It was a cooperative presentation, so the audience participated.
“What brought you folks to co-ops? Just shout some stuff out,” said Nikki Marín Baena, a keynote speaker and co-founder of Cooperation Texas, a nonprofit dedicated to creating sustainable employment for those affected by social and economic inequality.
The audience members were quick to respond.
Last weekend, from Nov. 7 to Nov. 9, 405 cooperative members from across the United States and Canada, about 30 of whom came from Ann Arbor co-ops, descended on the Michigan Union for the North American Students of Cooperation Institute, a conference held yearly in Ann Arbor since 1977.
They came to network with other co-ops, share ideas and skills, and further the cooperative movement, a historical movement working to return ownership to the people. Co-ops are organizations, frequently located near college campuses, where residents are required to share the responsibility for cooking, cleaning and other household activities. Aside from residential co-ops, there are also worker co-ops and food co-ops, among other varieties, where ownership is shared by the members.
“This principle about co-ops, that we can decide what kind of a world we want to have and shape it for ourselves, is a really big thing,” Baena said.
Before and after the keynote address, however, co-opers lined the hallways of the Union, occupied Au Bon Pain and Starbucks and wandered through the makeshift bookshop in the Art Lounge, which was filled with coffee, art, buttons and 300 pounds of chocolate donated by Equal Exchange, a worker cooperative focused on Fair Trade.
Hannah Rosenberg, a junior at Oberlin College in Ohio living in Harkness Co-op, sat at a Starbucks table in lively conversation with two other co-opers, both of whom she had just met.
“If we have any hope of the cooperative movement being a national or international thing rather than a very localized thing, it’s important to know one another,” Rosenberg said. “And that’s chill.”
In addition to presentations by co-op members, attendees ate meals together, watched films, played games and taught and attended classes — one of which was titled “The Forgotten History of Group Equity Housing Cooperatives.”
Jim Jones, the two-time former executive director of NASCO, former executive director of Ann Arbor’s Inter-Cooperative Council and a 2009 Cooperative Hall of Fame inductee, taught the course.
Jones is a cooperative history buff. The author of “Many Hands: A History of the Austin Cooperative Community,” he is also in his 25th year of work on a book about the history of student cooperatives.
Jones said the country’s first student-owned cooperatives were opened in 1932 — one of which was in Ann Arbor — during the Great Depression.
Sharing housing, decisions, food and labor was the Student Socialist Club’s way of coping with the effects of the Great Depression. They rented a house and inaugurated the Michigan Socialist House cooperative, charging each member $2 per week for room and board, Jones said.
Ann Arbor’s student cooperative movement remained embodied in the lone Michigan Socialist House, until the Campus Cooperative Council, now known as the Inter-Cooperative Council, was born in 1937.
By 1941, the student cooperative movement was expanding. Eleven rented houses in Ann Arbor housed student co-ops, eight for men and three for women, according to the ICC’s website.
“It wasn’t until the war that things became difficult,” Jones said.
The male population, he said, was “devastated.” Many co-ops lost their leases and were closed and many men coming to the University to train for World War II filled the former co-op houses instead.
Still, the ICC survived.
In 1944, the ICC purchased its first house, A.K. Stevens House. Before this, the ICC had only rented. Two years later, bolstered by the return of soldiers from World War II, the co-op movement rebounded. Three hundred co-ops emerged on 144 student campuses, according to the video “Working Together: The Story of the ICC,” found on the ICC’s website.
By 1967, the ICC owned 10 houses. With the war behind them, co-ops were able to refinance, repay loans and develop equity, Jones said.
Finally, in 1968, the ICC sponsored a conference that formed NASCO, uniting the cooperative movement across the United States and Canada.
Ingrained in the cooperative movement is a struggle for social justice, a struggle made more institutional by NASCO and the ICC.
“The (ICC) is not inherently political, but it does inherently promote social justice by using collective buying and democratic self-government to give more equitable access to resources within the organization,” said LSA senior John-Thomas Zakala-Downs, president of ICC co-op Black Elk.
The ICC has, however, been political in the past.
In 1943, for example, Lester House was recognized in The Saturday Evening Post for its success and persistence in supporting integrated housing. Jones said co-opers once picketed the barbershop in the basement of the Union, which refused to cut the hair of Black patrons.
The front door of the Union was another point of contention for co-opers. Women were only permitted to enter through back doors.
“This was the men’s Union,” Jones said with feigned severity, “so they (women) used to rush the door! They used to rush past this guy that was there. These things go way back.”
The co-ops’ push toward social justice again manifested itself in 1948 when the ICC bought Nakamura, a house named for Johnny Nakamura, a Japanese-American student at the University who fought and died in World War II.
The name exhibited the ICC’s defense of its Japanese co-op members during World War II, as the U.S. government interned almost 120,000 Japanese Americans.
“(The ICC) has been at the forefront of a lot of important social movements, so I’m proud to say that co-ops have always been on the right side of history in that way,” said ICC President Maya Menlo, a Public Policy senior.
