EJB Talks Podcast

Andrew Zitcer, Ph.D.

Co-Ops: Collective Democracy in Action

November 3, 2022

On this episode of EJBTalks Stuart Shapiro welcomes Bloustein alum and Drexel University Professor, Andrew Zitcer, Ph.D. ’13. Professor Zitcer describes his personal and intellectual journey as a Ph.D. student at Bloustein.  He then discusses his dissertation concentration on cooperative ventures and gives details about what types of co-ops exist from food to health, who they serve, and how they are a physical embodiment of deliberate, participatory democracy. Andrew also talks to Stuart about his continued research on cooperatives with the two discussing his latest book, Practicing Cooperative: Mutual Aid Beyond Capitalism, which uses examples of co-ops in food provision, dance, and health care to illustrate the potential of this form of organization.

 

Stuart Shapiro 
Welcome to EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Interim Dean of the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work my colleagues and this season our alumni, in the fields of policy, planning, and health are doing.

This 30th anniversary year for Bloustein we are focusing on our alums, and the contribution they are making around the world. Today we’re talking to, for the first time this season to one of the alumni of our doctoral program. Andrew Zitcer got his Ph.D. in urban planning and policy from Bloustein and is now a professor at Drexel University. He has a new book, which we will be discussing. Welcome to the podcast, Andrew.

Andrew Zitcer 
Thank you for having me.

Stuart Shapiro 
And so let’s, let’s get started. I know your book grew out of the research you did here for your dissertation. But let’s go back to the beginning of that project and let us know how you got to this topic.

Andrew Zitcer 
Sure. So it actually all began in a course that I was taking at Bloustein with Julia Sass Rubin on nonprofit organizations. It was a fantastic course. And I worked closely with Julia. I think I took all the courses that she offered at Bloustein. And I started to look at a co-op in Philadelphia that I shopped at. And I was curious to know, you know, what are organizations like co-ops good for, both in the sense of what are they good at doing, and why do they pursue an ethical agenda.  You know, why do things the hard way without hierarchy without, kind of, standard business practices? Why do things in a way that is more deliberate, more democratic, and more participatory? And so this journey of comparing two food Co-ops and Philadelphia, ultimately with Julia and others’ encouragement became the Bloustein dissertation and launched me onto the trajectory that ultimately became this book.

Stuart Shapiro 
So probably much of our audience lives in areas where they’ve seen food co-ops, but some probably don’t. So can you sort of explain what you’re talking about when you talk about food co-ops?

Andrew Zitcer 
Yeah, for sure. And I should probably back up and say what is a co-op first? So according to the USDA, a co-op is any business that is owned and controlled by the people who use it, rather than by outside investors. So there are co-ops that are owned by their workers. Those are worker co-ops. There are groups of individual businesses that come together to form a co-op. And they call those marketing co-ops or producer co-ops. You can think of Land-O-Lakes or True Value Hardware or Ocean Spray, where individual business owners collectively marketing their goods,

Stuart Shapiro 
I didn’t realize those companies were co-ops.

Andrew Zitcer 
Yeah, there are a lot of them out there. Shop Rite is one too. The company that owns Shop Rite.  And then there’s the last category is co-ops that are owned by their consumers. And most food co-ops are consumer-owned. So it’s a grocery store that’s owned by the people who shop there who collectively manage and govern the store, though they usually will hire a professional staff to do that work for them. And there are several hundred food co-ops around the United States right now.

Stuart Shapiro 
And it’s this last category that you focused on. 

Andrew Zitcer 
For the first part of the dissertation, I looked at two of the consumer for consumer-owned food co-ops in Philadelphia, and then I extended the research to look at other kinds of cooperative practices and cooperative businesses.

Stuart Shapiro 
Well, that’s a nice segue to my next question. What other types of cooperative ventures did you look at?

Andrew Zitcer
So there were two other cases in the book that I wrote, and the book is called Practicing Cooperation, Mutual Aid Beyond Capitalism and it came out last year. And so the two other kinds of Co-ops that I looked at. One was a community health co-op called POCA, People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture. So they actually have 200 clinics around the country. And it’s more of one of those kinds of producer co-ops in the sense that each clinic is owned by an individual or a small partnership. But together, they govern and manage this collective enterprise of trying to overturn traditional business practices and acupuncture to make them more anti-racist and anti-capitalist through low-cost treatments and treating people in groups in order to lower the cost and create a sense of community. So POCA was one of the cases that I looked at. And there are, a large-scale national cooperative of many, many clinics.  And then the last case that was in the book was something called Headlong Dance Theater, which…

Stuart Shapiro 
Yeah, that one I was surprised by.

Andrew Zitcer 
Yeah, well, it’s a little different because they’re a nonprofit, but they’re collectively managed and collectively governed. And so in that case, it is a dance company where three founding co-directors, both did all the choreography and the dancing in the company. but also ran the administrative work of the company. And they ran it like a collective where each, each person had a democratic say, and how, how the company would be run. And that case became very important to me because I wanted to look at cooperation as an embodied practice. And when you think about dance, you can easily make the leap to thinking about embodiment, and the role of bodies and cooperation.

