I’ll be honest. I didn’t come to Oberlin for its facilities, academic quality, or any other typical basis for choosing a college. I came to Oberlin because of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA), the pervasive co-op culture in the area, and the great people that work to keep it afloat. When I had to make the decision between Oberlin and other schools, co-ops were what made Oberlin stand out, and they are still today what I value most about my experience here. Little did I know that co-ops aren’t as unique as I thought, and that I would come to work with an amazing group of people to help establish a new one.
After choosing Oberlin largely because of co-ops, I delved headfirst into OSCA with a zealous enthusiasm. I learned to cook, write budgets, facilitate meetings, create policy, and clean. I performed countless jobs, all of them adding a dizzying amount of real world experience. Undoubtedly for me, OSCA was and is integral to my education here.
But it wasn’t just OSCA. I soon went to the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) Institute and learned of a world of cooperatives that had been hidden before my eyes for years. The NASCO Institute is held each fall in Ann Arbor and gathers all kinds of co-ops, from worker co-ops, intentional communities, co-housing communities, and others, to discuss the intricacies of running co-ops, developing new ones, and more. I soon became enamored with the idea of co-ops not as just a fun way to eat, but also as a viable alternative economic model and even a way of living. I found myself intrigued—I wanted to study co-ops academically. And lo and behold two of my friends decided to gather a group of people to study just that - an ExCo on Cooperation & Cooperatives. As dedicated co-opers, we insisted on teaching the course cooperatively as well, so we took turns each week leading the class.
Our midterm project for the ExCo was apt: describe your ideal cooperative. How would it run? Who would it serve? Several members of the class and I thought, “Wait a second. We’re doing all of this work to describe this co-op. Why don’t we make this idea a reality?” And so Oberlin’s newest co-op, SWAP: The Oberlin Book Co-op, was born. Countless meetings in April to discuss our goals, priorities, and structure led to a working concept. We then tabled all over campus and tried to advertise in any way we could, and suddenly we had boxes on boxes of books, which we squirreled away in various places for the summer, as we didn’t have a physical space...yet.
We soon ended up acquiring a space of our own: a room in Harkness House, a housing and dining co-op, deemed too small to be a single, sublet to us by OSCA. We continued building up our co-op, running a fundraising drive, building our own bookshelves, and getting ready for our grand opening in the fall. And I won’t be the only one to tell you that now, after a year of operating, the co-op is a success. People bring us their old books, we give them new ones. No money involved, only co-op points, and anyone can get points for staffing the co-op themselves. First years can also bring books of any kind to trade for points to start them off, as we don’t discriminate between academic and non-academic books. We also may decide in the fall to give first years a leg up by giving them free points to start out with. Even after just a year, we’ve entirely outgrown our first space in Harkness. We’ve now expanded to sharing a space in the basement of Harkness with the Recycled Products Co-op, which used to be home to the Good Foods Co-op. Truly, cooperation and cooperatives at work.
Oberlin is a unique place, and I think the prevalence of co-ops is one of the aspects that makes it so. It’s incredible to think how I’ve now left my own mark on this place in contributing towards the formation of a new co-op for others to experience and utilize. I guess my experience at Oberlin has been all about “learning and labor” after all.