It was one of the last hot days of September, and an impromptu group of people gathered underneath a big “EVERYONE WELCOME” sign on the front of the brand new green and beige building for a press conference. The Seward Friendship store was set to open by the end of the week. It was the new branch of one of the largest co-ops in the country, right on the border of the Bryant and Central neighborhoods in South Minneapolis. The area is both home to a critical mass of the city’s low-income communities and long-time home to many of Minneapolis’ people of color.
The press conference was not without tension. Activists from CANDO, the neighborhood group representing South Minneapolis’ diverse Central neighborhood, had spent all summer knocking on doors trying to get neighbors interested in their petition. At the time, earlier in the summer, chances seemed slim that anything would happen.
“We don’t have any leverage,” one of the CANDO faithful said at a meeting a few months before.
By July, negotiations had fallen apart between the neighborhood groups and The Seward Co-op. The new store on 38th Street was in the heart of the South Minneapolis food desert and along one of the city’s few historically African-American business corridors. For most of the summer, the parties seemed far apart on the key issues: hiring practices that reflected the diverse demographics of the neighborhood and discounts on food and membership for low-income neighbors. In fact, the two sides couldn’t even agree on what to call a potential agreement: CANDO was demanding a CBA (community benefits agreement) while the Seward staffers had, for a while, offered an MBA (mutual benefits agreement).
Neither side was happy with the other’s position, and after a few heated and unproductive community meetings, the official word from Seward was that they were not going to sign anything before the October opening of the new store. Any agreement would wait until next year, months after the crucial hiring had been completed. That timeline did not sit well with concerned neighbors.
Fast-forward a few months, and instead of rancor, the negotiations on 38th Street had reached an unanticipated outcome — an accord among all three parties: the Seward Co-op and Bryant and Central neighborhoods. After a summer of exasperation, the Friendship store was living up to its name.
The turning point
One of the things activists like Bryant neighborhood’s Marjaan Sirdar and Central neighborhood’s Henry Jimenez had said during the long summer of the co-op struggle was that they were frustrated with those who had adopted an all-or-nothing attitude about the co-op.
“It seemed like the people that knew about the store were people that [were already] for it,” Sirdar told me back in May. “It looked like very little representation from the community, and towards the end of a decisive meeting [at Sabathani Community Center], a lot of people that were critical spoke up.”
At the time, the extremes seemed to be winning. As the green “We support the Seward Friendship Store” signs began appearing in yards all throughout South Minneapolis, as the activists from CANDO and other CBA supporters around the city mounted an online campaign to pressure the store, it seemed like two sides were clearly drawn.
The matter seemed headed to an inevitable conclusion — the opening of the new store in October — where either one side would win or one would lose. Either Seward would ignore attempts to forge an agreement, or the neighbors would force the co-op to cave to their demands. There didn’t seem to be much middle ground.
But somehow amidst the rancor, compromise became possible. After all, the two sides did seem to have a lot in common. On the Seward’s explicit “Ends Statement,” its organizing principles made social justice a priority.
Here’s what they say:
Seward Co-op will sustain a healthy community that has:
- Equitable economic relationships;
- Positive environmental impacts; and
- Inclusive, socially responsible practices.
As it turned out, it took a third party to step in and bring the three actors to the table.
“[City Councilmember] Elizabeth Glidden’s office invited a conversation where all three parties could start talking,” Sean Doyle said.
Doyle was one of the key negotiators for Seward, in charge of setting up the procedures and policies for the new store, along with Seward’s outreach facilitator LaDonna Redmond.
“The city hired a facilitator, [and we] had our first meeting on the 20th of August,” Doyle said. “We worked through some underlying tensions at that meeting and got to the things we agreed. We decided we wanted to work towards things [on which] we agreed. That’s really where breakthrough occurred.”
The key factor that allowed the de-escalation and agreement to take place was a shift in terminology. Up to that point, the different sides hadn’t even been speaking the same language — CBA vs. MBA, hiring goals vs. economic needs — and the mediator, Dave Ellis, hosted a series of meetings where the different actors began forming common frames for understanding their goals.
“The de-escalation was really about language becoming common between the co-op and the community,” Ismael Israel explained to me. Israel spent many hours with Jimenez, Sirdar and Doyle from the co-op addressing individual concerns and relationship issues.
Often during heated political debates in Minneapolis or St. Paul, different sides can begin to seem like they are speaking past each other and talking to different audiences. In the case of Seward, many of the sticking points had to do with the pernicious combination of gentrification, race and geography, as the mostly white neighborhoods to the West appeared to be encroaching on the historic communities of color east of the freeway.
