25 August 2016
Back in 2007 my now wife and I joined a local farm, often referred to as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), because we were interested in where our food comes from and wanted to be more in touch. For an annual fee we purchased "shares" in the farm and for that year were part owners. We could vote or even run for the farms Board of Directors who were responsible for the budget and overall direction of the farm. This ownership also tied us to the production of the farm. If the farm had a good year we were rewarded with plentiful fruits and vegetables at our weekly pickups throughout the season. Likewise, if the farm had a bad year our weekly pickups would reflect that. Plus we could visit the farm whenever we would like, help the farmers, feed the chickens, pick some herbs, or just enjoy the outdoors.
Recently however, our farm has changed its structure from this community ownership model to a more traditional business model, an LLC to be specific. Of course this change had to be approved by the current owners, all of us shareholders. Prior to the vote a message was sent out to shareholders in favor of the change, stating how the proposed change was primarily to make financial decisions easier on the farmers, that we wouldn't see a difference in our weekly shares, and this was the way most CSA's were run anyway. However, there was no counter argument in favor of keeping the existing structure. To my dismay the vote was overwhelmingly approved with just two dissenting votes, ours and that of one other couple.
We remain members of the farm. To one of the points made in the arguments for the change, however, the point that changes in the weekly shares wouldn't be noticed, I will have to argue. While the specific amount or types of fruits and vegetables may or may not have changed, and this is a lesser issue in the big picture, there is a disconnect from the farm. There is less of a relationship between the farms success and its members. The community bond and tie to the original CSA created a sense of ownership far stronger than the actual ownership. Community ownership gives people purpose and motivates those to participate and work to build a better community and creates a sense of pride, regardless of how successful a specific initiative may be. However, when one "buys in" and becomes a mere customer, of an LLC for instance, this is lost. We live in a society that lives on the mantra that "the customer is always right". With fee-for-service when we lay out our hard earned money we expect to get what we paid for, emphasis on expect, and if we don't get what we expect or "what we paid for", we demand a refund, replacement, or some other remedy to "make us whole."
Of course this relates to more than my example of the CSA turned LLC. We live in a world where everything is sponsored. Sports arenas and sporting events are a prime example but it extends to all of our recreation, culture, food, even our education and health care. This is concerning, as well, because we are raising a generation that doesn't know any different. As part of my professional life I volunteer with ACE, an organization which connects high school students with professionals in Architecture, Construction and Engineering firms, where each year student teams present a project of their own design. I have seen countless times where students propose a mall or a sponsorship opportunity. They often have to be prodded to include any amenity that is purely for the community benefit. As design professionals it is our duty to stress the importance of community ownership within our own communities. While we are doing this hopefully we can encourage younger generations to build the community they want and demonstrate that this doesn't come with a purchase or a corporate sponsorship but with engagement and an ownership of a different type.