I recently attended a presentation by Matthew J. Slaughter, Dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. Professor Slaughter’s talk—What Does Globalization Mean for the Upper Valley?—was enlightening, to say the least. In a nutshell, many American families are financially worse off today than they were decades ago. It’s sobering to know how much the American dream is fading, and Professor Slaughter isn’t the only conscientious person sounding the alarm.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, a project launched in 1968 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight the advance of rampant poverty, racism, and militarism in the United States. In response, the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, released Auditing America, a report that explores how America has fared at realizing Dr. King’s vision. As expected, the findings aren’t good.
Since 1968, the number of Americans who live in poverty has increased by 60 percent to a total of more than 40 million people. Nearly 30 percent of the population is either in poverty or close to it, struggling to make ends meet. How does a nation of such incalculable affluence produce a society of such inequality? To quote Dr. King, “When you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.”
America’s distribution of wealth—disproportionate to say the least—is rooted in its view of consumerism. Many businesses and industries take an unconscionable view of human beings, seeing them as consumers first and people second. Consumers from all walks of life, particularly the poor and working poor, are simply a means to an end.
Cooperatives have a different vision of consumerism, and, to that end, a different view of consumers. I like to think of a consumer as an honored guest who comes to your home for a meal. You are there to serve. At our cooperative, consumers are our guests—representatives of the communities we exist to serve. They are our members, shoppers, neighbors, friends. This is important to understand when thinking about the work of a cooperative. How we treat consumers is founded on an ethic of service, an ethic shared by many other co-ops. To quote cooperative activist Tom Webb, “Corporations serve human greed. Cooperatives serve human need.”
This philosophy of serving consumers, rather than using them to generate profits, is the foundation of the visioning work we completed last year. With a new mission—a well-nourished community cultivated through cooperation—we have looked at every aspect of our business in a new way. We are now using this approach to guide us in all of our decision-making and to expand our products, services, education offerings, and activism.
I bring this to your attention because I want you to see and understand how your cooperative fits into a much broader picture. It’s easy for all of us to get lost in the minutiae of what we do each day, losing sight of something important in the process. I hope you realize that by choosing to be the member of a cooperative, you are making a real difference in the world around you.
Want to talk more about this? Reach out to me anytime. My door is always open.