Seward Co-op’s Friendship Store and “Community Benefits”

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6 thoughts on “Seward Co-op’s Friendship Store and “Community Benefits”

  1. Would have been nice to know where the store is located, when it is projected to open, any name of a member of the group “At the Roots”, or the number of members of that group or any bit of the group’s history.

    Will there be a “Part 2” to follow this story?

    • I can answer your first two questions. The store is under construction now on 38th St. across the street from Sabathani Community Center. It is projected to open in the fall of this year.
      I tried to find out more about “At the Roots.” I hesitate to name any members, because having no official organization, it’s hard to “prove” that someone is a member. Especially if the said person was now unhappy about the group, there would be negative consequences to their name being published as a member. Also, the history is not a matter of public record, and would be more in the category of rumor. As far as I can ascertain, the group had several public events about a year ago and has done nothing public since then. Their website is little more than a stub. Several people showed up at the BNO meeting who were purported to be associated with them, but since they didn’t claim that association, I will not report it. The YouTube video I alluded to is one of a series and is findable by searching, but I will not link to it.

  2. Below is a letter I wrote to Southside Pride as a commentary on this article.

    Dear Mr. Felien

    I am writing to respond to the article in May’s On-line Southside Pride, “Seward Co-op’s Friendship Store and “Community Benefits” by Debra Keefer Ramage. I love the idea of Seward moving into my neighborhood. I and my wife are members and we have shopped there for many years. The prospect of an excellent grocery within walking distance is wonderful. Also, the fact that a $32 million corporation is moving into the neighborhood has incredible potential. I worked across the street from the new store’s location at Sabathani Community Center for 16 years. I have been living 12 blocks from the new store location for the past 12 years. There has been nothing of this size with so much potential in this neighborhood since I have been here and, I believe for many years before that.

    To be clear and transparent, I am an advocate for the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). When I read the article in May’s issue, I felt strongly that it presented a distorted picture of an important community discussion that Seward would rather avoid. The narrative is one that we heard before from Seward. Here, Seward is valiantly trying to work with the neighborhood and various agitators and unorganized groups are attempting to thwart this good faith effort. I felt that this narrative needed to be challenged with, what to me is the truth as I experienced it. I would like to do two things: First, correct the inaccuracies in the article based on my experience and research and second, share a letter I wrote to Seward after the April 25th BNO meeting and Seward’s response. These items tell volumes about Seward’s perceptions and (ad) vantage point.

    First the article: My concern relates to the fruits of the writer’s “digging” and what she revealed about what was “lurking in the background”. It is also disappointing to me that a writer for Southside Pride would do such shallow work in their research. Ms. Ramage seemed to take the narrative unquestioningly from Seward spokespeople and never talked to anyone from “At the Roots” or CANDO. It seemed that this entire tactic was meant to discredit the idea of a CBA, the process used to develop this and the neighbors who are advocating for it. Unfortunately, my experience and research contradicts what was reported and also reveals many inaccuracies. Here are a few:

    • CBA’s are not new (I’m not sure why “trendy” was used). According to the paper, “Community Benefits Agreements” by the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability CBA’s were used as important tools for community benefit as early as 2001 in Los Angeles, CA. Many Minneapolis communities and organizations have used these over the last 15 years including Harrison, Longfellow, the University Avenue Community Coalition in St. Paul, the African American Action Committee in Brooklyn Park, Longfellow Community Council, Northside Residents Redevelopment Council and the Digital Inclusion Coalition which benefitted many area residents regarding the Minneapolis Wi-Fi system.

    • The author’s assertion that: “the idea of seeking to impose a CBA on Seward Co-op runs into some rather obvious problems. Seward is not private, not a developer, and not receiving any public money” is not accurate. Seward is a $32 million corporation. It received $300,000 in tax credits on the promise of hiring “minorities” from the neighborhood.

