Cooperation Takes Root at CGC

Common Ground Center has always been a place that honors people’s creativity and cultivates community involvement, and that culture is largely rooted in Jim’s vision for CGC to be cooperatively run. In fact, I met Jim at the Vermont Cooperative Summit and we bonded over having been members of student-owned housing cooperatives. At the time I was working for the North American Students of Cooperation and planning the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, so obviously Jim’s vision resonated with me.  

Lately we’ve been wondering how we could embed those ideals into the structure of our organization. At our fall staff retreat, we initiated the process of becoming a more democratic workplace.

The first question we asked ourselves was, “what is the difference between a traditional workplace and a democratic workplace?” The difference that stood out to us was that in a traditional workplace structure, employees report to a boss or supervisor, whereas in a democratic workplace, there are still leaders, but power is distributed more evenly amongst staff. We wanted to design a system where staff members took ownership of the work that we do--a system that would allow us to work together efficiently while still holding each other accountable.

The first part of the system that we devised is peer mentorship. Pairs (or in some cases trios) of staff have regular conversations with their peer mentors to discuss how things are going for them professionally and personally. This helps to ensure that any concerns that people have are addressed sooner rather than later and that staff members get regular one-on-one feedback. Along the same lines, we start each staff meeting with a check-in in which everyone shares how they’re doing so that we all know if people need help with tasks or if there are things that might affect their work, like one of their children being sick or plans to go out of town.

The second part of our new democratic structure is to organize our staff into teams of two to four that we call “hubs”. Each hub focuses on an area of work such as marketing, governance, programs, rentals, or finance, and each hub selects a leader who ensures that hubs meet and document their decisions. The hubs report each week at a staff meeting, where they can also add items to the agenda for discussion or decisions. The staff can delegate things for hubs to work on, and in turn, the hubs can delegate tasks for individuals to work on. The layers of accountability allow staff members to get work done efficiently while maintaining transparency about what they’re working on.

Decision-making is obviously a big piece of getting things done. Our staff is small enough that we are usually able to reach agreement without a formal voting process. Creating spaces for dialogue is an important part of this process. Everyone must feel comfortable sharing their opinions and be open to compromising those opinions. And active listening is just as important as speaking up--for many of us, really processing what others are saying takes more energy than simply saying what we think.

Not everyone can—or should—be involved in every single decision, but it is important that everyone be on board with decisions that are made. That’s why we try to be transparent about how those decisions are made, even when it comes to tricky topics like salaries or budgeting.  In cases where we feel that staff have a conflict of interest, we give ourselves an opportunity to express opinions, and then pass along information to board members for assistance with those decisions.

Workplace democracy is like a work of art in that it can always be improved; it is an ongoing project that will never be complete. It takes lots of practice to get it right. But it can be a beautiful and inspiring thing, and in our case, hard work is paying off as we transform our organization into a dynamic & democratic space!

-Neily Jennings

Neily is Common Ground Center's Communications Coordinator and is a member of CGC's marketing, human resources, governance, and administrative hubs. She was introduced to the cooperative model as a member of the Inter-Cooperative Council (student-owned housing) in Austin, TX, and has since organized eleven cooperative conferences for members of cooperatives and democratic workplaces all over the US and Canada.