Introducing the Young Cooperators’ Network

Issue 35, Autumn 2021
written by
Hannah Watson, Owen Powell & Simin Wadiwala
illustration by
Chapel Street Studio
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The Young Cooperators' Network (YCN) has been relaunched, emerging from different iterations over the last decade to give young people a voice in the movement. It's an independent, peer-to-peer, free to join network, with a mission to support young co-operators through outreach, friendship, collaboration and knowledge sharing.

The vision is to grow and diversify the co operative movement and help young people tackle the changing nature of work, housing, and food by empowering them to join, form, and champion co-operatives. The criteria for membership are to meet at least one of the following: 

• You are 30 or under 

• You have been a member of a co-op for less than 2 years 

• You are a member of a co-op which is less than 2 years old 

The spirit of the YCN is to encourage co-creation: members are invited to help shape the identity of the network as it grows, ensuring it both reflects them, and appeals to a new generation of young co-operators. Autumn 2021 will see the launch of the YCN website, and each month we will host a Lunch & Learn social, where we hear from a guest speaker who shares their personal experience in the sector, and talk about what it means to co-operate as a young person.

The Story So Far / The Legacy of YCN 1.0

The story of the YCN goes back to 2012 and the founding of Altgen, a small organisation dedicated to challenging and addressing the structure and culture of work for young people in the post-crash economy through the creation of worker co-ops. 

“We are told time and time again that we are the generation without a future – the first ever to inherit an economic reality worse than the generation before. The good news is that every crisis creates opportunities and we’ve got ideas to help turn this situation around! Let’s stop competing and start co-operating. Let's come together and start creating an alternative future: one where we are in control of our working lives, get paid to do what we love and have a positive social impact.” —Rhiannon Colvin, Altgen, circa 2013

In 2014 Altgen partnered with the UK co-operative movement to launch the Young Co-operators’ Prize (YCP). The premise of the YCP was to promote worker co-operation as a solution to a dearth of decent employment and life opportunities. Five young co-ops would be selected to receive a £2,000 grant plus a package of training and ongoing support. Over the course of several months Rhiannon Colvin and Constance Laisné engaged with young people and university students from around the UK, promoting the YCP and encouraging those with an idea for a co-op or already in a young co-op to enter. At the culmination of the competition in 2015, five groups of young people were selected and brought together for a training weekend nested in the Worker Co-op Weekend in Oxfordshire. It was off the back of this and a further gathering in Bradford that the idea of a Young Cooperators’ Network started taking shape. In February 2016 four of the winners of the YCP – Ceramic Studio Co-op, Chapel Street Studio, Founders and Coders, and London Student – along with other supportive parties, including Stir to Action, Blake House Filmmakers Coop, and a young researcher, met at Altgen’s workspace in London for the first in a series of gatherings.

The challenge faced by the members was that despite seeing the benefits of having a network and wanting the peer-to-peer support it offered, the process of establishing a network while simultaneously setting up and/or running their own co-ops was too much to take on at once. The network would ideally be informal yet have a strong central core, have the least barriers to participation possible yet be self-sustaining, be able to offer training, workshops, and external talks, yet not have a formalised structure that the members would have to administrate. Underlying these knotty contradictions was the understanding that the network should be able to stand apart from the bureaucracy and perceived ossification of the ‘co-operative establishment’, for want of a better word. 

We were not alone. Members of the YCN were involved with an effort to establish a Young European Cooperators’ Network (YECN). Inspired in part by Rhiannon Colvin’s energetic presence at the ICA’s International Summit of Cooperatives in Quebec (2014), a group of young co-operators from across Europe had come together and started their own gatherings, to which the YCN was invited and attended. However, the Europeans, particularly the French, had experience of a more developed youth-focused co-operative movement and had more trust in their respective ‘co-operative establishments’. While this jarred with the arguably more radical position of the YCN, what we discovered in Europe was the potential for a successful blend. One that could facilitate a network that was both sufficiently autonomous and yet also grounded in the wider co-operative movement in such a way as to ensure its perpetuation. That said, the present dormancy of the YECN suggests other issues may have emerged. 