    • The author calls into question the opposition’s status as an organization and asserts that the group does not represent the community: “The group calling for a CBA, which is called “At the Roots,” has no local government support, is not a coalition (has, as far as I can see, no organizational standing at all), and is not representative of the majority of the communities it claims to speak for.” Here again this entire comment is not accurate. The group advocating for a CBA is CANDO, the recognized neighborhood participation organization in Central neighborhood. A the Roots was a grassroots group of neighbors that began the process of collecting community thoughts on Seward. We went door-to-door, held community townhall meetings and even hosted a Barbeque to which Seward contributed some food. CANDO continued this process of gather community voice from stakeholders who saw the potential of Seward and also knew the track record of big corporations parachuting into low income neighborhoods composed mostly by people of color and causing a displacement of existing residents. We had extensive discussions, informed by legal counsel, on the strength of this CBA. CANDO agreed to shoulder the responsibility of being the community signer. Once the CBA is signed by two corporations, it has the binding force of law. This apparently frightens Seward.

    • CANDO managed an extensive community participation process to produce the document. Far from being “boilerplate”, the items bubbled up from the community through door knocking, phone interviews, community barbeques, a community survey and open community meetings. I know. I participated in all of these strategies. The draft CBA was shaped at many open meeting to ensure we captured the community’s voice and goals.

    • The author repeats a familiar dodge that Seward has used to avoid serious discussions with CANDO: “To make its case even more tenuous than it already is, it has made up for its lack of cohesive organization by engaging in bizarre “PR” tactics, such as producing a series of YouTube videos with repulsive, racially-charged libels against Seward Co-op staff members.” This concoction is entirely false. Yes, a video was made. And yes, it showed Seward in an unflattering light. However, this was a “lone wolf” operation that had nothing to do with CANDO, At the Roots, or the stakeholders that supported the CBA. Seward has called this “libelous” and announced that it produced a “toxic environment”. All of that may be true but it has nothing to do with the CBA or CANDO. I think Sean and Seward ought to deal with the creator of the video directly and not use this as an excuse.

    • The author also provides a false impression that Seward is “still participating with two neighborhood organizations, Bryant’s BNO and Central’s CANDO, in a task force to work out what they are calling a Mutual Benefits Agreement. “ In fact, Seward has never talked with CANDO. At this time, Seward unilaterally suspended talks with BNO as well. There are no talks or negotiation happening at this time.

    • The author claimed to be at the BNO community meeting on April 25 but failed report on the utter disrespect Seward showed the community by engaging in a one way conversation.

    • The author could not identify any special obligations Seward has to the Bryant/Central community. If a coop does not have any special obligations to a community in which it builds, can it really be considered a coop?

    The final points in the article contain descriptions of progress Seward has made. That’s great. All we ask is that Seward agree with the community on a specific set of objectives and then be accountable for achieving them. That is all the CBA is.

    I would like to share the letter I wrote to Seward after the April 25th meeting and Seward’s response written by Sean Doyle. I saw a couple of glaring things: 1) Sean did not reply to any point I made about disrespect and courtesy. 2) Sean’s characterization of the purpose of the meeting is not the same as the author of the Southside Pride article. She writes, “And when I heard that Seward Co-op would be presenting a progress report at the Bryant Neighborhood Organization meeting on Saturday, April 25, I decided to attend as an observer and learn more about it.” Sean writes to me that “Seward Co-op was invited to attend the meeting by BNO. BNO created the agenda and allotted the co-op 30 minutes. We were asked to present information about the history of co-ops and our ownership and leadership structure. We were also asked to present on our initiatives that have been created in response to neighborhood concerns – Hiring Strategy, Nourish, etc. We were unable to cover everything we set out to do.” All of us were at the meeting to hear this progress report. BNO executive committee said that Seward was given one hour and then one half hour for questions. 3) Apparently, Sean’s idea of community is a bit stunted. He says, “Activists, including yourself, who do not reside in Bryant Neighborhood decided to come and disrupt this meeting.” Apparently, my residence 12 blocks away and my commitment to the community for the past 20 years qualify me as an outside agitator.

    My letter –
    Dear Seward Coop

    I attended the BNO community meeting about Seward on Saturday, April 25. This was a disaster. About 30 people attended. I suspect almost everyone in the room expected to have a meaningful discussion about the Coop, the “Friendship Store” and, in particular, what Seward and the community were doing to assist neighborhood residents who could benefit from the new store. What we got instead was a drawn out PowerPoint on coops and a bunch of platitudes that we heard before.

