Working in a Co-operative Community

By Mark Svetz

    The other day Sarah and I went looking for a job and I found so much more. I found an economy that works the way I have always thought the world should. It's an economy where jobs arise out of the needs of the community, where people get to work at jobs that bring them pleasure and satisfaction. It is an economic community where we, in fact, try to make it work for everybody, not because it's profitable, but because we believe it's right.
    I am talking about the cooperative model for organizing a business, like a grocery store in this case. This recent example I want to tell you about showed me how cooperative groups can enjoy a degree of control and responsibility that the corporate model can never give us.

     Sarah and I have been cleaning the bathrooms as our working member/owner job at the Willimantic Food Co-op for the past few years. I really can't remember how long we've been doing it. It's a benefit of being part of the Food Co-op that we are able to work at one of the jobs that keep the place running and earn an additional discount on most of the groceries we buy. For almost a year I have been unable to work with Sarah on our job, making her burden that much greater. Last month, I saw an opportunity to relieve some of that burden.

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    For several years we have been enjoying the rye bread baked and – until recently – delivered to Willimantic by Albert's Bakery in Deep River. It is good rye bread, firm and heavy in the New York style. Many people I know enjoy it, but most importantly for me, my granddaughter Miriam enjoys it.
    We visit the Co-op every Tuesday. I think of us as the three musketeers: Mima, Nonno and Miriam. We shop, have coffee with friends, play in the kids room. Inevitably, Miriam, who is not yet three years old, toddles over to the bread shelf and says, “I want to buy some rye bread.” When we say yes, Miri goes and grabs a loaf and brings it to Nereida at the cash register. They have a nice friendship, and Miri has learned that Mima must come over and pay for the bread. Sometimes we even take out a piece of bread, weigh it, then go to the peanut butter grinder and grind a small amount onto the slice of bread. Then Miriam takes it back to Nereida and we pay for the peanut butter.
    This is a wonderful routine for the three of us. I think Miriam is learning about commerce and, more importantly, she is learning about community. She is beginning to identify her community and learn the resources it has for her. We also have a lot of fun!
    Last month, during our weekly routine, one of the staff people told us to enjoy the bread because Albert's wasn't going to deliver to Willimantic any longer. Although Miriam was unaware of the change about to happen, Sarah and I were quickly in minor crisis mode, searching for solutions. Friends were bummed about the bread, we were going to miss it, and we knew Miri would miss out on an important part of her visits to the Food Co-op. There must be way to keep the rye bread coming to the Co-op!

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    Well, some years ago our friend Dave used to go to Meriden once a week to pick up ecologically grown apples from High Hill Orchards. I thought of that and wondered if we could get the bread as our working member job. Well, we talked to Saige and she thought it was a good idea. Saige is in charge of bread at the Co-op, and she went and talked to others. Eventually, after many phone calls, she worked it out that we could go Fridays to pick up the bread at Rein's Deli in Vernon. Albert's delivers bread daily to Rein's, and we would be able to pick up the Co-op's order there. We had to be there at six a.m., which is not difficult for us as we are usually up before five o'clock anyway.
    We set out a little before five a.m., and drove through Coventry and into Vernon, encountering only a few cars during the trip. We met the man who opens Rein's and he helped us load the bags of rye bread into our car. We got to the co-op a little after six a.m., dropped off the bread, gave the paperwork to Saige and we were home having breakfast before seven o'clock!
    Any day I can have a small adventure before sunrise is a good day for me, but what I really like about this job is that it arose out of my community. It has always troubled me that corporate decisions only concerned for the bottom line determine where me and my neighbors can find jobs. It's better than no jobs, of course, but I really want the dignity that comes from doing something my community has decided it needs and wants.

     The co-operative method of organizing offers us a way to have a business owned by the community it serves. Important decisions – like how to keep Miri's rye bread on the shelf! – can be made by the people directly involved. I get to serve my community in a way that suits me. Instead of feeling useless and uninvolved because I cannot swing a mop or scrub the toilets on my hands and knees any more, I am once again a fully contributing and appreciated member of my community.
    Did I mention that I love my Food Co-op? I love that my granddaughter gets to learn about life in the bosom of such a nurturing and welcoming community. Five o'clock is a bit early for our Miriam, but I do hope she gets to come with us sometime, just to see how her community brought to her the rye bread she loves!  