Those issues haven’t gone away, as the sometimes heated exchanges during the press conference between long-time and newer residents revealed. But as the different “sides” have begun to speak to each other, a path has emerged that might allow Seward and the community to thread the needle of neighborhood change and inequality.
“How do we broaden access to the store and the amenities it brings along with it?” Israel asked the assembled crowd. “There are other models that exist to address gentrification of a community that is changing in a good way. Liveability is increasing, we just want to make sure community residents don’t get priced out.”
The details of the last minute agreement are pretty simple. All three organizations, Seward Co-op and the Bryant and Central neighborhoods, have agreed to agree. By January, they’ll have an agreement in place that they’ll sign. So far, the details remain cloudy. The only firm commitment so far is that Seward has agreed to hire a “demographer” who will come up with concrete metrics — so-called “demographic parameters” — to measure the progress of the store along specific social goals. Apart from that, the three organizations are committed to discussing other possibilities like needs-based discounts and subsidizing ownership in the co-op for some people.
Also on the list, according to Jimenz, are things like “needs-based support of local businesses, nonprofits and community food systems,” and joint efforts to create “community-based economic development” in order to mitigate the effects of gentrification.
But probably the biggest success so far was has been in the hiring for the new store. To a raucous round of applause, Seward staff announced that 61 percent of the Friendship store’s employees were people of color, far ahead of the Seward’s previous white-majority staffing practices. On top of that, over 50 percent of the new hires lived within a mile of the store, a fact that goes a long way towards alleviating concerns about the impact of the co-op on the neighborhood.
The changing nature of co-op competition
At the heart of the debate between the neighborhood and the co-op that festered all summer was a difference in perspective. The CBA activists demanded social justice outcomes from the new store at the forefront, while Seward spokespeople emphasized the economic viability. And the tension between creating a competitive business and creating positive social change is nothing new. It’s something that co-ops everywhere have struggled with ever since the 1970s, when co-ops first emerged as a cultural force in the Twin Cities.
But unlike shareholder-led corporations, co-ops are democratically owned and controlled by their members. This would seem to suggest that there’s a lot of potential for different kinds of ownership, retail and membership structures. Compared to a traditional profit-driven corporate grocery, the Seward Co-op attempts to balance profitability with other values. At least, that’s the theory.
“There’s no one way co-ops do things,” Dan Nordley said. Nordley, a former board member of the Seward Co-op, runs Triangle Park Creative (where the Daily Planet’s officers are located). Nordley advises a whole range of co-ops, but most of the focus is on food and grocery co-ops, and Nordley’s magazine, “Cooperative Grocer,” offers regular advice to stores around the country.
According to Nordley, the major turning point for retail food co-ops was the emergence of Whole Foods onto the national grocery market during the 1990s. The CEO of the company, whom the New Yorker called a “right-wing hippie,” famously told a national conference of co-op professionals that he would drive them out of business, and the store’s rapid expansion into upscale markets around the country would sell high-end organic products. As profits began pouring in, other retailers followed suit, and now the remaining co-ops have been thrust into a fierce world of US retail competition. These days, co-ops have had to band together to survive, and the wave of co-op expansions into St. Paul’s East Side or South Minneapolis are the latest examples.
“There’s a very interesting landscape right now,” Nordley said. “The competition is very much higher, and we’re a little concerned because we put so much more of our margin devoted to labor than most other businesses. It’s close to 20-24 percent of gross margin that goes towards fair wages. And the product that we sell tends to come from smaller growers, who aren’t being subsidized by the US government.”
The co-op vision is necessarily complex, connecting retail models to the intricate and geographically specific agricultural supply chain in ways that can sometimes be difficult for even the die-hards to understand. For example, glancing at food labels reveals all kinds of subtle differences among food: GMO, organic, grass-fed, free-range and many shades of local. These definitions are finely parsed by co-op members, staff and boards, but the complexity points to the challenge of trying to form a coherent message about reforming the US food system.
Adding the inequalities of Minneapolis’ urban geography onto this food increases the level of difficulty, but it’s a necessary one if co-ops want to live up to their social justice platforms. And Nordley believes that, if it executes its expansion well, the new Friendship store might offer a model for co-ops around the country to break beyond the traditional white, upper middle-class co-op demographic.