    We also heard some “new” information about an Appreciative Inquiry Process and a Mutual Benefits Agreement that apparently was being negotiated with BNO and Seward facilitated by Lissa Jones. Lissa appears to have a joint role as consultant to Seward and to BNO.

    The Mutual Benefits Agreement and the Appreciative inquiry Process were confusing to me, and, I dare say to others at the meeting. Since CANDO used a highly developed community involvement process to develop goals and objectives for the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), why do we backtrack and set up an alternative process with the adjacent neighborhood organization to do the same thing? It seems to me that in working with BNO, Seward has effectively driven a wedge between neighboring community organizations. This is not wise. The voice of the neighbors was accurately recorded already. Let’s move forward from there.

    An example of the kind of remark for Sean that we heard before is his lauding the 32% goal for people of color employed by Seward by 2018. We heard this at Sabathani and other times. We point out that the neighborhood is comprised of 77% people of color. 32% doesn’t “reflect the community. Seward’s management team also does not reflect the community with all but the new manager of the “Friendship Store” being white and almost all of them male.

    The most distressing aspect of the meeting was the apparent disrespect shown by Sean Doyle and Lissa Jones toward members of the neighborhood who wanted to have dialogue about the Mutual Benefits Agreement. First, when a neighbor pointed out that the model that Seward had on its PowerPoint seemed to leave out community, Sean’s reaction was that Seward must comply with regulations and the “funky” dirty coops that characterized the beginning of the coop movement could not comply with these rules. Just about all of us were shocked by the apparent equating of reflecting community and “funky” and dirty stores.

    Additional disrespect was heaped on those who wanted to continue the discussion with Sean and LaDonna after the supposedly allotted time was done. Both Lissa and the BNO chair abruptly and forcefully shut down the conversation. After sitting through the platitudes which we had heard before, we were not allowed to dig deeper and try to get additional information. It felt as though no community discussion was wanted by those in charge. No matter who engineered this, it did not look or feel good. It left a bad taste in our mouths as we left.

    I look forward to the new store coming to my neighborhood. I plan to shop there. At the same time, it is critically important to me that the Coop and the new store actually live up to its stated ideals and reflects the community – on the community’s terms – not its own terms. Please demonstrate greater openness to hear us and address the issues and objectives detailed in the CBA.

    Seward’s response:
    Hello Art

    Thanks for your comment. I think all who attended agree that the Bryant Neighborhood Organization (BNO) spring meeting on April 25 did not turn out well. Seward Co-op was invited to attend the meeting by BNO. BNO created the agenda and allotted the co-op 30 minutes. We were asked to present information about the history of co-ops and our ownership and leadership structure. We were also asked to present on our initiatives that have been created in response to neighborhood concerns – Hiring Strategy, Nourish, etc. We were unable to cover everything we set out to do.

    It appears to us that activists, including yourself, who do not reside in Bryant Neighborhood decided to come and disrupt this meeting. You were successful in that effort. BNO was not able to have a conversation with their residents in the manner that they had planned. I think your choice as a resident of Regina neighborhood (others came from all over the city) to disrupt this meeting, and your tone in this email, speaks volumes to your lack of respect for meaningful community dialogue.

    After this meeting BNO and Co-op leadership sat down to discuss how we would like to move forward with developing a Mutual Benefits Agreement. BNO wants time to regroup as an organization. The immediate focus of the Co-op is the Friendship store. This is a practical matter, the store is slated to open in less than six months. We decided that any further conversation regarding the creation of a MBA would be postponed until after the store opens. We need to focus on a successful opening. We will strive to do our best to stock the products that the community wants. We will hire more than 80 employees to open Friendship. We think it is better for the co-op to focus our energies on hiring and training the diverse workforce that we all want at the Friendship store.

