This is an essay about “community.” I’m not a sociologist, but in preparation for this article I surveyed some of the available literature (of which I must say there is a ton). My intent is to start a conversation by asking the following question. What is community and how do we at the Willy Street Co-op define it? Defining community came up in discussions at a few recent Board meetings and I thought that furthering our common understanding of the term would help us as a Board do our job and the Co-op to fulfill its goals. I think most cooperators would agree that community is at the core of what a cooperative should be. Without it a cooperative is just another capitalistic enterprise. Hence the reason so many food cooperatives have community in their name and why a few just go by the name Community Food Co-op with no further descriptors (e.g. Bozeman, Montana and Bellingham, Washington).
So where do we want to start?
Great thinkers as far back as Aristotle and as recent as Cornell West have used the term with great effect. A quick search on Amazon reveals over 170,000 books that include the word “community” in the title. But as Suzanne Keller, in her book Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality put it, “Community is a ‘chameleon’ word with a variety of meanings, used in many, often contradictory, ways.” Because the term has so many possible and varied meanings, noted sociologist George Hillary analyzed the academic literature on community. Hillary found there were 94 different definitions with few areas of agreement. In his “Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement,” he noted three common denominators; “geographic area, social interaction and common bonding.” Later studies building on Hillary’s such as Charles Vert Willie, Steven P. Ridini, David A. Willard’s, “Grassroots Social Action: Lessons in People Power Movements,” have sought to identify additional commonalities such as “socialization and social control” and “purpose and the public good.”
Concern for Community
No matter how you define the term, it is clear that a concern for community is a central organizational principle for cooperatives worldwide. In fact Concern for Community is the seventh of the International Cooperative Alliance’s (ICA) Seven Principles. This principle added at the ICA’s centennial meeting in 1995 is further delineated below:
Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.
Prof. Ann Hoyt, UW-Madison, expanded further in her Cooperative Grocer article entitled “And Then There Were Seven:” “Grounded in the values of social responsibility and caring for others, this new principle gives articulation to the cooperative interest in making contributions to a better society at large. By taking ownership over portions of the economy, cooperative members are saying, in effect, we can meet our needs and the needs of others better than they are currently being met. Because the effort is a mutual one, cooperative members understand that to provide for any member is to provide for all members.”
While this principle lays out a basic cooperative tenet, it doesn’t help us define the term community. It seems therefore each cooperative must define “community” for themselves. So the question remains for us to answer—Who is included in the Willy Street Co-op community and, now that Willy Street Co-op has opened a Middleton retail outlet, how should our definition of community evolve and adapt? It is my hope that this essay will serve to further the conversation and that anyone who reads it will offer up their thoughts. Study group anyone? Feel free to email me at if you would like to respond.