The Odyssey

By Joe Romano, 

Marketing Manager

Now hear me, men of Ithaca. When these hard deeds were done… the immortal gods were not far off.

    — Homer, The Odyssey, Book 24, lines 489-91

 

Tell me, O muse, of those ingenious heroes who travelled far and wide after they had left the famous town of Ithaca. Many cities did they visit, and many were the peoples with whose manners and customs they were acquainted… Here begins the tale of their Odyssey, as sung by the blind minstrel…

Last month, the city of Bloomington, Indiana hosted the 54th Annual Consumer Cooperative Management Association Conference, also known as CCMA. This is a gathering of consumer co-ops, mostly groceries like us, but also other retailers, credit unions, power companies and more.

Every year GreenStar sends representatives from our Council and staff and this year three Councilmembers signed on to attend the conference and its two governance-focused tracks, while two staff members went to attend the two operations-centered tracks. The schedule allows for all attendees to also choose among offerings from the Building Local Economies track, the co-op finance track, and a new co-ops tracks. But first the travellers had to get there.

You are the first I’ve come to. I know no one else, none in your city, no one in your land. Show me the way to town. —Odyssey 6, 194-196

The group arrived in Bloomington without a hitch; by 8:15 pm they were in the rental car (they had been warned that a cab from the airport would be prohibitively expensive) and the GPS had been programmed with the address of their hotel. After remarking upon how quick and painless the trip had been, the group followed the promptings of the GPS and made their first turn onto the road. 

After suggesting a few lefts and rights, the English-accented voice of the GPS intoned, “Stay on the motorway for one hundred and ninety-seven miles!” The group reacted quickly to the obviously ill-informed technological interloper. “Turn that thing off!” “Get out the map!” and “Call the hotel!” were all suggestions that were acted on in the next 45 minutes to no avail. No one could seem to figure out where “here” was, and more importantly, no relationship to the hotel could seem to be established. Slowly, a concept began to dawn on the travellers, one that was confirmed by the tax stamp on the gas pump of the BP station they had been sitting in all this time. They were in Bloomington alright, Bloomington, ILLINOIS!

So he spoke and all of them laughed happily at him… this stranger newly come from elsewhere has lost his senses. Come and give him an escort…since everything here is darkness. —Odyssey 20 , 350-362

The hotel staff was concerned, the gas-station attendant was concerned, the car was sitting several hundred miles away from its destination, but all the travellers could do was laugh, and laugh and laugh. Not a one of them, and this is critical to the success of their venture, ever made a single negative remark. Though they hadn’t eaten, and it was going on ten o’clock in small-town central Illinois, though there would be many miles before they slept, the good humor and good company had won the day. They searched over the quiet roads for a part of town that still might afford them a meal before setting out on the long leg of their journey to CCMA.

Now strangers tell me to drive the cattle in for their own meals. —Odyssey, 20, 260

In just a few minutes, the travellers found themselves in front of Woody’s Family Restaurant. That is not a place you want to stand in front of for long, because Woody’s is a truck stop located on a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, and the smell of a factory farm feedlot urges one to get away or get inside. The group’s hunger and situation urged the latter.

Once inside, Woody’s was as inviting as the Midwest can be. A pair of smiley teenaged twins brought the food amidst jokes that they were heading out to the feedlot to fill the orders. The juke box played old rock songs and the group sang along while the truckers and everybody else in the place heard their story. By the time they left, turning down the offers for pudding and pie, a certain cultural exchange had taken place between the New York cooperators and the people from the “wrong” Bloomington.

It is still night, and no moon. Can we drive now?—Odyssey 15, 68

The journey was a daunting one, and the group reenlisted the GPS, which, after all, had given them the first clue that something was amiss. This time, the one hundred ninety-seven miles on the first road alone pointed to the long night ahead and the hope that they would get there without getting more “lost.” Each time the GPS spoke, in her English accent, it would prompt fresh gales of laughter; finally someone asked if she had a name. “I think we should call her Faith!” someone blurted. And though that occasioned more laughter, the travellers all knew it truly was faith that had gotten them this far, and in such good spirits. So, under the dark, wide expanse of star-filled sky, through the farmlands and one-stop-light towns with place names like Farmer City, Lake of the Woods, Wildcat Slough and Big Ditch, they began to tell each other stories about who they were and where they had been in this life, about their hopes and dreams and loves and losses. ’Round midnight the finest blues station anyone could ever hope for provided a steady rhythm as they passed where giant glaciers had cut such a level plain and open sky so many, many years before.

