By : Laurianne Lingbondo and Benjamin Racionzer
Meet: Siôn Whellens, client services director at Calverts: a London based graphics design, printing and publishing cooperative. Siôn is also the founder of Principle Six, a cooperative development organisation. He’s here to talk to us today about networking.
On a higher level, if what we are interested in is changing the social relationship around work and how our needs are met in society through our work, then people who are interested in that will tend to use the cooperative system because it embeds equality, equity, autonomy
"Can you reflect on your journey into the cooperative movement?"
I got into the cooperative movement after being politicised as a student. I was studying humanities subjects and got involved in student activism. After I left university, I had to decide what I wanted to do next, so I decided to come to London, where there were lots of interesting political activities going on. Having been involved in student journalism, I decided to get into the printing and publishing industry. When I came to London, I did a bit of training in the industry, so it felt natural to join one of several collectives that were in the printing and publishing industry. I then subsequently went on to work for Calverts. I actually still work for Calverts and have been working there for more than 35 years doing various jobs.
Around 2000, because I was working a sales job in Calverts and looking for customers, I started to ask myself why we were not working with and for other cooperatives. So, I attended a cooperatives congress in Belfast and met a lot of very interesting people. I started to think that there was more to the cooperative movement than I had realised. I then became involved in the representation side of the worker cooperative network within the Worker Co-operatives UK Federation. After the 2008/2009 crisis, quite a lot of people were beating their way to Calverts’ door because they were interested in the model and wanted to know more about it. I found myself informally hosting people and became a kind of barefoot cooperative developer. I had not had any training as an advisor or developer, but in 2012 I professionalised this work by starting the organisation, Principle 6, as a means of doing that kind of work.
“How do you feel the cooperative world is different now to how it was when you started?”
I think the difference is that today, work is much more difficult to construct and choose, whereas in the late 70s and 80s, there were multiple different pathways into work. You could mess around and experiment with different ways of working. It would not necessarily earn you a good living right away, but the cost of living was low, and you could survive quite happily in the social wage system, including benefits. Lots of those pathways have now closed off; the training and work experience routes are not there. Today, people must focus quickly on ways of supporting themselves without the ability to experiment, so people might be venturing into cooperatives not by choice but by necessity.
"“Principle 6”, after which your organisation is named, is one of the core principles of the cooperative movement. This principle calls for cooperation between cooperatives. What benefits do you think this cooperation can bring on a day-to-day basis, and to the movement as a whole?"
“Principle 6” is a political statement of the value of cooperation. If you understand cooperatives as a system of enterprises that share certain values and purposes, then you can assume that cooperatives have an affinity with other cooperatives based on those values. It is then logical for cooperatives to stand with each other on the basis that: “together we are stronger.”
The way that plays out on a day-to-day level, in the Principle Six networking events that I run, is by simply finding business opportunities for each other. People working in cooperatives (co-operators) know many people in their businesses or personally. All those people that co-operators know are buying goods and services. It is obvious that there are many opportunities if cooperatives can introduce other cooperatives to those people. It is basically word-of-mouth marketing but done in an organised way. That is what is behind the Principle Six networking events that I run.
On a higher level, if what we are interested in is changing the social relationship around work and how our needs are met in society through our work, then people who are interested in that will tend to use the cooperative system, because it embeds equality, equity, autonomy and so on. So, people who are collectively looking to tackle issues around housing, work, energy, or access to financial services, will tend to find themselves using the cooperative system, because it works for those purposes.
"How can one effectively network in a networking session?"
Approach it with an open mind.
Listen carefully to what people are looking for.
Be prepared to open your mental address book to see what you can help people with.
Participate with a level of trust and a higher ethical standard than what you might be used to.
Network repeatedly. This requires commitment.
Bring a pencil and your address book.
It is two ears and one mouth. A lot of it is about listening and understanding that it is a “givers-gain” process, so go in as a cultivator rather than a hunter. People go in for the opportunities they need, but most of what you will be doing is cultivating relationships for and with other people in the network.
The Principle Six methodology, which is a defined way of doing it, is about using time effectively. We are taking this cooperative principle, which exists among capitalist businesses, and we are going to do it differently. We are going to do it for the benefit of people rather than for the benefit of capital.
"Networking tools, like social networks and video conferencing platforms, are becoming increasingly monopolised. Many have become increasingly reliant on networking tools which might be more difficult to access among underserved communities. What resources or strategies would you suggest for people from underserved communities that may find it hard to participate in these online spaces?"
There are two problems that you have identified. First, I think the reason that people often use monopolised networking tools versus open-source platforms like meet.coop, is due to familiarity. I think the issue is that people get used to using certain tools and if they must use another one, they would have to download another app, get another password, etc. which is a mental load.
Second is the whole concept of meeting people virtually. People have used the telephone for a very long time, and phones have been very important for a lot of people, even in underserved communities. We need to understand that video conferencing tools are an extension of the telephone. Many people are not comfortable with modern technology, so we must coach them on how to properly use these tools.
For instance, I am working with a group of cleaners who are interested in forming a workers co-op. They were meeting online when I got involved. We realised that we had to do things like looking at documents together. We then realised that people were joining meetings on their phones because they did not have tablets, laptops or PCs, but you cannot do that kind of work on a phone. So, we had to buy tablets for everyone in the core group and give them training on how to use the devices. We had to demystify and take the phobia out of the tablets. Sometimes you must do the groundwork with people and if you are going to use this virtual environment, then people need training. You must find resources for that.
Check out Siôn’s bio at the link below: