DEI

First Steps

I started on the board during a pivotal time in our nation, having my first zoom training with Glenn & Kate in June 2020.

In the same month, George Floyd was murdered. It brought light to a flame that is still burning—the Black Lives Matter movement. The world watched as a man screamed for life, his mother. and uttered his last words: “I can’t breathe”. Those 9 mins and 29 seconds caught on video shook the country, awakening awareness in some, and a reminder to others.

Some of us took to the streets to protest, others got more involved in their community, many just continued the work they were already doing, some ignored, and others remained numb. In our community, flames were caught. As a board, we began to discuss Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion–JEDI–as it related to the Co-op. 

As we mapped out what it would look like, the board decided to create a committee that would lead the charge. In March of this year, I became Chair of the Justice Equity Diversity Inclusion (JEDI) Committee for the Middlebury Natural Foods Cooperative. Since becoming chair, I observed the committee’s eagerness and desire to act and came up with a plan. Seeing this eagerness, I took a step back and reflected. I wrestled internally as I asked myself how we can “be the change” in this new space. How do we move the focus from deliverables and concrete results to regrouping and starting inward? Can we do this alone? Do we need facilitators? How do we create a safe space so we can process & be honest? Where do we begin?  

Thus, I heard the call – we began inward. This included a mix of activities that allowed us to work on our own biases hidden in plain sight. Our refocus became a process of unlearning together, learning together, sharing together, creating a safe space, to be honest, and process together.  

As a committee, we continue to connect, build trust, and reflect. Our first step was a retreat this June where we created a safe space for everyone to reflect on their own privilege and experiences. As the facilitator, I lead by inviting everyone to be present, talk about their own privilege and fears around this work through a series of activities.

This is just the very beginning; we know this is the work of lifetimes to repattern and know ourselves first.  We are invested in doing the work for ourselves, as a board, staff, and the Co-op. What will it look like years from now?  We have no clue, but we are committed to showing up together to keep taking that first step over and over to do the work.

Esther Thomas is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

Unlearning and Re-learning – Engaging with Justice, Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity

On January 16th the Board of Directors of the Coop met for its yearly day-long retreat. Glenn Lower, General Manager of the MNFC, Greg Prescott, Operations Manager, and Victoria DeWind, Staff Liaison, also participated. We had two 3-hour sessions, facilitated by Jade Barker in the morning and Michael Healy in the afternoon. Jade and Michael are two facilitators from Columinate, a consulting cooperative. Michael has worked with us for many years and knows us well — the board, the store, and our history.

This day together is always a way for us to get to know each other a bit better and also to dive deep into a topic that we decide in the months leading up to the retreat. Last year’s outcome was a new Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) policy. We all felt that that was the first step in ongoing, necessary, and crucial work. During the year, exceptional in so many ways, we all read more, individually and in groups, did workshops and discussed in many different settings issues of access, race, privilege, inclusion, and justice.

We decided to continue that work at the retreat, and, in the morning, Jade helped us deepen our understanding of how our society puts people of color at a great disadvantage, from every point of view. Here are two of the questions she asked us to reflect on and discuss: Why talk about race? What makes it difficult? We watched a video titled “How the Racial Wealth Gap was Created” that analyzed Redlining, difficult to watch, and important to know and digest. She then talked with us about what she has learned about race and food coops. I, personally, learned so much not only from the stories she shared but also from the way she led the session. One sentence she said keeps resurfacing in my mind and encouraging me to stay open: “Everyone has a piece of the truth.”

In the afternoon, Michael helped us reflect on the morning session, on the past year of unlearning and re-learning and to plan for what’s next. One of the outcomes of the retreat is the realization that this is, as one of the board members described it, an iterative process, it starts and it keeps going. We, therefore, decided to create a JEDI Committee (Justice, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) to do more research and continue discussions, and then advise and keep encouraging and shifting the Board towards more just practices.  The JEDI Committee had its first meeting in early February and is being chaired by new board member Esther Thomas.  As the committee un-learns and re-educates itself and brings this to the Board, the Board then supports Glenn in turning ideas into practices on the ground in the Coop.

The yearly retreat is something we all look forward to, for the space and time it provides to work “con calma,” as we say in Italian, slowly and calmly. This was our first retreat on Zoom and, despite the concerns we had and the lack of physical togetherness (and missing the Coop’s food…), it worked very well. If I can speak also for the other board members, we always come out of the retreat with a strong sense of connection and commitment, new ideas, and fresh energy.

Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

Racial Justice and Your Co-op

Sadly, the news is full of incidents of racial injustice across our country, including here in Vermont. Are you surprised by this? Check out this excellent program on VPR’s Brave Little State entitled, Why is Vermont So Overwhelmingly White?, and hear from several people of color living in Vermont sharing their often sad and shocking experiences.

