POCA and Co-ops: Love & Perspective

Last week, John, Carmen, and I had a meeting that I wished you all could’ve been at. So a blog post is the next best thing.

On Monday, I got an email from the Northwest Cooperative Development Center in Olympia, where we had done a brief consultation back in 2010 when we were just starting to think about the co-op idea. Eric Bowman of CDC was checking in to see if we’d be willing to participate in a presentation about co-ops in March in Portland — and of course he was wondering if we had actually gone ahead with the whole thing or not. I called him up and said, sure, we’d be glad to participate, but our co-op turned out, um, a little different. It might be too different for other co-ops to relate to. We don’t have shares or dividends or anything like that, we’re mostly about social capital and on top of that we’re a multi-stakeholder. It works great for us, but it might be kind of confusing for people who are just starting to think about co-ops.

 Eric agreed that it might be. And then he started asking questions about POCA. And then we got into the kind of animated conversation about the nuts and bolts of co-ops that I can never, ever get enough of. We were on the phone for an hour or so, and by the end of it we were making a lunch date for Wednesday, when he was coming down to Portland.

It gets even better, because he was coming to Portland in order to do some consulting with another multi-stakeholder co-op in Sherwood, Oregon, that is working on its articles of incorporation. Check out Community By Design — it’s a very cool project. Eric brought one of its organizers, Narendra Varma, to lunch — and the five of us talked a blue streak over Thai food. Then we went back to WCA and the POCA office and talked some more.

It can be hard to keep a perspective on what we’re doing here, because there is an endless stream of details and challenges. I found it tremendously energizing to spend time with other cooperators, because they really understand both the details and the challenges. And because they have experience of other co-ops, they can provide a perspective that we can’t necessarily give each other. I wanted to share that perspective with you.

Eric wrote:

Thanks for taking the time to meet. It was great to witness the growth and development of POCA. As somebody who works with boards and groups seeking to start a cooperative enterprise, I can assure you the accomplishments of POCA are not to be taken lightly.

Congratulations on all the success! It’s an inspiration.

POCA has been diligently building the infrastructure to successfully meet its mission.  It is thereby meeting the needs of the members who utilized POCA as a tool to increase affordable, group access to acupuncture.  Well done making change possible in the world!

There is much cause for concern; problems can feel insurmountable. It is too easy to succumb to despair, apathy or nihilism. It is extremely difficult to pour oneself into an act of creation. Thank you and the founders of the WCA movement and the POCA co-op for taking the risk. To build requires exposing oneself to the vulnerability of failure and embarrassment. You all saw a community gap and met it as an opportunity. We could all learn by emulating your model.

True to the cooperative spirit of mutualism, POCA exists not as a charity or to generate profit but to increase access to services through self-help. Co-ops are both democratic associations and business enterprises. This makes them unique and unlike nonprofits or typical businesses; it also means that as an economic system we are stronger when we collaborate.

The ideas, thinking and cross pollination you provided for us was invaluable. From credit unions to food co-ops, strong cooperative business sectors are heavily networked. Whether it’s just social time or doing business, it’s critical that co-ops and their managers, members and directors get out in the world and engage with one another.

Please keep it up!

Narendra wrote:

Firstly, I was completely blown away by what all of you have done together with the Community Acupuncture movement.  It is truly groundbreaking and definitely revolutionary.  The fact that on top of that you’ve put together a successful multi-stakeholder cooperative using Sociocracy as a governance model is even more amazing!  You folks are an inspiration.  As someone who’s in the early stages of getting a multi-stakeholder cooperative up and running, it is really nice to see successful working examples in our own neighborhood.  Your story needs to be told from all the rooftops of Portland.  Personally, I would love to have the opportunity to learn more about POCA and the way it functions, perhaps sit in on a meeting or two as an observer, and work out ways in which we can partner together.  My work is in the field of small-scale agriculture which has an obvious tie-in with community healthcare.  At the most basic level, most small-scale organic farmers can’t afford conventional health-insurance and are philosophically more open to traditional medicine.  There should be some way for our communities to work together to provide affordable health-care not just to farmers but to the vast majority of the population who are not well served by the dominant medical system.  You have shown that with a little creative thinking and a huge dollop of chutzpah, new models can be created – models that serve the needs of all parties without being an either-or proposition.  I believe that the economic and social systems of the future must emphasize cooperation and collaboration – this is the only way to create shared value and reverse the gross inequalities in our society.  Thank you for blazing the path!

One of the really interesting parts of the conversation was when we were comparing notes on acupuncturists and farmers. We both struggle with distorted economics: health care is too expensive, and industrially produced food is too cheap. When you start to try to deal with those distortions, you run headfirst into classism and issues of access. And all co-ops struggle with the things we struggle with:  scaling up the right way, paying people a living wage, staying afloat in a system that doesn’t understand what we’re doing at all.

It was fun to compare membership categories with another multi-stakeholder. As we were talking about how we make it work with producers and consumers, John said something that I liked so much that I begged him to write down his impressions of the meeting:

It was really wonderful to have meet with Narendra and Eric.  It really sparked for me how important it is to convene with others who are also devoting time and energy to developing economic and social systems that are based in cooperation and direct participation.  We really have a lot to offer each other in both support and creative collaboration. 

The relationships that cooperatives foster tends to be fundamentally built upon a genuine   intention to do what works for everyone involved and related to a project.  This flies in the face of how much of current society seems to think we should work.  Unlike the predominate institutional approaches, disparity becomes openly recognized and collective effort is put toward equity.  In our conversation with Narendra and Eric, I was reminded of the extent that most people really do want to engage their lives from a more heart-felt approach.   Everyone requires their needs to be met, and it is easy to become concerned about those who may take advantage of circumstances for their own gain.  But when we take the risk to approach the relationships of an enterprise from the heart of sincerity we are so often surprised at the genuine response it elicits.

