Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review - Cooperation Works! by Nadeau and Thompson

Cooperation Works! How People Are Using Cooperative Action to Rebuild Communities and Revitalize the Economy, by E.J. Nadeau and David J. Thompson, is an accessible and wide-ranging overview of the cooperative movement in the United States as things stood at the time of the book's publication in 1996. Including both a general discussion and a number of specific anecdotes, each chapter is devoted to a specific form of cooperation, including such topics as senior housing co-ops, community-owned sports teams, and employee owned enterprises.

In addition to the value of the overall comparative perspective promoted by the diverse subject matter of Cooperation Works!, the book's chapter on community development credit unions (CDCUs) is particularly valuable to those interested in credit union history. Though the historiography of American credit unions in general is pretty sparse, extra little has been written about the CDCU model. This neglect can likely be attributed to the fact that, with their relatively recent origins and a tiny fraction of the asset-size of traditional credit unions, CDCUs are relatively easy to relegate to a footnote or an aside. When discussed at all, they are mentioned in passing as a project that emerged out of the "War on Poverty" era before the narrative returns to the main credit union story.

Such neglect is unfortunate, especially since the CDCU model has followed a trajectory of historical development that meaningfully differs from that of the main-line credit union movement. While traditional credit unions were busy growing through mergers and consolidation in the 1980s, a wave of new CDCUs were founded and established innovative roles for themselves in their communities and local economies. With their own trade association, culture, and approach to doing business, it is important to understand the history of CDCUs on their own terms.

Happily, the CDCU chapter in Cooperation Works fills in some of the gaps by relating tales of the establishment, struggles, and successes of CDCUs in Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and North Carolina. While brief, the anecdotes touch on numerous issues that are profoundly important to credit union people today, including struggles with regulators over business lending, balancing social and economic missions, and reaching under-served communities. By focusing on the level of the individual institution, the reader finishes the chapter with a good sense of the development of the CDCU model up to the mid-nineties.

In sum, while the book's advancing age is apparent in some places (such as breathless talk of the potential of something called "the Internet"), it is nonetheless a valuable resource for credit union people. Not only does it offer a clear window into an oft-neglected aspect of credit union history, but the examples it draws from across the breadth of the cooperative movement often contain fascinating observations and ideas. Certain dynamics are inherent to the cooperative model, whether the co-op is in the business of processing grain in South Dakota or providing financial services in North Carolina. As such, it is vital to understand how different cooperatives have dealt with their issues, and CooperationWorks! is a great resource for cultivating such potentially useful knowledge and a strongly recommended addition to one's cooperative studies shelf.

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