I was introduced to the concept of cooperation as a child, when my parents taught me the value of sharing and cooperating with others. Whether it was making friends with another child at the beach and using their shovel and my pail to build the most awesome sandcastle, or helping a friend climb a tree and having them return the favor, I learned more could be accomplished by working together.

Years later as a CEO, I applied those same values by soliciting ideas on constructing an innovative workspace and being amazed at the creativity of staff who offered ideas that made it better.

We recently celebrated National Co-Op month, a month that highlights the value of cooperation and the benefits it brings our communities. While it’s nice to set aside a special time to celebrate co-ops, the reality is that co-ops provide benefits every day.

Simply defined, cooperation is “the process of working together with people of similar interests, needs, and challenges to cultivate a common bond to accomplish together what could not be achieved alone.” The impact of co-ops in Maine is widespread and growing. From financial and food to fishing and insurance and numerous other types, the cooperative spirit is alive and well in Maine. The economic benefits of cooperatives are significant in Maine, both directly and indirectly. For example, as a not-for-profit, financial cooperative, members of our credit union saved nearly $10 million last year just by belonging to the credit union, and millions more in indirect economic benefits. It is safe to say cooperatives contribute significantly to the financial well-being of members and the communities they serve. Cooperatives foster a “we” mentality rather than “I.”

Throughout history, cooperatives have helped to offer solutions. In fact, Town & Country was founded by a group of individuals who were turned away by “traditional” financial institutions. The group pooled their financial resources to form a credit union and offered a financial solution to a previously unserved group. We have grown to serve 40,000 members. As a cooperative, we believe it’s incumbent upon us to help and support other cooperatives. Recognizing the need in the food community, we got involved and offered both financial and in-kind support when the Portland Food Co-Op was forming in 2006. Today, the Portland Food Co-Op is thriving with 5,000 involved members, is completely locally owned and supports local farmers and producers, ensuring that the dollars stay in our community.

With multiple issues confronting our communities today, it is important to consider the role cooperatives can play in solving these issues. This doesn’t mean every issue needs a new co-op to be formed, but any opportunity to encourage cooperation is an opportunity to maximize scarce resources including financial, technology, and staffing. Affordable housing has been a significant issue in our area for quite some time and there is a growing sense of urgency to find solutions. Once again, the cooperative model is proving a viable option in dealing with this problem.

In Lewiston, Raise-Op Housing Cooperative is making a difference by offering safe and affordable housing that is democratically controlled. The co-op is successfully operating units for about 50 residents and is working with the city to create up to 200 new, community-controlled affordable housing units. In Portland, Maine Cooperative Development Partners is a new company owned by Portland residents committed to building neighborhoods where the elements that constitute quality of life – access to green space, healthy lifestyles, community, privacy, and affordability – are not at odds with each other. I am pleased to say we are offering support and sharing our cooperative expertise in helping move this project forward.

There are numerous other examples where not only can co-ops and cooperation be at least a partial answer to an issue, but help to bring communities and individuals together in a way that celebrates working collaboratively while enhancing our local economy and makes where we live stronger and more vibrant.

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