September 22, 2023

start the future: building a cooperative

a bush with dropped leaves and vivid purple berries
photo caption: a close-up of bodiner’s beautyberry, a variant of a chinese gooseberry. the bright purple berries stay on the plant even after its leaves autumn in the fall. those words are interchangeable, right?

No matter where you work, employers hold an incredible amount of power over the people who work there. It often goes without saying, even in our era of resignations, “quiet quitting” (not a thing!), and r/antiwork. It doesn’t have to be this way. Worker in a cooperative share the control that is usually bottled up in a CEO or Executive Director. They set the direction of their company, make business decisions, and create budgets. The workers in a cooperative share power without diluting it.

My series start the future began as an exploration of possibilities. Non-profits built within capitalism and racism have to be careful. When you hold power, it’s easy to serve yourself over the people in communities who actually need the help. What would it look like if we decide to build the future ourselves?

In my series last year, I concluded that the organization I wanted to build the most was a cooperative. And what a difference a year has made! I now own and operate a consulting practice as my full-time job. I hope that one day I’ll be able to expand it into a consulting cooperative. This series will help me explore what that might look like.

There are several guides out there for people interested in starting a cooperative. I’m going to use advice and resources from at least four guides I’ve found.

I’ll also draw from other sources as I move through the process.

I started with the stepwise instructions in each of the above resources. Though they all lead to the same place, they all have slightly different ways of getting there. The authors emphasize different aspects of the creation process. I created the following 10 steps based on their process. I’ll address each item in a future post.

  1. Collect information, clarify needs, and assemble your founding members
  2. Discuss needs and vision; coordinate organizing and business research.
  3. Consolidate a clear vision and plan.
  4. Conduct a feasibility study.
  5. Design your decision-making process.
  6. Create a business plan.
  7. Define roles.
  8. Convene your first cooperative owners meeting.
  9. Convene your first board meeting.
  10. Begin operations!

equity matters

I value each of the sources I’ve referenced above. They all bring different ideas and perspectives on starting a co-op. Many wrote their guides with the experience of actually starting one (or more). But one of these guides is from 1997. Another came out earlier this year. No matter their source, we have to be careful with the guides and lessons we learn.

I’ll take a special racial analysis of each step I write about. I’ll try to guard against leaving people, especially Black and Indigenous folks, behind. When we are creating for the future, we have to keep in mind how easy it is to replicate the systems of our past. Our work will be for nothing if we concentrate power among the few, the white, or the privileged.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]