Cooperative Principles and the Next Generation

Doug Stephens is fired up by the values of the cooperative business model.
By Douglas Stephens IV
Cooperative Principles and the Next Generation

Douglas Stephens IV

Over the last year, as North Carolina's representative on the electric cooperatives' Youth Leadership Council, I have had the privilege to observe cooperative activities on nearly every level. The experience has proved to be a shaping force in my life and thought. The Youth Tour in June 2011 took a rag-tag bunch of kids and threw us headfirst into the heart of Washington, D.C., the most powerful city in the world. We took home a much greater understanding not only of how cooperatives work, but also of their vital and enduring importance to communities across the nation.
For me, the Youth Tour was just the beginning. I was given the privilege of spending two weeks living and working with 41 of the most brilliant, passionate and dedicated young people that North Carolina's countryside has to offer. These were truly the cream of the crop; teenagers with enormous amounts of innate talent and ability, who only lacked the opportunity to blossom and put their skills to use. What emerged from the refiner's fire of sleep deprivation and ceaseless activity was a tightly knit band of young men and women who were now prepared to become tomorrow's leaders.
If there is one thing that I took away from all this, it was that our cooperatives are a treasure. It's rare these days to consider something worth keeping; our society is preoccupied with the disposable. Yet the cooperative way is something unique and precious: Here we have a model of business that unites the individual and common good —  motivated by human need rather than human greed — a system of cooperation rather than coercion. This treasure must not be lost, or even allowed to stagnate. No longer a story of survival, the cooperative way has the momentum to become a movement, to revolutionize the way that the world does business. If we are committed to the proposition that cooperative principles are more than simple guidelines, then we must do what we can to apply them to people everywhere.
This year, declared by the UN as the International Year of Cooperatives, is the time to spread our model throughout the business world. It would not be overly difficult. The minds and ideas are already in place; all you must do is teach. To ensure spread of the cooperative way, you must ensure that the members of the next generation are taught these principles. The Youth Tour is a good start, but it cannot suffice. Imagine every cooperative in the state hosting seminars on the model, or supporting local schools and colleges that teach it. While on the Youth Tour last June, the North Carolina delegation passed a large statue in front of the National Archives building. The inscription on the statue's stone pedestal made an enormous impression on me: "The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future." It is imperative that the upcoming generation of businessmen, politicians and leaders be made aware of the rich heritage they have.
You taught me that being a part of something bigger is sometimes as easy as stepping forward, and that often the world's movers and shakers aren't the ones in the headlines. You taught me that there are inspired and motivated people like me across the country who are eager to step forward and lead when the opportunity arises. I learned that even the things most easily taken for granted in life, like electricity, must be protected, guarded and sometimes fought for. I learned that anyone can change the world, and I will never flip a light switch the same way again. You taught me about both the cooperatives and myself, and I want as many others as possible to learn the same.
Never stop educating your youth. We are the ones who must one day take up the torch that you leave to us. The choices you make today determine whether my generation will take up a burning beacon or a charred ember. Give us the opportunity, continue passing on your heritage, and we can continue following the cooperative tradition, and lighting up the American countryside for many years to come.

About the Author

Excerpted from remarks delivered at the 2012 statewide annual meeting of North Carolina’s electric cooperatives. Douglas Stephens IV is from Cumberland County and was sponsored on the Youth Tour to Washington, D.C., by South River EMC. He was elected by his peers to represent North Carolina this year on the cooperatives’ national Youth Leadership Council. In April, he received the Youth Leadership Council Scholarship from the North Carolina Association of Electric Cooperatives and will attend L

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