And finally, I bet you will all be as delighted as I am to welcome POCA’s newest organizational member, the Northwest Cooperative Development Center.

So there’s a dose of cooperative love and perspective for your week. If you need more, I strongly recommend finding some co-op folks near you and going out to lunch!

Author: lisafer

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Conference Keynote: Breaking the Ceiling

The theme for this conference is “Breaking Barriers”. You know, there are so many barriers to break in acupuncture that it was really hard to choose which ones to talk about for this speech. But since I’ve spent so much time talking about classism as a barrier, I thought it might be fun to shift gears a little and talk about numbers.


  1. wow, thanks for sharing all this. there is so much here to digest. And it IS nice to be reminded how much it all does matter in creating something generative and soul-nourishing for our communities and for us as humans.

  2. I love this sentence of Eric’s: “True to the cooperative spirit of mutualism, POCA exists not as a charity or to generate profit but to increase access to services through self-help.”

    It was also really interesting — and affirming! — to explain the CAN/POCA transition to people who understand organizational structures (nonprofits, 501c6s, co-ops) but who are not acupuncturists. I mean, obviously there are the practical benefits of being a co-op like automatically becoming a microlender. But it was really great to tell the whole story again and realize, yes, *the spirit of mutualism* is really what community acupuncture is all about and why we needed to be a co-op. CAN was great in a lot of ways, but there was nothing in its structure that recognized the mutualism between punks and communities that we all depend on. CAN was just a kinder, gentler, funnier and more foul-mouthed version of the AAAOM. POCA is a different being altogether. It was really great to give Eric and Narendra a copy of our articles of incorporation (because they’re collecting examples and comparing notes from other multi-stakeholders) and know that all of that grindingly detailed work was worth it, because we brought something into being that really does reflect our deepest commitments.

  3. This blog is also a perfect segue to our upcoming POCA Membership Drive. Each year POCA will need to ask all members to help bring new members in. This has to be a grassroots effort
    1) because POCA has no money to do the kind of membership drive that you might see for a larger corporate or non-profit organization and
    2) because we are a coop the point is for members to have a role in making the coop work. Having members is one way that the coop works.

    The big picture for the membership drive is that we need each and every POCA clinic to try to sign up 5 new members. We’ll be putting up a bunch of materials, talking points, media for clinics to use to talk about POCA with patients, info on the best way for new members to sign up, etc.

    Aside from the practicalities of how to do a membership drive, the why is much more interesting to me. I’m not talking about revenue for the operational budget either, though of course that matters. The reason for doing a grassroots membership drive is what John writes about above; that when given a way to participate, people ultimately do want to, and that their participation is necessary to help shape the very thing.

    Eric’s comments about mutualism are also reflected in the need for wide participation in the membership drive. POCA has enough of a structure in place to make sure that annual membership drives, elections, events, meetings, etc. happen. But they happen because members make them happen (or vice versa.)

    I also love what Narendra gets out with his comments about how participatory economies and society are our common hope for a different future than existing corporate and social structures would lead us to. It is this kernel of hope and possibility in the community acupuncture model, both business and social, that I think so excites people. Punks get it, and patients get it. A membership drive isn’t a force feed, but an invitation in.

  4. Looking forward to the upcoming materials & media on the membership invitation-in! One small thing that would support us north of the border in that endeavour would be to change the “search by state” to “search by state/province”.

    On the topic of POCA-is-awesome; my receptionist today is an new acu-grad who wants to do CA — I got a PM from her through POCA, on opening day. She’s great!

  5. Here in Los Angeles the weather is embarrassingly fine. (There, that’s out of the way.)

    Congratulations POCA!!! This is wonderful news, extremely well-deserved and well-earned!!

    I’ve been away from the blog for a few weeks and was thrilled, and honestly, not surprised, at the Northwest Cooperative Development Center’s expressions of support and adulation for what POCA has achieved! You deserve recognition for the incredible work you do! ALL of you!!

    I was President of an LA-based acupuncture school for 3 years (Yo San) and have been close to the acupuncture community since 2004. There are LOTS of disparate acupuncture groups and associations out there–as you all know (eye rolls, everyone?). From my perspective, they appear very limited in scope, non-inclusive and self-serving. You don’t hear a lot about patient care.

    POCA is entirely different. Not even in the same category. Thankfully!

    What is so extraordinary and impressive to me, about POCA is the energy, intelligence, esprit de corps, joie de vivre, solidarity, irreverence, vision, can-do attitude, humility, and commitment to service and cooperation that the group embodies.

    Everyone knows that none of you are seeking adulation. You’re way too busy punking, serving your communities. Most like you have no interest in, or time for, adulation.

    I say: ENJOY IT a little!! Take a moment to bask in the recognition, acknowledge that what you are ALL doing is creating real change in the world…by coming together (and of course working your butts off).

    POCA rocks! Profoundly and very practically.

    Meanwhile, I continue to actively network in search of meaningful opportunities in “integrative healthcare” and especially in search of an acupuncturist(s) who wants to collaborate with me–a management and communications professional, with first-hand experience building a practice, to establish a “Big Damn Clinic” in Los Angeles. The quest continues!

  6. Thank you, Ellen, that is really sweet. I’m so glad to hear that you’re continuing to network and you’re still working on your BDC. It seems like making anything happen is all about relationship-building, in the end.