Thursday, November 21, 2013

Decision-Making By Consensus

I have been researching the cooperative model for a possible business in my town. Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members. You might wonder, if there is no "boss" running the business, if it is run by a group of people, how are decisions made? It turns out that most coops make decisions by consensus, or some form of it. Consensus means reaching general agreement.

How does that work? For more information about this, I only had to pick up the phone and call my parents. They live in an intentional community called Earthaven. Founded in 1994, Earthaven Ecovillage is located on 329 acres in western North Carolina, about 40 minutes southeast of Asheville. Its 55 full and associate members are dedicated to caring for people and the Earth by learning and demonstrating a holistic, sustainable culture. The community makes decisions by consensus. But not "pure" consensus. Here is further explanation from my mom, Sue Stone, who, along with my father, has 15 years of experience with this form of decision-making:

Consensus works well if certain conditions are met. The group needs to share a very clear mission and purpose, and be willing to interact on a deep and personal level, and spend the time necessary to do that. This is of course easier if the group is not overly large, and has some requirements for membership. When our church started, the By Laws required consensus, but that was changed early on. Not only was the group too large, but virtually anyone can become a member, so there is not the necessary sharing of values, etc. It just does not work in that situation!

My dad, Geoff Stone, said that one should look for these characteristics when seeking members: like-minded people with a collaborative nature who have the needed skills. 

So you've got a group of people with a clear mission and purpose who agree to interact on a deep and personal level. What if you still don't all agree on something? Then what do you do? More from my mom:

It is necessary to have a very clear process for dealing with a "block". (A block is when a single member or small group stands in the way of where the others feel strongly the organization should go.) It must be determined whether it is a "valid" block or not. Usually, a block must be based on the belief that a proposal is in opposition to the mission and values of the group, and/or will be harmful to it. People are not supposed to block just because they don't like something. They can "stand aside" if they want, but not block.

My dad adds:
Keep the mission and purpose as narrow as possible.  This is what will be referred back to when testing the validity of a BLOCK.  The fuzzier the mission  and purpose, the more prone to interpretation and disharmony.

Why not go with a majority vote instead, like we do for our government elections?

Sue: With majority voting, you can have the "disgruntled minority", and this is not healthy either. So a system that works toward consensus but has some sort of "relief valve" seems to be a good middle ground. 

I understand that most communities now, ours included, are switching from "pure" consensus (meaning everyone has to agree) to some adjusted form of it. For instance, we have agreed that 85% of people present at a meeting must agree that a block is invalid before it can be overrided. If it is valid, the blocker must meet with the proponents of the proposal to try to work out their differences. After that, we have "consensus minus one" - a proposal can pass with one person blocking. Some communities have a similar process, but with a fall-back of voting, such as a 75% majority. There is also a process called Sociocracy, which is similar to consensus, but some people feel is an improvement. We are using some aspects of it. 

Diana Leafe Christian is an Earthaven member and author who facilitates workshops on decision-making methods for communities. She no longer advises pure consensus. Here is an article she wrote in 2012 for Communities Magazine in which she suggests three alternative revisions.

More from my mom on what drove Earthaven to revise their decision-making process:

The problem that we found with consensus is that it can become a "tyranny of the minority". Essentially, one person can stop everyone else from doing what they want to do. This causes conflict, frustration and resentment. Inevitably, there will be people who will be difficult, will block for personal reasons, just don't understand the reasoning, are on a power trip, or whatever. Of course, things go better in a group if the decisions that are reached are supported by everyone. 

What percentage of the time would you say that Earthaven members are able to come to a decision on which everyone agrees? 

Sue: I would say that probably 90% of the time we eventually come to agreement. And not every time we don't is the result of a block. Sometimes it just appears that enough people are against a proposal that it either needs to be reworked or just dropped. 

Geoff: I'm recalling only three blocks in our 15 year history.  Two were declared "not valid".  One was on accepting a new member.  According to the consensus experts a block is very serious and a group of like minded people should be able to work through issues to come up with a solution that meets everyone's needs.  With a mature membership one should only expect to use a block once in a lifetime. Sometimes the threat of a block causes an idea to be dropped...not fully explored.  We encourage our members to avoid the "b" word except when consensus is called for.  A collaborative person would use phrases like "I have a concern about the proposal as it has been presented.  I'd like help in modifying it to....."

What are the benefits of making decisions this way?

Sue: The benefits are that everyone is in agreement with the decision, so no one will be trying to sabotage it or will hold a grudge against the rest of the community. Everyone will be cooperating in carrying it out. 

