Group photo of attendees of the Students for Cooperation Norwich conference

ESHC reports from the 2016 Norwich winter conference

A report from Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative on our winter conference – our next conference is in Brighton from the 20th-222nd of June – more info here:
For one fleeting weekend, from the 12-14th February, students from across the UK converged on Norwich for a romantic Valentine’s getaway at the Students for Co-operation (SfC) winter conference. Hosted by the University of East Anglia’s student food co-op, the event was entirely free to attend (including transport and accommodation) and an amazing opportunity for members of student co-operatives to meet each other, get skilled up and exchange ideas about how co-operatives can offer a practical model for social change.

Travelling from Edinburgh, our group arrived in Norwich after a gruelling nine hour drive. We were welcomed by our hosts to a free meal at Foodcycle, a national charity that combines volunteers, surplus food and spare kitchen spaces to create tasty, nutritious meals for people at risk of food poverty and social isolation. Here we unwound over a dinner of steamed rice and roasted vegetables, made from food that would have otherwise gone to landfill. We then headed to a bar to socialise and meet with other members of the Students for Cooperation network. We got chatting with students from Sheffield, Birmingham, Norwich, Sussex, and beyond  quite diverse for a still nascent and emerging network! Our night ended crashing out on rollmats, sofas and spare beds generously offered by co-operators in their homes across the city.

Due to travel delays, our group missed out on Friday’s hefty workshop on financial literacy for co-ops, so our experience of the conference kicked off on Saturday. Against the backdrop of UEA’s iconic brutalist architecture (don’t judge it until you’ve seen it, the consensus of our group is that it was confoundingly beautiful), we started the day with a round of introductions, indicating our level of experience within the co-operative movement and our preferred pronouns, before heading into workshops. Our first session discussed Wheels for Cooperation, a guide being put together for new student co-ops, compiling the knowledge and learning acquired from groups across the UK. It was inspiring to hear about how different co-ops have overcome internal conflicts, burnout######. Sharing these experiences gave us a new impetus for driving the movement forward.

We both missed the next session as we were busy volunteering in the kitchen (the whole weekend was organised and run by volunteers), preparing lunch for the fifty delegates, but after a vegan curry cooked using ingredients sourced via UEA’s very own food co-op, we split off to attend afternoon workshops. Benj attended a workshop outlining plans for a new national body of student housing co-ops and the mechanisms to finance new housing co-ops, working alongside allies in the wider co-operative movement (The Phone Co-op, and East of England Co-operative Society in particular). Hannah Jo attended a workshop on co-operative higher education, focusing on work done by Joss Winn and Mike Neary at the University of Lincoln and the Social Science Centre, also in Lincoln. The workshop gave attendees an opportunity to learn about existing models of ‘co-operative education’ and the different ways this term can be used. We also explored the idea of setting up our own ‘Cooperative University’ from scratch or the possibilities in transforming already established institutions into a co-operative model. It raised many questions for us to consider, such as how all aspects of an institution would interact and to what degree they could be “co-operative”; from the staff, to the students, curriculum design, to research remits, student food to student housing the scope and hunger for transformation was very inspiring.

We also heard from Sally Chicken from the East of England Co-op and Richard Bickle, with an interesting talk on the history of the co-operative movement and a small debate about the relationship between co-operatives and political parties – such as the Co-op Party. This was particularly interesting given the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party

The day culminated in a hugely inspiring talk delivered by [name], a Kurdish activist from Rojava, an autonomous region in northern Syria. He described how communities in Rojava have fought off both ISIS/Daesh and Assad’s troops to chart an alternative course founded on the principles of social solidarity and direct democracy. In the midst of the Syrian conflict, it was a rare moment of hope to hear of how agricultural co-ops, textile co-ops and other co-operative networks of producers have all witnessed rapid growth as a practical means of meeting peoples’ needs without exploitation.

On Sunday, SfC’s Annual General Meeting was held, where delegates gathered to make key decisions concerning or priorities for the year ahead. We also discussed sending delegates to upcoming events, such as the national Co-op Congress and international summit on co-operatives in Montreal, before going on to hold liberation caucuses, where self-identifying LGBTQ, black and minority ethnic, and women’s groups discussed how to make our movement more inclusive and accessible. Our final act of the conference was to descending onto the grass outside UEA’s iconic ziggurats for one last photo.

Whilst short, the conference provided an incredible opportunity to forge links between co-operatives across the UK and internationally. The weekend was a journey through the student co-op movement, from its origins to its current form today and plans for the future. By meeting together in a common space, we were able to build a stronger network and giving us skills, connections, friends, new ideas and enthusiasm.