Altgen is an educational workers’ cooperative based in the UK that aids and advises new worker-owned start-ups, and as such, their work is very close to the topic of this blog. Altgen was founded in 2012 by Constance Laisné and Rhiannon Colvin, and Constance has kindly agreed to answer a few questions by email about Altgen for the Socialist Entrepreneur. Constance and Rhiannon have been interviewed before and have also written a number of articles about how they founded Altgen and about why they think worker-ownership represents a better alternative for young people who are just establishing themselves new careers, and I will add links to those interviews and articles at the end, but here I would like to take the opportunity to ask more about the nature of their mission and how they help worker-owned start-ups get off the ground.
Tim: Constance, could you explain a little about the day-to-day work of Altgen and what sort of advice and aid you provide to aspiring worker-owners?
Constance: We inspire youth groups and young isolated freelancers to re-think work and our current economy. We run participatory workshops, either at universities, or in our Altgen space in Borough where we invite them to identify their common issues with today’s work reality for the young generation, such as: zero-hours contracts, not enough jobs for people, not enough meaningful jobs, extreme competition, unpaid internships, neither sick pay holiday pay nor maternity leave for freelancers, isolation, loneliness, etc.
We also facilitate the coming together of groups that already work together informally. We reach out to people and get to know them through networking events and meet-ups that we organise. We invite them to think about how they could turn their projects into co-operative businesses. We go through the reasons we find co-ops are so relevant for youth in today’s precarious work environment and how workers’ co-ops can turn the current economy and system inside out, how they bring back democracy, equality and solidarity at the workplace. We explain and explore the principles of the democratic workplace, of common ownership, and of economic participation, and their practical and tangible impact on the social and political well-being of our communities.
And finally, we support groups to set-up their own co-ops by going through the essential steps with them. We use design thinking and graphic design to go through the co-operative development methodology. We use the DNA. We have made it really easy and fun to go through. It’s not about spreadsheet, but at Altgen it’s a nicely designed handbook. The jargon has been translated into young people’s words. We go through the essential questions: Do you have a team, a vision, an aim, a mission statement? Do you know how you want to achieve this aim through tangible objectives? Are these objectives achievable by the current team? Does the team have the skills and capacity to achieve those? Etc. We run sessions with the new teams where we act as facilitators, mostly to answer questions about the tasks that the teams have to complete, and to keep the timing tight. We team up with co-op development co-operators such as Siôn Whellens, who is a treasure, both for legal-business knowledge and for co-op registration.
We are constantly asking the co-op movement to fund it (as it is education; not business) but it is a real challenge to be constantly chasing up bits of funding. It takes time of from the amazing work we do. The Solid Fund (a new amazing fund for workers’ coops) is supporting our new series of workshops and meet-ups on freelancers co-ops. This is real, practical solidarity, in spite of the fact that the worker co-op movement is far from being the richest of movements. Co-ops UK is helping us to find some funding for this project as well. We are on very good terms with Ed Mayo that has shown is support in the past and continues to support us. We are talking to established, philanthropic co-ops all the time, encouraging them to help us renew the movement by sponsoring our workshops. I really think that the movement should have a common pot, a fund for education. It shouldn’t give to charities at the end of the financial year, but give back to the movement. The movement as a whole should be accountable and should stick to Rochdale principles five and six.
We also get paid for talks and conferences by universities and institutions. We do consultancy work, helping established co-ops to think about their organisational and democratic structures and of ways of collaborating to be more relevant to younger generations.
We provide a service that no one does, and as it is led by young people (we are still young at Altgen! and we make sure that we are), we understand the problems of our generation in a more inside way. As we have experienced these problems of work and capitalist exploitation first-hand, we also know how we want to learn and to be taught about the co-op alternative. We basically don’t want to be taught; we want to co-create and co-produce. We are talented, and probably faster than the previous generation, more agile. We are not patient enough to be lectured. We need to participate and we google stuff all the time. We are a collaborative generation that grew up in a very fast changing technological world.
Tim: Excellent. Following on from that, in your experience, what is the biggest challenge that young worker-owners face when setting up a new cooperative and what sort of advice do you give them to help them face that challenge?
