I recently attended two cooperative-related professional events in 2023: the Co-op Cincy Union Co-op Symposium and the Cooperative Professionals Guild Conference. As someone relatively new to practicing law in the cooperative movement space, I wanted to share my reflections and thoughts following these very inspiring experiences.
By starting as an associate attorney with JWPC in June 2023, I began my first role directly involved in practicing law in the cooperative movement. Previously, I worked in roles supporting social enterprise clients and small businesses or entrepreneurs in my community on a pro bono basis, all of which might have touched cooperatives occasionally, but I did not work closely with them. As soon as I started this role, I began learning as much as I could about cooperatives, limited cooperative associations, and the movement generally. Luckily, our firm provided me with some great resources to get up to speed on what cooperatives are and how they interact with the laws of different states. I also joined in on some cooperative client work to get my feet wet. However, I did not fully comprehend the reality of, and community behind, the cooperative movement itself until I attended the Co-op Cincy Union Co-op Symposium in Cincinnati, Oho and the Cooperative Professionals Guild Conference in Chicago, Illinois,
I first attended the Co-op Cincy Symposium and was very excited to return to my hometown for a few days to learn about the cooperatives in that city. I was immediately surprised when I arrived to find attendees coming in from all over the country. I met a series of folks who flew into Cincinnati for the symposium before I met anyone from Cincinnati. Moreover, these attendees came from all backgrounds –cooperative developers, community organizers, worker-members of cooperatives, and larger movement organizers, to name a few. It was inspiring to see the excitement in this community as the symposium was designed to bring people together, observe specific issues that the cooperative movement might be facing, and to have the attendees “dream” together on how to approach or solve these issues. While I felt like I had less to contribute to these workshops than most of the senior attendees, I found I had a fresher perspective to add and that I was not alone in my newness to the community. It was exciting to see how everyone there wanted to learn, connect, and move the movement forward. My biggest learning takeaways were better understanding cooperatives in general, and the practical challenges that factor into their operations (for example, in a group discussing the United Nation’s sustainable development goals, we recognized the value to the planet in pursuing these goals, but discussed how it may be challenging for a small cooperative to follow these goals when they might already be struggling with other goals, such as worker empowerment and job creation). For someone whose cooperative experience so far has been living in a virtual workspace, it was exciting to meet people in-person and to feel their genuine passion for this work, including a few clients of ours.
While Co-op Cincy might have been focused on dreaming up solutions to the challenges facing cooperatives and the worker solidarity movement, the Cooperative Professionals Guild Conference (CPG) was tailored more specifically to cooperative professionals, such as attorneys and accountants, and focused on developments in the professional tools used by these individuals to implement solutions for cooperatives. For example, there were presentations on tax considerations for cooperatives and their members, multistate securities concerns, and organizational structures for entity types similar to, or working with, cooperatives. Needless to say, these presentations were much more technical than the Co-op Cincy sessions as they were designed for educating the practitioners in the room on current legal and accounting issues in the cooperative movement space. As someone relatively new to this legal space, it was exciting to attend sessions, learn, and participate in discussions with the professionals who contribute to creating and shaping the law for cooperatives. The part I found most exciting about CPG, though, was how I spent a few days in a room with people like me; it was refreshing to see others practicing in this space professionally, but also interesting to realize the group was fairly small (there might have been forty or so folks in the room at any given time). I might have enjoyed the fun spirit of Co-op Cincy more, but CPG provided a feeling of professional inclusion and empowerment. I left CPG with a greater professional spirit and sense of presence in a community of individuals like myself.
In conclusion, these cooperative conferences were not just gatherings of like-minded individuals, but impactful spaces that exceeded my expectations based on past conventional law-related conference experiences. The shared values of collaboration and community empowerment resonated across sessions from both events, leaving an indelible mark on my practice perspective. As I reflect on the knowledge shared, connections made, and the collective passion for creating positive change through the cooperative movement, I better understand the reality of this space and I feel empowered to better support the community and spirit within it.
Whether you’re (relatively) new to the cooperative space as well, or just interested in learning more about the movement, I encourage you to explore cooperatives further by participating in these types of events in your area. The National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA (NCBA) and Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) are both great resources for finding similar events. And, of course, please feel free to reach out to our team if you are curious about any events or if you want to learn more about cooperatives generally!