Last month the food cooperative sector was unanimously thrilled to learn that CDS consultants Walden Swanson and Kate Sumberg are to be inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame at a ceremony in April 2008. Recommendation letters poured into the hands of the selection committee at the Cooperative Development Foundation from food co-op leaders as well as people in the housing, finance, wholesale and agricultural sectors.
Many things stand out in the Hall of Fame nominations for Walden and Kate, however, it is the way they do their work in the world that is perhaps most impressive. Kate and Walden’s charismatic and disarming approach to everything they do has won them many friends and the respect of the cooperative world. If there were an 8th Co-op Principle it might look something like the way Walden and Kate approach work and life: Right livelihood. Conviction and compassion. Good humor and grace.
Let’s take a look at their youthful aspirations to learn what influenced each of them, inevitably leading to their induction in the Cooperative Hall of Fame.
Walden was born in Navasota, Texas to a large family of 11 brothers and sisters. Despite growing up in a crowd of kids, Walden has always stood out as an over-achiever. In high school he achieved the trifecta of high school fame and glory as senior class president, captain of the football team, and his school’s equivalent for Homecoming King.
However, his popularity was a sideline to his diligent and smart side. Possessed with a keen intellect he also gained academic recognition. Walden was a National Honors Society member, and when he was presented with an academic award for physics—a sweater—he gave it to his mother to wear.
After high school he was admitted into the honors program of the Business School of the University of Texas at Austin. It was an interdisciplinary grad school program that focused on economics, management and philosophy that seemed tailor made for Walden. However, the world outside of the academy beckoned: anti-war demonstrations, women’s rights, the environmental movement, the push for voting rights for African Americans in the south took hold of his thoughts. A friend encouraged him to join a food buying club. He began to think about how he could use his talents to make a better world.
“It was a key time in my life,” Walden said. “I wrote a paper on right livelihood and Plato’s questions about how to lead a good life.” In his paper he considered two paths: a career in the cooperative economy or one in biochemistry. “I split myself in two,” he said of the process, with each side taking a position and arguing with the other side. After consulting his intellect through his position paper, he followed his heart to his current calling. He dropped out of business school to manage Wheatsville Food Co-op. He’s been working for co-ops ever since.
On the other side of the country, in the forests of Western Massachusetts, a like-minded spirit was following her heart too. Kate Sumberg was born in Williamsport, Pa. into a family with eight children. “My high school years were exactly the opposite of Walden’s,” she said. “I was totally disaffected. I hated high school.” She made it through by actively challenging the social mores of the time. Kate was also deeply influenced by her siblings who became vegetarians and joined a buying club, thereby introducing her to natural foods and the cooperative concept. Kate was also influenced by the social movements of the time and searched for a way she could make the world a better place to live.
She went to college at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and lived in a communal household that belonged to a buying club that bought direct from farmers. Inspired by a back-to-the-land ethic, Kate went to live on an organic farm where she reconsidered her commitment to college. “I sewed myself a teepee,” she said. Kate lived in the teepee and walked or biked everywhere she needed to go. She got a job at Western Massachusetts Cooperative Warehouse initially as a bookkeeper but immediately moved on to truck driving and warehouse work. She’s been working for co-ops ever since.
Walden and Kate met when the co-op warehouses of the Northeast began to founder and Walden was called in to consult on a potential merger. Kate recalled their initial meeting as tense. “He was the enemy,” she said with a laugh, because the merger threatened the idyll of their workers paradise. Their friendship grew gradually, and when they became an “item” they were very careful to keep it a secret so not to jeopardize delicate merger discussions. After the successful vote to merge the warehouses, Walden packed up and went abroad. Kate was the only employee from prior to the merger who stayed. A year later, Kate joined Walden in North Carolina on another turn-around project. They’ve worked together for co-ops ever since.
We know how much they’ve impacted others, but which projects have meant the most to them? For Kate, it was working with a group of women who were training to organize milk producers into local dairy co-ops in the Gujarat region of India. These co-ops were instrumental in breaking down the centuries-old caste system by treating all producers, regardless of caste, equitably. “The milk of the untouchables was mixed with the Brahmins,” she said. Thus the dairy co-op created powerful social and economic change in the area by providing life-changing opportunities to people of all walks of life. “As the dairy co-op developed you could see the impact of the co-op on everyone’s life in the village.”
For Walden, this was a tough question. But two co-op trends in particular have given him great hope as he looks back over the years—the strength, growth and maturity of food co-ops including infrastructures like CDS and NCGA that will allow it to flourish. He’s also proud of helping the creation of the National Cooperative Bank and dotCoop.
Whether or not the vision is expansive or nuts and bolts, both Walden and Kate believe that cooperation contributes to a better quality of life in a time when the world is sorely in need of fairness and compassion.
When they were informed of the Hall of Fame induction, Walden said, “I feel like this is an award for our sector. We are getting the recognition, but it really belongs to those leaders who have made good decisions and spent the time that has helped enable food co-ops to be in the strong position they are in now.” If you know Walden and Kate, you also know that they are most comfortable when they can share the limelight.