Member Report: "Queerly Viable: The Steam-Punk Bar Dream & How NASCO Institute Kept it Alive"

Before I went to the 2014 NASCO Institute, I assumed that my relationship with cooperatives was, realistically, coming to a close. I graduated from UC Davis over a year ago and am therefore not eligible to live in student cooperative housing. My most recent experience living in a non-student cooperative housing made me wonder if I have enough energy to live cooperatively and be a member of the workforce. And, I was not interested in working for cooperative businesses because I perceived them to be draining, unstructured and disorganized. Although all signs were pointing to the end of cooperatives in my life, I could not forget how much I loved my experiences with housing cooperatives, especially their ability to create spaces where people feel free to explore and express themselves. I, therefore, chose to attend NASCO Institute with the hopes that my journey with co-ops would not end just yet. And, with great elatedness I can report that, as the theme “Co-ops for Life: Owning Our Future” implies, I learned that cooperatives could be a queerly viable part of my future!
Two summers ago, four friends and I embarked upon a journey from our cooperative community in Davis to Seattle. We stumbled upon a steam-punk bar, with fabulous décor, local food, and enough mason jars to make any co-oper feel right at home. After visiting the bar, we took a midnight ferry onto an island and awoke the next morning on the beach and dug for horse clams and then cracked them open and watched them wriggle out like tongues. We marinated them for three days and then fried them in a cast iron skillet on the camp stove in the rainforest, and concluded that we were in love with everything about Seattle and the surrounding area. We began dreaming of one day running a collective of cooperatives: a steam-punk bar/cafe/burlesque venue supplied by a cooperative market garden, cooperative brewing company, and a clamming cooperative (with a herd of cooperative water dogs, of course) and living in a cooperative cottage on the beach.
After two years, the dream was beginning to fade. We wondered how you could actually create a business that would both keep its doors open and embody our queer values. We seemed individually doomed to a fate of working in an environment with one set of values, and living in a cooperative with another (if we could even manage to live in a co-op). What I learned at NASCO Institute, however, is that cooperative economies are accomplishing the feat of queer viability, by both interrupting existing oppressive economies and fostering supportive alternative communities. Each of the nine events at NASCO Institute that I attended (seven workshops, one film screening, and one caucus) taught me something about how each of the nine aspects of our dream could be realized through a lens of queerly viable, cooperative economies.
1. Venue (Bar/Cafe): Revolutionary Parties Workshop facilitated by Feonix Fawkes. This workshop highlighted the importance of gathering spaces in supporting, nourishing and replenishing communities. Parties, events, and other social gatherings give people opportunities to have novel experiences in safer environments. A bar/cafe provides a community with a place to connect, educate, attract new members, organize, fundraise, etc. Just like planning a party, in order for our gathering place to be successful we will need to set our intentions, create and post community agreements, imagine diverse ways in which anyone can contribute, have an emergency plan, and broaden our community connections.
2. Politics (Queer): The Worker-Owner Co-ops Workshop and Workplace Democracy Panel, moderated by Esteban Kelly moderator from AORTA. As Esteban said, “We won't move past the most robust, efficient, productive, [oppressive] economic system in the history of the planet by confrontation alone, we must also create viable alternatives such as cooperatives.” Queer politics can be both confrontations with normativity and the creation of viable deviations from normativity. A collective of cooperative businesses is a queer interruption into the status quo of neoliberalism, patriarchy and oppression, but in order to be a sustained interruption, our collective would need to be well organized and structured, and prioritize longevity alongside risk and innovation.
3. Atmosphere (Steam-punk): How well do steam-punk and cooperatives go together? Fairly well, according to my history lesson with Jim Jones in The Forgotten History of Group Equity Housing Cooperatives Workshop. The Rochdale Principles of Cooperation, which continue to guide cooperatives today, were created around the Industrial Revolution in 1844. The first U.S. student co-op was started in the early 1870s for women who were accepted into universities (after many men died in the civil war), and because their parents often could not afford to pay room and board, the students lived together and did communal labor to run their homes. Corsets, bikes, leather aviator goggles, dusty books, and bathroom chore anyone?
4. Entertainment (Burlesque): Teaching Consent Workshop facilitated by Sam Paltrow and Katie Leader. This workshop was a fantastic reminder that we are all in constant negotiation with each other when expressing ourselves in community. We discussed the importance of consent within and beyond sexual relationships and identified that it is important to prioritize the safeness of spaces and relationships when navigating dynamic needs of partners/friends/housemates/coworkers. Burlesque shows would provide an excellent opportunity to dialogue about consent, boundaries, safer spaces, and navigating self-expressing within the context of community.
