Friday, March 15, 2019

The Promise Of Democracy

A cooperative is an enterprise that is owned and operated by its customers. It's a model for organizing people toward common ends that's been around for centuries and over that time it has been successfully applied to both non-profit and for-profit ventures alike. I've spent the better part of the past two decades, more than half of my working life, in cooperative preschools, and because of that I often think that I must be, by now, one of the world's leading experts on how a small-scale cooperative works.

Our political candidates are being asked these days if they are "capitalists" or "socialists." They've scrambled to figure out a palatable answer, but when I put myself in their shoes, I think I'd be inclined to answer that I'm "none of the above." If I had to put a label on it (and I'd rather not), I reckon I'd say that I'm a "cooperative-ist." Unlike with capitalism, which requires an impossibly level playing field in order to operate as the sort of meritocratic utopia envisioned by its supporters, and socialism, which requires an impossibly benevolent and uncorrupted bureaucratic apparatus to fairly distribute prosperity, cooperatives have the advantage of actually having been tested successfully in the real world. In other words, the world has never experienced a pure enough capitalistic system, nor a pure enough socialistic system, while purely cooperative systems not only exist, but thrive.

The strength of the model is that individuals have voluntarily come together toward a common end, in our case to educate our own young children. Our school is owned by some eighty families, each of which is a co-equal owner of the school, and each of which is responsible for assuming a role in the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year operations, up to and including serving as assistant teachers in the classroom. Decision-making is necessarily democratic and transparent. Because our cooperative's "customers" are also its managers and employees, tuitions and expenses are kept as low as necessary (as opposed to as low as possible). The natural state of a cooperative is to be economically efficient without the austerity. When extra funds are needed or desired by the community, they tend to show up, one way or the other.

Of course, things are not perfect, which is the case of any human endeavor. Whereas we are unsurpassed in our economic efficiencies, cooperatives like ours can appear quite inefficient when it comes to decision-making. With so many co-equal owners, as you might imagine, we spend a lot of time in meetings, often hashing and re-hashing everything from the behavior of the children to what type of paper towels we will use. It can be frustrating for some of us, but no one ever said that democracy would be fast or easy, and at the end of the day I really can't think of a better use for my time on the planet than getting together with my neighbors and figuring out what kind of world we want to share.

Every now and then I've contemplated life outside of our cooperative, a place where I've grown up in many ways, a place where I've seen time and again the power of people of goodwill coming together without hierarchy in common cause. Every time I consider other pastures, I opt for the beauty of what I know, despite the occasional frustrations. We've overcome challenges and created opportunities together, talking, cooperating, and compromising. In many ways, I think that the cooperative model embodies the true vision of what our nation's founders had in mind when they conceived of a self-governing nation, which is why I think the most important thing we do in our cooperative community is to, on a daily basis, role model for our children the promise of democracy.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

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