Incubators of better democracy

By Cecile Green, co-founder of Round Sky Solutions

This opinion piece was originally published by The Times Argus Online.

Democracy, or government of the people, by the people, for the people, is a concept near and dear to many of our hearts. It represents some of our highest aspirations for our nations. And yet, since the recorded dawn of these ideas, rule of the people, by the people, for the people has been challenged by the implicit, systemic bias that only certain people (races, classes, gender, education or personality style) are really qualified to make and enact decisions that impact the rest. It has taken millennia of untold effort, ongoing bloodshed and fierce determination to grasp this mighty concept that all people can govern themselves and, indeed, are significantly better off for it.

Truth is, there are very real reasons why democracy is challenging. Democracy asks us to integrate multiple, often conflicting, perspectives. One look around our world reveals just how difficult it is for us to hold two sides of a conflict in mind simultaneously, especially when we are emotionally charged or feel threatened in any way. An effective democracy, one capable of harnessing conflicting perspectives, relies on a clear, workable process for integrating charged perspectives. Learning how to integrate conflicting perspectives is a skill best learned through good tools and lots of repetition.

Worker-owned businesses provide a daily sphere within which we can and must practice the skills of democratic participation because we all legally own the organization and must therefore act in the organization’s best interests. Worker ownership, a business model on the rise, is a tradition extending back at least 200 years and has been proven to work across industries and cultures, producing positive societal impacts throughout regions with concentrations of worker ownership.

For example, central Vermont is home to worker cooperatives in industries ranging from construction (Timber Homes and Montpelier Construction) to education (the New School of Montpelier), and from the solar energy industry (Catamount Solar) to leadership development (Round Sky Solutions) and computing (Vermont Computing Cooperative). What’s more, just beyond central Vermont the number of worker co-ops jumps to 14 — five of which just joined the ranks.

Vermont Computing Cooperative, located in Randolph, is a prime example of how cooperatives produce positive social impacts. This central Vermont worker cooperative recently purchased the business from its sole owner, kept the doors open and expanded services to offer a popular gaming center, providing a much needed socializing opportunity for community youth.

All of these worker cooperatives are locally supported by the Vermont Employee Ownership Center and the Green Mountain Worker Co-op Alliance, and nationally by organizations like the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016.

Legal ownership of an enterprise paired with a democratic management process provides us with a powerful opportunity to evolve both our understandings of democracy and our practical communication tools. Through this practice in daily democracy, we have an opportunity to incubate better ways and means of governing ourselves at any scale, thus systemically combatting the pressures to conform to rule by the elite.

Cecile Green, co-founder of Round Sky Solutions, a worker cooperative in Montpelier, is an entrepreneur, experiential philosopher and farmer with more than two decades of experience in entrepreneurial environments.