Stuart Shapiro 
Did you use “make the leap” there as a deliberate pun? Or was that accidental?

Andrew Zitcer 
Probably a little bit of both. ((laughing)) In the back of my head, I’m always thinking about… In the book, I have these wonderful diagrams that the dancers drew on, where they drew on these human figures about what did it feel like to dance in this company. And they often talk about seeing behind you, or carrying the weight of the back or dancing and making the leap. And so those metaphors are always in hand for me.

Stuart Shapiro 
OK ((laughing)) They’re always nearby. Yeah, that’s why I always use sports metaphors. Because that’s where my brain is half the time. So what sort of general lessons from these three cases did you draw? And no spoilers because we want people to buy the book. But generally speaking…

Andrew Zitcer 
I won’t give it all away. So I sort of rather than organizing the book on a case-by-case basis, where each chapter was a different case, I was advised to think of a structure that would tie things together and kind of create a united narrative. And after spending some time with the early drafts of the manuscript, it came to me that the thing that was really standing out was the idea of scale. And that cooperatives happen at different scales. And so I mentioned already that the most intimate scale of cooperation is the way it happens within and beyond the body. So I have a whole chapter on practices of the body. And then I started to think that when bodies are in alignment, you can talk about labor practices and work collective work and co-ops. So you can think of the hundreds of volunteers and the staff members in a food co-op working together to try to bring off this cooperative project.  Then from scaling of work, I thought to scaling of economy. And I looked at some work on community economies and solidarity economies, and how cooperative ventures sort of participate in making a new alternative economy to the mainstream of what we sort of endure under capitalism. And then lastly, inspired by Bob Lake’s work on democracy and creative democracy, and Dewey, I started to think about cooperatives as bringing about a practice of cultural and creative democracy.  So that is what ties all these cases together. It allows me to speak in each chapter to each case, the way these co-ops are all sort of part of a new cooperativism, meaning that they don’t necessarily all have to be co-ops in the incorporated business sense. But they are mission-driven organizations that operate collectively to overcome individualism and the structures that we’ve inherited in our political economy.

Stuart Shapiro 
Yeah, Professor Lake was on the podcast previously. One of our best episodes in my view is a great guest and alluded to some of the stuff that you just, you just spoke to when we talked. What are the implications of your work for urban planners and public policymakers? I have to ask cause that’s what we do.

Andrew Zitcer 
Absolutely. Well, there are a few. So both of the food co-ops that I studied in this book are anchors of their commercial corridors and some of the most sustained long-standing businesses in their neighborhood. And in some cases, they help to organize or support the other businesses around them. So in Weavers Way co-op, a very legendary co-op in Mt Airy, Northwest Philadelphia, they’re part of anchoring a business district called Mt. Airy Village. And when there were hard times, recession and construction, things going on, on the commercial corridor, it was Weavers Way that organized the other businesses and did a frequent shopper card events and fairs and other things to try to continue to drive business to that corridor.  And the other co-op, Mariposa, has a community program, where you can give money at the register to support layer various community charities, and community social projects. And there’s that anchoring effect where they’re helping out other businesses as part of the cooperative principles.

The other implication for planning and public policy, I would say is that there are also community development and workforce development implications for co-op. I would say that these are enterprises that planners should want to have in their communities.  When done right. They support local purchasing local democracy and stem the tide of gentrification and exploitation and I was recently part of a group that was thinking about small businesses and succession and how there’s going to be what they call the silver tsunami of retirees, and how so many of these don’t have succession plans. And instead, if we could turn them into worker-owned cooperatives, we could take the employees that currently work for these businesses, and transition from the ownership model to a more cooperative model. So I see lots of potential implications for planning and public policy in the cooperatives here.

Stuart Shapiro 
So the economist in me asks, you know, is there a way for communities to incentivize that type of succession planning that you talk about?

Andrew Zitcer 
Well, I was working in that context with Philadelphia’s Commerce Department, and they were offering grants to businesses for technical assistance and support in making that transition. So I think coming in and working with them offering, you know, small grants for things like facade improvements, or overall store renovations, at the same time that they’re thinking about the succession planning, can incentivize these businesses who also have a deep desire to not lose the legacy. Especially in black and brown communities where they’ve built these businesses over generations not to lose that legacy, as soon as the owner is retiring or they’re dying unexpectedly.

Stuart Shapiro 
That’s great. So and to get back to Professor Lake, certainly I know one of the things we talked about, and you know, your book has the word cooperation in the title. So it led me to sort of ask, you know, in your research, as you talk to the people in these ventures, you know, in a time where conflict seems rife everywhere, you know, what’s, what’s your answer to the question? Why can’t we all just get along? And how do we get more cooperation?