    Again thanks for your comment

    Sean Doyle, General Manager

  3. Hi, Art. Thanks for your extensive comments and for adding another dimension to this important story. SSP did not pass your letter on to me, but that may have been for a number of innocent reasons, but be assured this is the first I have seen of it, and I approved your comment for posting as soon as I could get into the system and figure out how 🙂
    As a stringer writing for SSP, I am laboring under some constraints – deadlines, word count restrictions – that mean that I cannot always delve as deeply into the story nor be as thorough in reporting as I would wish. I did try to find an advocate voice for At the Roots but was not able to in the limited time I had. I did have a feeling that there was some disrespect coming from “the co-op’s side” but I also felt that LaDonna was being put into a really awkward position and had tried in good faith to fulfill her remit in the meeting. It was obvious to me that there was a bitter backstory here and I would have liked to really understand it, but I don’t, even now. I thought in the immediate aftermath of the meeting, that it was largely a planning failure and a product of miscommunication, and not bad faith on the part of either the co-op or BNO, but I can’t really say that for certain.
    Perhaps in hindsight, I did not use enough grains of salt in accepting Sean’s version of that backstory, given that at the time I talked to him, I knew I wouldn’t be able to include “the other side.” But I tried to present it as his view, and not the resolved truth of the conflict.
    I do want to defend what I said about the relative positions of At the Roots and the co-op in the context of being signatories to a CBA. You essentially admit that At the Roots is not an organization, but rather an ad hoc association of interested people, when you say that CANDO agreed to be the other signatory (ie, At the Roots has no organizational standing and cannot enter into agreements as itself.) And the fact that the Seward Co-op does $32m in business is not relevant to my characterization of them as “not private, not a developer.” They are not a developer, they’re a retail business building an expansion. They are not private, because they are a co-op. The fact that they are successful does not make them private, nor a developer. I did not know about the tax credits. I confess I have little understanding about the taxation of cooperatives, which is pretty complicated. But I imagine this means that the co-op has made this arrangement with the state or county or city and has therefore followed all the same rules about affirmative action hiring that a developer would be required to do, but has done so voluntarily.
    I am open to doing more research and possibly writing further articles on this issue, exploring it in more depth. I can’t promise that you’ll like what I write any more than this. But you are always welcome to respond with comments, or write an article from your organization’s viewpoint. I know that TC Daily Planet was begging for someone to report on it; that was in fact how I learned about the BNO meeting in the first place.

    • Hi Deborah
      Thank you for this thoughtful reply. I very much appreciate your honesty. The thing that troubles me the most is that this relationship between the community and Seward doesn’t have to be adversarial. If we back up as ask, “What is the community asking?” From our point of view, the answer is a commitment to specific benefits which, we believe, Seward is capable. Many of us have been in situations where the big business (to us) comes in and makes promises only to see these evaporate as the business becomes successful. The surrounding existing community remains in the same situation while a potentially wonderful resource is not used. This is why we put our objectives in writing. The funny thing is, all we want to do is talk with Seward and discuss these objectives. The frustrating thing is that apparently, Seward does not want to talk with us.

      This issue of Seward not being able to sign a CBA because it is a Coop continues to come up. As you can see, I’m not convinced. I will also do some research .

  4. The first thing I would do is look into “At The Roots”, and who their membership/leadership is.

    Then, I would ask to see if any funding has been disseminated to ” At The Roots” at this point. Then, check to see if Mr. Serotoff, or his wife have received any kind of “consulting” fee for their efforts.

    My experiences with Art Serotoff have taught me that he appears at meetings claiming to represent “the community” whenever there is money involved, and becomes enough of an agitator and bully, (using the Black community as a bartering point, or battering ram).

    If you want a good story, look into Art Serotoff, his involvement in controversial public matters, and see how many of those matters eventually end up fattening his bank account.

    Art, if you’re reading this, I still have all of my research and background work I did on you, your wife, and Council person Glidden… Including her e-mail that proves she created the situation that resulted in my wife and I leaving the TC for our own safety.

    Art Serotoff is a professional community leech. I can prove he lines his pockets with community money he has no right to.

    The Black community in Minneapolis needs to realize that Mr. Serotoff is a master at creating emotional responses that are unwarranted, solely to serve his purposes.

    I invite the writer of this article to contact me.

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