At your Co-op, we are committed to supporting black, indigenous, and people of color in our community.  Everyone is welcome at the Co-op as we strive to create a safe and welcoming environment for customers and staff.  I’m happy to report that in our most recent data analysis of the random customer surveys connected to your receipts, in the last three months, 99% of 280 customers who answered the survey chose a 5 (out of 5) for saying they feel welcome at the Co-op.  Of course, we know there are still some people who do not always feel welcome, so we won’t rest on our laurels.  

I last reported on our work early this past summer when we held a fundraiser for the local chapter of the NAACP in Rutland, raising $25,000 to support their work. Since then, and despite the challenges of COVID, we have been busy educating ourselves about systemic racism and working toward becoming a more welcoming co-op for all members of our community.   

Here are some of the concrete actions we’ve taken in recent months:

  • Several board members and I recently participated in the six-month Abolitionist Challenge designed for food co-op staff and board members across the country. Each month we read a different book on racial justice, and then over 100 of us met to discuss these via Zoom.
  • As a regional spin-off from the group above, our Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) convened a smaller group of GMs and board members to meet monthly to share what steps our co-ops are taking toward this community challenge. NFCA is made up of over 30 co-ops in New England.  Much of the talk is about how to lead in being more welcoming.  I appreciate Hunger Mt. Co-op saying, “we respect differences, honor each person, value unique stories, and seek to learn from each other.  We succeed when you feel this is your co-op.”  And City Market saying, “we have to start doing justice work for the demographics we have, whatever they are, and lead from a place of ethics and justice.”
  • The Middlebury Co-op Board of Directors just had their annual retreat in January which was focused on increasing education about racism and its impacts, then thinking about the next steps. We’ll talk more at the January board meeting and will report back to co-op member-owners.
  • On the national stage, food co-ops across the country are exploring how to work together to build a positive and inclusive culture that values a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and identities.
  • Despite the challenges of COVID with no in-person meetings, your Co-op managers and assistant managers began a series of trainings with Renee Wells, the Director of Education for Equity and Inclusion at Middlebury College, focused on how to handle microaggressions when they occur in the Co-op. Next, we plan to do trainings with all staff via Zoom in the coming months. 
  • Co-op staff have been having open conversations as well as book groups on racial justice and unconscious bias for the past two years. Recently we bought 10 copies of Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.  We believe that self-learning is a powerful first step toward an antiracist community. Other books we’ve explored together include White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, So you want to talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo,  and My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem.

Since all white people are a product of racist culture, I realize we have a lifetime of work to unlearn racist attitudes and behaviors. I’m understanding more and more that we are on a life-long journey of learning that has no discernable end, but which is moving us closer to a more equitable and inclusive society.  We invite you to join us on the journey and share your ideas on how we might reach our goal of creating a welcoming and inclusive Co-op for everyone.

Glenn Lower is the General Manager of Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op

A Yearly Get-Together – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

On a cold Saturday on January 26th, the Board of Directors of the Co-op met for a day-long retreat, as it does every winter. Part of the group was also Glenn Lower, General Manager of the MNFC, Greg Prescott, Operations Manager, Karin Mott, Marketing, Education and Membership Manager, Emily Landenberger, Assistant Marketing, Education and Membership Manager, and Victoria Dewind, Board/Staff Liaison. Michael Healy was also with us. He is a facilitator from Columinate (a consulting cooperative) who has worked with us many times and who helps us stay on track and keep our eyes on our objectives.

Besides our monthly board meetings and the occasional committee meetings, once per year, we get together to delve deep into a topic that, over the course of the previous year, has been on our minds and that we would like to discuss and explore further. This year the topic was Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Glenn, the managers, and the whole staff have been and are already doing a lot in terms of discussion and action to better serve the community. What we wanted to explore was how to look at the issue of DEI from the point of view of the board. Looking at our Ends, Policies, Executive Limitations, what more can we do to better support the staff of MNFC in their work for creating an increasingly diverse, equal, and inclusive store?

In the words of Michael Healy, the main goal of the retreat was “to decide whether we should amend the current Ends policy to more specifically articulate our values about diversity, equity, and inclusion.” It was a “safe strategic conversation:” We wanted to think and discuss an issue that is so thoroughly connected to what the Co-op does. For many hours we talked freely and we listened carefully, working in small groups and then all together. Having members of the staff there made all the difference: they gave us invaluable input and “kept us real” when we strayed in abstract territories… At the end of these conversations, we agreed that we should add specific language about DEI in our policies. This would make it a stated goal, on which the General Manager would have to report and that the Board of Directors would have to monitor. The work is not done, stay tuned.

Another goal for the retreat was to “enjoy each other’s company and build a collaborative spirit (but we could also say “cooperative spirit”!)”,  and enjoy each other we did! Every time I participate in one of these retreats, I am amazed by the kind of work and connection that happens when such a safe space gets created (and when delicious Coop food is provided!).

Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member