History and Mission Statement
Efforts to create more just, equitable and participatory societies must contend and interact with the highly-stratified and authoritarian systems of governance, production and distribution that currently dominate many facets of life, particularly in westernized societies.
No initiative, from a local community garden to a global social movement, exists without being in some way shaped and defined by the context in which it emerges and operates. The relationship is not, however, a binary one. For example, the global justice movement is not the antithesis of global capitalism. For one, it embodies some aspects of the system it is strives to overturn. At the same time, it is also not a binary opposite to global capitalism because it suggests a plurality of possible alternatives which can coexist. Similarly, institutions within the global capitalist system are not uniformly antithetical to aspirations for justice and equality, although the best intentions can easily produce negative impacts simply because they are embedded within an unjust normative framework. It is in this framework of the necessary relationship between dominant structures and initiatives to change them that we would like to discuss recent events at Brooklyn College, where students have led multi-faceted initiatives to create autonomous and participatory spaces within the college.
From the very start of these initiatives, students have had to carefully navigate a relationship with the college – a bureaucratic and hierarchical institution not interested in giving students real power and caught up in an ongoing process of neoliberal restructuring. But within this stratified and change-resistant institution, there are histories, people and spaces that reveal it to be far more permeable and changeable than it may at first seem. By engaging in a continual process of deconstruction of the structures within the college and transcending the rules and social norms that maintain those structures, students have been successful in creating new initiatives that may lead to more lasting changes at the college.
What follows is one of many narratives of the development of these student initiatives, the Brooklyn College Student Union and the Brooklyn College Coffee Collective, told from the perspective of a student intimately involved in both projects and the process of creating and navigating a relationship with the college (more). The focus of the narrative will be on the particular ways the students transcended the structures in place at the college, through people, spaces and histories, to make our vision of a more participatory college a reality. The ways in which the college, and in particular our individual roles within the college’s hierarchical and authoritarian system, challenged our efforts and made us question the viability of our participatory, consensus-based organizational model.
In November of 2008, a handful of students at Brooklyn College, inspired by discussions at the CUNY Social Forum, came together and decided to found a Student Union. We were disillusioned by the structures of student participation available to us.
While organizations like NYPIRG advocated for student rights in city and state government, and recruited students on campus to join them, there was no organization that was entirely based at Brooklyn College, led by Brooklyn College students, and focused on problems within our own college and university system. What’s more, NYPIRG and other more formalized groups were limited by their dependency on the college for funding and space. So while they could petition public officials and send delegations of students to Albany, their hands were tied when it came to issues such as student participation (more) at Brooklyn College.
From the start, the BC Student Union was intended to be an incubator for student initiatives, a network for students to find others with the same concerns and start organizing, an autonomous means of communication between students.
We did not have an explicit commitment to participatory democracy and no one had participated in formal training in consensus, yet this is what we attempted in practice, in contrast to the hierarchical structures surrounding us at the college.
Many students considered themselves part of the Student Union even if they rarely or never attended a meeting. This became evident when we began organizing for a student walkout in protest of the tuition hikes and budget cuts proposed for the coming year. A diverse array of student clubs joined in the organizing effort and student government provided their official endorsement.
Although the walkout did not stop the state legislature from passing a tuition hike and significant budget cuts (in fact, our walkout happened just after these measures had been passed), it was a profound experience for our campus community. More than 500 students rallied in front of the steps at Boylan Hall in a display of widespread outrage that had not been seen at the college in at least 10 years. It was invigorating and inspiring to get a sense of this potential. Students who had felt isolated were gratified to see so many students out; and long-time faculty stood back in awe at the burgeoning student movement, relieved that we were still capable of such an action.
Organizing for the walkout also opened new doors with our college administration. It had been a long time since students had organized en mass and they seemed at a loss for how to handle students actively trying to break the college’s rules. The Student Union was organized outside of the college’s Office of Student Life, so it was difficult for them to monitor our activities and since we did not depend on them for funding or space, there was nothing they could use to threaten us. And so, in the intense days of organizing just before the walkout, the college administration decided to work with us instead of trying to stop our action. Any effort they might have made to stop the rally would likely have created more unrest, so their best option was to be supportive.
We may be overestimating the power we held over the college administration – and many of them were personally supportive even if their jobs required them to control our action- but it genuinely seemed as if we had found a way to go around them. Simply by disregarding their structures of authority, we created a more autonomous space for ourselves, protected by our numbers and their fear of intensifying the movement. At the same time, our ability to bring out so many students on a commuter campus where student participation is woefully low, seemed to have impressed them. Thus, when we came to them with a proposal to start a student-run cooperative business, they were listening. And if this was our idea of radical action, they were going to support it.
The International Cooperative Alliance’s Cooperative Principles of Identity
1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership
Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
2nd Principle: Democratic Member Control
Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner.
3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation
Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the cooperative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their cooperative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
4th Principle: Autonomy and Independence
Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter to agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.
5th Principle: Education, Training and Information
Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.
6th Principle: Co-operation among Co-operatives
Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
7th Principle: Concern for Community
Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.