Geoff: Theoretically this process allows everyone to be heard and solutions have the total support of the membership. The down side is that it frequently takes a lot of processing (time) to work through the process.

What are some of the more divisive issues Earthaven members have discussed, just out of curiosity? 

Agricultural issues! How to clear land and how it is to be used. Riparian zones along rivers. The grazing of animals. And pets!

Thanks to my parents, Sue and Geoff Stone, members of Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, for sharing their experience with decision-making by consensus. 

UPDATE from Earthaven - On January 26, 2014 the members of Earthaven approved a proposal that calls for a last resort vote (61.8% - which is Phi, or the Golden Mean) on proposals if we cannot reach consensus. We previously approved a proposal of "consensus minus one", which actually has never been tested, but there was a desire to have a larger fallback option. Many communities are discovering that "pure consensus" causes frustration, dissatisfaction and discouragement, and are moving toward this adjustment. It doesn't mean that we won't try to reach consensus, but that, if we can't, we still have a way to move forward.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Market Research

I wanted to talk to a local business owner about our worker-owned cooperative cafe idea, and I contacted Maura McAuliffe. She and her husband own two local restaurants and a coffee shop, The Mad Raven in Waltham, The Raven’s Nest and The Coffee Perch in Walpole. 

I met with Maura at The Coffee Perch on a sunny weekday morning in November. The coffee shop is located on Main Street a couple doors down from The Raven’s Nest. I parked around the corner on Common Street, and as I rounded the corner and saw the cheerful storefront of the coffee shop, I smiled like a fool. 

It’s what you want in a coffee shop. It has character. The "perch" is a nod to Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, which inspired the names of the McAuliffe's other businesses. The warm colors of the exterior add cheer to Main Street and drew me in. Once inside, I wanted to stand there and read every item on the menu boards - they were so colorfully appealing. Pumpkin Chai Latte. Iced Caramel Nut Biscotti coffee. And then: Jackie’s Guinness Beef Stew. They serve lunch, too! 

And what about the coffee? Is the coffee any good? Yes, it is quite good. They get it freshly roasted from Ocean Coffee Roasters in Rhode Island, a family-owned micro-roaster. 

When I sat down with Maura, right off the bat, I asked if she and her husband had any interest in opening a business in Sharon. They have the know-how, clearly. But no, Maura said maybe in two years when their third and youngest child is in school full day, then maybe they would consider a fourth business. Until then, she is a wealth of information for someone considering a new business venture. 

So, how did they get into the restaurant business? Maura’s husband, Mark, was a bartender around Cambridge after coming to the US from Ireland in his early 20s. In 2000, he took an opportunity to become part owner of a restaurant in Waltham. While he was involved in that new venture, Maura went to law school. The couple had their first child in 2004. Not long after, Mark's partner offered to sell them his share of the business in 2005. Mark and Maura dove in, and spent the next couple of years immersing themselves in building up what is now The Mad Raven, “a traditional Irish pub serving upscale pub fare.” 

In 2009 they became aware of a foreclosed space on Main Street in Walpole with an available liquor license. As experienced restaurateurs, the McAuliffes were attractive to the Walpole Business Development Office, and welcomed them. In May 2010, The Raven’s Nest opened, also “a traditional Irish pub serving upscale pub fare.” 

In early 2012, a florist down the block went out of business. Maura and Mark pondered opening another business to compliment The Raven’s Nest. The idea of a coffee shop seemed fitting. The landlord gave them a great deal on the rent as they were already tenants a couple doors down. The Coffee Perch opened in August 2012. There’s a full basement downstairs, which is handy for storage, and they have a commercial kitchen at The Raven’s Nest where they can bake up the pastries for The Coffee Perch. 

We talked about rent, and how the former French Memories space is available for $4800/month. She doesn't see how a coffee shop type business could possibly be successful with that kind of rent. As Sharon residents for nine years, Maura and Mark are feeling the loss of French Memories, too. They used to walk over there for coffee during the hour that their children were in CCD classes on Cottage Street. If they want to go out for a coffee during the class now, they have to drive over to the Starbucks in Cobbs Corner, along with the other parents of kids in the class. It’s barely enough time to wait in line, take a few sips, then it’s time to head back to Sharon. 

Before we parted, Maura advised me to check out: Center for Women & Enterprise, which offers classes and other resources for women who are starting their own businesses; South Eastern Economic Development Corporation (SEED), which focuses on job creation by financing all types of small businesses in MA and RI; and possible grants. 

Thanks to Maura for meeting with me for some market research!


Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Does a Worker-Owned Cooperative Cafe Look Like?

Welcome! I invite new readers to begin by reading my earlier posts. You'll see links over there on the right-hand side. 