Inside Nakamura’s living room laid Tyler Whittico, ICC Board Representative for Nakamura and Washtenaw Community College culinary student, who was stretched out in a colorful hammock hanging just above one of the couches.
Evan Bancroft, an Eastern Michigan University junior, laid in another hammock, one end of which connected to the wall just below the strand of lights that spelled out “Nakamura” in cursive.
It was 6:30 p.m. and the cousins, along with a few other Nakamura co-opers, were relaxing before dinner at 7 p.m.
Jazz music came wandering in from down the stairs in the kitchen, where Wednesday’s cooks were preparing dinner.
The co-op has dinner together every night from Sunday to Thursday, and sometimes, residents play Super Smash Bros. after dinner.
According to Whittico, it’s hard to generalize and define a house like theirs, a co-op with diverse members.
They house members from all different schools in the area, an annual summer member in his 70s and people of many different backgrounds.
“It’s really unique,” Bancroft said. “A lot of people don’t consider co-ops as a housing option, and it’s a relatively cheap one too, because you get everything at a flat rate. We all decide what we’re going to budget our food out to be.”
According to the ICC’s website, every member living in an ICC house this fall and winter pays $459 in ICC charges each month, which collectively covers all of the ICC houses’ mortgages, taxes, maintenance, administration, furniture, utilities and internet fees.
In addition to ICC charges, each house charges its members a monthly amount voted on at the beginning of each semester, a charge that goes toward food, cleaning supplies and laundry. Nakamura’s charge this year is $122, making for a total charge of $581 for monthly living and boarding.
While it isn’t quite the $2 from back in 1932, cooperative living helps students save money and makes living more affordable.
“At the same time, you eliminate that sense of privacy,” Bancroft said. “In the co-ops you have to build up seniority to get your own single. It’s a little bit harder. Some people appreciate that and some people don’t. It’s just a matter of taste.”
Nakamura President Alexandria Carey, an LSA senior, countered by showing the other edge of the privacy argument.
“I don’t know, I think it’s awesome. Probably the best place I’ve lived on campus,” Carey said. “You get to live with 30 people who become like your best friends.”
Bancroft characterized Nakamura as a “progressive musician’s house.” Every summer it hosts Rockamura, an all-day music festival at the house.
“We’re one of the younger, more lively houses,” Carey said.
The walls just outside the living room doors, with their green mural of abstract faces, echoed her sentiment.
Gregory House’s walls are much cleaner. In this substance-free co-op, white and blue seem to be the theme.
The house was named after Karl D. Gregory, a Gregory House alum and professor of economics at Oakland University, who donated $20,000 to the ICC.
Gregory House also has dinners together, though its residents voted for six dinners per week instead of Nakamura’s five.
“We all talk and we get into long fights about ethics and politics after dinner,” said LSA junior Emma Nagler. “We’ve been having an ongoing debate about whether or not people’s decisions are determined, or if people have free will.”
On the doorway to Gregory House’s living room is a checklist, a monitor of house chores. According to Nagler, each member is required to do four hours of work per week, whether it is in the form of cleaning, cooking or working as a leader in the house.
Members of Black Elk, which is just across the street from Gregory House and has a large sculpture of a hand planted in its yard, are also required to work four hours each week to be a cooperative member of the house.
Historically, Black Elk has been characterized as a vegetarian co-op, according to Zakala-Downs. Residents buy their food from socially just companies and sustainable farms. They eat together four times per week and offer a vegan option at every meal.
“The people that have lived there have chosen, if not to be vegetarian as their lifestyle, to be vegetarian as a community for the sustainability of that,” Zakala-Downs said.
The entire corridor of Black Elk’s entryway is plastered with writing from past and current members.
“At Black Elk we get a lot of communication through writing from our past, from our history, letters, posters from parties, artwork, signatures and notes painted on the walls,” Zakala-Downs said.
According to Jones, this connection to the past is part of what makes a housing co-op different from a normal group of people living together.
“The co-op is institutionalized so that people move in and out, and that entity of the co-op stays there,” Jones said. “Over time, the longer that entity lasts, the stronger it becomes. It’s almost like a mythology, and the culture grew up around it, and then it becomes everybody’s responsibility to make sure it lasts for the next group.”
ICC cooperative members of the past preserved their co-ops and present-day co-opers are reaping the benefits, especially in the context of today’s rising tuition costs and housing prices.
“It’s unmanageable for a lot of people, even if they’re using loans or doing scholarships,” Menlo said. “It’s just very tough for some people to go to school and pay room and board. I think now co-ops are serving an even more important role than ever before because of the financial situations of a lot of students.”
The co-op movement is about returning power to its members as an act of social justice. NASCO, the ICC, and each co-op are making drastic strides toward that end, each member owning the co-op house they live in, the worker co-ops they work for or the consumer co-ops they buy from.
“Collectively, we own everything,” Menlo said.
Clarification: This article has been updated to define co-ops as including worker and food co-ops in addition to residential co-ops. The headline was also updated to reflect the conference was not only attended by students.