Cooperative Principles Applied to Brooklyn College Coffee
A. Cooperative Management and Leadership: We have a collective stake in the success of Brooklyn College Coffee. Every member is a leader and brings with them valuable insights, experiences, etc. Synthesizing the insights, experiences, values, etc. that members bring with them into the organization informs our practice. We put in place structures promoting democratic member control and open communication to this end.
Transparency: Foster a strong community of practice, that will in turn foster greater trust between members and allow for clearer constructive criticism and communication as well as frankness, sincerity and honesty among members. This transparency includes but is not limited to collective concerns, decision-making processes and other struggles and growth of the collective.
Participatory Democracy & Self-Management: Our concept of democracy entails people– individuals, groups, and collectives– have a say and influence in decisions proportionate to the effect of the decisions on them. We strive to put democracy in our organizational structure and embody it in our practice. This means making certain that empowering work, positions of leadership, and positions of public prominence are distributed among members so as to equally empower all. Included in this are practices of affirmative action which are explicitly catered to those who have been systematically denied opportunities of empowerment, education, and leadership. We will reach decisions based on cooperative deliberation, centered on open communication.
Balanced workload: a division of labor in which each member does a mix of tasks conceived so that on average every member’s overall work situation is comparably empowering as every other’s and the mix of tasks aims at fostering other values, such as leadership development, equity, diversity, participatory democracy and self management, community building and participation in the life of the cooperative
Sustainability and Environmental Justice: Working towards being a low waste business. Our vendors must maintain the same commitment to sustainability and environmental justice, along with social justice. Our environment extends beyond the physical perimeters of Brooklyn College to our community and our planet, now and in the future.
Commitment to ethical consumption committed to direct trade certified products. Direct trade is a term used by coffee roasters who buy straight from the growers, cutting out both the traditional middleperson buyers and sellers and organizations that control certifications such as Fair Trade and Bird Friendly, for example. (http://www.ethicalcoffee.net/direct.html). Direct trade commits personal and direct communication with growers, fair and sustainable prices, democratic and environmentally sound growing practices, exceptional quality, and transparency.
Equity and Diversity: We must constantly be striving to be representing the diversity of our University and fighting for justice as a collective. In order to do this we will need to ensure that our group is diverse racially and economically. We will ensure equality within our organization by ensuring that we can support our members financially on a need-based scale.
Community Building: Brooklyn College Coffee is striving to meet the demands of the community by providing students, faculty, administrators, staff and members of the East Flatbush, Ditmas and Midwood community with a politically-charged social space on campus.
Education: Commitment to educating the Brooklyn College community in the importance of ethical consumption habits, sustainability, alternative business models, how to identify delicious and ethically sourced coffee as well as “brewing brewers”. “Brewing brewers” meaning training students in being baristas for social change, functioning in a collective business within the context of a City University of New York and creating strategic partnerships amongst grassroots organizations, student groups and the Brooklyn College community. To achieve our aim of participatory democracy, we will also have internal education and training programs aimed at creating a culture in the organization that is diverse and equal.
Focus on building an environment of collective ownership and empowerment. In the spirit of anti-oppression practices, we must attempt to confront systems of oppression that affect each one of us and replace those systems with clearly articulated empowering structures. Practices will include:
- “Commit time for organizational discussions on discrimination and oppression
- Set anti-oppression goals and continually evaluate whether or not you are meeting them
- Promote an anti-racist, anti-heterosexist, anti-transphobic, anti-ableist message and analysis in everything we do, in and outside of activist space
- Remember these are complex issues and they need adequate time and space
- Create opportunities for people to develop skills to communicate about oppression.
- Promote egalitarian group development by prioritizing skill shares and being aware of who tends to do what work, who gets recognized/supported/solicited.
- Respect different styles of leadership and communication
- Don’t push historically marginalized people to do things because of their oppressed group (tokenism); base it on their work, experience, and skills
- Make a collective commitment to hold people accountable for their behavior so that the organization can be a safe and nurturing place for all.
- Take on the “grunt” work of cooking, cleaning, set up, clean up, phone calls, e-mail, taking notes, doing support work, sending mailings. Take active responsibility for initiating, volunteering for and following through with this work.
- Understand that you will feel discomfort and pain as you face your part in oppression, and realize that this is a necessary part of the process of liberation and growth. We must support each other and be gentle with each other in this process.
- Don’t feel guilty, feel responsible. Being part of the problem doesn’t mean you can’t be an active part of the solution.
- Maintain these practices and contribute equal time and energy to building healthy relationships, both personal and political.
- This space / meeting is open to all people who abide by our principles and practices
- This space / meeting is not open to law enforcement officers
- This space / meeting is not open to the media without the consent of all participants.
- No violence or threats of violence (verbal or physical) will be tolerated. Violence includes racist, sexist, homophobic, and any oppressive remarks/behaviors.
- Respect for the health and well-being of everyone in the space, and the space itself. No actions or substances are allowed that would jeopardize this climate.
- Everyone is responsible to take part in maintaining the space. Leave your workspace / meeting space cleaner than you found it.
- This space, and all activities in it, are non-sectarian and non-authoritarian