I am an undergraduate college student, who like many of my peers, had heard of cooperatives in a general agricultural setting, but did not know much about how they work. I had a general interest in the idea of a cooperative and working together, but I did not understand the logistics of a board of directors or member involvement. This all changed when I attended the 2024 College Conference on Cooperatives (CCOC) that took place from February 15 to 18, in the Twin Cities, MN. CCOC is an annual conference presented by National Farmers Union, a grassroots, member-based advocacy organization that promotes the social and economic well-being of family farmers, ranchers, and their communities through cooperation, education, and legislation. The conference is NFU’s premier annual cooperative educational event that teaches students about cooperatives and how to advocate for the cooperative model.

This year’s conference was a packed three-day event that featured guest lecturers, panel discussions, tours of twin cities’ cooperatives, interactive workshops, and networking with cooperative leaders. At CCOC I had the opportunity to engage with fellow students and other young adults from around the country who represented a wide variety of industries. I talked to students representing family farming operations, others who were starting up urban farming communities, and young adults interested in sustainability and resource accessibility. I even had the unique ability to get the perspective of international students on cooperatives. The diverse group of participants created a very dynamic conference that allowed participants to learn from one another.

CCOC kicked off with a networking social where my fellow participants and I were able to meet and discuss our backgrounds and interest in cooperatives. Speaking with other college students about the work they have done in their communities through cooperatives and prospective projects was one of the highlights of my weekend. I was able to see firsthand the passion my peers have for creating change and witness conversations sparking ideas for new projects. In fact, one of the participants who is a doctoral fellow got an idea for his thesis from speaking with participants from family farms and rural communities. Another pair of participants traded internship stories and are connecting each other to the other’s company for future internships. Talk about some good collaboration!

The first full day of CCOC programing began with a “Co-ops 101” course that allowed students to gain a basic understanding of the cooperative structure and cooperative business economics. The educational course explained the types and sectors of cooperatives, really highlighting the diversity of cooperative organizations, and shared the importance of the seven principles of cooperation. This part of CCOC ensured that my peers and I would have the necessary foundation to participate in the “How Would You Act?” and “Should We Cooperate?” sessions where we took on the roles of co-op board members and co-op developers. The knowledge gained from the hands-on activities and educational course allowed me to better participate in panel discussions and caused me to start thinking about my future career within cooperatives.

Luckily, CCOC not only provided my peers and I with information on cooperatives but held panel discussions and hosted a luncheon with professionals working within the cooperative space. The guests represented nearly all sectors of the cooperative space from agricultural-producers to student housing, to consumer-based grocers and everything in between. Getting the chance to learn more about different career opportunities within cooperatives and the pathways that lead there, opened my eyes to potential career paths I never saw myself taking, that was until I was bit by the co-op bug. The same is true for some of my fellow participants who began thinking about how to use their education to develop a worker owned co-op, a consumer food co-op and a non-profit community service-based co-op to fulfill the needs of their respective hometowns.

The interactions between participants and industry experts were just one of the ways that CCOC developed and enhanced my understanding of how cooperatives work in the real world. The pinnacle of my time at CCOC was getting a day to tour cooperatives of the Twin Cities. I got the opportunity to visit Seward Community Co-op, a grocery store co-op, that can keep its prices low, pass savings onto its members, uplift local and marginalized producers, all while promoting sustainable and inclusive policies. Next, we visited the Chateau Student Housing Co-op, a student housing co-op under Riverton Community Housing that provides affordable housing to students by students. We rounded out our tours with a credit union and a trip to REI, a retail co-op. At each of these locations, my fellow participants and I learned the intricacies and unique realities of operating and maintaining co-ops. It was so beneficial to get real world experiences with various models of cooperatives in different fields and apply our newly grasped knowledge.

The conference concluded with a workshop on leadership, where my fellow participants and I identified key issues in our communities and how we could cooperatively find solutions. The hosting organization, National Farmers Union, gave us a plethora of resources on what avenues we can do next to advance our participation in cooperatives and other opportunities for leadership.

The experiences I had at CCOC changed the way I approach solutions to market failures and needs. I learned that a community-based, cooperative approach is designed to ensure that it meets the needs of underserved people. I was inspired by this conference to join a cooperative myself, I am now a member of the North American Students of Cooperation, where I can further my co-op education and participation. I left the conference with a newfound passion and solution for protecting the rights of others, as well as a web of connection that I can use to advance my co-op involvement.

My biggest take away from CCOC is that we need to start cooperating! So, if you have an interest in cooperatives whether in the traditional agricultural-producer realm or in more niche industries, I urge you to attend CCOC. The information, connections, and experiences that you will gain from your time at CCOC will be truly impactful. They will likely steer you down a path you did not think was possible, as was the case for myself and many fellow 2024 participants.

-MyKaela Johnston

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