Mike Martez Johnson was elected to the Willy Co-op Board of Directors in August 2014. Mike grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eight yearsago, he moved to Madison to study political science and sociology. He is the Patient, Doctor and Society Course Coordinator at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
Holly Bender: How did you first learn about cooperatives?
Mike Martez Johnson: My first experience with cooperatives was Rainbow Bookstore on Gilman Street. The store has a commitment to social, economic, and gender justice issues and holds forums, invites speakers and does other things to create a space in the community for important conversations and learning. I also learned about cooperatives from the Madison Community Co-op, which is a housing cooperative. I food co-oped at Audre Lorde Co-op, so everyone pools together funds that go toward food purchases and group dinners.
HB: What is the first Co-op you joined?
MMJ: Madison Community Co-op was the first, and I was always hearing about the Willy Street Co-op. After college, grocery shopping became more important to me and I decided it was about time that I become an Owner. I have to admit; to this day I’ve never been over to Willy West. That can be my New Year’s resolution for 2015!
HB: What have you discovered about the Co-op after your first few months on the Board that you didn’t know as an owner?
MMJ: The Co-op community is a unique and passionate community that cares deeply about the Co-op. That passion influences all levels of interaction and decision-making from the Board of Directors, to Owners, and to staff.
HB: I really liked what you said in your candidate statement regarding the ideal that the Co-op can “create new leaders, new ideas, and new opportunities.” Do you have some specific ideas for achieving this vision?
MMJ: The development of a food cooperative to serve the Allied Drive neighborhood is a great example. That area of Madison is a well-known food desert, and food access is strained further with road expansions and construction along the Beltline and Verona Road. Willy Street Co-op has been working with a newly formed cooperative serving the Allied Drive area to access affordable, healthy food by offering guidance, advice, and expertise in collaboration with the community around Allied Drive. This collaboration is not about replicating the Willy Street Co-op, but about sharing knowledge and experience while creating new leadership, new relationships, and hopefully new opportunities for that neighborhood to create a stable food environment. I’m always excited to find more opportunities like this. I also think Madison’s new public market is an exciting chance to showcase the agricultural and food wealth of our city and region and I’m always happy to see farm-to-table advocates expanding their offerings.
HB: You and I are serving together on the Board’s newly created Intersectionality Committee. How do you see that work translating to outcomes that enhance the community that the Co-op is a part of?
MMJ: I look forward to discovering our place in the diversity, equity, inclusion, access, and justice conversation that is going on in Madison, and also amplifying it in the appropriate way. The Co-op has a clear role to play as it relates to food access and food security, and as 40-year old business, I like to think that the Co-op has resources and experience to lend to the conversation. The goals of the Intersectionality Committee include viewing the Co-op’s own policies and practices through this lens, and evaluating our role as a grocery store, but also as an employer, a philanthropic entity, and as a forum for conversation. It’s equally important not to co-opt other people’s spaces, but instead to settle into the niche that most suits the Co-op and the desires of its Owners to participate in solutions to inequality in our community. The Co-op must stay true to its mission, but it cannot do so if it ignores inequitiesthat face our neighbors.
HB: Looking ahead, what is your sense of the biggest opportunities and challenges that face the Co-op in the next few years?
MMJ: The City and County investments in food access and food security are a big opportunity. Willy Street Co-op can have a profound impact on connecting local suppliers and vendors to this effort.
One of the biggest challenges is the competitive grocery market that is becoming even more competitive, especially near Willy East. The Co-op must prepare for competition that caters to customers looking for some of the same things they can find at our stores. Telling the Co-op story and appreciating what is different about a cooperative model becomes even more important. As the Board continues to assess expansion opportunities, it must ensure that expansion of the Co-op also expands the services the Co-op provides to the community at large.
HB: I think the entire Board has a passion for food and its place in our cultural experiences. What are your favorite food traditions?
MMJ: Southern food! I grew up in Milwaukee, but I have family from Mississippi and Arkansas and so southern food, especially seafood and BBQ is my favorite. Memphis dry-rubbed BBQ ribs are near the top of my list, along with my grandmother’s catfish recipe. Around here, I try to find bluegill on a fish fry menu since it’s close to catfish. Jordan’s Big 10 Pub on Regent has a great fish fry.
HB: Finally, name three Co-op products you couldn’t live without.
MMJ: Can I say almond milk three times over? Okay, how about steaks, tea, and almond milk. Pretty diverse selection, but I could see myself enjoying all three at the same time.
Update on Unionization
Your Board of Directors is eagerly awaiting the results of the staff vote on whether to authorize the UFCW to represent them. The potential bargaining unit will include staff at the West store only as determined at a January 2nd hearing conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. We hope those eligible to vote exercise that right! The Board absolutely supports whatever decision staff at West make and will welcome the UFCW to the Co-op community if that time comes.
Meanwhile, the UFCW has alleged that the Co-op engaged in unfair labor practices (ULPs) over the past few months as conversations about the union have happened at all of the Co-op’s locations. It is one of the Board’s utmost duties to ensure the Co-op follows the law, and that managers carry out the Board’s directive of neutrality during this time of conversation and information sharing. The Board is deeply committed to ensuring a fair workplace for everyone. If the NLRB finds merit in the claims filed, the incidents will be investigated and remedied expeditiously. All Owners should take pride in the professionalism and integrity of the staff of the Co-op and we will ensure that you can confidently do that without hesitation.