The following post was written by Cindy Eason, Food Service Sales Representative
Hi! My name is Cindy and I’m a Food Service Sales Rep and a new worker-owner track employee at Equal Exchange. I’ve been here for just about six months. The initial whirlwind of the new job is coming to a close and I am finally able to take a step back and evaluate what brought me to Equal Exchange in the first place and share a bit of newbie insight on some of the cool things I’m learning about Equal Exchange along my journey thus far.
While I’m new to Equal Exchange, I’m not new to coffee. My love of coffee is what led me on this path to Equal Exchange. I was a barista for a long while and I loved every minute of it – I loved working in cafés and crafting quality beverages for my customers. I loved learning new things about coffee – the way it’s harvested and processed, the way it’s roasted, the many ways it can be brewed and prepared. I loved practicing my skills every day and trying to perfect the art of espresso drinks! What has been great about being at Equal Exchange these last few months is that I still get a chance to play on the espresso machine in our Quality Control lab – I try to pull at least a few shots every day and spend a couple of hours in there on Fridays practicing my latte art so I don’t get too rusty! No, I promise I’m not trying to make you jealous– I’m just making a point to say that coffee is the path I took to Equal Exchange (and as a result, my love of coffee seems to be stronger than ever before!). But contrary to some of my early assumptions, coffee is not the only path that leads to Equal Exchange.
While high quality specialty coffee is the meat & potatoes of the operations here, what has been really interesting to me is discovering that there are a variety of reasons why folks make their way to Equal Exchange. And that heterogeneity is part of what makes us a unique, diverse and multi-talented gang. For example, for some of us the path here was paved by the fact that Equal Exchange pioneered the Fair Trade movement in the United States, creating Big Change in the lives of small farmers and changing the way coffee is traded. For others, it’s Equal Exchange’s commitment to sustainable and organic farming practices that enticed them to seek this place. Some wanted a job where they would know that they were making a difference on both a small and large scale. For others, still, it is the worker-ownership business model – the co-operative business model – that called them to be a part of Equal Exchange. For a variety of reasons (including reasons listed in
an earlier blog entry by Aaron Dawson), I want to elaborate on this last path a little bit more.
For my entire adult life, I have only ever been a part of the traditional business model. The extent of my co-op membership and base of knowledge has been limited to credit unions and a sporting goods store. Since starting at Equal Exchange my understanding has deepened, and I am learning about what it means to be a member of a worker-owned cooperative. The more I learn about this alternative way of doing business, the more excited I am to be here and I want to share that excitement with others.
For those of you – like me – who may be new to the co-operative movement, you may not know that there are Seven Co-operative Principles. These principles serve as a guideline for putting one’s co-op values into practice, and co-ops around the world typically operate around these seven core values. In case you’re curious, here are the seven principles:
Second Principle: Democratic Member Control
Third Principle: Member Economic Participation
Fourth Principle: Autonomy & Independence
Fifth Principle: Education, Training & Information
Sixth Principle: Co-operation among Co-operatives
Seventh Principle: Concern for the Community
I feel very fortunate to be able to see these seven principles in action, every single day. I can see them in the way my fellow workers want to be here, contribute financially to be here, and take responsibility in their time here. The principles are evident in the many ways Equal Exchange as a co-operative shows concern for the community (both locally and globally), and strengthens the cooperative movement by aligning itself with other local, national and international partners. And finally, Equal Exchange by nature is a learning institution, and that is one of the principles (the fifth one, in fact).
Two Co-op Principles in particular have excited and intrigued me the most in my short time here: Democratic Member Control and Education and Training & Information. I’d love to share with you a small glimpse of what those look like:
2nd Principle: Democratic Member Control:
In my short while here, I’ve had the opportunity to observe democratic member control in its finest forms: elections for board membership, elections for worker-owner coordinator, and worker-ownership votes. I’ve observed worker-owners participating in goal setting, policy and decision making, as well as worker-owner meetings where worker-owners have stood up and expressed how they feel on a particular topic or issue. I’ve seen worker-owners reflect on last year’s goals, take ownership of both successes and failures and open themselves up for the community to address questions and/or concerns. In its simplest form, democratic member control means that each member of this co-operative has equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and has a voice that can be heard if they have something to say. Democratic Member Control is evident in the fact that each level of the organization is organized democratically and meetings are held in a democratic, respectful and efficient fashion. And I’m amazed every day that the beauty in this democratic member control is the active participation in it. Worker-owners want to actively engage in this democracy and that is invaluable in a workplace. It’s not something you get to see every day outside of these walls, and it’s definitely something I wish everyone could see and experience.
5th Principle: Education, Training and Information:
This is perhaps the strongest of the seven principles that I’ve been able to witness and actively participate in during my short time here. Every Thursday morning, we have what’s called Exchange Time – a presentation/discussion/activity of sorts presented to all staff on a variety of topics – kind of like a classroom, where people take notes and ask questions. Some recent Exchange Time topics have included an overview of the role of our Board of Directors, a trip report from a tea delegation to India, a discussion about the economics of Fair Trade, and trip reports focusing on coffee quality from Colombia and Uganda – just to name a few. It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn from your peers, because we all have some knowledge to share with one another. The added beauty of these Exchange Times is that they are all recorded and can be checked out of our library at any time. And yes, it’s true! We have a library – the library houses hundreds of books, magazines, videos and other reference tools ranging in topics from coffee production & preparation to group facilitation and everything in between! Equal Exchange is truly an educational space and a community of teachers and learners. The old adage is true around here, “you learn something new every day”.
I mentioned at the beginning of this long babble that I’m on the worker-owner track right now. What that means is that I have work to do and a curriculum to follow. It means that now is my time to listen, learn, ask questions and present myself as a potential future worker-owner. Now is the perfect time to reflect about these very things: like what it means to be a worker-owner in a co-operative, and how I fit in to that model. It’s an exciting time of discovery and learning – both myself discovering Equal Exchange, and the worker-owners of Equal Exchange discovering and learning more about me. It’s especially exciting because it is becoming clearer to me that once you’re in it, you’re in it with each and every one of your fellow worker-owners,
and together you own it. And I’m truly looking forward to exploring what that path looks like when the time comes.