I have been thinking about the idea of a worker-owned cooperative coffee shop/cafe, and if such a thing could work where I live. I figured there must be some already in existence. Sure enough, after some online research, I came upon Local Sprouts Cooperative in Portland, Maine. I made an appointment to meet and chat with one of its worker-owners, Jonah Fertig, in October 2013.

Portland is a coastal city, population 65,000, and has a reputation as a “huge food town”, Jonah told me. In 2009 Bon Appetit named Portland America’s “foodiest small town”. It has been said that it has the most restaurants per capita after San Francisco.

Local Sprouts Cooperative evolved out of the Peoples Free Space, a community organization in Portland, which formed in 2002. Jonah is a long-time community organizer with a background in food and teaching. With others he began a catering business in a shared kitchen at the Public Market House with offices at The Meg Perry Center. The goals were to build a sustainable local food cooperative and to create jobs utilizing local organic food. They incorporated as a worker-owned cooperative in 2008. After about a year in business, they saw space for rent on Congress Street, a former University of Southern Maine dormitory. The space had a kitchen. In 2010, with the help of about 200 volunteers who renovated the space, the Local Sprouts Cooperative opened, with a community cafe, offices and a large commercial kitchen.

How was all of this possible, financially? They applied for and received a community development block grant from the City of Portland, as well as a loan from the Cooperative Fund of New England. They also sold memberships and got direct loans from friends and family.  

Local Sprouts Cooperative has four branches: a bakery, the cafe, catering and community learning programs. They are committed to using as many Maine-grown and Maine-produced ingredients as possible, as well as organic and fair trade. They serve Equal Exchange and Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic coffee. (I intend to cover Equal Exchange more intensely in another post.)

Local Sprouts now has 20 worker-owners with the equivalent of 19 full time jobs. There are also part-time workers. New hires are brought on with the understanding that after a two-month period as a working “seedling”,  they will buy into the cooperative. The cost to become an owner is $500 (cash or payroll deduction) plus 60 hours of sweat equity within the first year. 

The coop is run by four primary committees on which the worker owners serve. Decisions are made by consensus. They hold monthly all-worker owner meetings and committees meet once a month. There are written agreements about how a worker-owner can leave and how they can get back their investment.

After our 90-minute conversation, I stayed for a bit of lunch. I ordered a cup of southwestern veggie soup served over rice, and a chocolate chip walnut granola bar. The cafe was still bustling well after the lunch time rush. The kids play area awaited its next guests. I sipped my mineral power tea, admired the art on the walls and the Maine Food Map, which shows where different farms and food producers are located. The Rolling Stones played over the sound system. 

So, what does a worker-owned cooperative cafe look like? It looks like a cafe! But how it was formed, how it operates and who benefits is what sets it apart.

Local Sprouts Cooperative Cafe
649 Congress Street
Portland, Maine 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Town Center Preservation

Once I got fired up about the idea of a cooperatively-owned business, one of the first books I borrowed from the library was Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It by Amy Cortese, published in 2011. Cortese writes, “Just as locavores eat food grown or produced in their region, locavestors invest in enterprises that are rooted in their areas. In doing so, they earn profits while supporting their communities.”

Being rather new to town, we are still learning about the history of development projects in process here. We certainly noticed the high property taxes when we bought our house. It doesn’t surprise us that our selectmen are being asked to reduce this tax burden on homeowners. One solution in the works is Sharon Commons. It has been reported that we can look forward to a Target and a BJs on the site.

Wiill the new Sharon Commons retailers draw business away from our town center? It is my opinion that a strong community needs a thriving town center. And I am nervous about the impact on our community if this development takes away from rather than adds to what we already have. I believe that our local government is doing what it thinks is best for the town, based on our stated wishes to lower the tax burden on homeowners. But I fear we are pursuing a business growth model that has already proven to be a failure on many fronts.

Cortese makes the case that courting big box stores for tax revenue doesn’t end up being the panacea local governments hope it will be. She cites Stacy Mitchell’s 2006 book, Big Box Swindle and other studies. “Instead of adding jobs to a region, over the long term, net new jobs may be negative as local merchants across a wide swath of specialities go out of business. Often that means replacing good-paying jobs and benefits with lower wage, part-time work.”

