My Co-op History

Shaz writes about his near ten years of experience in the Co-op movement

As part of Co-op Fortnight I thought it would be good to write about my history in the Co-operative movement and how I got involved in Co-ops.

Campaigning Roots

I first became involved in campaigning when I was at University, at the University of Birmingham. I had a strong sense of social justice and wanted to help make the world a better place. Universities have such a large scope for activities outside of the degree that people complete. I volunteered with both Oxfam Outreach and the Ethical Trade Society. In these societies I learned about trade imbalances and how small scale producers are often exploited. I wrote an essay about Fair Trade in one of my Political Economy modules. I also volunteered at a British Red Cross shop for one summer holiday and was a volunteer football coach in Kenya for six weeks in between my undergrad degree and my Masters.

Eventually I graduated University and had to get a job. Unfortunately for me, I got a job. My job was in the environmental sector. I wanted to get involved in volunteering in the environmental sector as this is where my job was. I had a friend who was volunteering with Birmingham Friends of the Earth (BFOE) and I lived about a mile from their home at the time. At the time I did not realise that it was a Co-op, but it was my first experience of volunteering for a Co-op. BFOE is a Community Benefit Society, a form of a Co-op where the purpose of the organisation is to benefit the community. Initially, my volunteering with BFOE was for environmental campaigning reasons.

Learning about the Co-op ethos

Whilst I was volunteering with BFOE I joined the Labour Party. At a Labour Party event I discovered the Co-op party. The Co-op Party aligns more with my political beliefs than the Labour Party. Attending Co-op Party meetings taught me about the values and the structures of Co-operatives that make them worthwhile. Principles like working together rather than competing against each other for mutual benefit.  Entering the story at this point is Richard Bickle, more commonly known as Mr Co-op. He was the Secretary for the Co-op Party Birmingham, Solihull and Tamworth Branch. Richard and I became friends and he would open other Co-op opportunities for me in the future.

Co-ops with Community Share Offers

In 2014 I was still working in the energy industry and I wanted to gain more varied experience within it. Community Energy Birmingham (CEB) were looking for Directors. CEB install solar panels on community buildings. CEB is another Community Benefit Society organisation. By this point I was well versed in what a Co-op is and their features, including principles like the one member one vote policy. Initially I was co-opted onto the board before I was elected onto the Board in 2015. In 2015 CEB successfully held a Community Share Offer to install Solar Panels on community buildings in Birmingham.

By 2017 I had been volunteering for BFOE for five years when Richard Bickle, asked me if I would stand for election for the BFOE Board. Richard is Secretary of BFOE. It felt like a natural progression as I’d gone from Campaigner, to Lead Campaigner, to Campaigns Co-ordinator to finally being on the Board itself. BFOE was about to launch a Community Share Offer that transformed BFOE’s home the Warehouse.

Broadening my Co-operative Experience

A year later Richard Bickle asked if I would join Central England Co-ops Western Membership and Community Council. I’d occasionally do my shopping at my local Central England Co-op (CEC), but had not thought beyond that. I’d never heard of their Membership and Community Council. This became my first Co-op endeavour that is paid. All of my Co-operative experience upto this point was with campaigning organisations. CEC is different as it is a Retail Society. CEC’s Membership and Community Council delivers CEC’s community aims, including promoting Co-operative values through Member Groups and outreach events. My favourite Membership and Community Council activity that I’ve participated in is delivering a Co-op Masterclass about the Co-operative Business model to Uprising Students. I’ve enjoyed this role so much that I became the Chair of this group, a role which I still hold.

Recently, I was elected to the Co-op Press Board. My blog has rekindled my interest in writing. I’ve not attended the first board meeting yet, but I hope to be able to positively contribute to the Co-op Press Board. I’ve been interviewed by the Editor of Co-op News, with the interview appearing in a future edition.

Looking to the Future

I’ve been involved in the Co-op movement for nearly ten years. The Co-operative movement has scope to change the way society is structured. Co-ops are inclusive and fairer than the typical PLC. I’ve gained significant experience across campaigning, energy and community engagement via the Co-operative mechanism. With these experiences that I’ve gained; I’ve been able to help make the world a better place. I shall continue to develop as a Co-operator.

The featured photo is from a 5 a side Co-op Football tournament that I helped organise on behalf of Central England Co-operative.



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