Members kept meeting until around 2018, usually at Worker Co-op Weekends, and stayed in contact beyond the gatherings. During a call in October 2020 it was decided that the time had come to bring our collective experience to bear and work towards a new YCN, along with a wider campaign to engage young people in co-operation. While Jonny Gordon-Farleigh (Stir to Action) worked to build momentum behind a wider campaign, Martyn Johnston (Chapel Street Studio and Bread + Roses) and Owen Powell (Kaizen Arts and Bread + Roses) set about developing a proposal for an initial disbursement of £12k from Solid Fund that would enable us to re-establish the network, hire a Network Secretary, and develop an online presence. 

The model we proposed was designed to address some of the central challenges faced by the original network. We sought to create a space where young co-operators could come together, engage in mutual support, and determine what else they wanted from the network at any given time. We formed a Steering Group bringing together experienced members of the co-operative movement, representatives of Co-ops UK and the Co-op College, alumni of the original network, and most importantly young co-operators. Its current members include Stephanie Bolt, Claudia Bowler, Rhiannon Colvin, Daniel Cox, James de le Vigne, Martyn Johnston, Cath Muller, Owen Powell, Polly Robbins, Simin Wadiwala, Hannah Watson (Network Secretary), and Siôn Whellens. The Steering Group provides the core that we needed in 2016, whilst enabling the network to remain open to the direction new members want to take it. We also envisage members of the wider co-operative movement forming a Circle of Knowledge that members can go to or be signposted to for support and guidance as well as a Circle of Alumni who can contribute to the Steering Group and also support new members. 

Why the Co-op Movement Needs a Network for Young Cooperators 

The support that this new evolution of YCN can offer to young people comes at a critical time, with precarity – a lack of access to meaningful employment, affordable education, housing and food – a defining experience of growing up in a neoliberal economy. The home ownership gap has dramatically increased over the past 30 years, with many young people reliant on inheriting generational wealth in order to buy a home, or spending a considerable percentage of their income on rent. In order to afford living expenses, it’s a common experience for young people to work multiple jobs, often on temporary or zero-hour contracts. This precarious situation often leaves young people hesitant, or unable, to engage in more meaningful work. 

The co-operative model offers a viable alternative. Housing co-operatives, for instance, allow residents to take collective ownership and management of the property, and without a landlord, rent is far lower than in conventional rentier systems. 

In worker co-operatives, worker-members can have a say in what is going to happen with both the day-to-day running and wider strategy of the organisation. There is an emphasis on communication, with an awareness that the worker-members have a direct understanding of what works best for them. Unlike in for- profit corporations, surplus capital is reinvested into the company or equally distributed among workers.

Whilst the wider co-operative movement in the UK supports the development and growth of co-ops, there is a lack of engagement with the specific landscape young people are navigating and their barriers to entry. A network would enable young people to communicate with each other and ask institutions for opportunities they would like to see, as well as collaborate to make those things happen. 

Call to Action 

We are approximately eight months into this project and it is heartening to report that we already have over sixty young people signed up – before we even have an online presence, which will be launched this autumn. In the meantime, we are running free monthly Lunch & Learn sessions for members, inviting speakers to come and share their stories as a springboard for discussion. However, the future of the YCN is by no means certain. Although we have goodwill, we lack the core funding required to keep the network running year- on-year, that includes training and paying a Network Secretary, maintaining an online presence, signposting, and delivering a basic programme of events. Ideally, as is the case in other countries, this core funding would come directly from a national apex organisation or similar body. Another option could be for larger co-ops to fund the network as a space for engaging and training their younger and/or new members. Beyond the core funding required to sustain the network, we would love to offer more, to launch another Young Co-operators Prize, to directly support the creation and incubation of new co-operatives (worker or otherwise), and ultimately to contribute to building a more co-operative future. If you or your organisation have ideas, or better still the funds, for making either of these things happen then we would like to hear from you. 

Stay in the loop 

The website is now launched at ycn.coop. This is where you can become a member, find out about upcoming events, and sign up to the newsletter.

If you have any queries about how to partner with / sponsor the YCN, get in touch with the network secretary: hannah@stirtoaction.com

Owen Powell and Simin Wadiwala are steering group members of the YCN. Hannah Watson is the network secretary.

Issue 35, Autumn 2021
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