Cortese and Mitchell write that the communities that have big box stores are often saddled with maintaining infrastructure - roads, lights, security. There is also the environmental impact of open space being developed - runoff from the huge parking lots, light pollution. And then there’s the costs of all of us getting into our cars to drive further to get to the stores, instead of walking to Main Street. Walkability is a measure of how friendly an area is to walking. This was an important factor for us in choosing our current home. Sharon has a walk score of 68, according to

The Sharon Patch, a news website, has a column called Visions for Vacancies. The editor asks residents what they’d like to see in the various storefronts that are for rent around town. In October, he asked what people would like to see in the now empty French Memories location. At the time of this blog post, only two people had posted responses. One was the suggestion that there be a Starbucks or a Peet’s Coffee. I don’t think we should repeat history nor do I think we need to look outside of Sharon for visions.

Here’s another quote from Locavesting, chapter three, “For many Americans, the lesson of the financial crisis is that neither Wall Street nor the government can be trusted to look out for the interests of Main Street. The system is just too entrenched and self-reinforcing. If we are concerned about the direction of the economy and our country, it is up to each and every one of us to be part of the solution, even if on a small scale.”

And that’s what this project aims to be - me being part of the solution, even if this goes no further than a blog. I want to do the research, and put it out there. Maybe it will help someone else if I can’t make something more happen in my corner.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Co-opt: to appropriate as one’s own

I love coffee shops. I like having a local coffee shop in the middle of my town, where I can meet friends for coffee and a bite to eat.

When I first visited Sharon, Massachusetts in 2002, I met a friend for coffee at a Starbucks located in the center of town, at Post Office Square. I parked near the library in front of the statue of Deborah Sampson, Sharon’s first celebrity, and walked around the corner to the coffee shop.

Eight years later when my husband, Chuck, and I decided to move our family to Sharon, the Starbucks was long gone. It closed up in 2008 when the national chain downsized. In its place was French Memories, one of a small chain of four cafes in the Boston area.

For a while, we reveled in being able to walk to French Memories. Chuck and our young daughter began a Sunday morning ritual of walking over to share a treat. I sometimes went to the cafe in the afternoons with friends. We’d take over a couple of tables with our children, enjoying hot chocolate and pastries.

In the fall of 2012, I heard rumors that French Memories was not doing well. Around this time, another restaurant opened near the town center, Mangia Pizza. They were serving Starbucks coffee for awhile, but eventually stopped.

In the fall of 2013, I heard that French Memories would be closing. A “for rent” sign went up in the window. Then on September 30, 2013, there was a sign on the door that the cafe was closed.

I’ve heard many possible reasons why two businesses, Starbucks and French Memories, did not find long-term success in this location: the amount of the rent, lack of parking, poor service, bad coffee, no drive-through, not the right menu items. These things may or may not be true. But I have a hunch that in both cases, the Sharon store was little more than a line on a financial report that wasn’t meeting expectations. More on that later.

Sharon has much to be proud of, as far as food goes. We’ve got ice cream covered at Crescent Ridge Dairy, which hosted a new farmer’s market on Saturdays this past summer. I love Pizzagando with its dining room that reminds me of my childhood in the 1970s. In the Height’s Plaza we have trusty Pizza Market and a real deli: Charlie’s.  Alice’s Mandarin Taste and Sichuan Gourmet are two tasty Chinese restaurants in town. Coriander’s Indian buffet is a favorite for lunch around here. I am cheering on the Sharon Market as they add new items and hold beer and wine tastings. Mangia is under new management after being opened in 2012. Across town, Ward’s Berry Farm is a huge source of pride. Our heads are swelling with the news that we now boast two CSAs in our town of 18,000 residents, Moosehill Farm CSA and Moosehill Community Farm. (I just wish the names weren’t so alike, but I can deal.)

And let’s not forget: Sharon is the number one place to live in the US! But we didn’t need a magazine to tell us that. We’ve lived here just over two years and we love it!

Lake Massapoag

For several years at our house, my husband and I have been grumbling about the economy, gridlock in Washington, the evils of big business. We are horrified about global warming and don’t really believe that recycling our Whole Foods bulk bags is going to stop it. More locally, we’ve been learning about the impending mixed retail/residential development, Sharon Commons. I have concerns about developing the open space for big box stores, but the ball was already rolling before we moved here. We’ve been doing a lot of reading and talking about sustainability, alternatives to capitalism, local investing and worker cooperatives.

What’s that, you ask? A worker cooperative...a business owned by the people who work there...

And it got me thinking after French Memories closed, Could we have a worker-owned cooperative cafe here in Sharon? How would one go about starting such a thing? How does a worker-owned cooperative business operate? Could one succeed here?

I endeavor to find out and will post my findings here. I also intend to explore what makes a good coffee shop/cafe, and what would help make our community more sustainable, and what does that even mean? I hope readers will weigh in with their thoughts, helpful information, suggestions in the comment section below. Perhaps others will want to join in the journey.