Training a co-operative enterprise: skills sharing and training

Saturday, 2 June 2012

International Seminar on Co-operative Enterprise: Training a co-operative enterprise: skills sharing and training funded by the European Union programme Youth In Action

Woodcraft Folk hosted a seminar last month on co-operative entrepreneurship, bringing together participants from Belgium, Germany, Austria, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and the UK to have a training seminar on co-operatives, co-operative education and how to set up your own co-operative enterprise.

The training was funded by the European Commission’s Youth in Action programme and celebrated the UN International Year of Co-operatives. EduNet-SDE (Educational Network for Solidarity, Democracy and Equality) were a sponsor of the seminar.

The international group of 28 came together at the idyllic Darsham Country Centre – a converted train station ticket office – in the heart of the Eastern English countryside.

The main objectives of the training were to increase skills and knowledge in the field of co-operative business and enterprise and to create a long-term European network of young co-operative entrepreneurs. This training acted as a springboard for an ongoing co-operative entrepreneurship programme across Europe.

Following this training, the young people were empowered to become project leaders and innovators in their home countries and organisations in educating for co-operative entrepreneurship and enterprise. The seminar also outlined the youthpass certificate programme and europass CVs so that the educators were able to use them in their work if they wished. A week-long programme of non-formal workshops, skill sharing sessions, capacity-building sessions and an informal intercultural social programme were facilitated by a small team of experienced educators from across Europe.

Each participant left with an improvement in their personal competencies, learnt new skills, expanded their intercultural awareness and received concrete examples of good practice in co-operative entrepreneurship as well as the latest European policy in this field.

The ice-breaking activity was modelled around the theme of Eurovision, which took place that week. A Eurovision quiz culminated in the performance of Eurovision classics by small teams over the years. The warm up can be seen here: http://youtu.be/9D4jv73HZmo

After the introduction to the programme of the seminar, the participants took part in a group building activity, where every team member had to get over a waist-high tightrope, without using any props or touching the rope. The participants had to work together and use everyone’s ideas and strengths to be able to complete the activity (on the third attempt). Later in the week, the participants were required to cross a ‘shark-infested river’ as team as part of another group building exercise.

The main aims that came out of the aims, objectives and expectations was that the participants wanted concrete tools to take home to their organisations around co-operative education and to be given the skills, tools and support to set up their own co-operative enterprises in their organisations. The participants also wanted to get to know people from other countries and learn about their other cultures.

When talking about co-operation and the importance, we looked at the flipside, exploring the construct of the free market and how it causes inequality. The participants gave the message strongly that they think co-operation is not about only one element in a person’s life, but living co-operatively on many levels, for example, the way we educate, where we buy our food and how we run our enterprises.

We began the session on co-operative education and non-formal education with exploring what is non-formal education and its key characteristics. The participants did the same for co-operative education and we noticed close parallels between the two.

The participants had the opportunity to share their own experiences on youth employment in their own societies and brought it back to it being a European problem and what we can do to tackle it. This session took place on the beach nearby the centre, at the fantastic suggestions from participants. It gave the participants the chance to change their surroundings and to get out of the seminar room.

We discussed about the history of workers’ co-operatives and how they used to exist but have struggled in more recent times. The participants were given concrete case studies of workers’ co-operatives across Europe, from the UK, Spain, Norway and Serbia and presented them to the rest of the participants with their key functions.

A speaker from the Co-operative movement did a very well received and motivational talk on their co-operatives in a box project, which shows that anyone can set up a workers’ cooperative, even with minimal resources and experience. The question and answers session lasted well into lunchtime. Certainly a highlight of the week for all!

This led into a fruitful workshop on the advantages of co-operatives, which served as a time to round up and reflect on the programme so far. We then made links to co-operative enterprise as active citizenship and what it can give to members in our societies, as well as to members of the co-operatives. By this time the participants’ confidence around setting up their own enterprises had grown significantly and the group has really bonded.

As many of the participants were members of marginalised groups in their own societies, the sessions on inclusion and unemployment in marginalised groups were particularly relevant. Because of the nature of the participants, a lot of these sessions were self-reflecting on their own situations and exploring how co-operative enterprise could benefit them and their sub-communities.

Many of the obstacles that the participants identified to youth co-operative enterprise were around financial support and how a lack of financial support means that they could not start up or support themselves and others in the co-operatives. Another key obstacle was competition from companies without a co-oeprative model. The solutions to these were largely focused on education and the idea of community support and community involvement. The participants felt more confident being able to identify obstacles and think of solutions together.

The skills sharing session was the first of the participant-led sessions. The world café method was adopted for the skills sharing, where questions were placed on each of the café tables and the participants changed every half an hour. This gave the participants the opportunity to mix with everyone else and allowed the team to take a step back.

The participants were split into small groups, mixing up different geographical and socioeconomic backgrounds for the groups they would work in for the next day when working on their co-operative enterprise projects back home. Each group had a mentor from the educational team, who took a passive support role for the participants. The participants took this time to go off to the beach or walk in the countryside to share ideas and the groups took very different approaches to their work, which was fantastic to see!

Each group presented their projects on the final day, which was subject to constructive feedback from the rest of the participants and team. This was extremely valuable and the first step towards finalising their exciting projects!

Some examples of the co-operative enterprises are:

  • A jewellery school for disengaged young people in London
  • A co-operative community allotment project for poor families in Lithuania
  • A co-operatively run minibus company for taking children to school in rural Switzerland

In the evenings the participants took part in a programme that was partly left down for them to self-organise and the rest were around culture sharing. The international food and drinks evening went down very well, even if the marmite from the UK didn’t! The international music and dancing evening was the perfect introduction to the Eurovision party the following night.

The last night came around quickly, where the participants spent the final evening together before travelling home, with lots of new ideas, skills and projects for them to put into action! Hopefully we will see each other again in a follow up seminar to see how the fantastic projects have came into fruition!

This project is funded by EduNet: Education Network for Solidarity Equality and Democracy, The Woodcraft Folk, the Co-operative Group, Darsham Country Centre and Youth In Action European Funding.