“It’s really exciting prospect for most of us,” Nordley said when asked him about the Friendship store. “For years, we have been trying to break out of the kind of classic mode of being a store for really educated people with disposable income, such that they could vote with their dollar for a product. The response from our going into Bryant and Central is a great opportunity and kicked us into action. When I was on the board, it was a very exciting prospect to bring our model of business into a neighborhood that probably would not able to do it on its own.”
Structural change around hiring practices
But if Minneapolis’s long-standing racial inequalities could be overcome by positive words from city or business leaders, the problem would have been solved long ago. Talk is cheap, and despite lots of talk about opportunity disparities around race, class and geography in Minneapolis over the last few years, the gap between white people and people of color in the city has continued to grow.
But with over 60 percent people of color and a similarly large percentage of local employees, the new Seward store flies in the face of Minneapolis’ inability to make progress. How did they pull it off?
“Good well-intentions and perseverance have gotten us to where we are,” Redmond told me at the press conference, “which defied many of the conventions about racial inequality.”
As the Diversity and Community Engagement Manager for Seward, Redmond was at the center of the negotiations.
“There was the threat of escalation from people who are passionate about their community, but the further along we got to shared language, the more it dissipates. The message that CANDO delivered was very critical because it represented a group that hadn’t been happy about the conversation,” Redmond said.
In particular, Redmond focused on specific changes to how new employees were hired at the store, in combination with trainings for existing Seward staff. For example, Redmond had staff go through “intercultural competency training” and “individual inventories”(IDIs) aimed at breaking through problems around whiteness, or the kinds of false universalism that often stand in the way of creating diverse institutions.
“It’s very Minnesota here,” Redmond explained to me. “It’s nice enough, but there’s really a lot of conflict avoidance. Part of training was how do we manage conflict. What the IDI does, it talks about where you are, but also analyzes where you think you are. That gap becomes the pathway the work to get you to what has to be done.”
Redmond describes the current process at the Seward as a “minimization,” where the store’s staff and leadership attempted to move past stereotypes and procedures that seek to make everyone act or speak the same, or to minimize differences. To put these goals into practice, Redmond and the Seward staff had to make specific changes in how they went through interviews, job recruitment and training.
“We took apart the hiring process,” Redmond explained. “That meant the actual application, down to interview questions, who’s in an interview… all of that. Then we looked at the hiring pool. If the hiring pool is mostly white, you’re going to get mostly white staff. If you add more people of color to the hiring pool, the chances of having a POC staff person is bigger.”
As they moved toward a big job fair in the neighborhood, Seward made sure to recruit at the nearby Sabathani Community Center, Waite House and other area gathering spots. The result was the demographics at the new store represent a potentially revolutionary change for Seward, where only last year more than three quarters of staff were white.
The other big structural difference, for Redmond and the other management, was to tweak the skills descriptions in the job description.
“The actual job descriptions, lot of the hiring managers have preferred skills confused with essential skills,” Redmond said. “Looking at making preferred skills and essential skills being open enough so that it doesn’t leave people out. You don’t, for example, have a produce department job that says you need have to have worked 10 years on organic farm. Who does that? You should have some knowledge of produce, but that’s something we can teach you. What you need to be is willing to get up at 5AM to stock shelves, have a tolerance for cold, be able to lift and carry 50 pounds… basic skills. The rest we can teach you. So that opens up a whole pool.”
Putting the pressure on Seward
Now that the store is up and running, an agreement is under way and there’s visible progress towards the ambitious hiring goals, it’s tempting to say that the Seward store is a success story. But the organizers and neighborhood activists that I spoke with want to make it clear that shifts in culture, like Seward’s, don’t happen on their own. They require consistent, stringent and determined pressure from the community.
“Let’s not forget, they didn’t do this out of their own good faith,” Sirdar said. “They did this because we organized and we pushed them.”
Sirdar, who lives just a few blocks from the new store, was one of the key voices in the Bryant neighborhood pressuring the community groups to ale a more aggressive stance toward the co-op. Today, he’s happy about the progress but doesn’t want the community activists or co-op members to let up. A lot is still riding on how the store fits in to the economically fragile neighborhood.
“It took literally up until three days before the store opened to finally make any sort of movement,” Sirdar told me after the press conference was over. “But I’m excited that some progress has been made. Campaign was very effective. Seward should be celebrated about hiring 61 percent people of color. Surely but slowly there is progress, and I want everybody to know that communities can organize and push community agendas. We can win if we stay the course.”
With the details of the agreement still yet to be determined, for activists like Sirdar and Jimenez, it’s not a happy ending, it’s a happy beginning.