The Times are Changing

Minneapolis. So many people. Bustling and loud, this city is a bit overwhelming for a guy who’s spent his entire life in little ol’ New Hampshire. It is no wonder that the present-day concept of the co-op thrives in this section of the US. This central corridor is a true melting pot of people from many ethnic backgrounds and histories, but this incredible diversity and adaptability is not limited to just the people. The history of the co-op could easily be compared to that of humanity and its ability to adapt and evolve, and to unify for a progressive and central purpose.

Over the last one-hundred years, the function of the co-op has evolved. In the 1920s, the first co-ops existed primarily for the use of farmers to provide affordable food to their surrounding community. In the 60s and 70s, the demand for affordability changed to a focus on healthier, natural, and unprocessed foods. In the 90s and into the 2000s, consumers needed to find a way to meet a variety of growing dietary needs and restrictions. Time and again, the co-op was there to provide for those changes.

At the Focus on Fresh conference this year, we had a great opportunity to learn about the history of co-ops and get a glimpse into what the future may hold. We also had the opportunity to get outside and experience the many cultures that surrounded us. Minneapolis is a fascinating example of diversity in many forms; be it architecture, culture, business, art, food, or music. We absorbed all these amazing moments the best we could. As awestruck as we already were, there were two more significant events that would stay with us a long time to come. One of them was Risha Grant.

Risha came to the conference to speak to us about the importance of inclusion and diversity, and the negative power of unconscious bias. She spoke about diversity being not only about the many but also the individual — a monument to personal identity. She taught us that inclusion means engagement and invitation; that it means teaching people and including them in our lives. When she asked us, “How many people have you not engaged?” I realized that avoiding people is a conscious choice we make every day.

Risha also taught us about our mental waste (she called it “BS”), and how we can identify it through assessment, attribution, and identification, and then invited us to do so. We wrote down our personal biases and in front of the 300 plus people there, she read them out loud and asked us to question why they exist, to rationalize them, and to own them. She taught us how our mental waste is giving space for bias to thrive, how passivity, shame or guilt enable it and how denial is the worst response, coming through in our behavior in the form of microaggressions. Finally, she explained to us that the only way to beat our personal bias is through unconditional love. She told us that “Inclusion is cheaper than exclusion,” which is a reminder that love comes easier than hate. We walked away from this presentation feeling enlightened, empowered, and very humbled.

The whole trip seemed to be encompassed by the concept of diversity. There was another moment, however, which seemed to sink into each of us on a deeper level and was for me a powerful reminder of why we are here, and what we are trying to do.

This massive (and I really mean MASSIVE—look at Dave on the bottom right!) mural of Bob Dylan in his many phases is a symbol for the ever-growing and ever-changing needs and desires of that which we know and love — our community. It struck me as a powerful coincidence that we were there discussing change; to the co-op and the grocery world, and it also served as a reminder that change is a necessary ingredient to prosperity. It is symbolic of our need to grow alongside our community—our customers—and adapt with them as the times continue to change.

One thing that I think separates our co-op from other similar retail stores is our sole focus on giving the customer more than just a good greeting and excellent customer service. We offer an experience of connection and inspiration, an example of a strong, united community. In that regard, we stand alone, and it is rewarding to be a part of such a diverse and passionate team.

L-R: Tim, Dave, Jamie, and Ryan in Minneapolis

There is one more point I’d like to make to summarize what I gleaned from this experience, and that is the theme of this year’s conference: “Everyone Welcome.” It is a message to the people, and I believe it speaks to the core of the co-op, to our practices and what we stand for.  Those two words are a testament to what is right and good, speaking to what we know and feel, and serving as a reminder that no matter who you are or where you’re from, our doors are open.