2016 Board Elections Q&A: Rebekah Rice

Rebekah Rice
Rebekah Rice. Image courtesy Drea Leanza.

1. For leaders of organizations such as HWFC, what situations do you think require disclosure of important information to membership, and what situations do you think require confidentiality?

Because our members are also our owners, there is very little that I think should require confidentiality. One of the only situations I can think of is when someone is fired, the only person who has the right to talk about it in any detail is the person who was fired. Perhaps if we were in the middle of a specific negotiation for a building it would need to be temporarily confidential (how much we were prepared to pay versus what we were offering) until the arrangements were completed. Even in that instance I think it best that membership know that we were negotiating on a particular possibility.

2. Give an example of how you have compromised in a group decision-making process.

When one is a part of reaching consensus about a difficult topic, it is not really about compromise, although I think that people conflate these. Finding the shared and valued path through a tough decision is exciting. One recent example came from work on the Steering Committee for Strategic Planning. We had really struggled to find a way to make sense of the data collected at all the big events last year, and the suggestions from our consultant were just NOT working for many (any?) of us. We all wanted to finish the process, and we wanted it to make sense to ourselves and to others. If you read the article that Chris Gockley wrote for the March issue of Co-op Voice, you’ll understand that no compromise was needed in our decision-making process—but it was a consensus decision.

3. How can the Co-op survive financially without compromising its values?

Our members and shareholders make nearly half of the purchases at our co-op; they are attracted to shopping at our co-op precisely because of our shared values. I believe that we could best thrive financially by prominently labeling products, by organizing products in ways that would make it easier for people with particular dietary preferences to shop efficiently for what they wish to purchase, and by adhering to our highest values across the board.

4. Per the Bylaws, Members have operational control over HWFC; what does that mean for Board members? Are you in favor of the Membership having the ultimate decision-making authority?

I do support the Membership having the ultimate decision-making authority. Board members need to find ways to get more input from the Membership, more effectively. If we don’t like our meetings, we need to find other ways to listen to each other—but walking out or staying away will not solve our problems. One implication for board members is that we get a lot of phone calls and emails, and hear a lot of opinions, and we need to listen thoughtfully.

5. Over the past few years many staff members have talked about unionization. What are your thoughts on this?

In the abstract, I think unions are absolutely necessary. In my life, I’ve been a union member as a public school teacher (where the union was occasionally but not always helpful to me—it depended enormously on the rep) and as a nighttime truck loader for UPS when I was a college student (the union did nothing to help change my job assignment or my working conditions when I got severe earaches from going back and forth all night long between an overheated dock and unheated trucks in winter).

Having had those personal experiences, I think it may prove to be more important to have choices of ombudsmen to whom one can speak privately about concerns or needed changes—where confidentiality is absolute. I believe that what is more needed is a voice in real decision-making, day to day and week to week, publicly when possible, privately when necessary. In my answer to question 7, I suggest the possibility that dynamic governance might be an effective way of giving a voice to all staff.

6. How can we make the Co-op more accessible to low income people in our community?

We should create a 10% discount for shoppers who are using EBT (on the EBT part of their purchases). For EBT shoppers who are also members, we should consider adding this discount to the member discount to which the shopper is entitled—thus a monthly member-worker shopping with EBT would receive an 18% discount on food. I feel that this would be a more valid marketing expenditure than coupons in the ad flyers, and thus would largely replace that program within the same budget.

I would also like to see much more thoughtful food tasting and cooking opportunities at our store—lots of chances to taste well prepared, delicious, simple, inexpensive foods from bulk and produce. I believe that if people learn to cook from scratch that they’ll be able to eat healthier foods less expensively. Thought should be given to who can teach these classes in friendly and unintimidating ways.

7. How would you empower the HWFC staff to participate in store management decisions?

For starters, I would want to know how HWFC staff would like to participate in management decisions. As a system that would involve everyone, I would recommend sociocracy, also called dynamic governance, as one possibility (there’s a pretty good intro to it on Wikipedia). Dynamic governance is used by ecovillages, colleges, and organizations, as well as in corporations around the world (it started in the Netherlands). I like it because of the circular structure and the transparency and the keen attention it pays to objections.

8. Have you read the Food & Product Manual? If you are aware of the changes it’s gone through in the last 6 years, tell us something about that. What is the HWFC Food and Product Policy, and how would you uphold it as a member of the Board?

Although the Nutrition and Education Committee is tasked with keeping the Food and Product Manual up to date, the version brought to the membership (over the objections of the NEC) four years ago had been crafted by all three members of the Leadership Team, most of the members of the then Board of Directors, and the entire NEC. The NEC recommended that members vote against that version because the Board and LT refused to define the terms “promote”, “stock”, and “avoid”. The NEC felt that without definitions the entire manual would be meaningless, as the previous manual has also proven to be, in the face of management who choose to stock (in the back room) items we “do not knowingly stock”, to promote (through sales, end cap placement, etc.) items we “try to avoid”. Worse, all the changes approved by the membership since then (under financial pressure) brought us unlabeled meat, poultry, and seafood which the LT promised would come with clear labeling and which have not.

As a Board member, I would encourage the NEC to clarify definitions and bring forward (without management interference) a new version of the manual that puts health and nutrition firmly in our view. This would likely mean extensive labeling, perhaps special aisles for special food needs, and might even entail different product lines in our co-op. I would hope that members would have the opportunity to consider the Manual section by section.

For example, there are many concerns about soil contamination in China—including soil used to raise “organic” produce. Should we carry food from China? Should it be labeled? Should it be in a special section? What will we do about it if TPP is passed and it becomes illegal to label countries of origin?

For another example, there are many health food stores and co-ops which have decided not to add new products containing GMOs. Some have even decided to remove GM products from their stores. We have GM products throughout our store, unlabeled, and yet we claim to “avoid” these. Should we carry them? Should we label them? Should we place them in a separate section? Our membership should decide.

The job of the NEC would then be to collect the research on a topic, to share it, and to offer a set of choices to the membership. And the role of the board would be to ensure that management honors those decisions.

Member since 1992, Certified Naturally Grown Farmer at Nine Mile Farm, Nutrition and Education Committee