by Ken Davis
I have a brother who is not a blood brother at all, but might as well be for as close as we are. Moustapha is from a small nation on the West African coast, born into a community with a caste-like class structure where one is not likely to escape from the place on the social totem pole in which he or she is born. Moustapha’s place of birth in this system was unfortunately low; his future was planned for him before he even took his first steps or said his first words. But he would have other ideas.
I got to know Moustapha through my mother’s work with the international community at Virginia Tech 15 years ago, where young people from around the world were brought to the university through various study-abroad and student-exchange programs. I was born and raised in Virginia, in the cultural and geographic shadow of Virginia Tech, and eventually migrated north due to a love of frigid cold weather and rural New England charm. But 15 years ago I was a Virginian through and through, and the night I met Moustapha I had no idea I was about to meet a guy who would be the inspiration for a lot of the things I would think and write in my life—including a seemingly unrelated Co-op News column about Co-op Month.
On a cold January evening (cold for Virginia anyway), Mom and I picked up Moustapha at the local bus station. He had been traveling for three days, was obviously exhausted, and couldn’t speak a word of English. Nonetheless he would nod and smile and point and motion madly to inquire about all the various things that touched his seemingly limitless curiosity. Just a few months after that night, “Moose” (as I was calling him by then) spoke English fluently and was even able to obtain a driver’s license. We soon learned he knew at least a dozen other languages too, including Greek, Latin, French, Portuguese, and several of his home African languages. Some he had been taught in school. Others he picked up on his own.
Moose and I became quick and close friends, and when his funds dried up, Mom took him in so he could have a place to live for free. He and I eventually became brothers in our own unique way. We developed our own lingo-laden esoteric language that combined cheesy 50s slang (“That’s boss, man!”) with colloquial phrases from several languages he knew, and we would speak it all to one another in public just to watch how people would look at us.
Moose was—and is—brilliant, unique, and special, with a wonderful personality to match. And not long before he had to get back on a bus to start the long journey home, my mom decided to continue supporting him and providing for his needs so that he could fulfill his dream of staying in the United States to go to college. Moose soon became part of the family, and he was eventually accepted to Virginia Tech, where he was off to the proverbial intellectual races.
Just recently—now many years later—Moose proudly called to let us know that he finally finished his Ph.D. program in Geneva, dedicating his dissertation to my mother. Before the ink was dry on his degree, he also found out that he had been accepted for the first job to which he had applied and the one he wanted the most: Adjunct Professor of Theoretical Physics and Applied Quantum Mechanics at Yale University.
Not a bad job right out of the gate, and now I call him “Dr. Moose.” Besides his teaching duties, Moustapha’s work will focus on the unified field theory—a vast and open line of research that attempts to explain all of the fundamental forces between elementary particles in terms of a single field. (For all you physicists reading this, forgive my potentially ignorant layperson summary of such a complex topic.) As I understand it, the subject was first explored by Albert Einstein, who attempted to unify general relativity with quantum laws. Though prominent physicists such as Stephen Hawking have attempted to do the same, no unification theory has yet to be discovered. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Dr. Moose has a little something to say about that someday. Maybe I’ll be calling him “Nobel-Prize-Winning Dr. Moose” on down the line.
Great story, isn’t it? I love telling it. But what does it have to do with cooperatives?
There is, it seems, a month for all things—with far more “things” than there are months in which to celebrate them. There’s National Pet Dental Health Month (February), National Good Car Keeping Month (May), and a favorite of one of our merchandisers, National Rice Month (September). But for obvious reasons, October’s National Co-op Month is especially big around these parts, and this year in particular—in the wake of my brother’s news about his post at Yale—it reminds me of Moustapha’s story and the role my mother played in it. Where would Dr. Moose be without her? According to him, he wouldn’t be anywhere. The individual who may challenge Einstein and Newton one day was once just another stranger on a bus, and one person saw his full potential when no else did. Moose and my mother each feel as though they owe so much to the other, and thus they share a mutual story of success. Is there a better illustration of cooperation?
The mutual-success philosophy is one that drives much of what our Co-op strives to accomplish. Our triple-bottom-line strategy of financial, environmental, and social responsibility (“FESTBL”) is built on the premise that for one bottom line to be sound, all the others must be too. A profit made at the expense of our community or planet, for example, is a short-term gain for a few and a long-term loss for the masses, and thus not a profit at all.
To illustrate further, Co-op General Manager Terry Appleby wrote in the most recent Annual Report (2590K) that local produce sales at the Co-op’s food stores during 2007 were just short of $7 million, or more than 11 percent of total sales. The benefit of all those purchases from local sources had a wider benefit, Terry wrote, as studies have shown that dollars invested in local businesses stay in the local economy at a far higher rate than when they go to businesses based out of the region. The Co-op estimates the value of additional dollars staying in the local economy from these purchases to be at approximately $1.9 million. It’s a value that we all—as a community—will share.
This mutual-success idea is universal and pervasive within the cooperative structure. Where some might say a food producer’s only worth is based solely on the profit that can be extracted from his or her goods, a cooperative answers with the mantra of environmental sustainability and the social-justice concept of building sound local economies. Where some might say cheap is best, a cooperative answers by redefining what “cheap” is and what it really means long-term to a community and its future. And where some might talk of a single bottom line, a cooperative proudly shouts “FESTBL!!!” from the rooftops of a bucolic New England valley.
Notwithstanding what we consider to be a higher standard of doing business, the point of this column is to be informative, not self-righteous. The Co-op is a business and can’t serve anyone if it doesn’t stay in business. As a result, many of the business initiatives that make for success in other sectors are practiced by the cooperative industry as well, and our co-op is certainly no exception. But being locally and cooperatively owned and operated does mean that we must adhere to our multiple bottom lines, and that’s a big part of the cooperative difference. We invest in those who have a lot of potential to do good, and we pursue mutual success among ourselves and our business, social, and environmental partners. In other words, we don’t let the Moustaphas back on the bus either if we can help it, and FESTBL is our unified field. That’s something worth honoring and celebrating—no matter what the month may be.
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