The Mechanics of OSCA
Dear Future Classmates,
Hello! I hear that you will be getting housing assignments soon, if you haven't already. Exciting! Last year, to help people rank their choices at the beginning of the summer, I wrote about my freshman dorm, Dascomb. (Here and here.) This year, so that those of you who will be a part of the Oberlin Student Co-op Association can know what you're getting yourself into, I am writing a post about the mechanics of how the co-ops work - how jobs get assigned, what the work requirements are, quotidian stuff like that.
Let's start with the basics.
Because co-ops are entirely in the hands of students, every member is required to work a certain amount every week, depending on the co-op. There are house jobs for the living co-ops, dining jobs for the dining co-ops, and if you are in both, yes, you must do both. House jobs are minimal; they tend to involve either a weekly chore (cleaning sinks and mirrors in a specific bathroom, taking out the recycling on your hall) or a regularly held house cleaning party in which everyone gets together and cleans the crap out of everything until it's all done. There are also house meetings every once in a while, which can feel like work, but usually happen rarely enough that they aren't too great a demand on your time. Of course, if you either love your co-op very much or love cleanliness very much, you may find yourself working a bit more for the house than is technically required of you, but it's not expected. Living in OSCA is a light workload, maybe an hour a week? There is no required amount of time spent working, just a job for you to get done.
Dining in OSCA, on the other hand, is not such a light load, and there are required weekly hours. (They vary from co-op to co-op - either four or five - and every co-op requires that one of those hours be a crew, which is what cleaning after meals is called; you may have to take more than one job to fill your hours.) Let me clarify here that by "hours" I do not literally mean the time you spend on the task; what I mean is the credit you get for doing the task. They're called "hours" because they are supposed to map onto how long the job is supposed to take, on average. You will know how many hours each job is worth because there are discussions at the beginning of the term during which you collectively decide the number you award to each job. This awarding of credit relies heavily on precedent - head cooking tends to be full hours, for example, while being on a committee usually isn't - but does get reconsidered every semester so that you collectively, continually ensure the fairness of the credit distribution.
So what does all this work consist of? Depending on what you enjoy spending time on, you can get regular cooking jobs, you can run to be elected a head cook or a maker (bread maker, granola maker, tasty things maker, etc.), or you can run for some of the more administrative positions that make co-ops tick. I was Tank Education Coordinator and New Member Trainer last term, and in that capacity, I started a Tank New Member Training Manual which lists all of our elected positions and their descriptions, so in the interest of not doing the same work twice, I'll just leave that here for you. And don't worry, if you want to run for something but are afraid your lack of experience will keep people from approving you: co-ops love to give their new members opportunities to step up. You have a good chance of getting voted in.
If you don't run for anything and would really just like to chop vegetables every week (it has its merits!), you and the rest of your fellow kitchen-lovers get assigned your shifts in the work chart lottery. The specific process depends on who you elect to make it happen, but, generally, you submit to that person what times you are able to cook, and then they work their magic until they've crafted a work chart in which everyone ends up with the necessary number of hours at times that fit everyone's schedules. It is an impressive feat.
Since the work chart lottery more or less sets up a schedule for your co-op to settle into, it marks the end of a time period called interim. Remember when I said there would be discussions at the beginning of the term? Interim is when those discussions have to do with what positions you want to create, what hours you award them, what their job descriptions are, and electing people to those positions. After interim comes policymaking: food policy, missed jobs policy, guest policy, all the policy! This will continue at every meal for probably the entire first month, maybe as much as the entire first half of the term. If your co-op needs to discuss anything further at any point after regular policy discussions have ended (and chances are good that this will happen), you will receive 24 hours' notice with a description of the topic, and your co-op will hopefully resolve the issue in the span of a single meal.
Now, to discuss something, you can't just sit down all of your members in one room and start talking; OSCAns have a system of decision-making based on modified consensus that is used to order the conversation. The point of this is that the co-op collectively reaches a decision that its members are okay with (hence consensus), but also that, for the sake of getting anything done ever, it takes more than one dissenter to block the decision (hence modified, since in true consensus, everyone must be satisfied with the agreement). Two people will get elected to lead discussions, which they will do by keeping stack; those people are your Dining Loose Ends Coordinators (DLECs), and "stack" is a list, in chronological order, of the co-op members who have raised their hands to get permission to speak. During discussions, if you are not on stack, you do not talk. Talking makes it hard for the people around you to hear what is going on in the discussion, and it also means you don't care enough about your co-op to even pay attention to what its members think. That's rude. If you are paying attention and you want to get on stack, your DLECs will let you know they've seen your hand, and they'll call on you when it's your turn to speak. There are various hand signals involved in discussions (the proposal llama has been written about here), and when the co-op decides to close stack, you will all use your thumbs - up, down, or sideways - to signal your vote on the proposals that were made during discussion.
So, that's how co-ops set themselves up when they begin a new term. After interim, provided all goes well, you just have to stay on top of your jobs and try not to miss meals, and your life should mesh reasonably well with OSCA. Missing meals isn't the end of the world, either - it's mostly just inadvisable because, as of last year, it is against health code for OSCA to store leftovers. Co-ops are allowed to save you a plate of food in the fridge until the next meal if you give the cooks advance notice, but sometimes that gets forgotten or someone throws it out mistakenly, and then you're SOL. Yes, the kitchen is open at all hours so theoretically you could cook for yourself if you missed a meal, but yes, it is awkward to try to cook for one when all the cooking implements are meant to make food for eighty. Just try to be in your co-op at 12:20 and 6:20 every day, and you'll be peachy. (Musicians and athletes: it gets tricky, but it's doable.) On a related note, if you're struggling to find time for your co-op jobs because trying to hold down real jobs, OSCA will give you time aid to reduce the number of hours you owe your co-op; that will get handled before you sign up for hours/get elected to something.
And that's the run-down on the practicalities of living in OSCA! You can read lovely anecdotes elsewhere around the blogs, peruse the OSCA website here, or check out some co-op Tumblrs (here and here), if you want to know more about the experience and the people and not just the systems in the individual co-ops. There is also, of course, the overarching system called all-OSCA that satisfies our requirements for nonprofit corporation status and keeps the co-ops more or less in cohesion, but you don't actually have to have any contact to all-OSCA if you don't want to (this is problematic and I don't like it, but there you have it), so that doesn't belong in this post. Stay tuned for more theory-centric co-op posts very soon!