 

Pride & Prejudice: Vanity Makes Mobility Issues Hard to Face

By Mark Svetz

I wouldn't have called it vanity until now, but for most of my life I was confident – you might even say cocky – about my strength, stamina and agility. Now, Sarah tells me my “mobility issues” are a direct result of that cockiness and its attendant carelessness or, I might even add, foolishness. That's not what I really want to talk about, though. What I want to talk about right now is the four-wheeled walker my friend Carol lent me recently, and how, if I can get over my vanity, it might let me walk around Willimantic again as I have done for most of the past 50 years.

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First of all, these “mobility issues” revolve around bulging discs in my lower back that are causing me a lot of pain, especially when I am standing or walking. This is a long-standing problem. My first episode was in the late 80s, when I was carrying an oak table down a twisted, narrow staircase and lost my footing. Now, this is where the foolishness comes in: I continued to move furniture and do pretty much everything else that was normal for me despite the pain.

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Now, 30 years later, I can no longer ignore the pain, and find myself stuck at home most of the time. Although I work right here in Willimantic, I drive to get there. I drive to the Willimantic Food Co-op to shop and socialize. Driving around town is something I have never done very much. I have always walked to work, shop, visit and most everything else during the time I have lived in Willimantic. Driving to the Co-op makes me feel like a failure!
    Now, thanks in part to a gift of membership to the Mansfield Community Center and the wonderful warm Therapy Pool there, and Carol Silva's concern and generosity, my back has improved a little. I find I can sometimes walk with relative ease. When the weather was cold and snowy, I was happy to use the walker around the house, when we were alone. It made walking easier than it had been using a cane.

I thought about going outside, walking around the neighborhood with the walker when the weather broke, but the image of myself using a walker was disturbing to conjure. I was in conflict, and this conflict occupied my mind and spirit for some time. It's easy to understand how a walker represents physical decline, from age, sickness or injury. I find these images of myself disturbing, despite my present circumstances. It was confusing and troubling to hold these conflicting thoughts: my love of walking and this perceived blow to my pride.
    I can't help but wonder if that kind of pride is the source of the prejudice about aging and infirmity I see all around me. There, but for fortune, go all of us, after all. I know that I want no part of that prejudice, and I am anxious to keep it from informing my own view of the world and especially the choices I make.

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Something happened on a recent weekend that clarified things a little for me. Our granddaughter, Miriam, came for a sleep-over and I decided to walk to the Co-op with her and Sarah. Walking over the footbridge had been a favorite past time for the three of us since Miri was born. Lately, however, we've been driving together, or even worse, I've driven while Sarah walked with Miriam in the stroller. On this Saturday, it was clear and dry, and fairly warm, and the prospect of walking downtown with Sarah and Miriam was more powerful than my pride. So, off we went.
    As I was walking down Bridge Street toward Main, I felt the familiar joy of being out in my community, watching the passing traffic, waving at the occasional acquaintance, noticing the changes at houses along the way. I realized the resistance I had felt to using a walker in public involved being self-conscious and embarrassed about what others might think. As I walked, I asked myself “What might they think? That I'm getting old? That I must have hurt myself somehow?”     
    Well, my next thought was that both things are true, and so what? There is no shame in growing old. When I think of some of the things that have happened to me over the years, getting old is a great victory. Injuries happen to the best of us. Why should I be immune? I'd like to think I'm indestructible, and I once entertained that delusion, but I have come to realize just how foolish it was.
    That's not even the important 'lesson' I was learning. You see I can still hear my mother saying “What do I care what Bobby thinks? He's not going to buy you a new jacket.” And that is really the point: Pride, for me, is really an excessive concern about what others might be thinking. I knew, walking down Bridge Street that Saturday morning, the only two people in the world whose opinion mattered to me were walking in front of me: Miriam and Sarah. And I was pretty sure they were glad I was with them. I know I was glad to be there.
    And we did have fun. Miri and Sarah ran around the new Whitewater park, making footprints in the snow. They even built a snowman! And I was able to watch and enjoy their fun, rather that simply hear about it when they got home. I was not able to make it all the way to the Co-op, but I had a nice walk. I decided to call it “walk and roll,” just to make it feel more like the old days!    
    Health and weather permitting, I intend to resume my daily walks to the C0-0p for coffee and companionship. Now that is something that will make me proud!

