Special Report Back from the Worker Cooperative National Conference 2016

By Posted in - Conferences & Cooperatives & Democratic Education & Interviews & Movement Building & TESA News on August 31st, 2016 0 Comments

This summer has been a continuum of bustling work for folks seeking to build national interest, participation and support for worker ownership and solidarity economies. In the midst of meetings, rallies, healing circles and research, conferences have been bringing people together to talk in a constructive way about our collective future, and it can feel so uplifting. Conferences can bring forth ideas and solutions that address some of the most urgent issues facing people today.

TESA Collective would like to report back to you about one conference that we attended this past July; the Worker Cooperative National Conference 2016, or as participants called it, WCNC2016!

Conference highlights:

#WCNC2016 was held July 29-31st at the University of Texas at Austin, and occurs yearly in different cities across the nation (2017’s conference TBD but we will keep you posted!). Austin has a number of worker owned cooperatives including Black Star Brewery Co-op, who skillfully bartended conference events serving up their own tasty selections and also wine from the California Fruit Wine Company, a democratically run ESOP.  

Friday, Day 1:

Participants chose whether to attend a tour of East Austin and Black Star Brewery or choose one of the following intensive strategy sessions:

  • Converting a business to a cooperative
  • Basic tools for management
  • Bookkeeping and Finance

We got to host an information table at the conference and talked with worker owners and people from organizations like Design Action Collective, Polycot Associates, The Murphy Institute, Box Dog Bikes, and the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) and more. We were very excited to see folks from Design Action Collective because they’re creating art for our new game, Rise Up! (You can support the game’s upcoming Kickstarter by signing up for our Thunderclap!)

On day one we also got to work with Black Star bartending the opening party for #WCNC2016, and found ourselves completely co-op starry eyed over all the incredible places represented like AORTA, Future Focus Media, Equal Exchange,  Center for Family Life, Arizmendi Associations, The L.A. Co-op Lab and so many more. We even started up an East Coast/West Coast bowling match and can’t tell you who won, because that would be un-cooperative of us!

Saturday, Day 2:

To kick off the morning, we heard from Jose Antonio Vargas in discussion with Ed Whitfield, Esteban Kelly and Nikki Marin Baena. Vargas is the founder of Define American, an organization seeking to elevate the conversation around immigration and citizenship in America. He also has other projects including #WhitePeople and #EmergingUS. Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who’s publically out of the closet about being both gay and undocumented.

Workshops Saturday included:

  • Communities of Practice
  • Cooperative Ecosystems
  • Strategies for Scale
  • Orientation for new co-op members
  • Advanced topics – new, offbeat, interesting, deep and popular topics
  • Structured Discussions about cooperatives

Participants had the opportunity to network with friends and allies from all over, and we took the chance to meet with as many as we could, including our friends in the Cooperative Education Network. Currently TESA is working with them on a project that aims to pilot this year. The afternoon also brought an hour-long discussion with scholars and international organizers Bruno Roelants, Dov Orian, and Claudia Sanchez Bajo in conversation with members of TESA Collective and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC).

Saturday night we had a party co-op style and it was off the hook. Many of us assumed the location, Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, was a party at someone’s house, or in some nice person named Kenny’s backyard at least. We were surprised however to find that Kenny Dorham’s Back Yard is an actual outdoor food and music venue and it was so fun! That weekend KD’s backyard had several hundred cooperators getting down and sharing fantastic local food and libations together. What a hoot!

One of the sweetest moments came with a giant tray of cupcakes and a still vibrant (despite the long day) Melissa Hoover on stage offering gratitude to key event organizers. One special thank you went to Roodline Volcy from Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI). We had the opportunity to ask Roody what she thought of organizing the conference, and here’s what she had to say:


Roodline Volcy, DAWI

“Organizing conferences is hard work that requires sleepless nights, talking to yourself, and being absent from your personal life for a while. However it is all worth it when an attendee shares that a session changed their life or that the evening party lifted their spirits. It is in those moments that my energy is renewed, and the little bird who tells me to never do this again takes a nap. I’m very excited for the next Worker Cooperative National Conference and have already started planning it (in my head for now)!”

Roody was one of many organizers who worked tirelessly to ensure that attendees had everything they need. Not an easy job to do! If you’re lucky you can find Roody supporting the build of the Renaissance Co-op Community in Durham, NC or maybe even at next year’s conference!

Sunday, Day 3:

On Sunday we gathered for a closing talk with Douglass Rushkoff, who wrote the book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus among several other bestselling books. He’s also made documentaries such as Generation Like and Digital Nation among others.

During the talk, which was held between himself, Ed Whitfield, Esteban Kelly and Nikki Marin Baena, Rushkoff said: “I propose we program the digital economy for people rather than programming people for the digital economy,” He went on, “Uber and Amazon are just Walmart on steroids.”

In 2015 two of TESA’s members published an article in Truthout called The “Sharing Economy” is the Problem which highlighted massive extraction in the so-called sharing economy.  

After the heartening discussion, a continuum of outstanding workshops were held from the previous day including one called, Facilitation in Motion led by kiran nigram of AORTA, a worker owned cooperative based in Philadelphia. kiran had this to say about why this work is important to her personally, for the greater economic justice movement and for queer folx in particular:


kiran nigam, AORTA Collective

“If we are to successfully build movements for social, economic, and gender justice, we need to be able to talk to each other, to work together, and to make decisions together across difference, without
replicating systemic power and injustice as we do so. We need to be able to build multi-racial, multi-class, multi-gendered organizations. Strong and skilled facilitation helps us do this.”

Creating spaces to engage and encourage participation from all people is one reason TESA created the game Coopoly, and it’s a value we believe deeply. This may be why kiran’s workshop resonated so well. kiran pointed out how creating space isn’t enough. We must also do the work to build democracy within the organizational foundation and structure.

kiran also shared about the democratic process, “Our co-ops are not actually democratic if all of our members are not able to access and engage in our democratic processes. This means creating meeting spaces where everyone is able to participate, and intervening in the dynamics of social and systemic power that integrate their way into our organizations (despite our best intentions).”

One strong take away from AORTA’s handout was their very definition of what facilitation is:

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Handout from workshop, excerpt from page 1

TESA also held a workshop during the final session of the conference, called “Let’s Talk Politics! Political Advocacy Training for Worker-Owners”. As co-conveners of the USFWC member council on policy and advocacy, we offered insight into strategies for building the political power of worker cooperatives.

During the closing, a very lively Brendan Martin of the Working World led a closing chant (in English), and the crowd took over and repeated the chant (in Spanish). We looked around the room at the end of this weekend, invigorated and hyped to be a part of this ever growing, ever loving movement for social justice that is rooted in connection, collaboration and cooperation. Thanks so much to the dedicated folks who built and navigated this conference! TESA looks forward to next year, and we hope to see you all there!

Additional links:

Full list of workshops and performances

#WCNC2016 on Twitter

#WCNC2016 on Facebook

#WCNC2016 on Instagram


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