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To: The Putney (Vermont) Food Co-op

Dear Co-Op Management and Board of Directors,

The word ‘diverse’ appears just once on the Putney Food Coop’s Web site. It’s in the phrase, ‘a diverse selection of products.’

That’s a great goal! However, I was hoping to see it used in reference to the diversity of the community and staff, and in that regard, I was disappointed.

Principle 7 of the Cooperative Principles is, of course Concern for Community. My personal feeling, for what it’s worth, is that this might go beyond legal compliance with federal restrictions against discrimination “on the basis of age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, physical or mental disability, national origin or any other legally protected status,” although I’m glad to see these itemized on the jobs tab of the Co-op’s Web site.

Here are some examples of efforts around the country that go far beyond avoiding illegal discrimination in hiring and move toward active diversity goals:

The Durham Co-op Market “examined the ways in which the Co-op was unconsciously pushing people out” and worked to “develop an intentionally equitable workplace” (Source: Debby Warren, Can Our Nation’s Food Co-ops Meet the Twin Challenges of Market Success and Racial Equity? in Nonprofit Quarterly, July 12, 2019.)

The Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Washington has committed itself to: “Increase diverse cultural representation within our organization to create a culture of inclusivity in staff, members-owners, shoppers, and leadership” and “Publicly report equity, diversity, and inclusion indicators and progress that transforms community and industry standards” (Source: Racial & Social Equity at the Co-op tab of the Community Food Co-op Website.)

The Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, Minnesota features on its Web site a report on how it addresses racial and economic equity that includes the following narrative: “The cooperative acknowledged that its employee demographic included just 14% people of color. In order to address the community concerns regarding hiring and jobs, the cooperative had to deliberately tackle its unconscious bias in the hiring process. The leadership began an intense process of gaining cultural competency, and this work led to the development of diversity goals for construction and store hiring.”

The Neighboring Food Co-op Association of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts (a co-operative federation of 40 food co-ops and startup initiatives across New England) featured for its 2020 annual conference the theme, “Co-ops Commit: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion,” in which they report that it “was chosen by the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA CLUSA) to challenge our movement to take on the work of building more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces and boards, and work together to empower their communities.”

These examples are heartening, especially in light of what Columinate has characterized as the question, “Why so White?” (Source: Their report explains that, “Cooperatives are an international movement, yet as we looked around the U.S. food co-op sector, most of the people we saw were white. We asked ourselves a simple and powerful question: Why? We decided that this was something we wanted to investigate. Why are food co-ops—which are guided by cooperative values such as equity and equality—so white? It’s a question that has been a long time coming. Many of our new wave food cooperatives have reached 40-year anniversaries. In business for more than a generation, why don’t these co-ops reflect greater diversity on their boards or within their membership?”

To try to answer that question, their researchers conducted interviews with representatives from food co-ops, concluding that, “In most food co-ops across the country, nearly everyone involved, from board members, staff, management, and the customer base, is white—and represents a subset of Americans supported in their attainment of high-quality natural foods by higher education and professional occupations. According to our interviews, many of our participants of color have long felt excluded or ignored by the white food co-op movement, despite its professed values of equity and cooperation.”

They also report that, “Our [interview] participants, regardless of race, agreed that, by and large, food co-ops have paid little attention to addressing racial inequality.” These quotes are from an article by Patricia Cumbie and Jade Baker posted at the above link on the Columinate Web site, and it’s thoughtful reading. [Columinate self-describes as “a national consulting cooperative serving mission-driven organizations”.]

Rob Metzinger, director of human resources at Outpost Natural Foods Co-op in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is quoted in Local Retailers Focus on Diversity, Inclusion by Mark Hamstra (June 14, 2018, on the topic of recruitment: “The retailer works with several outside organizations to broaden its reach among diverse job applicants, and has had some success hiring minority workers through the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, for example. One of the key challenges, said Metzinger, is finding diverse candidates for manager and executive-level positions. ‘We haven’t overcome that challenge yet, but we are working on it,’ he said.”

The same New Hope Network article quotes Bobby Sullivan, general manager at French Broad Food Co-op in Asheville, N.C., who said “he feels individual retailers have made progress with diversity and inclusion at the store employee level, but the co-op industry still needs to work on expanding the diversity of its general managers.” And, “‘Once you start hiring minorities, you definitely create a comfort level for other people of color, or women,’ said Sullivan. ‘It’s like a steamroll effect where once you get it going, you are having interactions with a broader swath of the community, so it has gotten easier for us over time.’”

All this adds up to…what?

I guess it’s telling that diversifying the staff, management and membership of food co-ops is a challenge even in highly diverse communities around the country. The co-op movement seems to have historically been very white. In Vermont, we face the added challenge of a state that doesn’t really look very welcoming to people of color and the BIPOC community, at least at first glance.

Vermont, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 94.2% ‘White alone’, 1.4% ‘Black or African American alone’, 0.4% American Indian and Alaskan Native alone’, and 1.9% ‘Asian alone’. According the the Census Bureau, 1.6% of Vermonters identify themselves as Hispanic, making them the largest minority group in our state—but this compares to 16.9% nationally.

Vermont is reportedly becoming more diverse, especially among youth 18 years of age or under, but it’s from an admittedly very small base. (“Vermont’s diversity is increasing most among residents under age 18, census figures show.” Kevin O-Connor, Is Vermont the Whitest State? Vermont Digger, January 17, 2016.)

As another article put it, “It may not be a stretch to say that depending on where in Vermont you live, it’s possible that you…haven’t seen a person of color in a couple months.” (Angela Evancie and Rebecca Sananes, Why Is Vermont So Overwhelmingly White?, Vermont Public Radio, March 3, 2017.)

Professor Robert Vanderbeck of the University of Leeds visited the University of Vermont some years ago and wrote a paper titled Vermont and the Imaginative Geographies of American Whiteness. He studied how Vermont is promoted to visitors and tourists: “White faces, and white snow ... white steeples on churches and the so-called white New England village are all kind of packaged together in a way that's made to kind of look and feel kind of natural in a particular way,” although in fact “it was very much a cultural construction.” According to Vanderbeck’s research, we may be unconsciously perpetuating an anti-diversity positioning for the state. Something to think about!

Southern Vermont is growing. People are seeking refuge from other places, and while the impact on real estate prices is not always a welcome one, an influx of new families can be good for schools, communities…and food co-ops. But who feels welcome here?

I hope that our community organizations will lead an effort to bring more diversity and inclusion to Southern Vermont and to Putney in particular. It would warm my heart to see diversity goals on the co-op’s Web site, and I’m sure it would make the store even more welcoming were there to be more people of color on the staff and board.

Like the rest of the nation, Vermont’s future strength will I hope come in good part from growing its diversity— not just of food products offered, but more important, of the people who feel welcomed here.


Alex Hiam

Putney VT

(Co-op family member)

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.

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