It's the people, not the bricks

By Mark Svetz

Everybody's broke these days. People I talk to on the street, my friends and, the fact is, I'm feeling pretty badly bent, myself. Our governments – no surprise here – also seem to be broke. At the local, state and federal levels, we see deficits, higher taxes and defeated budgets. And yet, everybody's building, bonding, buying equipment.
    Now, there's a lot here to talk about: Who's in charge and whose interests are they serving? Why is it that we can't hire teachers or buy books for our libraries, but we can build new schools, firehouses and senior centers? I understand all these things are needed, like new windows on my house, but can we afford them now?

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    But really, what I want to talk about is people.  One of my first teaching jobs was in the old Nathan Hale Hotel, on Main Street in Willimantic. We had some tables and chairs, a chalk board, the lights worked and so did the bathroom. Shabby quarters for a new school, even if you count the marble floors in the bathroom! It was, despite its shabbiness,  the best community school I have ever seen, because the people involved were intelligent, passionate and committed to the community.

    In Windham, voters have just approved – by a slim margin – a bonding package for revisions to our high School that are anticipated to cost some $100 million. I have no interest in revisiting that decision; the voters spoke and that works for me. What I'm thinking about now is that I read the articles in the paper, and I'm not really sure why we need a new school. There was a lot of talk about “supporting our children,” and “it's almost 50 years old,” but very little about what exactly is wrong with the building. Basically, it seems our first response to any issue is to build something.

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    Windham has also decided to bond for a new senior center, to be built where the former Jillson movie houses were located, and for a band shell to be built on the Jillson Square Park in front of the senior center site. Many people are excited about all these projects. I think this a great location for the senior center, and we all love the music that blesses us here in Willimantic. The band shell also brings the town a donation  of $100,000 from David Foster, and town officials have said it may not need any local tax money in the end.
    We need only look up the hill at Eastern to see there has been an enormous amount of construction in the last decade or more. A little farther up the hill, UCONN is undergoing its own  “big dig” these days. And all of this at a time when Connecticut is threatening to reduce its commitment to Medicaid, leaving thousands with out health insurance they can afford, all because of the fiscal crisis we find ourselves it. We are undertaking extensive building projects at the same time we are deciding that some among us will lose their access to health care. The coexistence of these facts leads me to wonder who's at the helm of our ship of state.

    When I think about the quality of education we are providing for our children, bricks and mortar do not come to mind. In fact, it is my opinion that many of the educational problems at Windham are the result of spending too much money on things that don't translate into better teaching and learning, like buildings and excessive administration. The real problem here is that the important things, like teaching positions and books, for example, seem to get short shrift in the budgeting process.
    I had occasion to spend part of a school year as a student-teacher at Windham High in the '90s. The textbook for the history course I was assigned was more than 20 years old, and was called “Men and Nations.”  Of course this was 20 years ago, but still, Men and Nations? These are the things that we should be thinking about when we consider support for our children's education, not the bricks and tiles that make up a new school building.
    There are many really good teachers and other professionals in our area schools. I have worked in Mansfield and Windham districts, and I know from my own experience of the many fine, dedicated and passionate people who work in those systems. I'm sure it's the same in other districts. The thing I also remember from my time at Windham is that many of the teachers did not feel supported by their administration. In fact, this is true of so many of the teachers who are part of my community, they feel similarly unsupported in the districts where they work.
    One of the factors in this lack of support for our children and teachers is the decade and more we have lived with policies like “No Child Left Behind,” with its emphasis on testing and blaming school districts, including teachers. No one has seen fit to make very many changes to this misguided and disastrous program, and the educational Yellow Brick Road it has led us down. Our leaders want us to believe all we need is a new building, when in fact what we need is leadership.
    Of course, it is possible the real problem here is the money and power wielded by the construction industry. New buildings are good for that industry, and for the workers who get hired to build them, as well as for the elected officials who support these jobs. I just don't know how wise it is to confuse all this with educating our children.

