I consider myself a permanent student of the cooperative business model, and one thing I can tell you—it can sometimes be a lonely venture. Considering that co-ops helped create and shape America, and continue to do so every day, it’s sometimes disheartening to see how only a handful of schools in the U.S. provide instruction about cooperatives.
Think about how it would impact our reach, our effectiveness, our success if even half of the U.S. population were to receive education about how cooperatives work, the industries we’re involved in, and the good we do.
We can shake our heads and lament the situation and wish it were otherwise. Or we can do something about it.
Many co-ops already have relationships with their area schools, providing electrical safety programs for young kids, the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour and scholarships for high school students, and lineman training at community colleges. But can we take that further and offer our schools a partnership that helps them teach about the cooperative business model?
One program I love was created by the late Brian Kulas, who was the board chair of Medford, Wis.-based Taylor Electric Cooperative and a superintendent of the town’s schools. The initiative, “Cooperatives in Our Schools,” places substitute teachers trained to talk about co-ops into fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms.
Details on the curriculum are on the Taylor Electric website (taylorelectric.org). Take a look and see what you think. I believe Cooperatives in Our Schools has the potential to spread like Operation Round Up, the philanthropy program started by Palmetto Electric Cooperative in South Carolina that is now in place at hundreds of co-ops across the country.
Another program to consider is one I help with as a consultant for the Youth Tour. In 2014, we began offering a 90-minute Youth Tour course about the structure, history, and impact of co-ops. About half of the 1,700-plus students who come to Washington, D.C., each summer take the class. I encourage you to encourage your Youth Tour kids to sign up.
In addition, some universities around the country offer courses about the cooperative business model. President & CEO Vern Dosch and his colleagues at the National Information Solutions Cooperative taught a capstone course about cooperatives and servant leadership at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. I co-teach one at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., with former NRECA and CFC executive Rich Larochelle. The addition of this course was spearheaded by Rappahannock Electric Cooperative CEO Kent Farmer, who serves as an advisor to the business school. Week after week, I see students marvel at the diversity of co-op work in every sector of the U.S. and global economy.
As electric cooperative leaders, you have the influence, the standing, and the resources to get co-ops on the curriculum and help new generations of Americans appreciate what we already know: The co-op business model is the best in the world.
Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can follow him on Twitter @adamcooperative or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.