Andrew Zitcer 
Yeah, no, it’s a difficult question. It’s a question that’s really at the heart of the inquiry that I tried to establish throughout the course of the book. And so I would say that that to diagnose the problem a little bit, I would say, you know, one of the philosophers that I look at in the book is the Scottish American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. And he really decries the state of what he calls modern liberal individualism, and that atomistic focus on the self, and the needs and desires, and wants of individuals as opposed to thinking about more collective structures of power and influence that we could form in our communities and beyond. And complimentary to that in a book called Undoing The Demos, philosopher Wendy Brown, says that everyone has been remade in the image of economic man, and that democracy is impaired when everything has turned into a transaction. Right? So that this has affected politics, education, the workplace and the body, sort of all of the scales that I mentioned in the book have been implicated by this economizing and hollowing out of democracy that we’ve experienced since the 1970s.  And so we need to have a more reinvigorated democracy. And I think that cooperation is a path towards that.

And so I think it starts as I think, John Dewey would say, and as I think probably Bob Lake would say, I think it starts with education. You know, we need to be teaching, about solidarity and teaching about cooperation in our schools. In fact, one of the co-ops that I worked with in the dissertation actually helped start small co-op businesses in elementary schools, where students were working together to sell products to their peers, and then reinvest the dividends that they made back into the enterprise and then give the proceeds to charity. And so I think that we really need to think carefully about democracy in education, democracy in the workplace, democracy in the family, and democracy back into our politics. And I think a lot of that starts with really having deep and sustained dialogues about what we share and what we want to contribute to a kind of practice of democracy to go back to the title or practice of cooperation, to go back to the title of the book.

Stuart Shapiro 
Yeah. Nicholas Lemann, book Transaction Man actually sort of talks about some of this from a historical perspective and the movement and, and rise, of homo economicus if you will.  All right, let’s get back to the practical for the students here. Not that the other stuff was impractical. It absolutely was. But the sort of more student-focused stuff. What advice do you have for those starting their doctoral journey? You are a success. You’re a professor at Drexel. What would you tell students coming into doctoral programs now? 

Andrew Zitcer 
Yeah, so I just want to start off by saying that my time at the Bloustein School was just one of the most amazing intellectual and personal journeys that I’ve had in my life. And I really credit my advisors and mentors at the Bloustein School for helping turn me into the academic, the person, the man that I am today, and I just don’t have any higher praise than to send interested graduate students to the Bloustein School whenever I can. So….

Stuart Shapiro 
… We did not instruct Andrew to say that on this podcast… (laughing)

Andrew Zitcer 
No, no money changed hands! That’s heartfelt. But I would say the first and most important thing for doctoral programs is to find the right fit, not necessarily the best name school on your list. It’s not about the ranking, it’s about the fitting. And so do the research to find the right advising, look for compassionate people, warm and caring people and people who will be attentive to you, because your interests might change over the course of your doctoral program, but that relationship piece will be sustained. 

When I first started my doctoral program at Bloustein, I thought I was going to write about arts and culture and urbanism. And I have continued after that to write about arts and culture, but I found this interest in cooperation and cooperative practices as well. And my advisors in the program were extremely supportive of that, that trajectory of that project. And so it was when I first interviewed at Bloustein. I knew meeting Kathe, Bob, James, Julia, and others, I would be supported in all of the intellectual range and intricacy of my ideas, and I would be challenged. And so that was really an amazing thing.

So start to look when you are applying for graduate programs for that right fit. And those people who show that they really will care instead of keeping their door closed, and kind of only dealing with you on a need-to-know basis.  And then the last thing I would say is that one of the best things I ever did was read in a how-to guide for graduate students that one of the things you should do if you want to start your publishing career is to ask your advisor, what projects have they not finished, that they’re looking for help with finishing? And so I went to Bob Lake in about 2010, and said, “You know, I’ve got a little bit of my way through the program, but I’m not all the way done. I know a few things about a few things. Is there anything that I can help you with?” And he and I co-authored two articles, and to this day, I’m extremely proud and honored to be able to have said that I collaborated with him on those projects. And that kickstarted my publication career, even before I was out of graduate school with some really high-quality thoughtful publications that are still racking up a lot of citations today.

And so I recommend once you’re in the program, to go around to the people who you admire and say, Is there anything I can help you with? Because it will be good for them to get stuff off their plate that they’ve been trying to do and it will introduce you to the work of academic publishing in a way that is meaningful and gives you that kick start.

Stuart Shapiro 
That’s excellent advice. Thank you for that, Andrew, and thank you very much for coming on the podcast.

Andrew Zitcer 
Thank you so much for having me.

Stuart Shapiro 
Also, a big thank you to our production team, Amy Cobb and Karyn Olsen doing this despite having a huge amount of work last week on the 30th anniversary of the school. We will see you next week with another talk for another expert from the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe

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