 

    There is another aspect to all this building. The materials and equipment used to build a new building have disastrous environmental consequences. Disposal of building materials from demolition is filling available landfill space. We cannot stop building, but we can be more deliberate in our planning to avoid all but essantial projects. It really is the responsible thing to do.
    I work a few hours a week now at QVCC at Windham Regional Technical School, a building at least as old as Windham High, and I see several seemingly up-to-date computer labs and a “smart Board” in the media center. I know several of the teachers at Windham Tech, and they seem happy with their jobs. The school has a good reputation, from all I hear. It seems quality education here doesn't need a new building, although the staff might love it!
    My hope for the New Year is that when we think about teaching and learning, or providing programs and services for seniors or any of the other activities we do together as humans in community, we think about people, and not just bricks and mortar. People, working together, using their passion, creativity, intelligence and empathy are what these services really need. I know from experience that those people can work miracles almost anywhere if they are given the support, encouragement and respect they deserve.

 

Understanding our history: A Backward Look To See the Future

By Mark Svetz

December 2017

 

Hindsight is 20-20. I've heard that many times in my life, and often it seems to be true. Twenty-twenty or not, if we don't understand what we're looking at, it doesn't really matter how clearly we can see.

These particular thoughts come to me right now following a conversation with Sarah. She described pulling out of a driveway, and after several backward glances, realized there were many blind spots and she wasn't sure whether there was traffic coming. Hindsight, it seems, is not always 20-20!

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At any rate Sarah pulled onto the highway, and everything was fine. A short distance down the road, another vehicle pulled out in front of her. The car was close, Sarah had to slow a bit, but what she told me was how easy it is when you look forward. To Sarah, this meant it was easy for her to adjust her speed and accommodate the entering vehicle.

This reminded me of just how much 'accommodation' is required of us in the daily give and take of life in community. A great teacher once told me, “Education is change and always remember that we make change from strength, not weakness.” As a teacher, I always took this to mean it was my job to help people strengthen and empower themselves to get ready to make the change that is learning.

In our parable of Sarah on the highway, she was telling me that her clear vantage gave her the strength to adjust her speed and let the new vehicle enter traffic easily. This brings me back to the whole idea of looking back. Knowledge and understanding are always empowering and, of course, one of the necessary elements for change. If there is one thing clear to me today, it is that we need change in how we view ourselves and our nation.

I am thinking now of the many tragic events that have occurred recently, this time of the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, VA, during a rally of white supremacists. One of the central themes of this conflict was about statues of Confederate soldiers and leaders in public places. Because the Confederacy is entangled in history with slavery and modern racism, these statues made many of us uncomfortable. Others seem to believe the removal of these reminders was some sort of purge, aimed at sanitizing our history.

The hindsight of some journalists helped crystalize this subject for me, when I learned that many of these statues were erected in the 1960s as a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. So, it seems the historic record we are protecting here is that of selfish and violent resistance to human rights and the progress of human dignity. This makes the question a little easier for me.

Our past is not a static collection of images and facts to be recalled or forgotten. Rather, it is a progress of events, large and small, that must be perceived, understood and reconciled with the present circumstances. When Sarah saw the car approach the stop sign on the side street, she was able to take this information and use it to make the change she needed to make, and the result was the smooth flow of traffic.

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The smooth flow of life in our communities also requires us to make constant adjustments and accommodations. I like Sarah's example where she saw her better vantage as a responsibility to accommodate the other vehicle. I similarly believe those of us who feel the sting of the reminders of slavery, for example, could be more easily accommodated if we all searched for that better vantage of understanding.

As we sit in coffee shops and living rooms talking about these events, I hope we think about them and their historic context. In the case of Charlottesville, it was important to be clear about just what history we are preserving. Our perception of the past – whether the historic past, or behind us on the highway – should help us decide what we are going to do next. Whether it's to slow down for the entering vehicle, listen to those who are offended by statues celebrating the Confederate States of America or cast a vote on a school bonding package. Knowledge is power and it gives us the strength to make the changes we need to make.

As this year winds down and I think about all that has happened, I believe I will look for clues about my next steps. Do I need to slow down for that car up ahead? Is that belief I have held for so long still valid in light of new information? Does my neighbor need help with the sidewalks this winter? Have a great New Year!