Remember me? The guy who set off on this amazing trip to visit the legendary co-ops of the Basque Country and then disappeared off the face of the earth? Yeah. That’s the one.
I promise that I will get back to the lessons I learned from the trip, but first I feel compelled to give an update about why I dropped out of contact, and about the conference I’ve just attended.
I must confess that I occasionally fantasized about “losing” my passport and applying for a job stocking shelves at Eroski, but I am actually back in the United States. Cincinnati, to be exact. Norwood, to be really exact (more on that later). It has been a really mind-blowing week. I’ve gone from misery to bliss, with lots of stops along the way.
By the end of the Mondragon trip, we were all exhausted. When our final presenter sensed how whupped we were, he came out and asked what we wanted to do. I asked him to maybe just show us pictures of kittens for a while. No such luck; we got another PowerPoint.
After Mondragon, I still had three weeks of travel, starting with the Christian Community Development Association conference. It was utterly unrestful, and in retrospect I should have given myself more opportunity for rest and reflection.
In any case, it was a heckuva conference. I attended workshops with and about a whole host of inspiring projects.
Northern California Urban Development opened the Community Trust Credit Union in East Palo Alto, Calif. (an island of poverty in one of the nation’s most wealthy areas).
The Georgia Avenue Food Co-op of Atlanta is providing a mutual-aid-based alternative to the impersonal lines at food pantries, providing transformative opportunities for personal growth through shared work. They now have 5 separate cooperatives of up to 50 families each.
Rebuilding the Wall, based in the radical hotbed of Indianapolis, gave a presentation on non-hierarchical organizing, and their work creating homeownership opportunities through work exchange.
At each of these workshops, there were many other interested people with related projects. In most cases, I was only able to connect with a fraction of the people who caught my attention. I also missed several workshops that specifically connected to cooperatives, due to scheduling conflicts. All in all, it confirmed my suspicion that cooperative energy is building in the evangelical movement. There is too much going on for me to catalog, let alone fully understand.
Everything was huge, as there were well over 2000 attendees. The conference was very productive and also very very hard. I spent most of the time spiraling into a combination spiritual/professional crisis that utterly kicked my butt.
I met great people and made some very important connections. Unfortunately, the size meant that there was a pretty good chance that I would never see them again over the course of the conference. That was a bit frustrating.
The worst thing was the building; don’t ever have an event at the Duke Energy Center. It is built like an airport without the planes (or hope of ever leaving), or like a mall without anyplace to shop (although there was a food court with some pretty good soul food). It is built on a completely inhuman scale. Even the basic meeting rooms have 20-foot ceilings. On the link above they have a little slide show meant to be flattering; but notice the size of the exit doors at the bottom of the exterior shot and the teeny little specks at the far end of the 40,000 s.f. “ballroom.” It is the most soul-crushing space in which I have ever spent time – let alone four days. I know that there aren’t many other places to gather 2000+ people, but I think that is just evidence that such huge gatherings are problematic.
After a few days of growing discomfort with my surroundings, my situation was aggravated by a health problem at the home of my planned host for the second part of the visit. So I had to start looking for a hotel room, which was not going to help my need for positive space in which to recuperate. I think that was what finally spun me into my little internal crisis. It got pretty dark for a while there.
Then, in the middle of a technical-difficulty-plagued book signing event, I was rescued.
A friend of a friend of my first host showed up and said I could stay at 1801 Mills (I’m now on the top floor, in the room with the portholes). 1801 is part of a loose intentional community surrounding the old St. Elizabeth’s Church. The church building was purchased by a network of house churches called Vineyard Central, which has a fascinating organizational structure that I want to understand better. 1801 is also home to thousands of books, some great art, and a veritable espresso museum. The community also has plans to reopen a cafe as a sort of work-training cooperative.
It is a blissfully comfortable space, and built totally on a human scale. While I was getting my initial tour I just about cried with relief. It’s been a powerful lesson in how important physical space and structure can be.
So now I’m all recuperated from my overwhelming conference adventure and dark night of the soul (I once again know what I want to be when I grow up!), and I’m ready for tonight’s panel with Interfaith Business Builders, Cooperative Janitorial Services, and Equal Exchange.
Then it’s off to Pittsburgh for me, and a week of nothing scheduled. That will give me plenty of time to write more about my travels in the Basque Country and the Rust Belt.