…It was the third watch of the night and the stars had shifted their positions…—Odyssey 14, 628-629

Not only space, but time had been shifting on this quest as well, and while the dashboard clock signified the Illinois time, the crossing into the state of Indiana brought the group back to Ithaca time. Faith turned the vehicle South so that Hydra the serpent stretched across the windshield’s view of the vast night sky. While the sight of such a creature would strike fear in the heart of a traveller like Odysseus, it was just then that Faith provided, literally, the first sign of success, announcing, “Bloomington 50 miles” — Bloomington, Indiana, this time. A few stories later, the group was checked in and, finally, made their way off to bed.

Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds… —Odyssey 1, 1-6

The next day, the conference center was filled with cooperators from every town in North America where co-ops have taken root. It is like the ocean on a calm day, gentle, but incredibly powerful, the way the hundreds of cooperators wash up to the conference center and trickle onto the many buses for the tours. This year the conference provided farm tours, a tour of local quarries and mills, and a visit to Bloomingfoods Co-op’s three stores.

Over the next two days, the keynote speakers told us about our industry and where it is going. Bruce Philp, a self proclaimed Brand Guru, made a compelling argument for ongoing co-op success, based on our integrity and our authenticity as compared with brands like Whole Foods and other big players who are trying to enter the natural food market.

Michael Shuman, the keynote speaker on the second day, predicted a trend toward local food, local business and local economies. Shuman is the Director for Research and Economic Development for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) that was highlighted in this space last month. He talked about how private investors are looking to get their money out of big business and Wall Street, and trying to find ways to invest in local businesses and co-ops. He provided many ways that co-ops could meet this opportunity and the steps we can take now to pave the way for future financial opportunities. The many workshops offered the chance to look toward trends for the future, and also offered a look at trends that are in place right now. They also offered nuts and bolts how-to information on a wide range of topics like policy governance, conflict management and using co-op metrics to measure your store’s performance.

Then Dawn appeared on her golden throne. —Odyssey 14, 656

The conference also provided an opportunity for the GreenStar group to meet with Dawn Dzurilla of Gaia Consultants, the executive search consultant GreenStar hired to help with our General Manager search. Not only was it the perfect venue for Dawn to meet people in the co-op world, but many of the cooperators who had been contacted by Gaia Consultants were able to give feedback, which was overwhelmingly supportive of both this process and of Gaia Consultants’ approach.

…Time to pack our car with gifts and time to speak a gracious word, sending us off. A guest remembers all of his days that host who makes provisions for him kindly.—Odyssey 15, 68-75

Eventually, the conference ended and the group asked Faith to guide them to the closer airport this time, and so they flew out of Indianapolis. Once again all seemed smooth. They had passed through the gauntlet of BP gas stations and factory farm feedlots. They had faced the Hydra and even battled an iPhone, and now, armed with new information and relationships and even a new inspired outlook, they headed home to Ithaca. They had met local people, from townfolk and students to the denizens of a backwoods karaoke bar. They had met cooperators from all points of the compass, and compared how they handle both vision and daily operations in their hometowns. Now if only the great travel spirits would align with our travellers, this great Odyssey can come full circle…

But … there came a time when the gods settled that he should go back to Ithaca; even then, however… his troubles were not yet over; nevertheless all the gods … would not let him get home. —Odyssey 1, 6-10

As if to remind our heroes that they needed to live in harmony with nature, a great fog settled in Ithaca that day. This fog conspired to keep their small craft from landing in Ithaca, and instead they were landed in Elmira. Shortly, however, they were shuttled into town, weary, wiser, and ever respectful of how fate plays a hand in everything. We only get to choose what we do with it. And so it was decreed that the travellers had not a trial, but a blessing. And a cooperator who had seen 26 CCMA conferences declared theirs the second best, and second most epic tale he had ever heard in all of his years as a cooperator.

2014-vote

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