5. Produce (Market Garden): Rainbow Grocery Workshop facilitate by Leslie Leyba. During this workshop I was prompted to think about the stigmas and economic barriers associated with manual labor and service work. One participant asked if workers at Rainbow Grocery who come from a middle-class background view their jobs at the grocery store as “not real.” Leslie replied that making groceries available to people is an essential function in society and any deprecation of this or other food/service related jobs comes from classist notions. In a cooperative business model, all forms of labor are valued equally and everyone is considered equally capable of completing any tasks. Instead of people being forced into certain tasks due to economic or social pressure, people are free to choose whichever jobs they enjoy most, which could range from being on the board of directors, to working in the garden.
6. Drink (Beer Brewing): Shift Change Documentary by Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin. This film showcases thriving cooperative businesses in the U.S. and Spain. As one interviewee explained, in a cooperatively run business the vast amount of energy goes into innovating techniques to improve products, rather than into managing people. In the absence of “accountability managers,” worker-owners shape their own empowered relationship with their teammates and projects. Cooperative business find an admirable balance of supporting the whole (through ensuring the continued existence of the business which provides jobs), and supporting the individual (through fostering innovation, creativity, and risk taking). I hope this model will lead to some innovative and tasty beers!
7. Viability (Clams): Greetings from the New Economy Workshop facilitated by Esteban Kelly and Mike Sandmel. This workshop emphasized that living and working cooperatively is practicing viable economic justice by creating affordable housing, paying livable wages, harnessing collective buying power to support other co-ops (Solidarity Economy), and making decisions democratically. Economic justice work is not always as pubic or visible as other social justice work because much of it is about making day-to-day decisions about which businesses to support or how to run a cooperative business. The act of cooperative clam digging might not seem radical nor revolutionary, but tangible steps towards an economy, that includes the value of connections, are priceless (get it?).
8. Emotional Wellbeing (Herd of Water Dogs): I've heard it said before but it really rang true listening to others' experiences during the Womyn's Caucus – in the absence of intentional and agreed upon structure for living, working and making decisions together, we will default to what has been taught to us (patriarchy, hierarchy, etc). Intentional, cooperative structure is meant to be a purposeful intervention into the socialization we have received. People of privilege aren't to “blame” because they have been socialized to believe their opinion is important, but without an appropriate structure to check how much vocal space they take up, they will dominate decision making. Similarly, folks who are socialized as women aren't to “blame” for putting the needs of others before their own, but without a structure that makes explicit space for them to identify and request their own needs, they will take on more of the physical and emotional burden of running a cooperative than others. Being aware of and responsive to everyone's emotional/physical needs in a community requires a constant dialogue, and I know I'll need a herd of loving, clam-digging water dogs to make it work for me.
9. Residence (Cooperative Cottage on the Beach): Cottage Industry Co-ops 3B Workshop facilitated by Matthew Keesan. As Matthew explained, many people experience the frustrating paradox of moving to New York City to follow a dream and then end up spending so much time making money to pay for expensive housing that they have little time to actualize their dream. The solution? Put a co-op on it! At 3B: The Downtown Brooklyn Bed and Breakfast, seven resident/cooperative business owners live on one floor of an apartment, and work an average of ten hours a week running a B&B that serves an average of 1,500 guests/year on the floor below. The income from the business pays for all of the residents' room and board plus a small stipend. This business model is one we could learn a lot from because it both covers people's basic needs and gives them enough time, energy, and safety to pursue other, potentially risky endeavors.
To be sure, cooperative living and working certainly isn't easy. Being attuned to the diverse needs of your community members can be daunting, draining, and down-right inefficient. But we've experienced roughly 10,000 years of efficiency-driven culture since the agricultural revolution, and simply put, it hasn't been working out for a lot of people! Its time to try something new, something different, something with a different purpose, a different direction, and that something might just include queerly viable, cooperative, steam-punk bars, cafes, and burlesque venues.
In gratitude to my cooperative family, Lauren R.C.
Lauren Cockrell lived in three cooperative communities while studying Sustainable Agriculture and Sexualities at UC Davis and currently works for EcoFarm in Santa Cruz, CA.