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Co-op Congress: Its Purpose, History & Accomplishments

In a 1971 issue of the Cooperator, CSI’s newsletter, a front-page article laid the groundwork for what was to become the co-op congress. The article was titled “Let’s Close the Gap between the Co-op and its Members.” The author, Patricia Chabot, revealed the need for small groups to be formed to “get a sharper understanding of the business.” She wrote, “If the members are designated to smaller groups based on their area of residence, it would be possible to have discussion and debate on a more fruitful neighborly basis.”

Thus, was the beginning of the CSI congress. We modeled our congress on Greenbelt Cooperative, a Maryland/Washington, D.C. grocery and furniture co-op. The result for our co-op was the division into distinct "regions" where members could meet and discuss their ideas and concerns for the cooperative in a face-to-face, neighborly way. This discussion couldn’t take place at an annual meeting, due to the large number present there. In addition, the annual meeting’s environment wasn’t conducive to group discussion on election procedures and other co-op business. The congress groups helped increase understanding of the cooperative and reduce the surprise announcements at the annual meeting, which according to Patrica Chabot, “come like bolts from the blue to the annual meeting audience.”

The time the article was written was vastly different from today. Most of our members were not living in our co-ops. They were people who had bought milk from Co-op Dairy in Wyandotte, Michigan or groceries from the Fordson Co-op in Dearborn. They lived in their own homes and had jobs. Their contact with the workings of the cooperative was at best tenuous. The 1971 CSI Board of Directors had twelve members with only two living in a co-op - Wyandotte Co-op.

Our cooperative has changed a lot since then. Most of our members live in our co-ops now, where they have immediate contact and are able to make daily decisions for their own co-ops.

As CSI changed, so did the congress system. Neighborly “regions” were replaced as we added more co-ops. Regions expanded to other states and delegates began nominating board candidates from MA, MD and CA. Our cooperative business became twofold—the operation of each apartment co-op and the growing and the nourishment of the organization as a whole. The “gap” the article talked about was seen as that between the board and our members. We now describe congress as the “link” between the board—which makes broad policy decisions and sets the direction for the cooperative—and the members who live with those decisions in their own co-ops. The board can’t do its job without talking to the members, hearing from them and ultimately being selected (through the nominations procedures) by them. The congress is the setting for this dialogue and the bridging of the “gap,” described as a challenge almost forty years ago.

So, the goals of congress set forth originally were to (1) make more co-op members active participants in the business of the co-op; (2) to make the co-op representative and democratic; and (3) to review and evaluate policies and actions of the board of directors, to nominate board members and to supervise the elections. Essentially, these goals have remained the same.

One of the few refinements made to congress was the elimination of the Review & Evaluation Committee and the placement of this duty with the congress as a whole. The committee was meant to be the watchdog of board action and to attend all board meetings, including closed sessions. This idea was ultimately considered unworkable and redundant and was dropped. Instead, we worked toward getting more board information out in the hands of our members—more members began attending board meetings and the board’s business became more open. In a sense, the congress goal was realized—that of having more open meetings, accessible information and an ease of understanding.

Another change was to give the congress delegate the position of council member in each co-op. The intent was to bring the business of the entire cooperative to the attention of the co-op council and to remind the co-op of its place in the co-op family.

The most important role congress plays is to nominate knowledgeable and dedicated members to the board and to oversee the elections. This process starts long before “election season.” It means congress must give thorough and meaningful reports on board meetings to their co-ops. The job of a board member needs to be viewed as an interesting learning experience—one that is vital to the functioning of the co-op. The end result would mean more informed members and an increase in the number of candidates turning in profiles. Congress is also a wonderful opportunity to be a training ground for board members.

Congress has studied many issues and recommended many policies to the board of directors. They have held successful legislative action calls; taken over the planning of the annual meetings; initiated co-op rallies/picnics and developed the Congress Connector, the only publication written and designed completely by our members.

During their 2005-2007 term, congress delegates redefined their organization and accepted the responsibility of studying issues of corporate concern through smaller task forces that met monthly. The task force on volunteerism studied what motivates people to volunteer. They were very productive and inspirational. They took on special projects such as interviewing new presidents and vice presidents and offering them some leadership advice. They also instituted a monthly newsletter where they published “volunteers of the month” and attempt to share their words of wisdom (and a little fun) with other co-ops in an effort to increase volunteerism in our co-ops. They gave several presentations at congress meetings over the years. They also talked about bringing harmony to our co-ops and the relationship between attitude and teamwork, as well as many other words of wisdom. In 2009, they created a “volunteerism resource manual,” which was a compilation of materials gathered by the task force and other co-op members. The manual took them over two years to prepare. They shared the manual with co-ops in all regions.

A task force to study diversity awareness also really took off. Their meetings are very energizing, and the delegates are clearly very passionate about this topic. The task force examined the issue of cultural sensitivity in an effort to increase the appreciation for a diverse community. In 2008, the diversity awareness task force created a multi-lingual phrase book. Some key phrases and greetings were translated into several languages. This phrase book was passed along to the members of congress in the hopes that they would communicate and share the phrases with other members in their co-ops. In 2009, the diversity awareness task force created an ethnic recipe book with recipes from different countries and different cultures. They also gave many presentations over the years and hosted workshops at congress meetings that sparked conversations and a new way of thinking.

During the 2009-2011 term of congress, the task force formed to study diversity awareness and the task force formed to study volunteerism voted to merge the two task forces for a more comprehensive and integrated study of both topics.

A task force to promote public relations began during the 2009-2011 term of congress. The delegates that joined this task force were charged with the responsibility of promoting our affordable housing to eligible seniors, mobility impaired individuals and their family members. The task force members sent letters to churches, agencies and senior centers in the tri-county area along with brochures and flyers to explain our unique co-op system of management and its affordability. The task force was invited to present this information at churches, union halls and other venues. Through the enthusiastic efforts of this task force the public was introduced to our 23 CSI Co-ops.

Michigan congress delegates have also taken on special projects such as helping staff implement a new CSI video and simplifying the model bylaws so they can be translated easier.

During the 2011-2013 term of congress, congress delegates in the Michigan region voted to separate the Volunteerism & Diversity Task Force into two separate task forces. Both task forces will return to the original undertaking as outline by the 2005-2007 congress when the task forces were originally formed.

The Michigan congress delegates also voted to hold mini-rallies instead of the joint co-op rally picnic which was held at a large metro park every year. The focus of the mini-rally is still the introduction of the candidates that are running for the board of directors. Each co-op will host their own mini-rally with funds provided by CSI. The mini-rally provides an opportunity for every member to attend without being concerned about traveling to a park location. The mini-rallies will not take place during uncontested elections.

During the International Year of Co-ops (2012), the Volunteerism and Diversity Task Force sponsored a poster contest in all four regions, to highlight the importance and awareness of volunteerism and cooperative living. The winning posters were showcased at every co-op.

Congress delegates in all regions voted to submit a corporate bylaw change to increase the number of consecutive terms delegates can run for office. Congress delegates are now eligible to serve for three (3) consecutive terms beginning fall 2013.

Today, CSI Support & Development Services is perhaps the only consumer cooperative in the U.S. using a congress system. Greenbelt Cooperative was dissolved in 1991. As we watch our own cooperative grow, we must be mindful of how each of our parts is adding to the success of the whole. We need to continually evaluate how all of our parts, including congress, help us fulfill our purpose and make changes and improvements as they are needed.

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