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“I know I’ve already renewed my loan on this sander, but it’s just so good. I really want to take it out again.”
It’s 4 p.m. on Tuesday and we’ve just opened the library. Craig stands back from the counter, one hand crossed over his chest, the other up by his chin, looking down at the little angular sander with adoration. He blushes.
“See here how it has these gel pads so your hands don’t go numb?”
I’ve never witnessed such enthusiasm for a sander.
Of course, Craig doesn’t have to deal with the uncertainty of knowing whether or not he can rent this prized tool tonight. Simply, he could trek down a hardware store, put down some cash, and either buy or rent his beloved sander for days on end. Instead, Craig has prescribed to a different model of tool autonomy: the model of active participation, shared decision-making, and equal distribution of resources; the model in which collective values preside over profit; and the model wherein many of us have no earthly idea what we’re actually talking about.
The Co-operative Model.
“Most people you talk to wouldn’t be able to tell you they’re a member of a co-op even if they’re a member of five.” As the Director of Youth Programs at the BC Co-op Association (BCCA), Chelsea Lake is integrally invested in engaging people with the co-operative movement. “You tell them VanCity, Mountain Equipment Co-op, MODO, and they say ‘Oh, yeah yeah yeah…’ But they wouldn’t be able to tell you what that means. And those are the people that should be yelling it from the rooftops.”
Co-operatives like the Vancouver Tool Library, for example, allow members to rent endless amounts of power tools for free upon payment of a yearly maintenance fee. This saves people like Craig hundreds of dollars (and tons of closet space), as the alternative likely entails purchasing those same big tools for a one-time job.
If this is true, and co-ops really are something worth shouting about, then why do we seem to have such ambiguity about their role in our lives? Two key things: At a fundamental level, our lack of understanding might have something to do with our business-as-usual education system, and; at a political level, our governing structures and regulations might be partly to blame.
“First year economics is flawed,” says Lake, in ardent fashion. “OK, so there’s supply and demand, but there’s also people who want to do the right thing in this world. We aren’t all profit-seeking monsters. There are other facets to the way we do business, and it’s not just communism.”
Either by ignorance or design, however, the “co-operative” chapters of our economics, business, and social studies textbooks never quite made it to press. This void in traditional teachings has left the heavy lifting to those working “out of the goodness of their hearts” to redefine concepts we take for granted like service, economy, work, and exchange.
Charlie Latimer is one such person in Vancouver.
“When people say business is for profit, I lose my shit,” he explains. “The only reason to have a business is to support a service to community.”
A founder of The Toast Collective, a black-box type space currently co-owned by six non-profit organizations to host workshops, art shows, musical events and anything else under the sun, Charlie’s personal values run right through the awkward intersection of Fraser and Kingsway. While The Toast isn’t an official co-operative, it’s certainly run on similar principles.
“The idea of a democratically controlled company is for stakeholders to be shareholders. When that doesn’t happen, you have a problem” says Latimer. “Corporate responsibility is self-regulation – corporations trying to be good citizens. It can only go so far as it doesn’t affect their profit margin.”
Straying far from dreams of “chedda”, The Toast began with a friendly game of kickball. Echoing recent findings from The Vancouver Foundation, The Junktion Kickball League was invented as a solution to the all-too-familiar feelings of isolation and difficulties of meeting people in Vancouver. The league met on the suckiest night of the week, Monday, with few rules and no scoring system – another step in creating access to community building. From there, a few of them decided to rent the ever-changing commercial storefront across the street.
“The only way we could pull it off was if a bunch of people went in on the space together. All we had was the space and vague ideas of how to use it. I left for a while and came back to find that Grocer Gunst had started doing his bicycle grocery deliveries out of there. It was all very exciting,” says Latimer.
While operating on a mandate of inclusion, participation and openness contributes a great deal to community building, a collective venture like The Toast does little to subsidize anything beyond its rent. Charlie struggles to imagine the paradigm shift necessary to manage a world full of Toasts. “It’s so drastic. It’s…” he hesitates as he almost describes this other world as radical. “It blows my mind. Radical. I hate that term.” He corrects himself. “It’s… a departure from where we are.”
Re-enter education and the co-operative. A worker co-op like Shift Urban Cargo Delivery, for example, is transforming the way goods are delivered in the downtown core, and doing so through the equitable distribution of wealth among its members. Did you read that correctly? Income generation, worker equity, and a mandate for sustainability? Radical terrorists if you ask me…
If people are pro-actively redefining what’s “normal” in business, the education system should parallel their innovation and include stories of these brave young organizations in their oft-outdated curriculum.
While the municipality of Vancouver, chomping at the Greenest City 2020 bit, is a huge advocate for the co-operative movement, provincially there is no Minister appointed to overseeing the success of co-operatives. In British Columbia, the Minister of Finance is responsible for such innovative initiatives like the “BC Venture Capital program”, whereas a parallel program for co-operatives currently has no home in Cabinet. Additionally, when doing your taxes, there is currently no box to tick signifying you work at a co-op.
“It may not be intentional, but it doesn’t work in favour of creating awareness or educating people about co-ops,” explains Lake.
Co-operatives come in many forms. Shift is a worker co-op. The Tool Library is a service co-op. There are housing, food, and credit co-ops as well. In 1972, Vancouver was even home to a co-operative titled The Toy Library No.1.
A gallant venture, Vancouver’s Toy Library was started by a group of young carpenter-librarian-designers in the summer of 1972. With a successful library and workshop attached, the Toy Library was mighty successful with daycare centres, low-income families, theatre groups and children. Flipping through precious polaroids and testimonials in the Museum of Vancouver archives, this quote catches my eye:
“Day after day they have crowded the Library bringing rabbits, dogs, sisters, brothers. After asking tentative, quiet questions about how to become a member and how to borrow a toy, the children have thoroughly grasped the notion of the borrowing system.”
Despite the popularity of the Library, due to the City of Vancouver’s unwillingness to provide proper funding for the program, it didn’t survive more than one year. Even toy library counterparts in the U.K. were lending support to the Vancouver venture. The manuscript continues: “This was encouraging although we noticed with concern that unlike the toy library of Vancouver, these organizations were being encouraged and supported by city governments, by the public library system, and by various private foundations.” In a closing statement to the local newspaper, the slightly bereft carpenter-librarian-designer Millie Leyland offers, ”Maybe some day someone else can make a go of it.”
In an astounding show of support, the United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of the Co-op; a timely statement. The U.N. clearly understands the “invaluable contributions of co-operative enterprises to poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration,” realizing that here, in the most expensive city in North America, in a province whose population is steadily increasing, co-operatives will require strong support and incentives to keep from going the way of Toy Library No.1.
Cold air whips in the door. Marcus is making personalized bookshelves from reclaimed fir. A Tool Library novice, he quickly finds his way around the shop and scouts out the router. In quick succession, Rene returns a set of brake wrenches – his daughter’s derailleur successfully restored. Marilee hands back the skill saw and stays for a chat. She’s effectually located a concrete block in her ceiling – intended outcome of hanging a lamp not quite achieved – but she appears unfazed. Each leaves without a dollar spent, and through it all, the little angle sander still sits on the shelf.
For tonight, it looks like Craig will get to take his tool home.