as a solution to meeting the needs of urban and rural communities. It is also being proposed as a means to close the gap in funding from the Rural Co-op Development Grants administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, which only serve rural areas.

The act will help create jobs and spur community development, and it is intended to:

  • Provide loans and seed capital to groups who are attempting to form cooperatives;
  • Award grants to nonprofit organizations, colleges, and universities so that they can provide technical assistance to operating cooperatives or groups that are attempting to form cooperatives;
  • Provide guidance, information on best practices, and technical assistance to communities seeking to establish cooperatives;
  • Provide funding for training of providers of technical assistance and supporting existing professional development training for organizations engaged in cooperative development; and
  • Establish cooperative development centers in areas that currently do not have them.

Peter Frank is the advocacy coordinator for CooperationWorks!, a national organization of co-op development centers. He has been working with directors of those centers, including Kevin Edberg, executive director of Cooperative Development Services (CDS), to draft the recommendations for the bill. The organizers started meeting in October 2010, and began drafting the bill in 2011. In order to advocate for the bill, they created the Campaign for Co-ops (­­www.campaign.coop) to help spread the word. “This is a real significant opportunity,” said Frank about the potential in this bill.

The bill’s origins are deeply rooted in co-op development organizations and broadly endorsed by 16 co-op organizations across sectors, including the National Cooperative Grocers Association and the National Cooperative Business Association.

“We think it will support existing co-op development centers and broaden co-op capacity as a movement and address work in a number of sectors, including producer, worker, shared services and consumer co-ops,” said Edberg. For CDS specifically, Edberg believes they could expand their work with urban communities, and provide resources to those who ­currently have nowhere else to go to get assistance.

First, though, the bill has to pass; and that will require hands-on, grassroots efforts to get members of congress to sign on the bill as co-sponsors.

As part of the Campaign’s advocacy work, they have been seeking representatives willing to be co-sponsors of the bill. The bill’s first enthusiastic supporter was Chaka Fattah from Pennsylvania, soon joined by Allyson Schwartz, also of Pennsylvania. They’ve also recruited Gary Peters from Michigan and Keith Ellison from Minnesota among others. And the list keeps growing. All due to co-op members taking the time to meet with their local representatives.

“We want to get one-on-one meetings with representatives,” Frank said, because there’s a lot of power in citizens telling their personal stories about the impact cooperation has had on their communities. Frank is encouraging people involved in their co-ops to meet with their local congress members and tell them why this bill is so important to their districts. He also wants people to know that the National Cooperative Development Act needs to be a bipartisan effort in order to pass, and that includes both Republicans and Democrats signing on as ­cosponsors.

Madeline Kastler is board president at the Seward Co-op Grocery & Deli in Minneapolis, Minn., and she is very encouraged by the potential for co-ops in this legislation. It motivated her and fellow Seward board member Dan Nordley to contact the representative in their co-op’s district, Keith Ellison, to arrange to meet him to discuss the importance of this legislation. “It’s important that our congressional delegation be aware of cooperatives and their impact on our local economy. It’s important that they ultimately sponsor legislation that supports co-ops. As co-op members, it’s our job to give our representatives information to help them be advocates for cooperatives,” Kastler said.

“Seward has a long history of supporting startup cooperatives in Minnesota, and supporting the National Cooperative Development Act is another way of providing this support. Not only will it provide support to new grocery co-ops, but to other types of co-ops as well,” she said.

Frank pointed out the legislation still needs still needs co-sponsors. While it is important to know some of the basics about the bill, it is more important to let your representative know that the bill exists and to let them know that there are constituents in their districts that are co-op members.

Kastler said she felt empowered to do this because of the wealth of information and talking points from the (www.campaign.coop) website, and the fact that the people working to recruit co-sponsors can prep you before your meeting to arm you with the central points of the legislation. “Telling your co-op story is the central part of your advocacy,” she said.

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