Constance: Well, with all new worker-cooperatives, there are always issues with raising start-up capital, but here I would like to highlight issues of membership: the initial and continued engagement of members with the co-operative way of approaching work that is both democratic and collaborative. Cooperative self-management requires a special openness, a willingness to learn and improve and accept the others in your group, who are not your bosses, but equals, and to give and accept constructive criticism. Being actually entrepreneurial in a flat hierarchical organisational structure like a cooperative takes a new mind-set — there is a process of unlearning hierarchy and learning to take the lead on stuff. We were part of setting up the Young Co-operators Network a year and a half ago. We just had our winter gathering last week-end, and I can tell you that those guys know how to co-operate. They have the right approach to collaboration. It’s all about how we do it. We don’t talk about the seven principles; we practice them all the time.
So yes, overcoming the behaviours and modes of thinking associated with hierarchical organisation is the key to successfully making cooperation happen, and thankfully that’s what we’ve specialised in in our educational content, when we run workshops in universities. So we have the materials for educating ourselves inside the co-op — and Altgen is all about how we become co-operators — but it is still a massive challenge to find the time to re-educate ourselves while coping with the day-to-day pressures of running a business. It is difficult but I think we manage well.
My advice would be look at some stuff from Seeds for Change, to go on trainings on power and privilege, to go on an Altgen trainings on Why and How co-ops. I think that we have radicalised young people already, inspiring them to change their practices. We must kill these persistent competitive behaviours that are ingrained in our thinking, the thinking of the neoliberal generation, and start practicing solidarity and collaboration. It is political, but we are a collaborative generation! If you think about the internet, we were born with it you know. So it is a paradox. It is incredibly exciting. I think that we are a new type of human being and the revolution has started already with the way we share knowledge on the web and the way technology is deconstructing the old ways, the old hierarchies. And to come back to our workshops, we build them on the idea that the personal is political, and the way we run co-ops is all about changing the way we communicate with each other, and to understand that alone we are nothing; it’s all about the collective and the commons. It’s not about the individual entrepreneur; it’s about the network of co-operators.
So yes, the challenge is that there is a massive need for a cultural shift, and it must start at the work place. It’s great because it’s practical. It’s not theoretical. We are making change happen while creating sustainable livelihoods. It is about social and economic change in one go.
But this is connected to another challenge: democratic participation. Again, in our lives, typically we haven’t learned what consensus is. We haven’t learnt how to learn together, either in our families or in educational institution. It’s all about patriarchy. There is nothing in my life that has taught me how to express my needs and feelings, how to disagree in a constructive way, and how to be sensitive and listen to the needs of others. So at Altgen, that’s what we are trying to learn through doing it: consensus decisions making processes and collective, distributed leadership. I am not sure exactly what you would call it, but it requires lots of human skills or people skills. I think everyone is able to do it; we just need to switch it on. We may not have done it before and certainly is not how things are done in our current political system.
Tim: Thank you. Finally, I would also like to ask you a question specifically about Altgen as a cooperative. Founding and running a successful educational cooperative must be very different from founding and running other types of cooperatives, such as retail cooperatives or manufacturing cooperatives. As a cooperative with an educational mission, what advice would you give to others who are thinking of setting up a similar venture?
Constance: DO IT — and make sure that you have a committed group of people that will stick to the same mission and values. Make sure that you inspire each other and that your mission is tackling one of the social/environmental issue of this world. Make sure you have the skills around the table and the capacity in terms of time and emotional determination. Make sure that you care for each other. Setting-up your own co-op business is a challenge, it’s not the easy path but it feels amazing to be part of social and political change, being part of something bigger. And then I would say: join the Young Co-operators Network where it’s about friendships and business relationships, a powerful combination. We are a group of dedicated co-operators of the young generation, supporting each other, sharing best practices, that insists on going dancing together at our gatherings!
Further information about Altgen and their approach:
The young co-operative campaigners fighting for a fairer economy
Diary of a young co-operative startup
Diary of a young co-op startup: the importance of collaboration
AltGen Are Giving Hope to Depressed Students at Careers Fairs